Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

I have little history. Antecedently my knowledge of largely unsearched for familial data severs its narrative two generations past, at my paternal grandparents. From whence he hailed I have no inkling nor care much more. I know he was a butcher and that he accompanied my grandmother on the piano as she sang in the pubs and clubs of Bedford. Even less is known by me of my grandmother’s prior history, a slight frail looking woman who, like her husband, looked down on my siblings and I as we lived ‘South’ of the river, never mind her son was our father. I am talking only of my paternal side, it is an easier tale to tell on my mother’s side where there existed a family tree going back to the fifteenth century, though that now appears lost. As far as I can remember we were visited twice by my father’s parents in twenty years, though we were ushered in the other direction by my mother in an attempt, I am sure, to curry favour. Little was forthcoming. Their mid terrace house in George Street still stands, long and slim and once the home to nine children and their parents, I never sensed the warmth of family when there and can’t do so now in retrospect. We were never ushered into the front room, we sat still and quiet in the living room and then went home; sometimes walking the five or six miles to do so, to save money and perhaps reflate.

Simon Schama’s view of landscape and his personal memory as he relates early in his book ‘Landscape and Memory’ is one which seeks to understand the bondage of one to another, perhaps his heritage of displacement seeks solace in comprehending and reasoning where he ‘is’ now and how he came to that place on that “other” worldly world that the Europeans made of the American continent. And in doing so ‘otherring’ those who worked those lands for centuries beforehand. Seeking explanations as to the why and wherefore of his place in the world, to have a knowledge of the path that had been trod by his forebears, and very eloquently, seems altogether normal for one who has every right to be proud of their history. Schama’s memory is fuelled by layers and layers of injustice, political intrigue, meta narratives that usurped the value of those tied to the land. The pogroms of Imperial Russia, the subsequent fate of those who survived, then to be further hounded by fascism only to find hope in flight to an other country. Answers to questions long ago asked is perfectly reasonable when those answers are in the soil of distant lands and time. Memories linger longer in the soil than they do in the stale air of stasis, where the land harbours no spirit for those that have no regard for it. So whilst I may have drunk copiously from the Lethe, Schama has bathed in it’s counterpart, perhaps sourced in the Steppe.

Landscape isn’t my subject, nor is it the means by which I wish to release my story. Perhaps there are fetid remains waiting to be uncovered or discovered, displayed and worked over in the narrative I’m wanting to unveil, but I’m not sure I want to find them. If, as I believe, the land, and perhaps most especially this old land of ‘Old Europe’, carries the burden of history, of the weight of people’s plight, their suffering, their joy, their hopes dashed or otherwise, then it is the occupation of historians to narrate, not mine. A detached third person account of hard labour fought and won, or lost, is best left for those with a desire to tell the stories of others – even if the others have lineage to the writer/historian.
When Schama, for example, meanders through his own history, it is an historical account of past pre natal; his context, like so many others, is to reach for higher and wider narratives to explain his current situation. Their histories are buried in the ground, stratified in speculation and viewed, usually, with a perspective enlivened through academic research and the need to reveal the courses of historical flow that led them to their current place of ease or unease. Scratching in the historical dirt won’t help help me tell my tale of fiction.

