In conversation with rob hudson
Ruby Graham: I thought a good place to start would be to talk about your most recent project ‘The Secret Language of Trees’. I found your choice of location to be very interesting, as you chose a forest outside of the pristine lens of the typical landscape photographer. What was it that initially drew your attention to this location?
Rob Hudson: In a broader scope I suppose I have issues with landscape photography’s concentration on exoticism. I’d rather relate my work to how everyday people experience the landscape in an everyday way. So, I’m actively looking for places that are ‘normal’. The Secret Language of Trees was shot in my local stretch of abandoned canal. After wandering
Image from the series 'The Secret Language of Trees'.
around for a while, I started to get an idea that the trees were connecting to each other, but I didn’t quite understand how. It wasn’t until I discovered the writing of Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and ecologist, that I found out about mycorrhizal fungi. What he found was that in comparison to the Darwinian idea that trees compete for light, that they instead form a web of interconnecting fungi and roots below the land, which actively transfer nutrients to each other. So therefore, they’re not competing as many suggest. He’s also extrapolated from that even further to say that maybe there’s some form of communication between them as well. I also read Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’ and his basic argument from that book was that there isn’t really ‘wilderness’ in the UK anymore, everything is suddenly impacted by man. He concluded by saying that you’re most likely to find true wilderness in a big ditch by the side of the road, because that’s the kind of place that we ignore. My choice of location was a very typical scruffy bank of trees, one that you could find alongside a road or at the edge of a wood, it’s an ‘everywhere’ place. So, it was taking that idea and asking where is the true wilderness? Is it on top of a mountain in Scotland, or is it actually just around your corner?
RG: Unlike a lot of landscape photographers, it seems as though you don’t really put yourself into your images, instead you seem to let the landscapes speak for themselves. Would you say that you do this to allow your audience to reflect on their personal interactions with nature?
RH: I might contradict you a little bit there and say that I do put myself in my images, I think of every photograph to some extent as a self-portrait. My interest in the landscape isn’t really the trees and the wildlife, its more about the stories we have about the landscape, and the ways that we create mythologies around it. We treat it as being separate, and we are part of it, and it is part of us to some extent; although there’s always a distance between us. If you think about the landscape, it is a human generated concept to start with, so ‘landscape’ doesn’t really exist, it’s something we put upon it. Outside of the human imagination its just land, landscape is this thing that we have generated and romanticised. So, I do want to leave space in there, so that people can have their own personal interactions, and try to understand it. But I think its important to find a balance between guiding people and allowing people to have initial responses and engagement. I think you want people to get to a stage where their interested enough to dig below the surface, and then you can reveal a bit more to them, giving them a rich and more meaningful relationship to the work.
RG: Your images have an undeniable beauty to them. Is aesthetical beauty something which is important to you as a photographer? Or do you believe that sometimes it can work to cloud over conceptual meaning?
RH: The early conceptual landscape photographers were very anti-beauty, and it was all about the purity of ideas. But for me, the landscape is somewhere I do find very beautiful, and I have an emotional response to it which I can’t deny. So, I’ve moved away from that idea, and I’m approaching my work with more honesty. I think its okay as long as its not empty beauty, which is beauty for beauty’s sake, as many characterise landscape photography.
RG: I know that you’re often influenced by poetry, but has any other medium of narrative such as a song or short story ever influenced your work?
RH: I’m inspired by lots of things really. I’ve done some work on songs, and I’ve also been inspired by abstract painter Paul Klee. So, it’s not always just the poetry, but there does have to be some element within the work that has relevance. I’ve done a lot of work around mental health issues which is something I’ve struggled with in the past, so it comes from a personal mirroring I suppose, I’ve got to have that connection with it.
RG: So, is it more about narrative for you?
RH: Narrative is a tricky word, and I’m not sure photography does narrative as well as film. But what it can do is reveal things to people, and I think it can tell a story. Whether it has a narrative, with a structure; a beginning middle and end, I think probably not.
Image from the series 'North Towards the Orison'.
RG: In your project ‘North Towards the Orison’, you recreate the journey of poet John Clare. What was it that appealed to you about his story? And was it important for you in this project to raise awareness about stigma towards mental health?
RH: Not really. I think there’s a lot of people making work around ‘raising awareness’, but perhaps you can be a bit more subtle than that. The work is about Clare’s walk from an asylum where he was held at in Epping Forest to Helpston, which is about 80 miles away. It took him 4 days, he had no money, and his shoes fell apart. But during this journey he gloried in the landscape, the landscape was very much a place of safety and beauty to him. So, in my work I was trying to give a voice to that aspect, to show that there was more than one strand to his story.
RG: Would you say that your work is personal, even in the instances when your documenting someone else’s experiences?
RH: It’s got to have some sort of personal relevance to me, and so I don’t think you can make work which is truly impersonal, at least if your being honest with yourself. I don’t think of myself as ‘documenting’ either. I think it’s a slightly old-fashioned word which was of developed in the 70s, where photography was trying to establish itself as a serious medium, and to a large extent it succeeded. But the word implies objectivity, which is almost impossible to achieve as a human being. So, I don’t use the word documentary for my work, I say I’m an artist, and because of that I’m quite subjective.
RG: For me, many of your images have a scary and creeping feel to them. I’m not sure if this is just my own personal interpretation or not. Is this layer of fear in your imagery something which you add intentionally?
RH: It’s probably something that I add subconsciously, because I’m aware that there is that conflict within the landscape. Its both and place of comfort and safety, where you can go and think and breathe, but also there’s always an element of fear. If you look at the archetypical mythology of the landscape, there’s a lot of witches and wolves, and I believe all that stuff we grew up with is within us. I hope my work is not too overtly scary, because I want to try and depict that balance. But certain works like Mametz Wood, I intended the images to be at times quite horrific.
RG: What do you think it is about fear in images that creates such a strong and palpable reaction in people?
RH: I think its probably that recognition of what’s within us and what we are suppressing. It may also be a contrasting response to that idealisation of the landscape that you see in popular exoticist landscape photography. I think its about balance really, where people find comfort in the distance of just seeing an image on the wall.
RG: To conclude, I know you’re a co-founder of the photography collective Inside the Outside. Do you think it’s possible for a lone wolf photographer to be successful in this industry? Or do you believe it’s vital for artists to interact with one another and invite collaboration?
RH: I think it certainly helps to work together. Obviously, it is possible for some lucky people to be successful all by themselves. But for most of us the reality is a little bit of collaboration goes a long way. Of course, we can show people our work before we release it into the world, but personally I don’t really do that. Quite often I will create work and share it with the world as I’m going along. External validation is a difficult one, because you can often get influenced by people’s expectations of what photography should be. Sometimes I think it’s valuable to challenge that and go out and say, ‘do you know what, I’m a grown up now I can make up my own mind.’ It took me until about my late thirties, to have the confidence to be able to analyse my work without getting excessively wound up by the threat of being self-critical. That I think enabled me to a large extent to find my voice, because I could actually be honest with myself in a comfortable manner.
RG: Do you think its important, even if your collaborating, for people to sometimes have that distance where they ultimately have the final say about their work?
RH: Definitely. We at Inside the Outside are not forever asking each other’s opinion, we’re all fairly mature so I suppose we’ve concluded that we don’t always need that. Also, I just really enjoy surprising people.