My practice is in a state of transition so it makes sense for me to explain where I have come from and where I think I am going.
Prior to the MA, I would go out, looking for pleasing things to photograph. I enjoyed doing this and it was a welcome respite from my working life. My output could be considered Landscape Photography. Whilst this worked as recreation, I knew I was not exploring my potential. I did not have a strategy for discovering that potential.
I entered the MA programme to find out what I was capable of. There were two main drivers for this:
- I had described myself as a photographer for many years but had unintentionally limited myself to a narrow band of activity. I need the discipline of a structured programme to break my habitual limitations.
- I turn 60 years of age in a week. My children do not rely on me in the way they have previously. My mortgage will end shortly and I can soon take partial retirement from my salaried job. I’m not looking to put my feet up, I want a new challenge. If I shake up my life and turn my long-held interest into a new career, I can have a creative and productive next phase to my life.
So at the moment, the MA is my practice. It is the space in which I explore new aspects of photography. It is the process by which I shape what I do creatively in the future.
Already, I am developing ideas for my future practice. The current climate emergency interests me on many levels. Obviously, it is an unfolding horror, an end of the world story being played out in contemporary politics and science rather than during a disaster movie. There are so many subplots: why are people apathetic when confronted with the reality of climate change? Why are so many people in politics willing to side with the power of money rather than the future of humanity?
I want my future practice to explore these ideas and to promote a sustainable, more ethical, kinder way of life.
I fully recognise that these objectives will require me to largely jettison my former ways of working. If I want my work to have a specific message, I cannot expect found scenes to convey such ideas. I will have to learn how to create images that contain the message I wish to present.
The picture above appeared in a previous portfolio. I think it captures the idea that the coastline has to be heavily engineered to keep the water where we would prefer it to be. But it does not address the fact that all this concrete protects people’s homes and businesses. This is is what matters. If your home or business is no longer able to function, then the impact on the victim is great, crushingly so.
This picture is of a submerged concrete structure. Immediately, there is a sense of something wrong. Why is this structure underwater? What has happened to it? What was it previously? There is a sense of breakage, loss, inundation. Climate change will be hugely damaging, I want to alert people to this.
The climate emergency is an issue with a huge profile. Inevitably, artists are drawn to this crucial contemporary issue. Here are a few that are influencing the development of my practice in this area.
I first encountered Mendel at Arles 2019. His picture of the disconsolate couple outside their flooded home made a big impression. I remembered the newsreel of the floods in the Thames valley and seeing the flooding from the air. This picture made the disaster personal, the stress caused by the flood was written on the faces of the couple.
Mendel’s interest in climate change is just one phase of a career that reflects his interest in social, economic and now climate justice.
International Centre for Photography biography https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/gideon-mendel?all/all/all/all/0
Mendel’s work reflects my own journey in recognising that the climate emergency is fundamentally a human crisis. If the predicted calamities do come to pass, the earth will survive with its ecosystems radically altered. The species most dependent on a stable climate are homo sapiens. Yet we are the ones undermining our own future.
Arles review of Mendel’s Drowning World exhibition https://www.rencontres-arles.com/en/expositions/view/156/gideon-mendel
Tank magazine’s review of Drowning World makes this point in much more detail. Drawing on Naomi Klein, it makes the point that the climate emergency will not be recognised as an emergency until it is seen affecting real, flesh and blood people. As societies, even well-educated ones, we seem to be collectively lacking the imagination to link a theoretical threat, to damage to real people. It is that cognitive failure that Mendel seeks to address. I have a similar ambition.
Tank magazine https://tankmagazine.com/tank/2019/08/gideon-mendel/
I regard Mendel as an essential influence in the development of my practice. His Drowning World series is a very direct influence on both the message and content of my future work.
Viola is a video artist who often deals with a body or bodies in extreme states. Much of his work deals with human bodies in or overwhelmed by water. Whilst he does not explicitly address climate change, his work depicts the sort of accidents and immersions in which humans might be involved in a world where the waters have risen.
Royal Academy introduction to Bill Viola https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/bill-viola-michelangelo-beginners-guide-bill-viola
Humans need a “just right” relationship with water. Too much and we drown, too little and we die of thirst. Immersion in water can signify baptism (renewed life) or death by drowning. Many of our cities are right by the sea. Rising sea levels will transform the water from the reason for a city’s existence to its destroyer.
This is a review from The Guardian of Viola’s show at the Royal Academy in 2019. I was deeply moved by his work. The reviewer seems less enamoured. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/feb/03/bill-viola-michelangelo-life-death-rebirth-review-royal-academy
A passage from the review leapt out at me:
“When faced with the challenge of depicting life – that invariably fascinating state between the birth and death – he finds himself never able to offer much more than images of suspended animation”.
How often do we hear the phrase “just keeping my head above water”. In this sense, water represents the perils and complexities of life, both natural and man-made. Viola’s depiction of life as treading water becomes personally painful and communally apocalyptic.
ArtNet is a little kinder and is more sympathetic to the RA premise that both Michelangelo and Bill Viola deal with a similar subject matter: the passage of the soul through earthly life.
I am drawn to Viola by his work depicting a crashing together of people and water. His work shows the imbalance between the power of huge volumes of water and human fragility. This imbalance will be played out again and again as the effects of the climate emergency are seen across the world.
Léon François Comerre
This 19th-century French artist, best known for paintings of attractive women, is included on the basis of one work; The Flood of Noah and his Companions. This picture appears as the featured image for this post.
Biblical scenes have been a staple of European classical painting for over 500 years. The Great Flood from the book of Genesis has inspired many artists and examples of the flood genre are compared in this article by Eclectic Light.
Comerre’s The Flood of Noah appears in this comparative article. I find this work quite compelling. It seems to capture the misery and peril of its subjects to an extent that other depictions of the same event fail to do. It has made that much of an impression that I would like to recreate it as a photograph to form the centrepiece of a project depicting people imperilled by water.
Curiously, the picture is such an outlier to Comerre’s style that it doesn’t even merit a mention in appreciations of his career, such as this from an Italian arts website:
Or this video compilation https://youtu.be/g32mB0kV3Fc
Despite my interest in the painting, I have found very few other commentaries on it. The Eclectic Light article is the most comprehensive that I have found. In some ways, this makes the image more intriguing. It stands alone, free from interpretation.
New work will address the relationship between human beings and overwhelming water. The working title is “And The Waters Increased”. Individuals and groups will be depicted in various relations to water. I have created a collection of inspiring pictures at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/chrisjerrey/flood/
As stated above, I plan a recreation of the Comerre painting to form a centrepiece of the new work. Initial planning suggests I would need a team of around 25 people to execute this: models, safety team, rainmaker, catering and photography director. I have never attempted anything on this scale before, so careful planning is in progress for this work.
Going forward, my project work will be informed by the climate emergency, inspired by Comerre and Medel and focused on producing evocative images on the theme of conflict with water.