Photography, Archaeology & the British Landscape 1927–1955

Kitty Hauser

Oxford University Press, 2007

ISBN 978-0-19-920632-2 Hb


Two of the dominant forms of contemporary landscape photography turn on the idea of change. Calendar and postcard photographers present an idealised landscape ‘unspoilt’ by the changes of the modern world. Documentary photographers, on the other hand, such as Adams, Misrach, Ganis and many others, are more likely to view change head-on, through an ideology of environmental protest. Either way, recent change is typically regarded as a force of destruction.

            This book discusses an alternative view of landscape change, one claimed to have been held by many of the Neo-Romantic British painters, photographers, writers and film-makers of the mid-20th century such as John Piper and Paul Nash, Bill Brandt and Edwin Smith, John Betjeman, and the film-making partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. According to Kitty Hauser, these artists viewed the landscape with an ‘archaeological imagination’, in which modern developments were regarded merely as the latest phase in a continuing landscape narrative. The landscape’s past was seen to survive visibly in the present, and to be essentially ineradicable.

This conception of landscape, seen ‘not so much as vista, picture, or space, but as site, the place where things have occurred’, is a commonplace among archaeologists but remains under-explored in the visual arts. Exceptions include photography of sites that have fallen out of use such as the Maze Prison (Wylie), or of places where events have left no visible trace such as crime scenes (Sternfeld, Seawright); but few photographers today venture beyond the safety net of news and current affairs to explore broader questions of time and continuity in our present environment.

Neo-Romanticism, one of the great movements in British art, is defined here as the representation of traditional subject matter through a modern sensibility. This includes a non-realist approach to figuration in painting, but extends also to the framing of historical features within a modern surround, such as Eric Ravilious’s 1939 painting of the chalk-carved Westbury Horse seen through the window of a train, or Basil Spence’s 1951 design of the west wall screen at his new Coventry Cathedral in a way that framed the ruins of the old. This Neo-Romantic leitmotif underlines the immanence of the past within the present landscape. Seen in this context, Hauser writes, Bill Brandt’s inclusion of drainpipes and boilers in his photographs of funerary monuments in English cathedrals ‘was far from accidental’.

A concept of the indestructibility of the past appealed strongly at a time when the British landscape was seen as peculiarly under threat, first from housing development then from bombs; and the book covers this ground well. It also explains the influence of archaeology on many in the Neo-Romantic movement, especially the journal Antiquity, first published in 1927. Ancient monuments and archaeological discoveries appealed to the Neo-Romantics not only as survivals of the past but as ready-made modernist forms in the landscape (megaliths, tumuli, field patterns, boundaries), and as surreal juxtapositions uncovered by chance (a Roman Fort in a shopping mall, a nest of skeletons in a carpark) which recalled the Compte de Lautréamont’s ‘chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table’, one of the defining images of early surrealism.

This wide-ranging, erudite and elegantly written book could serve as a primer on numerous subjects, including Neo-Romanticism, the development of landscape archaeology and aerial archaeology, the programme of wartime photography conducted for the National Buildings Record (by Cecil Beaton, Lee Miller and others), even the nature of photography itself. But its great merit is that it frequently moves beyond lucid exposition and takes off in flights of inspired interpretation.

Hauser is especially good on aerial archaeology, a field of photography almost entirely ignored in the visual arts world. Shadow sites, crop marks and soil marks – the three main forms in which sites can reveal themselves to anyone flying above – appealed to the Neo-Romantic sensibility, she points out, as transformations of culture into nature, an idea ‘also responsible for the attraction of ruins’; and as manifestations of Freud’s concept of the uncanny (something ‘secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it’; an eruption of strangeness into normality), which is known to have influenced Bill Brandt among many others. The contrast between the Neo-Romantic interest in aerial archaeology and the contemporary Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist interest in urban aerial perspective as part of a modernist agenda is most instructive, and has not – as far as I know – been commented upon before.

As Hauser explains, crop marks are not only the subject of photographs, they actually are photographs of a sort, being ‘produced on a sensitized surface (a field of growing wheat) largely by the action of light (through photosynthesis)’. Like a photograph, a crop site ‘outlives its referent’, and has ‘the curious capacity to unite absence and presence in an image’. Moreover, it illustrates ‘not only the “that-has-been” that for [influential photographic theorist Roland] Barthes is the essence of photography, but also the “return of the dead” that he identifies as lurking in every photograph.’

Hauser’s analysis of the nature of photography is equally illuminating. While crop-marks resemble photographs, pre-digital photographs – as material traces of their subject – resemble the marks on the landscape, traces of past activity, that archaeologists use to reconstruct its history. If this renders photography an apt vehicle for Neo-Romantic art, it also encourages us to examine all photographs (regardless of subject matter) with the eye of a landscape archaeologist, or a detective, looking beyond superficial subject matter for clues to an infinite range of events on different time-scales that occurred before the photograph was taken.

Photography’s inherent inability, however, to depict the past (what occurred before the photograph was taken), but only clues to the past, leads Hauser to the grand theory of photography as a ‘sublime historiography’; a presentation of ‘the fact that the unpresentable exists … [and a] witness to the inexpressible’. It is a complex and subtle idea – a short review can hardly do it justice – that rivals Susan Sontag’s great theory of photography as a surrealist programme for duplicating the world published more than 30 years ago. It is one of the very few general theories of photography with the ambition, originality and interpretive potential to keep such exalted company.