As I fled to Purgatory in the hope to find a narrative to drape my context around, I was enticed by the ‘place’. I found the un-ease of the physical journey a tempting corollary to my chance of witnessing what I wanted to portray. Knowledge of the ‘un-settled’ nature of the physical place, with its concomitant ambiguities of historical and geographical contexts, would assist I thought in helping find the ‘space’ in the ‘place’. And those early forays in difficult conditions certainly helped to form some ideas. Purgatory isn’t a specifically defined area, the place isn’t marked, except perhaps on one side by the River Dorn, but land-side it drifts to a public right of way and to an agrarian scape on another; no land marks to discern its limit. It is perhaps just the building, an empty edifice sat proud above the flood plain amid the clear ruins of older dwellings that defines what Purgatory is, and this carapace is imbued with its own history, a history that I wasn’t getting past as I try to reveal what it is that I want to narrate.
Memory lies in the sod and soil to be sure, the land which Schama describes is fecund with lost remembrances waiting to be excavated to the page, connecting the prior to the here and to the after. During the most recent conflict in South Ossetia – there have been many – a BBC correspondent asked a local about why there was so much trouble between the two peoples. The interviewee replied, with some venom, about how their enemy from the North came over their border, to a local village nearby and “raped our women, killed our children and old folk”. The reporter confessed to have been quite moved by the account, about how detailed the atrocity was portrayed and so asked the interviewee whether he had reported it to the local governance, supported by the Russian state, as it clearly was a crime against all the conventions. The response was that that might be difficult as it was committed in the thirteenth century “but we don’t forget!” What chance of the land forgetting when humanity inscribes it into myth and folk lore? There is every reason to believe a similar story is held by the other side on the other side of the hill or the plain or the river forming a landscape, hiding as many truths as untruths, or maybe replete in only half truths.

Lines are drawn across the earth, scarring both the land and the people, drawn and redrawn; one has only to consider the human cost of human expediency and incompetence the nib created across the Punjab, or the lives/yard across the Somme, the list is very long and we remember to remember. Schama’s book re-invokes memories or brings them fresh to the reader in an act of explanation for those who might never have known to remember. Memory and Landscape, is a book less about landscape than about memory, and maybe as much about history as about memory and it is these twin frail witnesses, constantly open to reinterpretation that Schama provides for the reader in his book. No one should believe anything in these pages, but just as equally one might just trust in the veracity of his prose, after all it is more than eloquent enough.

Histories are fictions, lines are drawn with treaties and agreements, but the land is impervious to conventions of man’s making, it’s spread of comprehension is somewhat wider and deeper than that humanity has cause to think important. Schama provides context to fleeting moments of he earth’s history, contexts mediated by his own twin witnesses, stringing together narratives of man’s inhumanity or otherwise to his fellow man? And largely it is the inhumanity we record, the South Ossetian’s seven centuries of bottled vengeance isn’t balanced by how they were offered a kindness from those inhabiting the ‘North’. Purgatory’s unwritten history is at least a blank piece of paper to clothe in fiction, to seek to find echoes, but I’m wondering about the benefit and the purpose.

I have little history, and what scant remains of it there is I wish to reject. If it were a landscape to describe my current perspective it would be of a distant horizon looking forward and to leave history behind using my memory to reveal the future.

A river of memory

‘When we think of the reality caught in a photograph as a “slice of time” or a “frozen moment”, we paste the image into a particular type of historical understanding.’ – so writes Ulrich Baer in his introduction to his book ‘Spectral Evidence’. I have much more to read from this book and will return to that later. However this quote chimed with me after attending the TVG meeting at the weekend, where I presented and talked about where my project on Purgatory has reached. Baer goes on to quote Heraclitus about the inability to step into the same river twice and these two thoughts are echoing in my thoughts.

My work is about memory, about a specific time, and the more I consider that episode the more I sense the fluidity of memory which militates against the idea of that ‘frozen moment’ veering toward that metaphorical body of water flowing, escaping from my grasp, not being fully able to trust what comes to mind. These memories that I am trying to fix from the subconscious, to force out like some deep-seated abscess are becoming more difficult to discern, more difficult to take hold of.

The notion of establishing a critical framework for the project led me to Dante and to the second of his Divine Comedies – Purgatory – and in order to experiment with the text I chose to construct images with verses from the text. My strategy was to use text that was abstract, Dante uses a lot of landscape imagery in the text as well as overtly spiritual both of which I wanted to steer away from. My intent wasn’t to illustrate the image with text nor vice-versa, however upon presentation it appears that this conflation of text and imagery didn’t work too well, if at all.

