This Past Year

by Lindsay Mamchur, 3 July 2020
Fig. 1. Parc de Sceaux, Sceaux. 7 September 2019.
Fig. 2. National Library, Paris. 6 September 2019.
Fig. 3. Landschaftspark, Duisburg. 12 September 2019.
Fig. 4. Landschaftspark, Duisburg. 12 September 2019.

How has my experience with this photography and design research project supported my growing curiosities as a photographer and design student?

 

This past year, I’ve gained insight into the realm of scholarship and academic writing. My experience with this project, guided by Dr. Close, has revealed my interest in reading, writing, and studying photographs. My curiosity has grown for new subjects. These include history, philosophy, and the methods and theory of photography and other media.

 

I came away from last summer eager to continue exploring photography and design. I had a perfect opportunity: a class field studies trip.

 

As part of my design studio program, I travelled to Europe last fall, directly following my summer research term. My class visited Paris, Amsterdam, and London. On our arrival in Paris, I began photographing immediately. I was determined to document my travels well. As it was a field studies trip, I knew I would have to consult my photographs for future assignments. More than that, I saw our excursion as an opportunity to practice. Given that I had spent the previous four months examining images, I expected a lot from myself. I also anticipated struggle, but that I welcomed. I carried my heavy camera around, not in vain. Towards the end of the trip, it had begun to feel lighter.

 

First and foremost, my research pressed me to see the camera as a tool for critical thinking. At the beginning of last summer, I read an essay on Gabor Szilasi, a photographer that, after his move to Québec from Hungary, relied upon his camera to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. Making photographs was Szilasi’s way of getting to know a new place. To me, the article illustrated how photography is a creative, analytical, and personal practice.

 

In Paris, I thought about Eugène Atget and Charles Marville. I studied their photographs of the city in the nineteenth century, so I was familiar with some of the built environment. I could see their photographs around me. I attempted to remake some of them, as I saw Christopher Rauschenburg do in his book Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget’s Paris. Mine was a rephotographic experiment modelled after a rephotography project inspired by the work of a nineteenth-century image-maker. I was curious to learn if I could make photographs like I had studied and to rediscover Atget and Marville’s encounters with this place (see figure 1). In contrast, I also wished to make photographs that I had never seen before by searching for what compelled me, a student in the twenty-first century (see figure 2). I think, gladly, I had more moments like the latter.

 

Further into our tour, we visited Landschaftspark in Duisburg, Germany. We had an entire day to explore the former ironworks plant. For those hours, my camera replaced my eyes. Through it, I viewed multiple scales: stories of stairs leading to rusted blast furnaces; a horizon view from landings aloft; the ground below abstracted by layers of corroding steel, vegetation, and void (see figure 3); plus, minute details like moss grown on damp stone walls; and light filtered through bracing, scattered over the bottommost pavement (see figure 4).

 

I happened upon forms, light conditions, and phenomena I knew I would see nowhere else. I assessed different ways to frame my sight. My curiosity guided me to unique experiences like walking a little further to discover an overlooked space. This variety in vantage point produced new interpretations of the park while I walked it and new conclusions days, weeks, and months after the images were created.

 

Inevitably I saw glimpses of work that I studied. Surrounded by overgrowth and weatherworn infrastructure, I discerned a series of photographs by Kenneth O’Halloran entitled The Handball Alley. I thought also of the work of the Hilla and Bernd Becher. I strolled into a glitch in time and found myself in their industrial Germany. O’Halloran and the Becher’s work share an interest in typology. A theory class later in the year explained the importance of typology in design and philosophy, in general. I learned that typology, in its reductive function, is an analytical device.[1] Wherein humans conceive of new ideas in terms of known ones, typologies describe the fundamental principles and logic by which we understand other things we know. Typologies exercise our ability to compare, to distinguish, and to generate types and meanings anew.[2] My introduction to O’Halloran and the Bechers through this research project became useful to me in this context. I saw the concept applied and visualized. These photographers are part of my understanding of typology. Their works are significant to my growing interest in theory, in meaning, and in articulating and sharing individual experiences.

 

During the school year, there were two occasions for which to share the research project. The first was a faculty lecture with my research partner, Hanna Hendrickson-Rebizant. The second was a research poster competition.

 

On the first occasion, Hanna and I sought to present a coherent and engaging introduction to our study of photography. To prepare, we spent time distilling our research process and organizing our ideas about certain photographs. We hoped our presentation could offer our fellow students and faculty something of relevance to their own studies.

 

A short time later, I participated in the Undergraduate Research Poster Competition. Unlike the faculty lecture, the poster competition was an individual event. In this way, I had complete freedom to choose a topic that spoke to me and my own interests. Planning the poster was an opportunity for me to reframe my research experience in a new format and for a broader audience.

 

Both the lecture and the poster competition were opportunities to articulate the process of reading photographs. In preparing the lecture, Hanna and I considered a selection of photographs and their interrelationships. We intended to create a flowing discussion on several themes relevant to the project, employing images that compelled us conceptually and visually, and that we hoped would compel others.

 

In the case of the poster competition, I chose to work with a single image: Sunday School by Robert Adams. That choice was important. I now consider Adams one of the photographers I have most enjoyed studying. I see his work as especially valuable to me as a student of landscape. Adams’ representations of landscape speak broadly to meaning and beauty in human experience. His work documents changing landscape conditions, which he portrays honestly and without overt judgement. I liken his philosophy to what I have heard often in my ecology classes: that landscapes are changing and complex and that it is important to be grounded in this evolving reality. What has disappeared or transformed must be accepted. All is not lost.

 

As I approach the end of my undergraduate degree, I see this summer in a unique way. Last summer was an introduction to research. I was focused on learning the basics and finding working methods. This summer, I look for themes to carry forward. I look for people, projects, ideas that relate to my experience as a student of landscape and photography. I look forward to bringing my interests and research experience into graduate school. I anticipate that these interests may become the subjects of long-term study in my academic career.

 

I have found myself shaped by my experience in this research project. It extends to the books I read, the types of conversations I have, and the podcasts I listen to. It instructs how I make, and don’t make, photographs, how I conceive of the creative process, how I write and use language, and simply how I see what I look at. Working with Dr. Close for a second summer, I have grown to deeply appreciate her influence. I look at the path that she has forged for herself as an academic, photographer, and writer. I hope that I can, with her mentorship, pursue a similarly fulfilling career led by my ambition and curiosity.

 

[1] Susan Herrington, Landscape Theory in Design (Routledge: New York, 2017), 155.

[2] Herrington, Landscape Theory, 155.

Photographs © Lindsay Mamchur

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