Let the Longing Begin:
Clare Richardson’s 'Beyond the Forest

by Aaron Schuman

Originally published in Foam, Spring 2008

     ‘My parents were always going on expeditions and adventures,’ Clare Richardson reminisces, with a touch of bittersweetness in her voice.  ‘Throughout my childhood we were constantly moving all over the world, especially after my father returned to the Army.  That’s definitely why I take the photographs that I take.  All of my pictures are about people who have a sense of place – people who belong in one place, and have a strong relationship with the place where they live.  I’ve always been desperate to have that myself; it’s really a longing.’

     In his introduction to Landscape and Memory, the historian, Simon Schama, asserts that, ‘Although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible.  Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind.  Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’  This proposition – that our understanding of landscape is dependent on memory, and vice-versa – poses a difficult dilemma to someone who has led a life dominated by transience.  How can one understand oneself without a sense of place, or without a place one can sincerely call one’s own?
     Perhaps photography, a medium that fundamentally encourages its practitioners to both express and define themselves by looking everywhere apart from at oneself, is the perfect solution to such a quandary.  For it could be argued that a photographer is inherently in every one of their pictures, despite the fact that they are rarely literally depicted within any of them.  ‘You see, when we were abroad, we were never really there,’ Richardson explains, rather cryptically. ‘We lived in these homogenized barracks that were surrounded by really high fences, and as kids my friends and I couldn’t go beyond the fence, so we spent a lot of time trying to look over it.  That’s definitely where my photography comes from.’   

     Richardson reckons that she’s been taking pictures since the age of eight or nine, but her photography first gained critical attention in 2001 when a selection from her portfolio, Harlemville, was exhibited at Jay Jopling’s original White Cube, on Duke Street in London. Harlemville explores a rural community in upstate New York, where the principles of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, are followed in order to emphasize creativity, imagination and one’s relationship with nature, most notably within the education of their children.  Over the course of working on the project, Richardson became particularly captivated by the younger members of the community, and began to focus exclusively on their strikingly physical interactions with the surrounding landscape.  ‘I’m always drawn to young people,’ she notes, ‘maybe because I was always quite a grown-up kid myself, and wasn’t very good at being a teenager.’  Her Harlemville subjects swim in babbling brooks, bury themselves in rotting leaves, smear themselves in thick mud, and wander ponderingly through fields and woods.   At first glance, the photographs seem to simply capture the everyday interactions between the children and their environment in a rather straightforward manner, yet through such clarity and simplicity Richardson cultivates an immediate sense of trust within her viewer.  It’s as if the children took the pictures themselves; rather than adopting an outsider’s perspective – or worse, an adult’s perspective, laden with overbearing notions of innocence, sentimentality and burgeoning sexuality – the photographer seems to have wholly assumed the role of her subjects, and consequently the photographs ring both extraordinarily and dangerously true.

     Writing on the photography of Paul Strand, in a 1963 edition of The Observer, John Berger remarked that, ‘[Strand] is unusually self-effacing as an artist because he wishes only to speak for his subjects in turn to speak only about the basic, elementary facts of their lives.’  During the latter half of his life, from 1930 until his death in 1976 – whilst his contemporaries turned their attention to The Second World War, the post-war boom, urban street-life and the proliferation of suburbia – Strand repeatedly and rather insistently pointed his camera in the direction of long-established agrarian communities throughout the world, as far afield as Mexico, France, Italy, Egypt, Ghana and the Outer Hebrides.  In his introduction to Time in New England, Strand wrote, ‘In this region were born many of the thoughts and actions that have shaped America for more than three hundred years.  It was this concept of New England that lead me to try to find present-day New England images of nature and architecture and faces of people that were either part of or related in feeling to its great tradition.’ 

     Richardson’s most recent portfolio, Beyond the Forest – published by SteidlMACK in 2007 – bears an uncanny resemblance to Strand’s later work, and shares with it the stoic idealism of a photographer enamoured with both the visual and existential simplicity of traditional rural life.  Over the course of four years, Richardson made more than twenty trips to the remote ‘Saxon villages’ of Transylvania, in central Romania.  (Unbeknownst to Richardson, Strand travelled to the same area in 1968, and made some startlingly similar photographs.)  But at the beginning of the project, her interest in the region was fundamentally practical, and virtually unrelated to photography whatsoever.  “I married a farmer, but I didn’t know about farming, so rather than actually going out and chasing sheep, I read books about the history of farming.  We were practicing biodynamic farming, which is an anthroposophical method, and I read that in Eastern Europe they still used the medieval farming systems.  So in 2002, I went with a camera to learn more about it; to see farming in it’s pure, medieval form.’ 