The general feeling about this image/text presentations wasn’t favourable. I had already decided that the presentation of the text wasn’t right – too large a font and its relative position to the image seemed neither connected nor unconnected and, although I ensured that the centre of the text and image matched, they appeared separate. One of the comments suggested that the text was too directive, another that it appeared to be a crutch that I was employing and that the imagery would/should stand on its own.

I had noticed, after printing the images, that these images all had a structural element that I wasn’t aware of, either in the framing of the image nor in their post production. Part of my strategy is to reproduce images as full frame as possible, I wanted to editing to be done in the composition, in the act of image conception; however these particular images had the object/subject central to the frame. And this composition suggested to me at least, either the dominance of the object/subject or the fragility of it; it is something to think about – this inconsistency as it suggests I am not sure what story I am telling.

My concern though at this stage is where to take this project. Image and text seem to me to provide a very real chance to develop dialogue within the viewer. The work I am presenting for the ‘Memories’ exhibition seems to work very well, the ‘openness’ of the imagery and the text allows the reader to enter the work, whereas the general feeling of the viewers to these images was much less so. A suggestion was made about the use of Dante’s work that I could provide a contextualising text which was associated with the work – alongside, but not coupled – to provide that structural contextually, something to think about. There were also comments that the imagery wasn’t as potent as some of my earlier work in the project, whereas I see some very powerful signs in these pieces, so perhaps it is a strong signal to find a better way to be able to communicate. I also feel that the work at present is very focussed and that perhaps I should try and find a way to allow it open up a bit more, allow it to breathe a little which might allow me more opportunity to help me write this fiction.

Baer’s suggestion that photograph’s are a slice of time from a flowing river also concerns me. The fluvial metaphor that Dante employs, running its course from the ‘gateway to paradise’ to the inferno below, is the River Lethe and which, after imbibing from it, the drinker will forget all their sins as if they never existed, expunged from their memory and, by implication, from their sub-conscious. These images I have made aren’t evidences, this work will not be about ‘what happened’, no ‘slice of time’ as I am fully aware that there is much that I don’t remember, nor do I want to revisit that place. However there is a ‘spectre of evidence’ that I do wish to investigate, to depict and to interrogate through this work. But I need to find a language and syntax that does it better than I have managed to find ’till now. I also wonder whether I should step out of the land, and whilst not leaving it, think about other strategies to help describe what I want to express. Perhaps to employ more poetic imagery that I began using and which is being employed in the ‘Memories’ exhibition. After all it seems to have a root in an appropriate trope.


There seems to be a lot of exhibitions at the moment, but it was good to attend a Private Viewing at the Warneford yesterday. The Echoes Group, to which I am a volunteer, was commissioned to generate some artwork for the new headquarters of the organisation that manages the charitable funds. The facility is not open to the public and therefore the notion of a ‘Private Viewing’ was almost a non-sequiter, however the users, carers, staff and volunteers who work for the Echoes Group were pleased to see their work on the walls.

The images above was chosen by the Chief Executive for his office wall. The original photograph was one I made of an underpass in Oxford City centre, but the final image came from one of the users. A significant part of the Board were there to pay thanks to the group and I felt quite proud of the work the group had done. We had tea and cake, rather than champagne and petits fours and whilst the Echoes Group continues to struggle to maintain its head above water, from a financial perspective, those that minister the funds were very encouraging.

Divinity roadc2

I am attending another PV tomorrow and have two exhibitions coming up – the L3 student show ‘Memories’ and then Artweeks both of which are hung in the first two days of May.

In search of lost memories

You could be in danger

You could be in danger

Obliquely I have been led to Proust. David Bates’ essay ‘The Memory of Photography’, suggested by my CS tutor failed to ignite any sense of connection with my research until close to the end when, towards the latter stages of the essay Bates suggests: ‘It can be said that photographic images do not destroy personal memories, but that they interact with them in very specific ways, which may not always be conscious. The binarism implied in the distinction between cultural memory and individual memory collapses as photography re-figures their relationship.

