Review by Douglas Stockdale –
On the eastern side of England was a vast marshland, a region known as the Fens, which was eventually conquered by a combination of technology and determined English will. Once properly drained it became an abundantly fertile farmland, England’s extensive vegetable garden. This flat lowland does not easily endear itself as a romantic landscape subject, as there appears to be a dull sameness that extends into the distant horizon, much as the vast wheat-lands in the Mid-west of the United States. Perhaps in the manner of the New Topographics, the landmark 1975 urban landscape exhibition, there is also something beguiling in this un-remarkable and very ordinary landscape that has drawn Paul Hart in over the past ten years. Essentially the Fens are entirely a man-altered landscape.
This photographic book is the third of his three-part series investigating the Fens, the first being Farmed, and follow by Drained. In his previous book, Drained, he is focused on the essential element of water in conjunction with the surrounding land signifying mankind’s attempt to control this lowland that appears to be always on the verge of retuning back to it watery origins. As such, the vestiges of mankind are found in the edges, indirectly present. In this new volume, the urban landscape that encompasses the Fens becomes his monochromatic focus.
As in his previous book, Drained, water and the myriad water-ways still continue to play a role to define this complex land, while the various man-built structures now place a critical accent as to the nature of how man-altered the low-lands have become. Interwoven are lyrical photographs of trees and vegetation, but in context of this body of work, such as the placement of trees now take-on more geometric appearances. The noticeable formal and orderly placements of the vegetation and trees reinforce the artificiality that these elements are not natural to this region, but are an integral part of mankind’s attempted dominion.
This body of work, similar to the previous, is a mostly un-populated landscape, as there are no individuals who provide the humanity of this region. With the exception of one singular image there is the inclusion of a lone individual, who is in dark silhouette, unidentifiable, representing the unknown hand on the taming of these marshlands. Otherwise, those who live in this region are indirectly represented by the marks on the land and built structures still standing.
The photographs of this volume also appear to have a lower contrast, essentially becoming a low-key study of darks and grays. Perhaps this may be in part due to the predominantly gray and overcast skies of this region, but in this body of work, the overcast grayness seems to be even more present. This may be also in part that this book is about the urban and populated rural landscape, the inclusion of built structures, residential and industrial, that brings out the darker side of Hart’s documentary practice. As a result, and in combination with his frequent singular nature of his subjects, I feel a persuasive loneliness in this body of work, as though this is a tome on melancholy.
This book, like the others in this series, has been printed by EBS in Verona, Italy, well known for the quality of their duo-tone printing of black and white photographs. The slightly creamy paper stock provides a very nice warmth to this body of work, with the images surrounded by a classic amount of margin allowing the photographs appearing to float on the pages. The large images, 9 x 9” (228 x 228mm) are a delight to read as to the quality of the details rendered by the medium-format film. It’s as though one has been given an opportunity to have a nice portfolio of lyrical photographs at a remarkable affordable price.
Previous Paul Hart book review featured on PhotoBook Journal; Drained
Reclaimed, Paul Hart
Photographer: Paul Hart, born Deal and resides Lincolnshire (UK)
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing, UK, copyright 2020
Essay: Introduction by Isabelle Bonnet
Text: English & French
Hardcover, cloth bound book with tipped in image, sewn binding, duo-tone (black and white) lithography, printed by EBS, Verona, Italy, ISBN 978-1-911306-63-4
Photobook designer: Paul Hart
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