Published by Loose Joints, Robin Friend’s Bastard Countryside is the photographer’s first book and it collects together 15 years worth of exploration of the British landscape, or what Victor Hugo called “the bastard countryside”. “Each photograph represents a small part of the story of how modern living is changing the environment”, says Robin. And although the series has been photographed in the UK, “the subjects and themes are global, and invite the viewer to reflect on the actions that have shaped and shifted the spaces they relate to”.
Robin’s photographs are accompanied by an essay by writer Robert Macfarlane, who describes Bastard Countryside as containing “hard questions… about what kinds of landscape one might wish either to pass through or to live in; about what versions of ‘modern nature’ might be worth fighting for, and why.” As Robin tells It’s Nice That, “I hope the [landscapes in Bastard Countryside ] encourage the viewer to consider an alternative set of actions, which can restrain this shape and shift.” Here, Robin tells us about what inspired him to make his first book and the power of employing fiction and surrealism when representing reality.
It’s Nice That: Bastard Countryside is your first book, what potentials have you found in the form?
Robin Friend: When I first started making Bastard Countryside pictures 15 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about a book, I just wanted to make pictures. I was always looking for the killer image, then mini-series’ began to reveal themselves, and I realised it was actually one body of work.
A photo-book can’t be epic image after epic image. It should speed up, slow down and have subtle notes that help the ideas germinate and take root. The arc needs momentum and purpose. If it doesn’t provoke and engage the viewer it’s just a catalogue of photos.
Two weeks before we were due to go to press, it became clear there was a missing a link in the final passage of the book. So I made the picture of the blue tower blocks. Without it the symbol of the ‘city’ and the idea that the many are shut off from a meaningful connection with nature would have been missing. It would’ve been a different book.
INT: Could you tell us about the photographs and the story of the book?
RF: It’s essentially about our relationship with place. John Berger spoke about the address of the artist and the idea that the landscape a person is brought up in informs the work they make. I grew up in Australia before returning to the UK, and I think in many ways this is why I’m attracted to these in-between places. My head is stuck in two different addresses.
Many of the photographs in Bastard Countryside possess a magical sadness and inhabit what Victor Hugo described as “somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures… The end of the beaten track, the beginning of the passions”. Hugo also described how observing a city’s edge “is to observe an amphibian”; thinking of the Paris periphery as a living, breathing creature pushing out and changing everything in its wake, blurring the city/countryside divide. Fast forward two hundred years, and Hugo’s amphibian has grown tentacles on steroids and is not just devouring everything in its path, but shitting and puking incessantly as well. The “Bastard Countryside” is no longer found in the fringe areas, it’s everywhere you look.
Central to this story is the struggle between humanity and nature, two contrasting forces fighting for control. But there’s also a part of Bastard Countryside that resides someplace else; in a fictive realm that gestures towards some unknown, a less certain landscape.
INT: There’s a friction between the representation of reality and surreal, could you elaborate on why this juxtaposition is important?
RF: The manipulation of colour keeps the viewer guessing and challenges their misconceptions of what something should be like. I want to keep you immersed. I want to keep myself immersed! I used to believe what I captured on negative was sacred and I wouldn’t change anything in post-production; but If I can dodge and burn in the darkroom why shouldn’t I be able to push and pull the picture in other ways? Many of the pictures have the subject plonked bang in the middle – a conventional landscape no-no! They become portraits of places rather than landscapes in the traditional sense. It’s a bolder way of communicating the subject.
We’ve all seen a stack of hay bales before and probably not taken much notice, but by pushing the colours they suddenly become something to behold. Then, by placing an archetypal subject like the shipwreck, or the white horse alongside a piece of discarded rubbish, I can create a nostalgic and nihilistic tension that I see as equivalent to the uncertainty we have when we think about modern nature.
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