MARGATE: A PLACE OF PIXELATIONS

CAFE FROM THE CITY UNTIL 25TH JUNE

A PRESENTATION TO THE CITY AND SEA SYMPOSIUM, GOLDSMITHS UNIVERSITY OF LONDON, 10TH JUNE 2011

Nikki by Paul Halliday has been photographed by Platform-7 through the dirty window of the cafe using a Nokia cameraphone

The idea of place is of particular interest to a number of knowledge traditions within the humanities, arts and social sciences; as is also the study of landscape. Both place and landscape studies are predicated on the notion of contestation, symbolic, political and economic struggles being part of the ongoing processes that define the politics of vision and the ideologies of what counts as a history of place. Numerous writers and commentators, including Carl Suer, WTJ Mitchel, Peter Lynch, Delores Hayden, Denise Cosgrove, Gillian Rose and Doreen Massey have provided detailed theoretical expositions of how place and landscape might be approached from their respective geographic and sociological perspectives; and it is not our purpose here add to the already substantial academic discussions available to those interested in, or researching this subject.

Rather, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the concept of a pixelated place. At the time of writing this short paper, my computer struggled with the word ‘pixelated’ and constantly underscored it with a red squiggly line, which, given that the screen itself is composed of pixels presents something of an interesting philosophical distraction in, and of itself. Why is pixelation so central to thinking about place and landscap? Firstly, I would suggest that as mass photographic practice moved away from the hegemonic realm of the analogue, wherein smooth photographic grain featured as a main indices of representational realism, and where an aesthetic orthodoxy involving large format photographic apparatus held some considerable sway over the practices of photographers and the associated expectations of galleryists and museum curators, obvious grain was considered problematic and tonal continuity as de rigueur. This may in part be explained by the impact of American and Dusseldorf School landscape photography personified in the work of Ansel Adams and the Bechers.

What seems to be apparent here is that proper landscapes and pictures of place, according to such visual ideologies, should be approximate to looking through a window, giving the viewer the sensory experience of being as close as possible to terra infirma itself. Within the substantial landscape literature there appears to be a consistent absence of any meaningful discussion around the seductiveness of tonal continuity within photographic representations of urban space. Almost as if the assumption of tonal continuity is by now so well established that its deployment as an aesthetic strategy should now be considered established beyond discussion and intellectual doubt. This is not to say that I do not work in such a way myself, on the contrary, most of my personal photographic work is done with slow film in order to maximise both content and tonal range. But there is a sociological issue here around the nature of the professional ethics and technological fetishes that are seldom discussed within the world of photographic book publishing and art-world exhibition cultures, namely, that an implicit privileging takes place based on the assumption that pixels are out of place; that they are in someway deficient, that they speak of and to a process of construction.

My second observation about working with landscape reflects some of the concerns arising from landscape cultural geographies and ethnographies of place. Within such knowledge traditions, the role of the field researcher is often apparent, and rather than – as it were – hiding behind the processes of narrative and textual construction, the ethnographer will often position her/himself within the narrative itself. Again, there is an extensive literature on this subject, and I refer here to the work of Sarah Pink, Les Back, Caroline Knowles and Doug Harper, Marcus Banks and Camilo Vergara, to name a few. What is interesting about such writing is that it reflects an ongoing disciplinary concern with the principles of engagement and encounter. That the researcher is not a disembodied and detached observer, but is rather located within the social and cultural landscape and is an active participant within its narrative development. This sociological trope might be thought of thus: by situating oneself within the landscape and by engaging with people that experience and construct the landscape, the ethnographer in turn becomes part of the landscape-image itself and this in turn, has the effect of producing a what might be described as a pixelation effect.

My third observation concerns the practice of making such pixelated images. I am not for a moment suggesting that the photographers present here should trade-in their large and medium-format cameras and head off to the nearest Carphone Warehouse to pick up the latest camera phone; but what I would question is this – how pristine does the image need to be to get us closer to the thing itself? Just how smooth and flawless does the image need to be for us as photographers to imagine that we have made an image that fits with the institutional definitions and requirements of good practice? Is it possible that there is a massive, untapped body of landscape photography out there that could be of interest to sociologists, museums and galleries that is never seen outside of the confines of family albums because it does not adequately reflect the values of those collectivities and institutional guardians that define what counts as a good enough and recognisable framing? Metaphorical pixelation is at the very core of ethnographic research and enquiry, for me the question is one of how can landscape and photography of place respond to and develop ways of working that challenge notions of observational detachment and authorial realism, and that encourage practitioners to feel the fear, embrace the possibilities of ethnography, and to recognise that they and others not only make the image, but in doing so can be found between the pixels.

I have shown some images from an ongoing project in Margate, and from some earlier London portraits that are now hanging in a reclaimed café in Margate, and at this point I would like to invite John McKiernan a friend and colleague to join the discussion around the idea of ethnographic pixelation in relation to his arts project located close to the newly opened Turner Gallery. I’ve known John for many years and his face will be familiar to many of you in the audience as he famously ran Moonbow Jakes, a local café, and has organised a number of arts events and performances in South London. John has been active in establishing links between London and South Coast-based artists, and we have had a number of conversations about some of the challenges faced by all sorts of people working in this area, and it does seem that one of the main concerns is this notion of what constitutes community, how it defines itself, and what forms future ‘regeneration’ might take in relation to such definitions.