Landscapes in Flight
Elmdon is a village about 6 miles west of the town of Saffron Walden, and is located in the heart of farmland consisting of gently rolling chalk hills. It is these hills and the work of the farmers in the fields that have been the source of inspiration for the creation of a collection of pictures entitled ‘Landscapes in Flight.’ I first noticed the photographic possibilities in these landscapes when driving along the M11, which is adjacent to the fields around Elmdon. The impact that the farm workers can have on the visual appearance of the land as they plough the fields and harvest the crops is that of creating lines, shapes, textures, and changes of colour, all of which contribute to a landscape with great artistic potential. The tractor is the instrument of artistic creation and the field the canvas’ and although the resultant aesthetic appeal of the land is not a conscious act of creation by the tractor drivers, the visual by-product of their labour can be dynamic and full of potential for the art of picture making. In addition, the shapes of the fields themselves have evolved over time as a result of the development of man’s relationship with the land, which has evolved as naturally as the process of nature itself.
The form of the land around Elmdon, with its gently undulating hills and valleys, creates enough elevation in the fields to allow me to access their visual qualities pictorially These landscapes acquire another level of beauty and meaning on days with blue skies and passing clouds that created passages of sunlight and shadow across the fields, giving the land an aspect of visual drama by juxtaposing tonal values and colour intensities in surprising and unexpected ways. I have often found this aspect of weather emotionally moving, as the sunlight and shadow seemingly glides over the form of the landscape, creating images of intense beauty, and their fleeting existence makes the desire to capture them photographically all the more intense. Photography is an art form whose images are created by sunlight and shadow; indeed, in the mid-19th Century the first photographs produced from negatives by William Henry Fox-Talbot were often referred to as ‘sun pictures’. The sun is also the reason for life on earth and all the implications that that brings with it emotionally. I found the location during August of 2011 when the harvest was beginning and although I worked at photographing the landscapes then it was not until the following year that I really began to discover the full potential of the aesthetic and emotional heart of the gently rolling farmland.
In these landscapes, I have tried to portray their transient nature. All landscapes are transient to a greater or lesser degree depending on circumstance. Geological change, with a few dramatic exceptions, such as volcanic activity and avalanches, is too great a time scale for a person to perceive or experience. We can see the changes in the seasons over a period of weeks and the passage of day and night in a matter of hours, but there are some changes we can see before our very eyes. This can be produced by the weather or by the impact of man on the landscape, and this is the essence of the pictures from the Elmdon area. These changes can be slow or fast moving, or in some cases the change could be described as rapid. I remember one session when the wind was so strong that I had to work from the car and the light and shadow was racing across the landscape changing its appearance so rapidly, that I had to be really attentive to those moments of real beauty. It reminded me of sessions I have had in the past of photographing birds in flight when the moment had to be perceived intuitively, or it was gone before it was captured. On returning home I said to my wife that photographing the landscapes today was like trying to photograph birds in flight, and so the title ‘Landscapes in Flight’ came into being.
As a wildlife photographer I have always been an avid weather watcher which usually meant waiting for days of clear blue skies, but once I had realised the vital role that the passage of sunlight and shadow over the land would play, I looked for the moving clouds across a background of a clear blue sky to produce the affect I wanted. This would bring its own visual qualities that would be laid over the aesthetic created by the farm workers and interact with the changing appearance of the fields. In addition it would bring an element of drama to the landscape and stir our emotions and help to highlight man’s relationship to the land, a tradition that goes far back to the time when prehistoric man first picked up a stone to use as a tool. I recently picked up a copy of ‘Anam Ĉara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World’ by the Irish poet John Donohue, which, as a Celt having been brought up in Cornwall, I was naturally drawn to. In it he talks of landscape and man’s relationship to it, and I found a short passage which I feel relates well to my work:-
“Landscape is the first born of creation. It was here hundreds of millions
of years before the flowers, the animals or the people appeared. Landscape
was here on its own. It is the most ancient presence in the world though it
needs a human presence to acknowledge it.”
These photographs are my acknowledgment of the landscapes around Elmdon.
David Cottridge, January 2013