Years ago I formulated a serviceable description of the great British landscape photographer Fay Godwin as being largely interested in places that had once been more important to people than they now were. It didn’t apply to everything she did, but it was a start. Fay was never interested solely in what the land looked like. She was interested, if one can put it this way, in what the land meant. She read landscapes for their old palimpsests: the layers and layers of stories each of which had left a trace to be unearthed by an eye as sensitive as hers undoubtedly was. It was archaeology without spades. She photographed drovers’ roads knowing that half the population today aren’t quite sure what droving is, let alone where its roads had to go. She photographed the great stone circles at places like Callanish, knowing that there is nobody alive who knows quite how they worked, whether as giant calendars, or as cathedrals or what. See those things well enough, Fay felt, through her photographs, and you had a chance of reading stories there you never knew before.
There are several British photographers who have inherited some of Fay Godwin’s passion for the traces of the past on the land. Photography always has a smell of history about it: you photograph that which you know will change faster than the picture. That’s why, in a world where absolutely everything seems to be photographable and photographed, the odd things that escape are those which are just so familiar that it seems inconceivable that they might change. We photograph our holidays, and have done for many generations. But how many of us find once we move house that we have never photographed our neighbours, the nice guy who runs the corner store, the commute to work, even our own front door? The corollary is true, too: that pictures which are stumbled upon which have a particular redolence of a past we thought had gone have a hard emotional effect like a blow.
As a small child, I used to share with my brother something we called the Whirlybird. No idea if that was what it was really called, but it was a kind of pushme-pullyou, self-propelled roundabout or carousel. Pull the handle, push with your feet, and it span. We lived in Washington DC then; I assume the thing was American. I live in England now. I’ve described this thing to many English people and they shrug. The other day, I found a picture.
There is the machine itself, a fact proven to be rightly remembered. But it’s a photograph, not just a datum. I can’t resist that date-stamp on the picture margin, as much a part of my childhood as the Whirlybird itself. And of course, any self-respecting childhood memory should have that dappled sunlight, the suggestion of great heat in the minimal clothing and soaking children. Photographs are intimate historical things. It’s not just that they preserve; they suggest or assert, they correct where memory was fogged or wrong. We react to them each according to the complex of our own cultural baggage. That was not a Whirlybird; it was my Whirlybird. You need the understanding of the past and the picture to work in tandem: the picture does not simply supply that understanding ready-made.
Fay Godwin understood that with deep conviction. A moor, a bridge, even a peat bog were things that meant something hugely different to a person who had walked them than to one who had not. You read the landscape, at least in crowded little Britain, where every mile bears traces of man’s activity, with your feet as much as with your eye. Fay was President of the Ramblers’ Association for a period – she started walking because a doctor had told her that her health might benefit from it, and she became a monster pedestrian, always laden with cameras, frail but indomitable.
I see the same combination of drives in the fantastic pictures from Paola de Pietri’s To Face. These are not new: The project won the Renger Patzsch award of the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2009. Some of them were in the (brilliant) multi-artist show Topographies de la Guerre, at Le Bal in Paris in late 2011. Steidl published them last year and the book has, I believe, already sold out. But they are being shown at Milan’s Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea from 1st March 2013, as part of the Milan Triennial, and anyway, there’s no season for good photographs.
I called these pictures fantastic not in the teenage sense of unmitigated approval, although I like them very much, but in the older sense of having to do with phantasms. There is a haunted quality about these pictures which is what strikes me first about them. Some of them have fog, sure enough, or at least strange effects of dense air which blot out the farther slopes to leave the nearer isolated and as if suspended. De Pietri has rightly judged that wreaths of semi-substantial fog are the right material to describe a haunting: a thousand movies have seen to that, and plenty of books before them.
Haunting is the point. For these are pictures of the terrain of one of the maddest wars ever fought, the trench warfare between Austria and Italy that took place in the First World War at 2000 metres in the Alps and the Prealpi and in the Carso. These are places where it is hard enough to walk a few miles, leave alone kill people in large numbers. Even when de Pietri’s light is deep and crisp and even, like the snow in the carol, there is a haunting in the visible traces of the structures of warfare. Here a trench, there a cavernous opening to a bunker. The core reaction to these pictures is the same for everybody: what were they thinking of? What madness was this? The effort of shifting rock at that altitude, to make warfare more like what people expected in the plain, may be incomprehensible to anyone who is not a ranking officer graduated from strategic school. These pastures and escarpments, beautiful by all the standards of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, were killing fields. Thousands and thousands of young men perished here.
No doubt a different kind of photographer would have found a different kind of evidence. I can imagine – indeed a very moving text (published in the Steidl volume) from 1967 about these places, by the fine Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern confirms – that one could find smaller bits of evidence by lowering one’s eye to the ground. Bullets, preserved bits of metal from uniforms or equipment, even bits of bone. All the routine jigsaw pieces that archaeology uncovers when it is done with a spade. I have in mind for example, the Forbidden Forest, the terrifying series made by Jonathan Olley on the theme of unexploded ordnance still cluttering the area around Verdun, another horrific First World War battlefield in another country. Olley wandered around with his head down, finding amid foliage the bright orange painted warnings on rusty bombs that are still so numerous that they will take dozens of years to find and make safe. The Great War is nearly a hundred years ago. But its ghosts are still pretty active.
