Arles – 5 – John Davies

The British photographer John Davies is another one the BJP overlook yet I can not help be attracted to this fine black and white photography in which composition is reaffirmed by technical control. Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian also likes this work, writing of “ … his northern English city centres, where the brutalism of urban modernity impacts with the leftover architecture of the industrial revolution. Though I’ve seen his image  Westgate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2001 many times, it never ceases to startle. It’s as if a modern office block has fallen from the skies between the beautiful municipal buildings from another gentler age.

What I like about John Davies is not just his fascinating attention to detail but his use of tone which is characteristically expansive; there are greys here not just black and white. At one point, I asked Gareth Dent (the OCA CEO) if he considered craft important in photography. He replied that it depends on the photographer and his work; with John Davies I consider craft to be important because he is making fine art prints. I would like to have seen this kind of depth in Sugimoto’s work!

Of his work, John Davies says … “These photographs are a selection from a variety of projects in both France and England made between 1980-2009. In these images I attempt to create a narrative to tell visual stories about social and political process, change and transformation.”

Jesse left listens while Gareth talks; the photo here is of Agecroft Power Station, Salford 1983

Jesse left listens while Gareth talks; the photo here is of Agecroft Power Station, Salford 1983

OCA tutor Jesse Alexander commented that this was a chance to see some much reproduced images (e.g. Agecroft Power Station, Salford) in the flesh, as prints that do have a certain aura (Walter Benjamin’s comments in the The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction can not be taken too literally) when printed so well.

There is an historic value to Davies’ work in that many of the places he has photographed have changed beyond recognition. The Agecroft Power Station is a case in point having been photographed by Davies in 1983 and demolished in 1995.

Davies records the human geology of the landscape, borrowing from traditional landscape motifs that were developed by pictorialists. Often this means a foreground, a middle ground and a background – a layered composition in fact. Davies is photographing not just landscape but also industry while within this larger narrative, smaller narratives can be read such as the football players in Agecroft Power Station as well as people with horses in the foreground.

Jesse Alexander in discussion with Anna Goodchild over a John Davies photograph "Allotments, Easington Colliery, County Durham 1983"

Jesse Alexander in discussion with Anna Goodchild over a John Davies photograph “Allotments, Easington Colliery, County Durham 1983”;                    a gloomy view yet one that will change dramatically over time.

Apart from captions identifying the subject, the place and the date, this exhibition does not go into detailed explanations about the photographs; we are left to make our own explorations. Elsewhere, he has given more information about the content of his photographs such as in the book British Landscapes (2006).

Liz Wells who has written a major work on the critique of landscape in Land Matters refers in the section entitled “Class and Region” to “Davies’ interest in an anti-pastoral pictorial; the critical vein of the work emerges from the content of the image. ” and that his work ” … documents visual legacies of industrial modernity“. Her criticism is that “There is a risk that political commentary is diluted rather than distilled, as the industrial becomes a strand within a new perspective.” Of his gallery prints, she writes that they remove emphasis from the documentary idiom while drawing attention to the pictorial.

view crowd around a John Davies print

view crowd around a John Davies print

My understanding of his images is partly that of connoisseur since I have also laboured in the chemical darkroom and know how skilled one needs to be to present work of the nature of John Davies who combines the craft of printmaking with the ability to compose; a wide array of tones helps to convey a sense of the sublime. There is seldom however a pretty picture and much is said about the use of land.

John Davies shares much about the technical side of his work on his website under the menu item technical notes. The following mention is a reminder of the significance of his black and white work … “The quality of digital photo technology has rapidly improved in recent years but CCD sensors still have some way to go to compete with the versatility of the boiled cow bones that are manufactured into gelatin film. To date (2010) I have not seen anything to match the quality of a fine B&W silver gelatin print made on fibre-based paper and made from a negative.”

The OCA group looking at before and after prints made of a French town loosing a war memorial and countryside where a road was built

The OCA group looking at before and after prints made of a French town loosing a war memorial and countryside where a road was built over a pond

Davies’ work is remarkable in the way it records a moment in time; this tendency runs through earlier work yet is more prominent in some of his later work such as in before (1995) and after (1998) photographs of a French town “Chaillac, Saint-Benoit-de-Sault” in which the war memorial was removed and the lawns of the town replaced by tarmac for a car park.

In spite of the obvious mundanity of much of Davies’ work, these are views that can be contemplated over and over again. The prints here have also been laid out in relation to each other not so much as a sequence rather as a collection of formal objects with interior detail.

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