I have good memories of London. I remember our garden and my flower patch, and the swingset that appeared overnight like magic when I was six. The metal frame took up the whole lawn. We had a raised patio that I liked to draw on with rainbow-coloured chalks, and plants in terracotta pots that no one ever watered. The concrete was cracked and pitted like wrinkles on the earth’s face, and I didn’t like mud.
There were parks in London too. Visits to Greenwich with Dad at weekends. I liked to walk, carefully balanced, along the wooden logs that bordered the flower beds, and watch the deer behind the wire fence. There was a tree in Greenwich Park which was magic. I could open it up if I found a twig the right size to fit inside its trunk’s gnarled whirl. I read books about flower fairies.
We moved to Norfolk when I was eight-and-a-half. Our new garden was eight times the size of our one in London. It was an acre filled with lawns and hedges and a pond and a vegetable patch. It seemed so huge, until I looked over the hedgerow and saw the fields and the woodland next door.
The things I remember most about moving were the silence and the absolute darkness at night, when there were no more streetlights or kids on skateboards in the road. I would lie awake for hours and think about blackness and listen to breathing. There had never been anywhere more magical.
I became convinced that there were fairies at the bottom of our garden. They lived amongst the birch trees and one day I would see them. I convinced my new friends at school, too. I kept reading my books. When I had just turned nine, I found out about the Cottingley Fairies. The photographs were fake, and I never ever tried to take a camera with me to the bottom of my garden.
I grew out of fairies, eventually. I grew into a world which was still filled with stories, but which mocked fairytales. High school and teenagerdom and exams and excitement of a different sort lifted me away from the magic I had found in the world around me. The earth became an annoyance; a space which stood between me and the place I was travelling too. Sometimes it rained and sometimes it was sunny, but mostly it passed by me through a window and I never took off my shoes.
Strangely, I found my way back again through a medium which is said to use reality in order to distance ourselves from it. Susan Sontag said, “The habit of photographic seeing – of looking at reality as an array of potential photographs – creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature.” (On Photography, Penguin Modern Classics 2008, p97) And yet, to all that I agree with her, it was discovering my photographic seeing which returned me to my earth.
The magic which existed in the world around me when I was a city-girl of eight has remained. It is the earth’s and it has always and will always be here. But it is a different kind of magic to the one I saw when I was younger; it is more real. Back then I saw fairies in my garden because my garden itself seemed enchanted. Today I know the fairies live in my imagination, but the garden has shown itself to be far fuller in life than I had ever realised.
Picking up my camera at sixteen, I experience for myself the “psychological transformation of [my] eyesight” (László Moholy-Nagy, painter and photographer.) It was a sudden seeing – indeed, a sudden experiencing. Photography changes reality, no doubt (and mygosh, is there a blogpost I’ve been writing for too long on that subject.) But the reality that I found was one in which the earth and I could communicate through my lens. It teaches me about the things I come from, and in return I try to pass this on in the only way I know how; in photographs.
It has taught me that it can die and be reborn. It can transform itself unrecognisably from week to week. It can give me the most perfect light (if I listen to and work with it) and the most beautiful metaphors. It forces me to hear it, and to create my work within it as it moves (the bluebells are gone now. I was given three weeks.) My eyesight has been transformed, so that I notice now changes which I never saw before.
And yet, I find myself still blind to some of these changes. Flowers which had been blossoming by the lake had disappeared when I walked there this week; I never noticed them wilting. Perhaps I am simply new to this, perhaps my eye is still untrained and my soles still unsure of the harmony which pulses beneath them. This is the first summer in which I find myself immersed in nature, camera in hand, and I find myself desperate to experience everything I am being offered. Thunderstorms in bare feet. Reading in forest shade. Fog at six am.
These experiences are what make my photographs, and are the backbone for the way I learn about the earth. When I started my fifty-twos, I realised quickly that what I enjoy photographing most was not simply nature itself, but human interaction in the natural world. The project allows me to explore my own relationship with the landscape, as I’ve written about a little before. It has become my “style” and the aesthetic concept my photography is known for.
What I am trying to say is that, this “style” was not something which was carefully planned, but more something which I fell into accidentally, and became besotted with. While I churn out my photographs, I am being taught the workings of the world around me. The stories I tell in my photographs may be fairytales, but the magic the produces them is absolutely genuine.