Modern Nature @ The Hepworth Wakefield April 2019


view of the Hepworth Wakefield from across the river

This article relates to a visit to the Modern Nature exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield followed by a day symposium. I arrived the day before to allow time to see the exhibition before the symposium begins. I wonder how many attendees at the symposium saw the exhibition?

“For the first time in human history, more people are living in urban environments than in the countryside, yet the impulse to seek out nature remains as strong as ever.”

The impulse to find nurture in nature is still strong! Countryside a much more inspiring environment than the city thought Hepworth. Photography has not been slow to pick up on this! Edgelands is a term used to describe the meeting point between the rural and the urban and which is the focus of this exhibition that dwells on human interaction with nature. The exhibition space is 2 large rooms with a line of framed photographs along the walls at head height.


Brandt and Davies photographs

Charlotte Bronte casts  nature as a sublime force in Wuthering Heights; a response to this is from Bill Brandt in Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire 1945 which  is high in contrast, a lithlike print. John Davies approach seems very different in Monkwearmouth Colliery, Sunderland, County Durham, 1983; above the industrial landscape fly a flock of birds. Brandt Romantic view, Davies’ de-industrial.

Poetry of nature’s ability to reassert itself among ruins! Could be weeds growing on street (cf Chris Shaw B&W high contrast prints) but also crescent moon above town by B.Brandt and Gill’s photography from Hackney.

Chris Killip’s photograph of working community in the snow from 1984; there is a quote from Mc Farlane that “wildness not only property of land – it is also a quality which can settle on a place with a snowfall or with close of day.


overview of exhibition space

Jo Spence shows travelling community living on unused land by motorway.

Into the Wild; Rousseau noted “Nature never deceived us; it is we who deceive ourselves.

Paul Hill explores theme of car and nature, Keith Arnatt photographed an AONB that often does not see to live up to its’ designation, Mark Power photographs areas we have heard mention of on the shipping forecast but never visualised.

Seaside imagery from Luskacova and Parr. Reas and Roberts make ironic comments on heritage. Anna Fox’s view of the countryside from The Village, 1991


some of Peter Mitchell’s humorous portraits of scarecrows

Part of the photographer’s job is to see more intensely than most people do.” Bill Brandt

John Blakemore photographs of wheat fields

This exhibition seems to be very much about the way we interact with nature rather than about nature itself; this is epitomised by Three Boys and a Pigeon, the central photograph by Daniel Meadows from 1974.

In the café there is a photographic book by Broomberg and Chanarin; published by The Tate in 2015, it also considers the meeting point between “humans and other animals.” Looks like it has sold out in the shop; described as a book to “inspire curiosity in the visual image” and to teach “young children how to listen with their eyes.”

I spend the night in Wakefield. Walking down a street near the centre, I am struck by the number of “To Let” signs.


approach to the Hepworth Wakefield across the bridge

The next day I walk down to the Hepworth Wakefield for the two day symposium of which the first day relates to photography! I am not attending the second day.

If nature can be modern then one might ask if it can also be postmodern and perhaps even Surrealist! After seeing the exhibition, it seems clear that nature is not being considered in isolation but in relation to contemporary humanity.


sign at entrance about the symposium

The symposium is a collaboration between The Hepworth Wakefield, an award winning art museum, and the University of Sheffield. The conference is introduced by the curator of the exhibition. The Hepworth have a garden opening this summer; green spaces said to have health giving properties. They can also be artworks and spaces in which art can be shown.

From an early age, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth felt inspired by the countryside. Raymond Williams pointed out that we see landscape differently and according to our experience. The photographs in the exhibition are personal views of nature in landscape. Apparently it was the filmmaker Derek Jarman who coined the term Modern Nature.

Dr Jackson from the University of Sheffield talks. She has been working with the Hepworth among other groups. She talks about Furnace Park, a garden being built in Sheffield. She mentions “an interesting process to watch” a term which relates to my reasoning behind photographing the construction of a housing estate. The speaker shows fenced off areas photographed by my CS tutor, Andrew Conroy; she also discusses the social history of the Furness Park area.

