Sense of Location


Wells, Liz. ‘Sense of Location: Topography, Journey, Memory’ (London: I.B.Taurus, 2011) 261-302

[describing Jem Southam’s ‘River Hayle January 2000’] However, naturalised, this is a landscape that has been subject to extensive human intervention – the markers are there for our information, whether we are physically present, or viewers of photographs which operate in observational idiom.
Photography documents environment and, since its inception, has been used to chart sites and note changes consequent upon human access and habitation. Photography thus has a role within cultural geography, one that is founded in realist principles, in the credibility of the photographic.
Part of the pleasure of viewing images is the noting of rhetorical devices and strategies deployed by photographers as visual narratives.
But our relation to land and the way it is recounted photographically transcends the topographic. Photographs also contribute to perpetuating myths and memories associated with place.
Landscape photography complexly articulates ‘objectivity’ with personal vision.
For example, bluebells in the woods in the spring sunshine, or the regular pulse of the waves against the side of a boat are mood-enhancing; our sense of being a part of something beyond human culture is brought into play. Photographs can express something of this through form, aesthetics, and photographic coding, though in terms of affects, photography cannot replicate actual experiences. But as I shall suggest, photographs can reference, or substitute, through invoking equivalent memories.

Photographs endure; in principle the image is static (print degradation notwithstanding). But time moves on. Things change. We change. Our response to that which is referenced is fluid, mediated by shifting perceptions and circumstances. If photographs provoke narrative constructions, the narratives that might be constructed may shift and change.

Applied to our experience of land and environment, we might ask whether a picture of a specific seascape, or expanse of land, or canyon, provokes us to recall how it appeared when we last visited and experienced the place, or whether it over-rides recollection.

To what extent and in what respects, does the literal descriptiveness of the image which we are contemplating overlay personal memory.

That governments, the military and commercial organisations commission photographers to chart the land testifies to belief in the fidelity of the photograph. Photographers, through accepting such commissions, implicitly concurred with and therefore reinforced ontological notions of the accuracy of the image.


However much photographers – along with their audience – see themselves as setting out to record that which was found, selection implicates subjective interests and aesthetic pre-dispositions. Despite this, a notion of unmediated representation became a part of the ideological currency of the image, underpinning its documentary authority.


[…] in considering the authorial function it is clear that the authority of topographic photography is primarily founded in methodology, in evidence of a systematic approach to research and of the integrity of the artist-photographer as researcher, and in stylistic consistency.

The photographer’s ability to deploy photographic codes, aesthetic conventions, and the semiotics of scale and titling within the context of gallery installation and book or website publication, enhances our sense of careful consideration thereby lending further authority to stories told.

Earlier twentieth-century work was similarly methodical, but limited attention was paid to this; perhaps the documentary directness then associated with chemical photography seemed sufficient guarantee.

If the authority emerges from the research underpinning representation, then the medium – chemical or digital – makes little difference to credibility. What has changed is credulity. Awareness of virtual possibilities has induced a more critical audience. the scepticism with which we now view evidential photography is welcome as it encourages us to further examine the ontological basis on landscape practices.

One attribute of landscape photography is that the photographer thought it worth travelling to a particular place in order to make a photograph. Landmarks, natural or constructed, historical or recent, signify places of specific interest, often only accessible on foot.

Walking is different. The pace is slower, and the experience of environment is more immediate.


Walkers pause; the experience is reflective. Birdsong, wind, sun, rain, and maybe the grind of machinery, hint at seasonal change, habitat and local land use. Impossible not to be aware of climate and weather, of soil and vegetation, of greens and browns, of sky and light, of the textures of the earth underfoot. Walks engage time and space. Walking is corporeal; the process integrates the sensual and the cerebral.

Walking is also sequential. The walker settles into a rhythm and pace determined by terrain, climate and weather that allows other concerns to fall away. feelings may shift, from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, as a walk evolves through encountering new sites and sights, and a tapestry of reflections accumulates along the way.