The only really close parallel that I know is the series of pictures of the Angolan border by Jo Ractliffe, about the territory of a much more recent war, and much more obviously personal. If I remember, friends and acquaintances of Ractliffe’s had gone to that war as conscripts in the South African army, and part of her motivation was to understand what had damaged them so badly but that they spoke about so little. It isn’t a neutral kind of imagery, even though the gore and the horror have been removed.
Think back many years to the birth of war photography and to Roger Fenton’s (still) incredible Valley of the Shadow of Death, from Crimea. I have seen it suggested somewhere that he may have had assistants move the cannonballs to be closer to the camera. He may: there are certainly suspiciously few of them at the farther reaches of focus. But still, nobody can contemplate the density of those things on the ground without seeing that it must have been impossible to live while they were falling. It’s a picture of a hail storm of red-hot, very heavy cannonballs, each not only deadly, but deadly in peculiarly cruel and dreadful ways. It’s as horrific as anything James Nachtwey or Susan Meiselas or Dmitri Baltermants or George Rodger or Don McCullin would produce. Yet in the whole of Fenton’s valley, there is not a corpse or a bloodstain, no writhing figures (à la Beato in the Indian Mutiny or the Opium War). It’s one of the great metaphorical photographs. We can’t help but think of the horror, without having it thrust in our eyes.
And that is another point. Paola de Pietri’s series is not merely a neutral chronicle of a historically disturbed patch of ground. It is a series that will have deep personal echoes to all sorts of people, starting with herself. For whatever reason, she must have walked those steep slopes with heavy equipment. I don’t believe that you can do it any other way. And in doing that, the photographer was echoing the weary trudging of the soldiers who built these crazy fortifications. The soldiers may have had mules: de Pietri maybe had colleagues, for all I know. Still…
It reminds me of those pictures one sees of Machu Picchu, always from slightly above to get a bit of valley in as well as the ruins. As though the very act of constructing in the mountains were mad. Do Italians feel about De Pietri’s pictures as Scotsmen feel about the valley of Glencoe? Do these still, high places carry a burden of loathing and of guilt which we outsiders cannot grasp, looking maybe at a computer screen or a nicely produced art publication? They do. I’m sure they do. But like Fay Godwin’s pictures, they are good enough that by seeing, we have a chance to understand at least some of it.
‘Traditional’ mountaineering photographs go long on two things. They emphasize the sublime grandeur and wilderness of the mountains. And they concentrate on the athleticism and daring of the climbers. Other things – including the increasing negative effect that climbing has on the environment, not least in the appalling litter climbers think nothing of leaving behind on the very mountains they wax so eloquent about – are not part of the canon. Here, Paola de Pietri has made a vocabulary peculiarly well suited to her very different tale of the mountains. It’s in part of vocabulary based on looking for clarity and finding it not so easy to grasp. No long views anywhere, even though we are 2000 metres up. Absolutely no wilderness, if wilderness means untouched by man. Odd patches of snow sit in dips like the temporary cloths men put on new graves or even like the marble of grave stones. Physically quite small alterations to the landscape carry large suggestions: an embrasure big enough to poke a machine gun through is not a very big hole. I find myself asking: does every soldier digging a foxhole know that he is digging his grave? Always she shows that haunting, by shrouding vegetation or by the closing in of the clouds.
In some of them, I admit that I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at. Some of the little constructions could be the work of shepherds, sheep cotes or shelter. Some could be natural, the result of frost and water, normal erosion. Are those rocks shattered by shellfire? Is that more level platform a former camp? I don’t need to know every detail to get the message. You could imagine a film maker putting a classical Agnus Dei – maybe the great distressing one from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – over these pictures. They reek of the cruel idiocy of man to man, and nearly a hundred years later, they speak gently of the long, slow recovery as memory fades imperceptibly into history.
An English king’s body was identified the other day, Richard III’s, lying under a car park in Leicester. There was a certain amount of civic pride, a little talk of how wonderful archaeology was, with its high-tech comparisons of mitochondrial DNA and its super accurate carbon dating. A few, a very few voices were raised in the media shouting “Hold on, stop ! This man very probably murdered two young potential threats to his power, and he died a hideous death in battle. ” He died in 1485, shortly before Columbus sailed to America. Many of Fay Godwin’s scratches and markings on the land are as old as we can reasonably go back, Neolithic things, among the earliest traces on our country of all. Those traces, high in Paola de Pietri’s mountains will slowly become even fainter. But we have the pictures, and they are great monuments. We have the invitation to understand. We don’t necessarily have understanding itself.