A collaborative project from photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole, documents the changing landscape of the Essex coastline. We talk to Orton about his work as a photographer and the beauty of the forgotten landscape…
The book traces a rich history of cultural tradition and artistic heritage, connecting social-historical contexts and patterns human settlement with the changing ecology of the region. Worpole explores how writers and artists have been drawn to the area, since, post WWII, perceptions of the aesthetics of Englishness have shifted away from a romanticised view of rural life, and attention and value has turned towards contested eastern shorelines.
Orton’s photographs echo this, capturing these unique landscapes, and often liminal spaces, where town meet country and land meets sea. They depict vast “edgelands” of ambiguous coastline, new hybrid spaces, occasionally dotted with familiar relics of past human activity – windswept estuaries, bleak and beautiful marshlands, industrial and military ruins, and overgrown, abandoned outhouses.
In many of these depopulated and now wild landscapes, there is a sense of both desolation and wonder. As Worpole suggests, “at the tide’s ebb, there can be an overwhelming sense of emptiness in a world bereft meaning”, but also, “a sense of wonder at the edge of things is plainly evident in children when they first encounter the sea. There is no landscape in the world as magical – or whose spaces are so immeasurable – as a tidal beach.”
CR: Can you tell me a bit about your background – how did you first get into photography?
JO: I was brought up in a small village just outside Plymouth. After studying at Essex and Warwick Universities I worked for a government quango for five years, and then took a Diploma in Photojournalism at the London College of Printing. I worked as a editorial photographer for newspapers including The Telegraph and The Financial Times and then shifted direction, concentrating on long term personal projects.
When I moved to London it was important for me to get to know the city in a way that would enable me to cope living there. I began to use photography as a way of understanding the place.
CR: What were your earliest creative influences and interests?
JO: If I’m honest I don’t think I was particularly creative when I was young, and I can’t recollect having a camera until my late teens. However, being brought up in a small village by the sea, I was always exploring the landscape and coastline nearby.
CR: How would you describe your aesthetic?
JO: Possibly warped! I believe that my notion of what is a beautiful landscape is somewhat different from what is usually considered beautiful. I have no strong desire to photograph grand, dramatic, ‘sublime’ landscapes. I have an interest in visually representing the overlooked landscape. They are generally places where there is some evidence of former human activity (through farming, mining, industry etc.).
CR: What draws you to landscape photography in particular?
JO: I still believe that photography, and particularly landscape photography, has an important role in establishing concrete knowledge about a particular place. I am interested in how photography can be used as a counter to those who would prefer to treat certain types of landscape as having no intrinsic value. Beyond photography, I am interested in what people value within a landscape, the ways that they connect with the landscapes around them, and how photography can explore the relationship between landscape, history and memory.
The Wells Fireworks Factory project in Dartford, Kent, (pictured above) had a focus on how nature constantly re-appropriates forgotton spaces. These corrugated iron sheds, which for obvious reasons were spaced apart from one another, survive in an overgrown landscape of elder bushes and buddleia. How do structures like these feature in debates about what should be preserved in landscapes that are earmarked for regeneration? I would argue that they constitute an important part of the post-war history of Dartford Marshes and should be preserved in some form. Unfortunately, developers frequently see landscapes like these as blank canvases that can be cleared or levelled flat. The specifics of place are something that they’d prefer not to deal with.
CR: How would you describe your process, including collaborative projects such as recent publication The New English Landscape?
JO: First and foremost I’m a walker. It’s the desire to walk a landscape that sometimes manifests itself in the making of these photographs. But not always. It is very rare that I visit a landscape with a pre-determined idea about how I will photograph it. I like to re-visit them and then see how the photography develops over time. I like the idea of a how a particular landscape can work its way into people’s consciousness.
The New English Landscape explores the relationship between text and photographs. The writer, Ken Worpole, and I have worked together on several previous projects and intuitively share similar interests, pre-occupations and approaches to visual and historical details. Our starting point is that text and photographs should work independently, although our common interests inevitably mean that there is often an affinity between the two. We walk together on a regular basis and some of those walks have been the starting point for collaborative projects.
CR: Where do you find inspiration?
JO: I would probably say that most of it comes from outside of photography, although there are of course photographers whose work has inspired me, notably the British landscape photographer Jem Southam.
But inspiration can come from simple encounters. I was recently spending time in Plymouth and one morning while walking into the city centre I met a woman who does the same walk on a weekly basis. She was aware of the subtlest changes in the landscape, and was concerned about the implications – it’s that intense connection with a landscape and place that inspires me.
CR: What items are in your must have kit?
JO: Not much in the must have kit… Ordnance Survey Map, two cameras, including a Mamiya 7ii film camera with 65m and 80m lenses, film, light meter, bananas, nuts and raisins.
CR: What is the best thing about being a photographer now? And the worst?
JO: Not sure that I see things in terms of best/worst. I’m curious about what goes on around me, and photography allows me to satisfy that curiosity. And every now and again I get paid for being curious!
CR: Are you working on anything at the moment?
JO: I’m working on a commission for the GLA (Greater London Authority), developing a series of photographs that are loosely based around walks made along tributaries of the River Thames. These will form part of a primer document for a project called the All London Green Grid. As I’ve already done quite a lot of the photography for this commission, the recent flooding hasn’t really affected the work, although this might well be different if I was starting from scratch now.
The New English Landscape by Jason Orton & Ken Worpole is published by Field Station and is available to buy here.
Photographs: Hornsey Island, Essex, Mar 2013; Maylandsea, Essex, Feb 2013; Maylandsea, Essex, Feb 2013; three images from the Wells Fireworks Factory project, Dartford, Kent; Mersea Island, Essex, Feb 2013; Maylandsea, Essex, Feb 2013; Hornsey Island, Essex, Mar 2013; cover and spreads from The New English Landscape.