The story is really very simple. You either get it or you don’t.
Harry Cory Wright’s mother died and the family decided they could not hold on to the house she had lived in. So a fifty-year connection with a place was severed, and Cory Wright (or more properly, all the mind-map of people connected with his family and with the house) would have to make do with frozen aging memory instead of the constant refreshment of a place that changes each time it is revisited.
But Harry Cory Wright is one of the great landscape photographers in Britain now. His commitment to place is far stronger than that of most of us. He understands the world and comments on it mainly through his sensitivity to place. No doubt there is something in that fifty-year anchorage in one particular spot that nurtured in him a confidence that place mattered. Perhaps it was just something about the place in question. It was a house called Tilhill, on the River Wey, near Farnham, in Surrey. I know that because Cory Wright has posted it on his blog, Sense of Place, where he has been tersely but movingly clear about this present series of pictures.
The blog is much more intimate and much more revealing than the essentially non-textual booklet that accompanies the show. I was surprised, because I thought of Cory Wright as a Norfolk photographer, and so he is. But the place we call home is not necessarily the place we live. It is perfectly easy to identify and gurn and gawp at the house itself on Rightmove (a property website) and to zoom and pry by Google satellite view over the very clearings and curves of the river that appear in the pictures. I wouldn’t have done it had I not known the house was sold. But landscape photography used to be about places we hadn’t been nor could easily get to. Now, inevitably, whatever else it does, it contains also an invitation that we can take up without leaving our chairs.
Cory Wright used to work only with vast cumbersome plate cameras. I don’t know if his were proper old-school things of mahogany and brass, but they were certainly the descendants of those. Those are slow machines, and Cory Wright was a slow-picture man, a man prepared to wait all night in a winter marsh just in case the dawn did something important as it lightened. Now he can use digital like everybody else, but he prefers the method which allows pictures to seep into the camera one very slow view at a time. A man like that was not built to leave a place that mattered so much to him and for so long without doing something about it.
Hey Charlie is the result.
Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie and a pyrotechnics expert called Bryan quartered the ground he knew so well setting off sparks and flames but mainly smoke. Sparks are up and down, gone at fast, fast shutter speeds. But smoke is another matter. Smoke has been used for years in the theatre and cinema to convey something which translates appropriately as ‘atmosphere’. It writhes and roils and lingers a long time. It becomes a sensible transcription of the thickness of the air itself. It’s in books, too. You can’t imagine the Hound of the Baskervilles or Pip Gargery on the marshes terrified out of his wits by Magwitch without curling tendrils of wet smoke. Fog, murk, haar, mist… we have a lot of words for that stuff in our little island in the Atlantic, and not surprisingly so. All of them imply a shifting relation with place. At sea, particularly, but also on moors, the fog plays eerie tricks on the mind.
Surrey is not what you’d call wild moorland, though. Tilhill is half-way between Farnham and Aldershot, in a zone too far out to be suburban but only just. It’s the gin-and-manure belt, formerly the home of numbers of military gentlemen from the times when the army liked having large areas of scrubby heath to play in, but within reach of London in case of any Gordon rioters or similar needing a sharp set-down. Harry Cory Wright has been to wild places since growing up, plenty of them. But these meadows and thin woods supplied the wilderness before the possibility of travel. They make me think of A. A. Milne, finding a whole world in the Hundred Acre Wood (itself not so very far from Tilhill, if memory serves) for Christopher Robin and his friends. These are real alders and poplars, right enough. But isn’t the real wood that is being sent up in flames; it’s the imaginary one.
So what is Harry Cory Wright doing with his smoke and flames?
Part of the answer is simply that he’s playing one last time in the fields he’s always played in. Nothing complicated or art-critical about that, and nothing wrong with it, either. It was exciting and sad to set these fireworks off in that place and it made a great send-off, and it would have been a fine thing even with no camera anywhere near.
I think the other answer is to be found in the relationship of different speeds of action. They’d called Tilhill home for fifty years, but the sparks behind the poplars are gone in a matter of seconds. They’d played in the field for whole seasons at a time, yet the smoke breaks up and is gone in minutes, even on a still day. There is, in other words, a more complex weaving of time in these pictures than there would be with the ordinary vocabulary of landscape. We’re used to simple indicators of time: water smoothed out at slower exposures, foliage in motion, the almost sports-photography blur of a background behind a pin-sharp kingfisher doing its stuff. But here something else is going on: the deliberate acknowledgement that time and place together add up to more than either of them alone.
That has been a concern of photographers before. I think most clearly of Fay Godwin, who always came back to photographing places that had once been far more important to people than they were when she got there.
I think of Edwin Smith, that most elegiac of photographers, whose pictures at one and the same time ask us to regret the past and yet take mellow pleasure in its passing.
These Hey Charlie pictures are like that. They may have an element of regret. But they have fierce pleasure, too. There is something of the Viking funeral about them: Harry Cory Wright is setting fire to the trees and the river bends of his childhood and pushing them out to sea.