I’m particularly interested in not only whether the unconscious memory can be stimulated by images, by photographs &c, but by found images in life wherever they manifest themselves. My wandering in Purgatory has had me looking for imagery that sparks what Proust talks about in his “In Search of Lost Time” as ‘involuntary memory’. I haven’t read Barthes “Camera Lucida” in the French original – the English translation doesn’t include a Proustian reference where ‘ is suppressed’, but apparently Barthes’ notion of ‘punctum’ has a similar conceptual base – Bates also compares ‘Studium’ to ‘voluntary’ memory.

‘Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, or what period in my past life.’ Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way (volume 1), Overture, Kindle edition Loc 868 The narrator has just tasted a piece of ‘madeleine cake’ that he had recently ‘dunked’ into a cup of tea whereupon he experienced ‘… a shudder ran through my whole body…. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin..’ ibid Loc 844. The narrator goes on to describe, in effect, that the experience came from a place that he had no knowledge of ‘…It is face to face with something which does not so far exist [to the narrator’s consciousness], to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.’ Ibid, Loc 850.

I have just completed the printing/mounting of my exhibition pieces for the forthcoming show that I am co-curating with fellow student Penny Watson. I have continued to work on the project I used for the my final assignment at Level Two on Documentary and my thoughts about it afterwards and my prints will be a ‘new’ narrative based on where this work is today. And whilst I have been busy with the mechanics of printing and framing, of sequencing and therefore forming a newly developed narrative, I have the sense that what I am doing/have done in BoW is a continuation of the work that I started previously, its just I didn’t realise it, or expect it or look for it. My reaction to the imagery wasn’t predicated on a formal plan, other than the plan to make images about what attracted me – an ‘involuntary’ response, a subconscious response, a ‘punctive’ response to what appeared in the frame – I am aware of course that it is a photographer that does the framing and I will naturally (sub-consciously?) exercise the viewfinder in a practiced way. The notion of ‘pretty pictures’ comes to mind, however I am less concerned with that now and more interested in how the images turn and what they might reveal.

The show, to be hung on the 2nd May, is entitled ‘Memories’. The title was decided upon as an ‘open’ entry for Level 3 students of photography – surely all photographs have the past imbued within them? I am though wondering about the active process of searching for memory.

In his essay Bates talks about “Freudian slips” ‘…where we may recall a name “wrongly”, these more permanent “memories” turn out to be based on a forgetting, the substitution of one memory for another or, indeed, one memory laid over another or embedded inside of it.’ This ‘slipperiness’ of memory is something that concerns me, I have distinct memory of some of my youth, though my siblings can remember major incidents from that time that I have absolutely no recollection of. And here I go back to Dante and a liquid thread that stems from the entrance to Paradise through Purgatory and into Inferno – the River Lethe. Despite it’s headwater in a land where it never rains; the water has the power to erase memory. Drinking it ensures the imbiber that they will never recollect their sins – no mention is made of other, sinless memory, only the turpitudes of the sinner as they make their ascent inexorably from the foot of Mount Purgatory to Paradise. Purged of the stain of sin, and with a memory expunged of all ill remembrances, and therefore unencumbered by notion of sin, they walk through into an Edenic glory for eternity. I wonder whether no memory would be a paradise on this mortal coil……

I have been in search of lost memories, I wonder if I have remembered what it was I was looking for.

Old news, just in

I have been waiting for a local historian to provide some background to Purgatory and it has arrived. Not a lot, and some that I knew already, apparently she is doing more research but she cannot give a date as the information seems pretty scarce, so she thought she would send what she has and then carry on.

The most interesting news is that there are two sites ‘First’ Purgatory and Purgatory. Both sites have been ‘unsettled’ and whilst Purgatory refers to the farm, ‘First’ appears to be a reference to the first place encountered whilst on the walk from the village along the old lane. There is another perhaps even more enigmatic reference to a place called ‘Paradise’ – though no-one appears sure where that was, other than between ‘First’ and the farm.

These images were a set I made several years ago during a cold winter’s day when I only got as far as what I now know as ‘first’ Purgatory.

