Willie Doherty

Willie Doherty (born 1959) is an artist from Northern Ireland, who has mainly worked in photography and video.

His website images

Doherty was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and from 1978 to 1981 studied at Ulster Polytechnic in Belfast. Many of his works deal with The Troubles. As a child he witnessed Bloody Sunday in Derry, and much of his work stems from the knowledge that many photos of the incident did not tell the whole truth. Some of his pieces take images from the media and adapt them to his own ends.

His works explore the multiple meanings that a single image can have. Some of Doherty’s earliest works are of maps and similar images accompanied by texts in a manner similar to the land art of Richard Long, except that here the text sometimes seems to contradict the image.

Doherty’s video pieces are often projected in a confined space, giving a sense of claustrophobia. The videos themselves sometimes create a mood that has been compared to film noir.

Doherty has acknowledged the importance of the Orchard Gallery in Derry as a venue where he could see modern art in his formative years. Doherty was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1994 and 2003, and has represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1993, Great Britain at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 2003 and Northern Ireland at the 2007 Venice Biennale. He was a participant in dOCUMENTA

 

Industrial and post-industrial landscapes

Some activist photographers have been mainly concerned with industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Here big industry becomes the ‘new sublime’ to be feared and confronted in the hope of change and avoiding disaster.

Other photographers have avoided any overt messages, rather asking questions to which the viewer may have different answers. These take a gentler, more ‘picturesque’ approach.

Post-industrial spaces have also inspired a new kind of tourism: urban exploration of derelict factories and warehouses, abandoned hospitals and asylums, any kind of space that is shut up, difficult to get to (eg below ground) or in any other way off-limits or hazardous. “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photographs.”

There are dedicated websites and chatrooms, such as

A film discussing urban exploration: https://vimeo.com/26200018

This has been echoed by increasing interest in ‘dark tourism’

Urbex

Psychogeography and the ‘Edgelands’

Psychogeography is essentially the broad terrain where geography – in terms of the design and layout of a place – influences the experience, i.e. the psyche and behaviour, of the user.  It has walking as a central component (Alexander 2013 p74)

Guy Debord (1931–94) leader of The Situationist International defined psychogeography as follows:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographical can be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”
(http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/presitu/geography.html quoted Alexander 2013 p74)

Psychogeography in literature has a long history.   London, as imagined by writers including William Blake (1757–1827), Daniel Defoe (1659–1731), Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94), Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), have all been identified as a place where early traces of psychogeography can be found.

It has also veered between being:

  • a mode of artistic expression
  • associated with Marxist ideology and political and social change.

Two inter-linked terms that are key to understanding psychogeography:

  • The dérive is a key method of psychogeographical enquiry. The literal translation from the French is ‘drift’ and a dérive is a spontaneous, unplanned walk through a city, guided by the individual’s responses to the geography, architecture and ambience of its quarters.The dérive can be seen as one strategy to help bridge the gap between the actual, physical observations of the stroller and their subconscious. Similar techniques have been used in geography, sociology and anthropology as a means of research that opens up possibilities and new questions based on direct observation.
  • The flâneur (a term that originates from Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin) is essentially the protagonist of the dérive, but more generally the ‘gentleman stroller’ (as Baudelaire put it) who enjoys the aesthetic pleasures of the sights and sounds he experiences. The emphasis here is more on the aesthetic interpretation of the observer and emotional responses to the views and events that unfold. The flâneur has been identified in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1840) and in the shady figure lurking in the corner of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Listen to Philip Pullman discussing Manet’s painting in depth.
  • Brassai (1899-1984) flaneur
  • Robert Adams
  • Mark Power
  • Moriyama

However, alternative arbitrary methodologies have also been employed, championed initially by the Situationist movement as a necessary means – as they would see it – to subvert capitalist ideas about correctly engaging and functioning within the city. Other strategies included:

  • the production of alternative maps, such as Debord’s The Naked City (1957), which attempted to facilitate users to experience the city according to their emotional state and responses.
  • Robert MacFarlane’s simple alternative strategy of tracing a circle around the rim of a glass on a map and walking it, you can leave yourself open to new subject matter and unthought-of creative possibilities (see MacFarlane in Coverley, 2010, p.9).

The genre of street photography is often taken (and often mistaken) as evidence of psychogeography today. But although psychogeographical enquiry has traditionally been associated with the city, in more recent years it has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries, and is nowadays less associated with left-wing politics, having returned to a literary position.

  • Iain Sinclair:  fictional and non-fictional literary responses. In the book (and accompanying film) London Orbital (2002), Sinclair chronicles his epic walk along the M25 which encircles the capital, taking him to golf courses, retail and business parks, and other generic spaces.
  • Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (2011), celebrates subjects as diverse as shipping containers, landfill sites and wooden pallets.
  • Some have identified the urban sport of parkour (or ‘freerunning’) and even the Occupy movement with psychogeography.