[mention of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long]

[Fulton’s] early work often took the form of photographs with words inscribed. More recent gallery installations (and book works) use the photographic as only one element. We rarely see a ‘straight’ photograph. Rather pictures may be transformed into silhouettes or photo-text montages, and, increasingly, he installs text-poems as images within which typography and colour are strikingly deployed. It is the action of making a walk that is the central project; exhibitions are not the event, they are the after event. As he comments epithetically, ‘A WALK HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN AND DOES NOT NEED TO BE MATERIALISED INTO AN ARTWORK’.


Reasserting the integrity of the walk in itself, [Fulton] also comments that ‘AN ARTWORK MAY BE PURCHASED BUT A WALK CANNOT BE SOLD’. This perhaps causes us to reflect that, even when sharing the experience of a walk with a companion or a group, the experience is essentially individual.

Photographic interpretation of journeys are enticing perhaps because they are inter-subjective; the photographer and the viewer each enjoys latitude as senses and memories of experiences of walking are conjured up through photographic allusion.

[In Long’s work] His sculptures, shown within the gallery context, are made from found materials and echo natural contours.

Often there is no photograph; the alignment or flow of the visual image is made up of phrases transcribing experience and evoking mood.


That Long’s interventions make temporary adjustments, rather than permanent impact, perhaps reflects the transience of human presence.

For the walker, photographs and diaries act as memory aides, helping to conserve the precision of particular moments of observation for later contemplation. They record something of that which was experienced. the walk is a fact; a plan realised through time from starting point to outcome. For the audience this is a story recounted, in word and image, maybe also sound; an account that testifies to the experience of the walker but cannot replicate it. As audience we relate to it by identifying with experiences pictured and, if we too are walkers, relating imagery to our own memory of similar occasions, places and sensual responses. By contrast with the topographic, such imagery is not about place itself so much as about the experience of place.

Discussion of landscape and memory inevitably implicates an interrelation of space and time as memory deals both in place and in histories. There has been a tendency to separate spatiality and temporality one from the other.

As a consequence of modernity and industrialisation, with emphasis on productivity and making ‘good’ use of our time, arguably we live in an era that privileges time over space, with speed of action … achievement … communications … travel all seemingly axiomatic within contemporary culture.

Images do not have memory! Memory is a human faculty; it is one of the facilities we bring to the disentangling of images, when we draw both on our individual experience and upon wider cultural discourses.


Indeed, imagery may reconfigure memory. In extracting from a narrative, perhaps a place visited and a journey experienced, photographs prioritise particular moments, foregrounding them rhetorically to the extent that other parts of the experience may fall away. Photographs thus may substitute for memory

For viewers, photographs of places – which may or may not have been actually visited – operate evocatively through drawing on memories of the sites depicted or of similar sights, as well as more generalised knowledge about places. As with the example of Futon’s summary statements or image-text pieces, and with Long’s poetic abstractions, a sensual imaginary founded in past experience is drawn into play.

If the optical unconscious sometimes takes photographers by surprise as they notice and respond to un-observed elements registered within the image, then as viewers perhaps there is a haptic unconscious in play whereby the image generates responses in terms of sense other than sight. For example, in looking at a photograph of an estuary […] we may ‘hear’ the wind and the birds, ‘smell’ the seaweed, ‘feel’ the texture of the sand beneath our feet and ‘taste’ the salt in the air.


[Derges’s] method in this respect is performative, echoing that of Fulton or Long: process and existential experience are as important as geographic destination. She tells us where imagery has been made, but in her work the specification of place is not intended to anchor the images so much as to emphasise the authenticity of the artist’s experience.


Places in themselves may reveal very little of their past especially as vegetation comes to mask historical traces. But the suggestion that nature literally absorbs history through the soil connects with the idea of a collective unconscious.

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