In all of this, Harry Cory Wright takes his place in a large shift which probably now has enough momentum to be thought of as a movement.
It used to be obvious that the great landscape thinkers went elsewhere and brought back visions of the stuff beyond. Richard Burton struggling to Salt Lake City or Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter or Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush. Even Jan Morris in Venice.
The real picture was never quite so. In Britain, at least, with its peculiarly rapid changes of landscape from mile to mile, you don’t need to go far. It may even be denser and more complex for your readers or viewers if you stay close enough to home that they know in detail what you have not said as well as seeing clearly what you do. There has been in Britain for a long time a large group of writers who stay very close to home and whose exoticism comes from the microscope not the telescope. Adam Nicholson, who inherited the Shiant Islands and wrote about his experience in Sea Room (and who also made an early and rather good book on the Somerset Levels – Wetland – with the photographer Patrick Sutherland). Richard Mabey, perhaps the most radical of all the great localists, who could make a whole ecology out of railway embankments and waste ground. Robert Macfarlane and his friend Roger Deakin. Oliver Rackham and Thomas Pakenham, content to study the landscape often one single tree at a time. Sometimes the same writer does distant then local in successive books: Nicholas Crane, who wrote a marvellous book about the high places of Europe and then wrote a better one limiting himself to a stripe of England two thousand metres wide
I’m no specialist, but even to me there are a number of fundamental texts in this movement. There’s W.G.Sebald, constantly tying the local here to the local elsewhere through the memories (or false memories) of the people who came from one to the other. There’s the other W.G., W.G.Hoskins, whose Making of the English Landscape pioneered in the 1950s the business of looking at the landscape as a text, to be read and unravelled almost as a palimpsest. There are two obsessive books about birds, J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), and T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951). (Neither is really about birds; that’s just where each of them starts.) T.H. White wrote a more complex book, too, called England Have My Bones, which I love in spite of its constant tone of railing stressy anger. “When London Bridge has tumbled down, and the sewers of the hive have ceased to pollute the waters, there will be salmon opposite the Imperial Chemicals building, but no Imperial Chemicals building opposite the salmon.” White described learning to fly in England Have My Bones (in the 1930s) but he also went ferreting and allowed the grass snakes to nest behind Aldous Huxley on his bookshelf.
There are marine versions of the same effect, too, where the fiercely local fully understood and minutely analyzed has the value of anything anywhere. Read Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful Cruise of the Nona (1925) for whatever you like, including a dyspeptic misanthropism fully the equal of White’s. While you’re reading it, you’ll be taken around the tough tidal conflicts of Portland Bill in a passage of nautical writing as thrilling as any ride around the Horn. Yet Portland is so close to London that it’s where much of the stone for the ponderous grey official buildings came from.
There is one fundamental text of British localism that is neither really watery, nor yet really not, which is L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, first published in 1944. Rolt – who was also capable of the strongest dyspepsia – was an engineer, and his rediscovery of the canal system not just for its physical qualities of ditch and bridge, but for engineering and architecture and the culture of the boatmen and the economic changes wrought by the canals is a major source for much British thinking since. Rolt’s passion led to a preservation movement, and that then operated in tandem with the responsible government department and coloured it over time. That pattern became a model in Britain for such things as the Victorian Society and even the National Trust. It doesn’t always work quite so well in every field but the canals now see more use than they ever saw in their commercial heyday, and much of that use is by holidaymakers and retirees who may look like nostalgic pleasure seekers, but many of whom are active lobbyists and skilful and knowledgeable local specialists. The former British Waterways Board in the end took on so many of the arguments of the preservation societies that they had only budgets to fight, not policies.
In photography, much the same thing has happened. The respect for previous uses and the wisdom acquired through deep intimacy with the particular have been a different song to the louder one of further, weirder, rarer. Susan Derges’ lyrical exploration of small stretches of water or Jem Southam coming back again and again to the same dew-pond are not so very different to Roger Deakin swimming in wild tarns. You could make an argument that the whole career of John Blakemore was a movement from large to small, until he was making virtuoso studies of wilting plants Sellotaped down on tracing paper on his kitchen table: pale on pale. There is a brilliant series of pictures of fish frozen in blocks of ice by Calum Angus Mackay: oddly abstract things until you learn that the photographer lives in the Outer Hebrides where fish are culture and diet and money and all.
That concentrated local knowledge is what Hey Charlie is about. Fireworks displays often mark the opening of something or other. Not here. These fireworks mark the end of a lifetime of getting to know a piece of the land with intimacy and precision and emotion. That’s always worth doing, and it’s a bit sad when it’s done. It’s no coincidence that there lies very close in Cory Wright’s blog to the Hey Charlie pictures an unmistakeable study of one of the uprights from Stonehenge, a grave marker as plain as could be.
There’s a post-script, though. Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie sold the house and most of the land. But they kept a field. And they have (or can get) camper vans, and go back to the field as often as they like. It’s theirs.
Hey Charlie is on show at Eleven in London until 7th September 2013.