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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

All Quiet: Landscape, Dress and History

Francis Cotes: The Young Cricketer (1768)

It was quite difficult talking at Gazebook about my work.  I've talked about my German Family Album (at Paris Photo in 2014, and Vienna in 2015), about basic plots and modes of discourse (at Gazebook 2016) and about Empathy, or the lack of it in photography (at the Magnum Empathy in Photography talk at the Barbican in 2016) but I've never talked about something finished and for sale like All Quiet on the Home Front. And All Quiet is something that is freshly born - actually it's not even born yet. Maybe the head's showing, or the water's have broken, or something. It's in the process anyway.

So I'm still a bit tentative, I'm  trying the talk on if you like. All Quiet on the Home Front is about many things - but when you are talking about something for 20 minutes you can't talk about all those things. It would be a mess, especially when what you're saying is being consecutively translated.

All Quiet on the Home Front is about being a parent and being a child. It's quite an emotional book in that way and it's interesting and quite touching to see how many people respond to it on that level; both from the child's perspective and a parental perspective.

It's also about the body and the landscape - and I had conversatons where people (women in particular) responded to it very strongly and positively on that level.  It's also about dress, and it's about gender. And it ties into representations of landscape and childhood that go back to the Georgian era and beyond.

When I started making All Quiet, I remember going to see The Age of Innocence exhibition at the Holbourne Museum in Bath - with paintings by Reynolds, Hogarth, Zoffany and Van-dyck detailing how our conception of childhood has shifted over the years, but can still be traced back to the 18th century when bourgeois representations of childhood started changing  as new models of family life and idealised childhood came into play.

Lewis Cage, the Young Cricketer by Sir Francis Cotes featured in the exhibition. It captures the dynamism of childhood and hints at what is to come. It's intensely physical, vividly androgynous and espouses the philosophy of Rousseau - a philosophy which (as it says in the Age of Innocence catalogue) 'rejected conventional academic learning in favour of a simple,outdoor upbringing. The former corrupted children with superficial knowledge and prejudice and left them physically weak: only nature and experience could give a child true understanding and strengthen him for the trials of manhood.'.

So there's that; the idea that the child has a being uncorrupted by society. It's really leading the way to the Victorian trammelling of childhood into something to be tamed and controlled.

But tied into this idea of childhood is the idea of the landscape. The Georgian period was when the idea of the landscape in itself came into being in the modern way, when land became something to be exploited for human use rather than something to be lived on. You could either divide it and exploit it economically, or you could find your elevated view or pile of ruins and exploit it visually. Instead of being something we were immersed in, the land became something we were above..

You can see that in the landscape behind Lewis Cage, with its managed lawns and winding pathways. It's a tamed landscape. But it is also a metaphorical landscape with its dark patches hinting at an infant mortality, the brighter paths hinting at the bright future ahead of him should he survive the ravages of 18th century health care (and infant mortality  in 18th century Britain was around 20% - perhaps half that if you were in the upper classes).

The clothes are also notable. They're loose, they're free, they allow the young Lewis Cage to run and be mobile, to be part of the landscape. He's a young man in the offing (though he's not a man yet as the trousers. He's been sensually disempowered by his transformation into a girl, but luckily there's a cricket bat that will marks his potential to become a man. He's halfway there already.

The Age of Innocence by Sir Joshua Reynolds

You can see what that disempowerment means in this picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was titled the Age of Innocence sometime after the fact. It's a generic picture (a fancy picture of 'types' that were painted at the time). The landscape here is very different. There are no paths, there are no possibilities. She is stuck under her tree and that is where she will stay, trapped by a world that has no shining paths outwards. Her position is decided.

And her body and dress lack energy and dynamism. Her hands are powerless, her legs bent over her limp and useless and her dress is shapeless and serves only to cover. This is very much in contrast to the young Lewis Cotes. Where Lewis Cotes is coiled up energy with multiple possibilities that he can inflict on the world, the young girl in Age of Innocence is impotent, a piece of putty to be shaped by others.

Images have power, landscapes have an ideology and so does dress, and the two can go together and combine. There are no accidents in painting as you can see in the Young Cricketer and the Age of Innocence. I think what's interesting to me about All Quiet on the Home Front is how much it goes beyond fatherhood or being a parent - though of course that is to the fore.

All Quiet is about landscape, our relationship with the land and about body and dress. When I got feedback and endorsements from people, these were the elements people responded to, this is what I thought about. I didn't want it to be a book just about one thing. I wanted to touch many bases.

One of the people I am really grateful to for sending an endorsement is Alessia Glavianno of Vogue Italia. I've taught on Fashion courses and I developed an appreciation of the history of fashion and dress and the way that the best of fashion overlaps with music, with subculture, with sexuality and with storytelling in all its glory. Alessia personifies that approach. These are the beautiful words she wrote about All Quiet on the Home Front.

 'Why, in exploring these pages, the photos and the small texts that accompany them, do we feel such an intense feeling of both familiarity and strangeness? 

The intimacy that this progression of images, thoughts and, ultimately, life arouses is very strong and matched only by the blinding compactness that can in no way be overcome or broken down. It is not our world, these are not our affections, yet all this concerns and touches us so intimately. Everything speaks of us and to us, speaks to each one of us and says something very personal and extraordinarily intimate to all.

Everything in this book makes us feel part of the family and, a mere instant after, cut off from the outset and forever from a world that does not belong to us. Then, weakly at first and ultimately very strongly a feeling arises that is not unwelcome, but which thanks to this sense of alienation, tells us that this story of life touches the experience of each of us with great strength and delicacy. 

Touching, provoking, indulging our sensitive points, both happy and sorrowful ones, both joyful and sad ones. Summoning those tears and those smiles that are ours alone and no one else’s, but which without these photos we would find it harder to rediscover, hear, feel.'

Here is a guide to the Young Cricketer by the director of Dulwich Picure Gallery.

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