In September 2020 I decided to start a part-time distance learning bachelor of arts degree in photography with the Open College of The Arts.
The first assignment was ‘My Square Mile’ which was based around the Welsh concept of ‘Y Filltir Sgwar’ referring to the place to which you feel that you belong. I have lived in my current house in Blantyre for almost 20 years which is far longer than I lived lived in any one place in my life. It is definitely where I feel most at home. The restrictions imposed by the various COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have given this some extra significance in the last year. I have been forced to stay within ‘my square mile’ and as such much photography practice has been entirely limited to my home area. I produced a final set of monochrome images that I shot in my home town of Blantyre. On reviewing these, there seems to be a common theme of growth, renewal, death and religion!
‘Lockdown walks’ have become a fixture of life for many people now as it is one of the only permitted methods of exercise. Hill walking has been a hobby of mine for many years and was one of the routes into photography for me. Photowalks are not a new thing for me. I have also been walking around my local area with my camera for over 10 years but have started to explore different routes and paths since the pandemic restrictions came in to try and keep things fresh.
The photographic exercises and assignments required by my degree course have meant that I have really had to start thinking of new ways to approach scenes and subjects that I have been photographing for years. Initially I was worried that I would not be able to come up with adequate responses to the assignments.
As part of the feedback from my first submission my tutor had recommended that I look at the work of the photographer John Blakemore following my first assignment submission. I got a used copy of ‘John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop’ book and was completely smitten by his work and hooked on his approach to creating projects as detailed within the book. Blakemore’s various series of photographs of tulips were his response to being stuck in a rut with his work as a landscape photographer and him being unable to travel. He looked around his home and garden to see what he could use to develop a project and in this instance it was tulips. These images became his most celebrated work.
This book really helped me to think about how to develop a photography project while in lockdown and during travel restrictions. The title/theme for the second assignment that I chose was ‘heads’. My first response was to think of plants: flower heads, seed heads, etc. I went out into my garden on a snowy day and saw some dead roses still on the bush and picked those. I then found some ferns that were partly covered with snow and ice and put them into a small wooden box as a frame/backdrop for the roses. I shot a handful of images and found the one I wanted after I slightly rearranged the plant material.
This became my next project for submission: I would collect fallen or shed plant material on my lockdown walks and construct still life images that were a blend of material from my garden and from my walks. Each image would have some kind of plant ‘head’ and I would use an old chopping board as the background. The board and material from my garden in conjunction with the materials collected from around the local area represented my home and garden’s status as a part of the wider area and local environment. This was an extension of the ‘My Square Mile’ concept and also further expanded on the these that emerged of growth death and renewal.
I followed the technical process as described by Blakemore as fully as I could (I was using medium format digital and he used large format film) and blended the background board that I used with the plant materials to give significance to the ‘ground’ as Blakemore called it.