INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA HARMAN
by Alice Oliver
Amanda Harman is a photographic artist, based in the South West of England whose work focuses on landscape and place. Walking and retracing routes across the landscape are key to her practice and way of making images. By observing a place for months, and often years, Amanda seeks to reveal the unseen and the insignificant, and by quiet observation, elevate the beauty of ordinary and overlooked places.
SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses with Amanda her new book Sun Lights This Water which will be launched at BOP Bristol next week.
AO: Could you tell us a little about your early life, where you grew up and how that environment shaped you and subsequently your practice?
AH: I grew up on a small housing estate in a village in Sussex, where there were lots of other children around. There was a small woodland at the back of our house with a stream, a village green with a brook, and a Common, which seemed like a vast and wild area to me then. It was the 1970’s and as kids, we spent our summers roaming the village and the Common, ‘fishing’ in streams and building camps in the woods. As a family we would be at the coast most weekends, Chichester harbour mainly, messing around in boats and running around the sand dunes. This all sounds pretty idyllic I guess, being ‘let loose’ in the woods and at the coast are my fondest childhood memories. I found life in a large comprehensive in the local town tough, though Art was my solace and escape. I had a wonderful art teacher who would take a bunch of us walking and rock climbing in North Wales and to the Isle of Skye. I think these times outdoors were when I felt most happy and where the connection to the landscape as a place of freedom, exploration and reflection began. Answering this question has made me realise just how much these early experiences have shaped me and my practice.
AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?
AH: I was given an Olympus SLR on my 18th birthday and that is where the passion for photography started. Like many young people I began by photographing what was around me, my friends, local events, and the landscape, especially the sea. I had loved Art at school and leaving with just a couple of ropey A levels, I made my way onto an Art Foundation course in Worthing. Here I discovered the magic of the Darkroom and spent hours there processing and printing black and white film. After a brief encounter with a Fine Art degree, I worked for a year before joining the BA Photography at Farnham. As a student in the early 80’s, I was very much influenced by the documentary photography of that time (and earlier) and we were fortunate to have photographers such as Martin Parr, Paul Graham and Peter Fraser teaching on the course, which had a strong documentary focus. I spent many hours in the library, discovering the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Sue Packer, Susan Lipper, Chris Killip, Larry Fink, Gary Winnogrand, Joel Meyerwitz, and William Eggleston. I had never seen photography like this before, it fascinated and inspired me. With so many influences, and the desire to ‘get it right' so strong, I found it hard to find my own ‘voice’ at college. Reflecting on this now, I think that a college or University course is just the start of a journey that will take you in your own direction in time. For my final degree project, I struggled for four months, making work but getting nowhere with my ideas. Then, encouraged by a tutor, I took a risk to try making some portraits, just for a week to see how it went. I suddenly found I was in my element, I let go of the worry about pleasing others, and just focused on producing something I could stand by and would be proud to leave the course with, after 3 years I had just started to get somewhere with my work.
After graduating, I worked on a personal project (B/W environmental portraits) commissioned by Impressions Gallery in York and then on a residency with Stockport Museum. The residency led me into teaching, and after several years as a lecturer, I signed up for the MA Photography at LCC in 2000. It was on the MA that I first started working in colour and investigating other visual approaches to exploring and questioning the world around me. Teaching and other commitments meant that travelling far and wide to make projects became impractical and I turned my attention to making work close to home, exploring the every day or the overlooked, in the places and people around me.
AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your new book Sun Lights This Water and the starting point for this project?
AH: The starting point for this work was a move from the city of Bristol to a village in the Chalford Valley, one of the five valleys that radiate from Stroud in the south Cotswolds. After sixteen or so years in Bristol it was a big change, but living in a village with the woods and river on my doorstep felt like familiar territory.
Walking is my way of orientating myself in a new place, and it was my way to start to understand the geography of my new home. Walking straight down the hill to the bottom of the valley I was immediately treading the path between the river and the old Thames and Severn canal, still derelict along this stretch. I was struck by the magical nature of this place, a wild and untamed hollow, where water seeps from the canal’s collapsed sides, and abandoned locks create blockages along the valley floor. This stretch of the valley, with its winter floods, ice and mists and steep wooded sides reaching down to the river, and to the wildness of the old canal seemed to me to exemplify what Robert Macfarlane describes as ‘the undiscovered country of the nearby’.
The images collected in the book pay testament to this place and to the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move; exploring and forming connections to the earth, and to each other. They are about knowing a place intimately through the process of walking and observing, coming to understand the shape of the land, the light, the seasons, the ground beneath, the trees above and the water streaming down the steep valley sides to reach the river. They are about the desire to fully arrive in a place.
