The New English Landscape – book review

The New English Landscape is a recently-published collaboration between photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole. The Essex coastline is often ignored or dismissed as a messy wasteland but in this book Worpole and Orton use it as an example and metaphor to make a strong case to re-think our aesthetic and value system in order to find beauty in contested man-made landscapes.

photo from book

Horsey Island, Essex. March 2013. © Jason Orton. The final image in the book and my favorite!

“Essex” and “love at first sight” are rarely heard in the same sentence. If you approach this UK county from the south by car it will probably be via the Dartford Crossing on the M25 motorway. From this first impression you may think that Essex is a combination of grubby industrial fringe and giant out-of-town shopping Malls. Even before you get to Essex your opinion will probably have been coloured by jokes and TV “reality” programmes about the low IQ, poor dress sense and crass behaviour of the residents. But Essex is more varied and complex than this, from the densely-populated London boroughs in the west to the chalk hills in the north, the flat fertile land of the south and the extensive coastline and mudflats of the Thames estuary, Essex has a bit of everything (except mountains).  I’ve lived in the county for over 30 years and am still discovering fresh aspects to its personality, so it was with great interest that I anticipated Ken and Jason’s new book.

book cover

I was curious about the title: The New English Landscape. In the geological sense all English landscapes are new, having been thoroughly scoured by ice sheets or their melt waters that retreated only about 10,000 years ago. So could it be man’s effect on the landscape they are referring to? This is a little closer, but again, the English Landscape is entirely man-altered and, indeed, layered. We really get closer to the core of the book when considering how the man-altered landscape and nature interact over time but in a timescale that is measured in a few generations. So, this book is about contemporary landscapes viewed not with nostalgic eyes and arcadian vision, but rather from a perspective informed by history and ecology and the sensitivity of those who care. Don’t expect the tourist’s spectacular image or the amateur’s super-saturated sunset. The writing and images in this book are about an understanding of landscape that comes with time and a sensitivity to place and context. It’s not about some nouveau-arcadian vision though; we are encouraged to be critical but from an informed viewpoint rather than a brief and prejudiced glance.

The photographic style of Jason Orton is derived from the New Topographics movement of the 1970s with subsequent adaptations. He doesn’t catalogue like the Beckers and he doesn’t do macro shots of roadkill. He is much closer to the understated, non-intrusive style of Robert Adams but in colour. Probably the closest in similarity is Jem Southam for whom I have a lot of respect. Although I would like to see a photographic book by Jason, in The New English Landscape words and photos integrate and reinforce each other so that the sum is greater than the parts, using text and images to great effect and playing to the strengths of each medium. The words don’t just caption the photos and the photos don’t just illustrate the words; each stands alone and yet together they work with tremendous complementarity.

Worpole and Orton have been collaborating for about ten years. They have developed an empathy of vision that  means they write/photograph separately but when they come together to compare output, they have cohesive material to work with.  Although this book took them about a year to produce, with most of Jason’s photographs being taken January to March 2013, I don’t believe it could have been achieved in that time from a standing start; their prior collaboration is evident and essential to the book’s success.

The most dynamic part of an ecosystem is at its edges: this is where the majority of change and evolution occurs, so choosing the coastline, at the edge where land meets sea, in an area where many layers of man’s activities are evident, and which is clearly familiar to both authors, makes sense for this book. I am concerned about the title implying that the whole of England is covered, and you may feel duped if that is what you are expecting. Literally-speaking the content  covers the Essex coastline with only a brief examination of Englishness since the Second World War. The implication is that the authors’ approach to the Essex coast is applicable to the whole country, though I didn’t find this explicitly justified in the book. Nevertheless, whether intentional or not, it is in many ways a practical, approachable implementation of Warwick Fox’s Theory of Responsive Cohesion, which puts it at the forefront of thinking about our interaction with and perspective on our environment. Since this is not geographically limiting the title is valid.

This book succeeds at several levels: it is approachably written and photographed; it contextualises and informs us about the specific geographical area; it provides a model for collaborative writing/photography that can be applied elsewhere; it fits within a coherent philosophical framework; it challenges us to see things with different eyes; and for me at least, it motivates me towards my own landscape photography. Thanks Jason, thanks Ken!

Here’s the link again if you want to buy the book: http://thenewenglishlandscape.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/a-rather-large-lorry/

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