Limiting the Frame, the Landscape through the Window

Like many other creatives the national lockdown which began in March affected me greatly; As a photographer that studies the landscape, works on projects hundreds of miles from home and commutes over an hour to study at University, this brought my whole world to a sudden and abrupt end. 

At the time of the lockdown down I was still a Master’s student at the University of Central Lancashire and commuting from my home in Stoke-On-Trent. As by some cruel twist of fate, the Lockdown perfectly coincided with a darkroom based module to perfect physical analogue skills in the darkroom, something covid could not allow to continue. Following a hasty change of course and the practical abandonment of the analogue side of the module, I was forced to look at how to be a landscape documentary photographer while stuck in my own home. What follows is a summary of an article written for part of that module.

Alsager Town Car Park, March 2020

With no possibility to continue my projects in Cumbria, visit the darkroom in Preston or even meet with friends and colleagues to discuss what on earth I was gonna do to complete this module. But there was still work to be made and study assessments to be completed so I began to work out how to work in isolation. We have all had to explore new ways of working which we would have perhaps never explored before. For me at least, this was no easy task, though moving out of one’s comfort zone is a great way to enhance and forward your practice, it is a very different thing to be forced into that way of working with no alternative. This took quite some time and experimentation to realise what I was going to do with what I had before me. Like many other visual artists, I initially took to the streets to document their emptiness, the long queues for toilet roll or people on their doorsteps unilaterally clapping for the NHS. I soon however, felt very detached from this way of working as if I was merely reacting to the situation rather than creating something fresh or useful from this new world being born before my eyes.

After much of this trial and error, I finally settled on the concept of limited scope study, not limited in the way the virus had (by removing what I would normally do to create a body of work) but by imposing restrictions upon myself that reduced my scope of visual exploration down to a manageable scale. This helped not only focus my work on something steadfast and what, at first, I believed to be unchanging during a time when the larger narrative was so confused, dangerous and continuously changing. I opened up to exploring the method of a project itself as the interesting part of the work, not just how aesthetic the visuals of said project turned out to be, and thus Rear Window; A Study of Creative Practice in Isolation was born. Over the next few weeks I would focus all of my energy onto a frame of just one and a half metres wide by one metre tall, looking roughly 30 degrees north and nothing else. This was my view of the world, my window into the epidemic and in many ways, my tormentor as this project went on.

Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, 1954

Named after, and following the premise of, the unforgettable 1954 Hitchcock classic; Rear Window. This work was born from necessity but gave me a greater understanding of the role of our methodology in the production of our work and holding it in as much regard as a project’s final output. The film for those that don’t know, and if you don’t you need to watch it, I cannot do it justice in these short lines. The film’s story follows a photographer who is suddenly rendered incapacitated due to an accident and finds himself isolated to his apartment which faces directly onto another set of apartments. Over the course of the film he observes and photographs the limited view of people’s lives that he can observe from through their windows. Eventually he witnesses what he believes may well be a murder and thus a classic thriller is born.

Though the Hitchcock classic had given me my frame to work with, it was unable to give me a subject matter to visualise. Unlike Jeff, the film’s protagonist, I do not live in central New York and thus do not have the same, uninterrupted view into people’s lives through their windows. Instead, I was presented with a view of a small portion of my neighbours’ backyard and a little of our own, a considerable amount of greenery in the form of trees and bushes separating the view of the street and a scattering of distant houses forming the rest of the housing estate. The question then became; what is it that creates visual interest in this frame, and why should it be photographed?

Working with inspiration from David Moore’s fantastic series ‘The Commons’ and John Baldessari’s visually fascinating series ‘Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square’, I began working with the idea of documenting the world as I was living in it via a limited scope but while still being able to tell an interesting, but perhaps not obvious, story of the Coronavirus epidemic as I saw it. This led me to combine ideas from both works into one; a study of aspects of the greater view from my window while simultaneously limiting what was visually included in each set of images and avoiding images of the full landscape.

Rear Window #4 – April 2020

‘Rear Window’ therefore became an amalgamation of ideas and concepts on how to study the worst national emergency the United Kingdom has faced since the Second World War but by doing so in a unique and arguably abstract way. This work, focusing on a view from a bedroom window doesn’t show the empty streets, queues for food or Governmental breakdown. It instead shows parts of our local landscape, often overlooked in the day to day rush of modern life, until our local landscape became the centre point of our current lives. Denied the distractions of the modern life that we were accustomed to, we looked at the landscape outside our windows with a mixture of longing and intrigued at how we had never truly seen it before. This work takes the idea of our local landscape (the view from our homes) that we see every day and, for perhaps the first time, allows our separation from it to open our eyes to the smallest details that makes up our world.

Much like Jeff in Hitchcock’s Rear Window I always had my camera on standby to take photos of whatever struck my interest through my limited frame. As I did so, I began to think more deeply about what I found interesting, why and how that told a story of the new world we found ourselves in. On one occasion I watched, a neighbour across the street take a phone call staring out of the window, a clear reflection of how physically separated we were from one another even with the modern means of communication we possess, he and whoever he was speaking to were separated by an invisible barrier that neither could cross, in a different time they may have been sitting in his front room together.

The Sky, Looking 65 degrees North East at an elevation of 80m above sea level and shot between 13:37 & 14:37 on 27th April 2020.

Beyond just observing the human inhabitants of my micro-landscape, I also turned my lens to its other aspects, mainly the sky and the ground. Over a period of four hours, broken by hourly interjections, I photographed a specific area of the sky and the clouds moving through it. The movement of the clouds and their complexity is often lost to our general observations during daily life, many of us do not have the time to sit and watch the atmospheric ballet play out. During the night I created observations of the unnatural lights that transformed the landscape into something totally different to that during the day. Following observations of shapes and colours at night I began to look at similar themes during the day, noting how green and colourful the foliage had become as the mark of winter had all but vanished. One observation led to another until I had stitched together a portrait of the view from my window, from the comings and goings of my neighbours to the movement of clouds.

Dark Objects #3, April 2020

Together this range of seemingly unrelated images with little to no visual or contextual connection to one another, bar the frame of which they exist within, come together to tell a story of life in isolation. This is not by far my best work, nor my most interesting to date but it documents one of the most difficult times we have faced in generations. It explores forced change, creative development and growth in a way personal to myself but with themes that all creatives who experienced working during the lockdown encountered. This experience has changed the way I work as a creative, inspired me to continue to grow creatively and has influenced all my work that has come since. Though the Corona Crisis and the national lockdown was so damaging to the creative community it oddly inspired me, pushed me to consider creative avenues I have never thought to journey down before and I have become a better artist as a result. I hope that many creatives will have had similar experiences, or at least they will be able to look back on their work over lockdown as a way to forward their creative thinking and challenge what we all know as contemporary photographic theory.

This is only a short summary of a project spanning much of the national lockdown, a full write up, more visual content from myself and my colleagues on the Master’s course at UCLan can be found here: https://viraldays2020.wordpress.com/author/alistairgrimley/

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