AO: Please can you tell us a bit about the process of working towards and putting together a photobook? How do you go about narrowing down and selecting the right images?
AH: When I was making the original photographs, I did not have an outcome in mind, I was simply walking, working, and responding to the environment. For me this is a meditative process and something I do for my creative well-being; I was moved by a desire to understand the new landscape that I now called home.
I always make small work prints as I go, that I can lay out and pin to the wall so I start to get a sense of the work and ideas as a whole. I find I cannot do this on a screen. In this process I am searching for images that reflect my feelings about particular moments in the landscape, expressed through light and shade, colour and atmosphere, that start to work together to build a sense of what I experience there. This is an ongoing process of adding and subtracting, refining, and reflecting to build a series.
The process of working towards the final book was very much a collaboration with the publisher and designer Iain at Another Place Press. I sent him around 150 images in a vague sequence, based on the idea of a journey through the valley, more visual than chronological. I wanted the viewer to be led towards the images of the water in the title, and not to arrive there on the first page. A book gives you the opportunity to play with narrative and to include the quieter images to lead and direct the viewer in that narrative. Iain’s talent is in laying out, pairing and sequencing images to create that flow and that story. We went back and forth with ideas and layouts and having worked with Iain on two previous publications we very much seem to be coming from the same place, and so the collaboration is a fun and creative one through which the final ideas for the book emerge.
AO: What would be your tips for photographers who would like to turn their projects into a book form?
AH: Work on a project that is personal to you and that you feel passionate about, this will resonate with others and sustain you through the long process of making the work and translating it into book form. I know I have been very fortunate to work with Another Place Press, I was originally approached by Iain when he saw my work had been shortlisted for the Landscape Category of the Sony Awards, it turned out that Iain had been following my work for a while. I suppose the key is to get your work out there and in front of people, for me entering competitions has reaped rewards, but I also know it is a bit of a lottery. Sometimes the rewards are not immediate or related to ‘winning’. I have been surprised by people who know of my work, even though I haven’t approached them directly. Producing a book can be expensive and many publishers require you to raise the money for the production costs. APP produces smaller publications, but at an affordable price and pays for all the production costs and I feel incredibly lucky that I have had the chance to work with Iain in this way.
AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?
AH: I have worked with both, seeing work printed at scale and curated in a specific space presents your work back to you in ways you may not have expected or thought about yourself. In recent years I have shown in commercial gallery spaces with some great creative gallerists, and this has been a valuable experience. I have learned a lot about the art market and what it takes to make this approach sustainable. It is a great honour when someone you do not know buys your work. However, all the printing and framing needs to be funded by the artist, and galleries do take a commission to cover their own costs and to fund the work they do in developing their audience and managing physical spaces, both parties take a financial risk on an exhibition. After seven shows in the last couple of years, I have had some good sales, but financially I am not sure if really pays, so I am considering how sustainable this approach can be. My next project will be conceived as a book from the outset, this is a first for me and I’m looking forward to researching and starting the process of developing it.
AO: As a woman photographer, do you have any advice to offer others on gaining exposure and making a name for yourself, in what is considered quite a male-centric industry?
AH: It has taken me a long time to make my way in the industry. On my degree course, back in the 80’s there were only 4 female students in a cohort of 30, it was very male dominated. I think in recent years this has changed and hopefully will continue to. I think it is tough and competitive for anyone; networks and connections are key and can take years to develop. It has taken me a long time to gain the confidence in my work and practice to feel okay about ‘putting it out there’, it is probably only in the last 10 years that I have developed the resilience to take the rejections as well as the fantastic opportunities that have come my way as a result. My advice would be when it comes to applying for opportunities, be selective. Entering competitions and Open Calls has worked for me, but do check out the judges, are these people you would like to get your work in front of? If so, it may be worth the entry fee. Check out the costs and what’s on offer (are these genuine opportunities?) and importantly the usage/copyright requirements. Sony is great because it’s free. Say yes to opportunities, meet people, go to festivals, talks & galleries, and make connections on social media. I am no expert on this, I’m still learning!
AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced my practice?
AH: Some favourite bodies of work/books, but over the years there have been too many to mention really!
Vanessa Winship – And Time Folds
Barbara Bosworth - The Meadow
Sally Mann – A Thousand Crossings
Janelle Lynch – Another Way of Looking at Love
Chloe Dewe Mathews – Thames Log
Melanie Friend – The Plain
Sian Davey - Martha
Awoiska van der Molen – Sequester
Jem Southam – The Red River
Paul Gaffney – We make the Path by Walking
Robbie Lawrence – A Voice above the Linn
Bryan Schumat – Grays the Mountain Sends