     When listening to Richardson describe the development of this work, it becomes disconcertingly obvious that both the no-nonsense pragmatism of a farmer’s wife, and paradoxically, the hopeless romanticism of an artist, are embedded within her approach.  As with Harlemville, this apparent contradiction in temper is cunningly resolved through a deeply respectful sense of clarity in the photographs themselves, which manage to gently celebrate the subject matter whilst remaining impressively restrained, rather plain, and therefore seemingly honest.  ‘I didn’t want it to be too National Geographic,’ she says.  ‘In National Geographic you see all of these projects on the Amish or whomever, and they all become so stereotypical and derivative.  This place was so untouched that, at first, I couldn’t help but take a postcard, but I wanted to make it something more raw than that; something quieter and more spare.’ Throughout the series – no matter whether her camera falls upon a weathered farmer, a fortified hilltop church, a tree-lined road, or laundry hung out to dry – Richardson generally maintains a level (and therefore levelling) perspective and forthright compositional eye; everything carries an impressive weight throughout the frame, so much so that even grazing sheep appear solidly grounded within the landscape.

     Of course, Berger’s reading of the photographer as a humble artist procuring ‘basic, elementary facts’ is an extremely precarious and long-outdated one, and it is important to note the Strand himself sought to represent the ‘feeling’ of century-old traditions found within a place – the ‘strata of memory’, so to speak – rather than to accurately document a place itself.  Similarly, Richardson is also well aware of the many misconceptions surrounding the photographic medium, and within Beyond the Forest she employs a somewhat radical strategy to illustrate that fictions exist in what might otherwise be misconstrued as fact.  When the images are reproduced, they always bare a faint yellow cast – as if they’ve been fogged or have aged prematurely – which, to someone who has dedicate years to both admiring and slavishly attempting to produce perfect c-prints, appears to be a serious error on the part of the printer.  But as the book unfolds, the consistency and ensuing effectiveness of this intentional flaw progressively intensifies.  ‘The yellow cast removes the pictures from photography,’ Richardson explains, ‘They become much less real.  I wanted the work to look more pictorial, and not like photographs.  The first time we descended into the valley it was twilight, there was a heavy fog in the air, there were horses and carts and old dirt paths, and I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a film set or a Breugel.  Also, you can’t help but look at a few haystacks and think of the Old Masters, so maybe there’s a bit of that in there.” 

     Since its invention, photography has fought a long, embittered battle to distinguish itself from painterly traditions, to be understood as an entirely separate but equally legitimate visual interpretation of the world.  As Berger’s reading of Strand points out, this battle was nearly won more than four decades ago. Yet looking at Richardson’s latest work its hard not to suspect that perhaps something incredibly valuable has been lost along the way – an ability to employ myth, imply fantasy and stir the imagination beyond the limits of visual reality.  In the book’s subtitle, Richardson tells us that the villagers portrayed in Beyond the Forest claim to descend from the children of Hamelin, Germany, who in the thirteenth century were led out from the town by the Pied Piper, never to be seen again – a fable recorded most famously by the Brothers Grimm.  “You see, it’s a real place, but it’s explained through this folkloric tale.  Every folktale has a bit of truth within it, but there’s a lot of twisting of that truth through word of mouth, so the surface of the reality changes.  Ultimately, I wanted the book to be like that – something that you’d read as a bedtime story.” 

     Following Richardson’s intentions literally, I read Beyond the Forest with my son as he sipped warm milk before bed, on the eve of his third birthday . Much to my frustration, at this stage in his life he generally prefers illustrated books to photographic ones, but he was surprisingly captivated by Richardson’s tale.  His response: ‘I like that place, where they wear tiny hats, climb trees with sticks, and make haystacks that look like pears; I’d like to go there.’  Let the longing begin.



Aaron Schuman Photography
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