Tristan Gooley, a full time professional of natural navigation. Reading patterns in the landscape and water also snow. Cf Nature’s Radar (8000 word essay) signs in nature can be pragmatic Everything has meaning in nature such as a rainbow which means the sun is behind us then further meaning from colours dominating the rainbow. Gooley’s website

His book How to connect with nature looks interesting but is currently unavailable on Amazon though Abebooks have cheap second hand copies. “Natural navigation is the rare art of finding your way using nature.” Nothing is random!

Lunch with fellow OCA student Sarah Gallear who like me is on Level 3 and also doing assignment 4 at CS. Like me she is not finding it easy.

After lunch, a talk by James Hyman whose photographic collection provided the photographs for the exhibition. The Hyman Collection of British Photography has a website and also a blog; a private collection but quite visible with some 3000 photographs online. This show, Modern Nature, was aimed at a local audience but does have a context with similar contemporary exhibitions. Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture by Rosemary Shirley is a book that might be of interest.

Red as symbol of the urban, green as symbol of rural. Use of Infrared film by John Davies in making photographs of different trees. Photography can be a political tool in fight against change. The heritage industry. Kew Gardens full of signs telling you about things. Seems there is a lot of irony being used in these images.

photographers in discussion 20190425-iPhone-1322

photographers with David Hyman (far right)

After Hyman has spoken, it is time for the photographers to talk. Simon Roberts studied under Peter Jackson at Sheffield University; deciphering the landscape not learning about photography!! Needs people in his photography; bird’s eye view. Creating narratives in landscape; something else going on in pictures other than view presented. Peter Mitchell talks “for a couple of minutes!?” Humorous talk of an autobiographical nature. Daniel Meadows talks about his photographic omnibus and his archive.

Did the photographers make images with the viewer in mind particularly or the future in mind? The photographers did have a sense that they were creating documents of their eras. Camera a passport to making history preferable to being an artist. The photograph  an object worth keeping and like a painting.

Daniel Meadows never saw himself as anything more than a documentarian. Simon Roberts more politically engaged; getting commissions etc Mitchell also aware of an audience to his work.

There is a question and answer session! Documentary practice important aspect of British photography.

Another break during which I say hello to my OCA tutor Andrew Conroy.

White Bungalows on a Hill by Helen Mort, poet and writer of fiction. Urban rural or edgelands! Do maps destroy our wonder of the world! Knowledge does not dispel mystery!? McFarlane writing about beech tree in The Wild Places; “There was nothing unique about my beech tree, nothing difficult in its ascent, no biological revelation at its summit, nor any honey. But it had become a place to think. A roost.


Climbers by Harrison. The character in a book is called Normal; a photographer interested in banal aspect of landscape e.g. unofficial rubbish dumping. Collision of rural and urban. Norman MacCaig writes about not imposing identity on what one makes art about. Poems are like 360 still photographs.

Things my Father does not want me to dwell on by Zakiya McKenzie. Her family call her an earth mama! Her talk is about her relationship to her family, a kind of autobiography that examines the meaning of her work. Her father does not want her to talk about race and diversity because he thinks this will pigeonhole her! Nature walks with people of different ethnic groups who make photographs and write.


the poet, Pete Green, talks about the Wordsworthian and a more provincial sublime

Presentation by Longbarrow Press

Photography particularly TV has prejudiced our experience of landscape; pre-emptied our experience of sublime in beautiful grandiose! Wordsworth privileged Clare not; his sublime more accessible. Sublime can take many forms …

I say during question time that the Sublime is an inner experience not an outer reality; nature only reflects it! Although this is ignored in the general discussion, someone comes up to me afterwards to thank me for pointing this out and the woman leading the event mentions it in her summing up and also thanks me afterwards for making the remark. The Sublime, the real reading of it rather than the literary interpretation is something I care about yet no one at the OCA seems to have been interested in my views.

Tomorrow the nature of the debate changes to gardens and mental health. I do not have time to attend but would have liked to although the surfeit of ideas from today is going to take time to absorb.