“ … a landscape that remembered everything that had happened in and to it … “.
Patrick Heaney speaking of his native Ireland
I have long sought to address questions related to our apparent desire to make images that we have come to call “landscape”. Landscape of course is a pictorial term, meaningful only within the context of a frame; remove the frame and what remains is a horizon encircling any undifferentiated experience of land and sky, with no one of which having more or less significance than any other. While not the place for a full-blown explication of the different ways in which various media contrive “pictures” from such experiences, suffice it to say that because of its unique relationship to both physical and temporal reality, in this regard, photography is unique. For photographers the fundamental questions are straightforward: why photograph land at all and if for whatever reason, it is determined to be a worthy subject, what might impel one to photograph one experience of land rather than another? The simplest answer is, as already suggested, to make “pictures”, that is, framed, two-dimensional renditions of the planetary surface that satisfy some pre-determined notion of attractiveness or beauty. To convey meaning beyond this within landscape images requires a broadly understood fund of established – usually culturally specific – iconographic symbols. For those working with additive imaging media this a pretty straightforward undertaking; one simply paints or draws them in. For photographers, or at least for those choosing not to employ secondary interventions, this poses an often insurmountable challenge. For landscape photographs – indeed, for photographs generally when seen in isolation – any perception of extrinsic meaning or message is in almost all cases, highly specific, being almost wholly dependent upon the degree to which for each viewer, the photograph’s content might be familiar or relate to a particular memory or experience.
In general then, photographs take on meaning only when more broadly contextualized. The earliest and and perhaps most ubiquitous example of this understanding was and perhaps still is, the family album; a form of pictorial storytelling in which the meaning of each image depends on both its relationship to the viewer’s experience and its place within an overall narrative. In many ways the news photograph or on a larger scale, the photo-story are little more than extensions of this idea, but with context dependent on captions or associated text rather than on personal familiarity with the subject or experience. When applied to a photograph of even the most seemingly banal of subjects, the standard journalist’s creed of who, what, where, why and when has the power to open a flood of potential responses, encouraging in viewers any of a full range of emotional possibilities, speculations and memories. This form of contextualization is also a reminder that all photographs are inherently history, both in themselves and in what they portray. In my view this is particularly relevant to photographs of land and underlies my rationale for making photographs of it. This may seem odd to some, but consider the following from the American historian Thomas Laqueur , “ … precisely because [landscape] is so resolutely atemporal, so resistant to closure, so open to all manner of reverie, it stands in … sharp contrast to history.”. … And yet, I believe it is in this that land and photography converge, for even though their relationship to history advances from opposite directions, the land and the photograph meet at the point where by specifying a time from within the land’s otherwise atemporality, the photograph effectively makes “place” of undifferentiated space. Laqueur goes on to say, “ … Space ( that is, the land ) is the ground for remembering against time. … Memory ( the photograph ) is a means of making the loss survivable but it is also therefore a means of allowing the past to have closure …”. ( parentheses mine ).
Which brings me to this body of work. In 1989, while working on another ( ongoing ) project, “Continental Edge”, I photographed a number of dry-stone walls emerging from the ocean off the coast of County Clare in Ireland. These walls advanced across the beach and stretched on for miles, finally disappearing into the mist above the distant hills. This was my introduction to the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s or as more accurately described in Irish, “An Gorta Mór”, The Great Hunger. The walls I learned were just one of many projects carried out as part of a public works scheme contrived to help a starving population earn money to buy food. In 2014, I again found myself in Ireland, living for a time near the West Cork town of Skibbereen which, it turned out had been the epicentre one of the areas most severely effected by An Gorta Mór. The Heritage Centre in Skibbereen maintains an extensive display related to the Hunger and in the nearby cemetery at Abbeystrewery there is a small, grassy plot beneath which lie the un-coffined remains of more than 9000 individuals, men, women and children who died from either hunger or diseases brought on by malnutrition, poverty and neglect. It is impossible to know how many others died lacking even this small gesture of respect and whose remains now lie unknown and unmourned beneath the fields and ditches of the surrounding landscape. The present population of Skibbereen is less than 3000.
I have since returned a number of times to photograph sites having some relationship to the Hunger years, As is my habit, almost all these images cover 360º. As prints, they are quite large, in some case extending more than 8 metres. The appended texts are drawn from a variety of contemporaneous sources. The map coordinates give the site of camera placement; the listed date and time are accurate descriptions of when the exposures were made. Geographic context may be accessed by clicking on the map coordinates.