Cold, dank and difficult


I was particularly interested to read Dr. Jennifer Good’s review of the exhibition ‘Conflict, Time, Photography,’ where in her final paragraph she states: “If one of the aims of this exhibition is to demonstrate how the photograph of conflict evolves as it passes into history, there is no coherence to speak of here either. Except, perhaps, that as a general rule, in the first few moments and days there is photojournalism and thereafter there is landscape.” Source Winter 2014/5 issue 81. So, that’s what happens to the memory?

I have no particular interest in photojournalism, perhaps even less so after this year’s debacle concerning the WPP ‘competition’, but I am curious about the transition between the ‘what was’ and ‘what might have been’. Between the attempt at exposé – however flawed – and the use of landscape to propel a fiction and whether it is solely the intent of the photographer/artist that arbitrates in the discussion?

The ‘Purgatory’ that I’m considering is developing and I am concerned about finding texts that might help illuminate the path. There are some works that have been suggested; however – and I fully appreciate my lack of breadth – most works that deal with landscape as history (memory), including those that deal with personal memory, deal with it in from a perspective usually (at least) one person removed. What I am trying to do is to view the landscape image as a way of photographing my memory/memories. I want to point the lens at the past, particularly my past, which I appreciate could be viewed as self-indulgent. Conjuring reactions to an image, framed by the viewfinder, that elicit what Bates (and Freud) describes as Mnemic-traces described in “The Memory of Photography” Bates 2010 – traces that reside in either the unconscious or pre-conscious. Freud suggests, from what I understand in what I’ve read so far; that the temporal constituent, fundamental to conscious memory, is missing in the unconscious– though not necessarily so for pre-conscious memory. I suppose I am dealing with pre-conscious memory – from half a century ago – and my intuition is suggesting that these images that I frame, whilst consciously rambling in the ‘place’, are involuntary (punctum) responses that Bates (and Barthes) goes on to discuss in the paper: “As with human memory, we can no longer verify the original experience or sensation of the photograph, but the image provides a scene in which we may bring voluntary (studium) or involuntary (punctum) memories to bear on it. Voluntary memory is like the work of history, but involuntary memory belongs to the personal affect.” Ibid

At the moment I am “seeing” these images, I know what they connote – also appreciating that others are unlikely to and concerned whether that is an issue to be resolved now, or whether I should continue on to see where it ends. Bates goes on to describe ‘mnemic inscriptions, mostly inaccessible, which is the trace “left by the memory”’ (Bates references his research into the work of French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche which he draws on – not a text that I’ve looked for). My imagery can only be referential; the land that I am working in has no connection to that of my youth, so any connotative elements must therefore come from my sub-conscious, although I know I am looking for imagery with a specific thematic structure.

Good’s suggestion that the ‘Land’ subsumes the event that crossed its path sooner rather than later, surely a similar trait that underlines Simon Schama’s tome ‘Landscape and Memory’. That in the end the land, despite the scarification of it – usually referenced by human intervention, witting or otherwise – will normally revert by natural means to an eventual, albeit possibly new, equilibrium. Altered states that in countries such as England, where much of the land has been continually and extensively modified and which is not that difficult to uncover scars and concomitant memories. There is, for example, an abandoned villages razed to the ground near where I live, detectable only by the slightly depressed level that marks where the main street used to be. Interestingly it is on an old public footpath – now rarely used – that wends it way to Purgatory, providing a possible narrative element and link for the project. But these topographic details are distractions to what I hope will be the main thrust of my project, which is to document/record/describe/narrate a discourse into a period of my life that I have left largely buried and can hardly remember.

Mnemic veracity is something that concerns me. Bates go on to say: “ As in a Freudian slip, where we may recall a name “wrongly”, these more permanent [childhood] memories turn out to be based on a forgetting, the substitution of one memory for another or, indeed, one memory laid over another or embedded inside it.” Ibid. Am I ‘forcing’ remembrances? I am interested and concerned as discussions with siblings have revealed events that I have no recollection of, even though these events have been corroborated by several siblings and my mother, I cannot remember them – despite the strength of the decription. Is the repression of memory part of what I am trying to uncover or should I not be concerned with the tenuous connection to veracity and focus on the meta narrative?

