The M6 motorway is a major artery of England running along the west of the country from the Midlands through to the Scottish border. At its northern tip it bypasses Carlisle, a small city in a rural county. Journeying up the motorway the passenger is surrounded by an impressive landscape: one that envelopes a photographer who chooses to live there and one that inevitably sets an agenda for discussion.
On the 4th and 5th July the University of Cumbria in Carlisle hosted the conference ‘Visualising the Rural’. Organised by Dr Katrin Joost and supported by the photography department, the conference gave the journeying passenger an opportunity to walk through some of the terrain of this discussion. The staff and students of the photography department acknowledge their location. At this corner of England they have had to generate their own centre. The newly established organisation ‘Phire’ (Photography in Research and Education) has been set up to provide an umbrella title for projects and research coming out of the University of Cumbria. ‘Visualising the Rural’, an early project, brought together a number of different travellers to talk about their own landscapes. Walking together, as opposed to singular meditation, this warm and friendly meeting in the north provided a space for the delegates to confer.
The landscape of Cumbria has made its impress on John Darwell (Reader in Photography at the University of Cumbria), a photographer who roots himself in neglected landscapes. Darwell was born in the Lancashire ‘worktown’ of Bolton, a place sited in a spoiled landscape besieged by nature’s grey curtains. Some have commented upon the melancholy in Darwell’s work but there is also fondness for what is on the edge of being forgotten. The humour of industrial Lancashire folk can be dark: you have to look the grim in the eye.
Darwell’s new book, titled ‘DDSBs’, foregrounds this grim humour. Forty colour photographs provide a typology of discarded plastic bags containing dog muck. These are details from the landscape collected as evidence of our half-hearted commitment to the ecological cause. Drawing attention to these sights Darwell seems to want to rub our noses in it. In previous projects, he has documented large-scale industrialised contamination. In ‘DDSBs’ he shows how we all do our little bit, with help from rover, to despoil on the micro-level. In his brief introduction to the book Darwell writes that he has been contacted by people as far away as Seattle who have mistakenly thought these photographs were taken in their own local park. It seems that the local can easily become the global.
Although a global city, London can be a small community that neglects to look outward to the country at large. British photographers were aware of this neglect from the centre and responded by forming their own communities. In a recent essay about Paul Graham (Steidl, 2009), David Chandler observed that in the 1970s the British photography scene was clustered around small galleries (Impressions in York, the Side Gallery in Newcastle, and Ffotogallery in Cardiff, etc) and progressive photography courses (Nottingham Trent and Derby). This seeding, forty years ago, has ensured that British photography is still very much a localised affair. Consequently you have to travel the country and stop in at the numerous centres of photography to be fully cognisant of the developments. Photobooks became the chosen vehicle for the work of these photographers and Darwell produced a number of key books. Recently there has been an increase in independently published photobooks and Darwell has responded with his own imprint ‘mynewtpress’. Initially seen as a platform for his own photography projects, Darwell is open-minded how this new venture might develop. DDSBs, designed by Alan Ward of Axis Graphic Design in Manchester, is the first book to come out of this imprint and received its public launch at Arles on 1st July. Traffic makes its way back down the M6, in this case bypassing London.
The photobook ‘DDSBs’ is available by contacting John Darwell via his website. Priced at £25 plus £5 p&p, it is a limited signed and numbered hardback edition of 200 copies.
John Darwell: DDSBs (Discarded Dog Sh*t Bags) is published by mynewtpress.
Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer, and lecturer based in the North West of England.