In this blog post photographer Rob Hudson explains his ongoing landscape series ‘Mametz Wood’. ‘The ideas behind Mametz Wood started with an image, as they so often do when we have to navigate the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, between how we think and how we see. It was an image that reminded me of my previous work, some years earlier, illustrating another poem called Mametz Wood by another poet, Owen Sheers. In that poem he tells of the modern day discovery the bones of long dead soldiers in northern France.
“As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.”
It was the year before the centenary of the start of World War One and my mind began to turn over. At first those thoughts were very vague and fluid, it took a great deal of research, reading, contemplation and image making before they began to become more concrete and more complex. I had also discovered a remarkable wood; of ancient sessile oak with stumps and limbs twisted and turned like the imaginings of a fevered mind. The wood wasn’t Mametz Wood, it was a small wood near Bridgend, yet importantly for me, in Wales.’
‘Photography often clings ferociously to a validation through subject, which is linked to the direct physical relationship between what is photographed and what is in front of the lens. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not how I work, there are better photographers than I pursuing that path. I wanted to follow another route, something more personal to me. For me photography – and visual art in general – can also work through a process of analogy or, at times, metaphor. I prefer to think of my images as a work of fiction, the story is with us from day one, from the small child to the grown adult. It’s easy to grasp while the document is somewhat of a sideways leap in perception, whilst I do allow that it has an undeniable power in its direct relationship to subject. Mametz Wood is simply a work of fiction, a work of the imagination.’
‘It could have been made anywhere. What matters to me isn’t the physicality of place; it is how we perceive and experience a place and what it means to us. It is the human experience not the trees, rocks and grass. This isn’t Mametz Wood any more than it is July 1916, except in my, and hopefully your imaginations. The validation I do find necessary is in having a story with a basis in reality. It still needed the grounding of real events behind it even though it may work as a piece of magic realism. The big leap in development came from David Jones’ ’In Parenthesis’. In his long, modernist poem he tells of his experience of WW1 in the Royal Welch [sic] Fusiliers that culminated in the battle of Mametz Wood.’
‘The first images I made were dark, fierce pieces, angry at the terrible waste of human life over a trivial one-mile square wood in northern France. But Jones’ poetry allowed me to develop the theme from such a one-note response. My thoughts began to accrete, building slowly into something that, whilst still recognising that anger and despair, carried a more complex and subtle message. Complexity, like ambiguity, is something to be valued in visual art. So long as we aren’t so ambiguous as to render our work meaningless or so complex as to render it impenetrable. Striking that balance is, for me, one of the most important parts of what I do, or at least attempting to, because I recognise it’s not always easy or even always successful. When it is successful it’s how we communicate with our viewers most profoundly. I am constantly juggling between accessibility and over simplification and depth and unintelligibly. It is, after all, just a picture, so how else do we add value?’
‘Jones’ poetry embraced both the dull, regimented existence of the soldier as well as the tragic battles, but he told the story through the ’lens’ of myth and legend. It’s not a heroic work, as might be imagined, but the heroism of past stories acts as a counterpoint to the grim reality of modern warfare. It also lends a surreal grandeur to the wood, to the place where so many of the fallen men sacrificed their lives. The wood becomes a kind of tribute, a monument to those that died, suffered or lost friends and family. There’s a certain ’madness’ in that mix of myth, legend and actual historical battle, as there is madness in any war. And war often results in ’madness’, in the damaged minds of those involved. It was this that inspired me to use the images to explore the effects of war on the mind. Using double exposures to both disturb reality and create a strange, surreal landscape that explores the experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or what was then known as shell shock). We can’t be sure what is real and what is imagined, just as the victims of PTSD cannot help vividly recalling the terrible memories of what they experienced.’
Over a period of 18 months those initial ideas about the First World War had accreted and coalesced, becoming something new, something far beyond those hazy initial thoughts. I need that time for my work to develop, because at the end of the day the story will out when it becomes concrete and real to ourselves.
So welcome to Mametz Wood…
“And so to midnight and into the ebb-time when the spirit slips lightly from sick men and when it’s like no-mans-land between yesterday and tomorrow and material things are loosely integrated and barely tacked together.”
Rob Hudson is a photographer living and working in Wales.