What I have to do is to focus on structure. The post operative incapacity is frustrating – there was a beautiful mackerel sky over Purgatory this morning which I had no way of getting to – denying me of opportunity to make images. However I do need to research and consider the best way to frame the work. Dante’s Comedy has a very rigid structure that I am considering utilising, using threes. There are three Comedies, each volume is set out in 34, 33 & 33 cantos (the very first canto being a sort of introduction), each canto has verses of three lines, so I may integrate the number three into the structure somehow – triptychs? I’ve also not overly considered how to work the text into the narrative. Much to do.




The Place

Now, when I’d paced my bank until there lay

Only the brook between, I halted there

To get a better view of this display                Dante, Purgatory, Canto XXIX lines 70 – 72


I’ve now read Dante’s second volume in the Divine Comedy – Purgatorio. I know I will need to re-read and work on the texts that I am liberating for study purposes. There have been a couple of themes I have looked for on this first course through a volume that I have largely enjoyed, perhaps more than I would have considered likely.

When The Right Reverend Pater Bradley suggested the text ‘as the text on Purgatory’ he mentioned the author’s use of landscape narratives; Dante and his companion Virgil enter the realm of Purgatory from the Inferno (Hell) and journey to the “earthly paradise” that is at the peak of the place that is Purgatory.

In her extensive introduction to her own translation Dorothy L Sayers sets the work in one context by saying ‘Dante has grasped the great essential which is so often overlooked in arguments about penal reform, namely, the prime necessity of persuading the culprit to accept judgement. If a man is convinced of his own guilt, and that he is sentenced by a just tribunal, all punishment of whatever kind is remedial, since it lies with him to make it so; if he is not so convinced, than all punishment, however enlightened, remains merely vindictive, since he sees it so and will not make it otherwise.’ 16

Those who enter Purgatory do so at their own free will, knowing that the exit is to Paradise through ‘The Earthly Paradise’ at the pinnacle of the mountain, those entering from ‘The Inferno’ do so knowing that (in reference to the puishments to be received are ‘…There is no difference in the justice (to Hell); the only difference is the repudiation or acceptance of judgement.” 16 However ‘Heaven and Hell are eternal states, but the life of purgatory, like that of earth, is a temporal process, and time is of its very essence.” P21 This notion of time is interesting, given that the alternative is infinity then by comparison Purgatory is but a fleeting moment, and the diversion in the direction of travel is deemed by whether the individual is penitent or not (including those who have never heard of the `question’). In this group of ‘unknowers’ I wonder about children, how can a child make the distinction, how can an infant find that means to knowledge that enables them to discern whether to own to guilt or not? But this is where it gets very personal and I’ll leave it there for a while. Pain is important! St Augustine talks of the ‘Salutary troubles being a purification exhibited in prison” P55 The Decree of the council of Florence, A.D. 1429 that souls in the Intermediate State (Purgatory) “are purged after death by purgatorial or cathartic pains.” P55.

The soul, which is created apt for love,

The moment pleasure wakes it into act,

To any pleasant thing is swift to move.              Dante, Purgatory, Canto XXVIII lines 19-21


There follows an example of the process that leads to purgation. Admission of guilt, penance (which frees the penitent of the guilt and thereby purges the ‘culpa’ leaving two things remaining “Technically, you still have to “purge the reatus”. `…this leads you to the third part of Penance, viz Satisfaction, and calls for two further acts: reparation to the wronged and amendment in yourself”. P56

What is left to be done in Purgatory is the purging of the reatus, “….By this is meant the damage done to the soul by the habit of sinfulness – the coarsening of fibre, and the clouding of the mind and imagination…” P58

Clearly the seventy one page introduction says a lot more than I’ve noted here, but what I tried to do is set a framework for where I currently think my investigations fit in with it.