 2.6 Psychogeography and Edgelands

New Topographics

The most significant influence on contemporary landscape practice was the exhibition“New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” was  curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York) in January 1975. The exhibition was intended for a gallery audience and subverted traditional notions of landscape photography in favour of a new kind of sublime: the man-made landscape. In his introduction to the catalogue, Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as “a problem of style:” “stylistic anonymity”, an alleged absence of style. The exhibition was received negatively at the time, for its bleak celebration of what was considered ordinary and banal.

The exhibition was a reaction to the idealised landscape photography  of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and was influenced by Ed Ruscha who, in the 60s, had made a series of artist’s books with self-explanatory titles such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Some Los Angeles Apartments, Every Building on the Sunset Strip and  Walker Evans, who had photographed the vernacular iconography of America in road signs, billboards, motels and shop.

“The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion,.” “[…] rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images.” Technically, half the photographers were working with 8″×10″; (20 cm × 25 cm) large format view cameras; those who were not were using either square medium format (Deal, Gohlke), or in the case of Baltz, 35 mm Technical Pan, a slow and high-definition Kodak film that the photographer printed on 8″x10″ paper. Only Baltz and Wessel were using regular 35 mm cameras and film. A notable element of the show was that the artists were, or would be, linked with higher education as students, professors, or both—a change from the preceding generations.The shift from craft or self-teaching to academia had somewhat been started by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Minor White, but the new generation was turning away from the approach of these forebears. This was illustrated by the subject matter that the New Topographics chose as well as their commitment to casting a somewhat ironic or critical eye on what American society had become. They all depicted urban or suburban realities under changes in an allegedly detached approach. In most cases, they gradually revealed themselves as coming from rather critical vantage points, especially Robert Adams, Baltz, and Deal.

Photographers

Sean O’Hagan

The show consisted of 168 rigorously formal, black-and-white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal. …Their stark, beautifully printed images of this mundane but oddly fascinating topography was both a reflection of the increasingly suburbanised world around them, and a reaction to the tyranny of idealised landscape photography that elevated the natural and the elemental.

The prints were in a 20 cm × 25 cm (8″×10″) format except for Joe Deal (32 cm × 32 cm), Gohlke (24 cm × 24 cm – close enough to 8”×10”), and the Bechers with typical European (for the time) 30 cm × 40 cm prints.

However despite their similarities, there were significant differences between the photographers in their reactions to, and portrayal of, the suburban environment and their political conclusions on responses to it.

See Greg Foster-Price and John Rohrbach ‘Re-framing the New Topographics’ 2013 University of Chicago Press

Robert Adams: disappearing wildernesses, pointed his camera at eerily empty streets, pristine trailer parks, rows of standardised tract houses, the steady creep of suburban development in all its regulated uniformity.

Lewis Baltz: stark photographs of the walls of office buildings and warehouses on industrial sites in Orange County.

Joe Deal

Frank Gohlke

Nicholas Nixon: innercity development: skyscrapers that dwarfed period buildings, freeways, gridded streets and the palpable unreality of certain American cities in which pedestrians seem like interlopers.

John Schott

Stephen Shore : shot in colour. It seemed to heighten the sense of detachment in his photographs of anonymous intersections and streets.

Henry Wessel, Jr

Bernd and Hilla Becher: stark images of Pennsylvania salt mines and giant coal breakers were as coolly architectural as their images of German cooling towers and industrial plants. The suggestion was that there was something determinedly European about this new American gaze.

Ecological citizenship and automobility

The works in different ways question our responsibility in relation to the natural environment. Taken at a time of rapid environmental change, commercialisation and often homogenised destruction of the natural wilderness romanticised by Ansel Adams, they aim to promote a sense of responsibility for what Robert Adams calls the ‘half wilderness’.

There is a general concern with the homogenisation and also isolation of much of modern construction and urban sprawl. Roads that cut of and surround dwellings that can only be accessed by cars.

They differ in their approaches to technological advances like the reliance on the motor car. For Shore and Schott however there is more of a celebration of the accessibility and democratisation of life. Shore in particular celebrates the colour and vibrancy of cities and parking lots.

‘Shore’s images may be seen as ignoring environmental degradation…Yet his photographs encourage a sense of wonder and appreciation, even in the most familiar, most mundane spaces’.

There is thus a core message of the exhibition as a whole: we need to notice and appreciate what is around us in the ‘semi-wilderness’ and make sure we preserve and protect what is valuable in it. In terms of human colour and nature. Not relegate ‘conservation’ to an ever-shrinking small protected area of idealised wilderness. It is all important.

Legacy

The exhibition was recreated in various locations: in 1981, six years after its original presentation, it was shown in reduced form at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, UK, under the auspices of Paul Graham and Jem Southam. A large scale presentation of the exhibition was organized in 2009 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. “New Topographics” began an international tour in 2009, with stagings at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2011 the exhibition was on view at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and later at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Spain.

Baltz, Gohlke, and Shore were later commissioned by the French government for the Mission de la DATAR.

The exhibition was very influential in the subsequent developments in both US and European landscape photography, including the work of Andreas Gursky, Paul Graham,  Candida Höfe and  Donovan Wylie.  See the following interviews with LA photographers discussing how they have been influenced by the photographers at the exhibition: