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© Jose Navarro

It is at this time of the year that, rather despondently, my sense of ‘anti-aesthetics’ seems to be particularly acute. It may well be the effect of the changing seasons but instead of being drawn outside in search of autumn colours in the countryside, I seem to find perverse pleasure in looking at the no-mans land between the urban and the wild. So I felt great satisfaction when I found out that the winning book of the 2012 Bristol Festival of Ideas was Edgelands, by Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley.

‘An engrossing and witty exploration of the hinterland beyond urban glamour and rural tranquillity, Edgelands exposes the startling wonder and resonant history of the landscapes we usually traverse so unthinkingly.’ (Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookstore)

The Bristol-based prize is awarded for a book published the previous year that presents new, important and challenging ideas. I guess that Rev. William Gilpin would turn in his grave if he knew the extent to which his idea of the Picturesque has evolved since he wrote his Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770However, as Symmonds Roberts said in this video produced by The Guardian, what contemporary writers and artists are doing for the English ‘edgelands’ is arguably what the Romantic poets did for mountains: to foster in the public awareness of beauty.  In the case of the edgelands, the beauty that lies between the rural and the urban, the beauty of that which could be considered our very own post-industrial, post-modern wilderness.
When I look at the image I took in the Barbican in London, with which I opened this post, I see great beauty. There is beauty in those stubborn weeds, survivors of the plant kingdom poking through the seams of the paving stones. There is beauty in those exuberant border plants flooding over their concrete beddings. There is even beauty in that CCTV camera witnessing it all, seemingly being unable to do anything to stop wilderness from reclaiming the spot.

© Joel Sternfeld

Edgelands is an undercurrent concept in contemporary documentary photography of landscapes – or should I say landscape photography? In Walking the Line Joel Sternfeld offers a visual celebration of wilderness literally taking advantage of an old railway line in order to find a clear way into the heart of Manhattan’s urban environment.
In Landscape Stories Jem Southam focused on abandoned industrial areas that are as representative of the English landscape as those which belong to the tradition of the picturesque. Mark Power, possibly inspired by Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital – download an interview with the author here, explored the edges of London as defined by the A to Z Atlas in his project A System of Edges.
© Dewald Botha

The idea of the semi-wild – or semi-urban depending on your perspective – is also present in Dewald Botha’s Southliving porfolio, a portrayal of eerie urban landscapes in Suzhou, near Shanghai – you can visit Dewald’s OCA blog here. We assessed Dewald’s work on the July assessment session this year and were impressed by the visual and conceptual cohesion of his portfolio.
The concept of the edgelands is gaining specific weight in visual culture; it is also being studied from an anthropological perspective, in particular as a kind of ethnographic landscape. The book Urban Wilderness, published by Taylor Francis, is a cross-disciplinary exploration of a very modern phenomenon – you can read the foreword and the introduction on the online preview.
The environmental and political connotations of the edgelands are hard to avoid. The idea of the edgelands also underpins several bodies of work at this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme is photography and the politics of space. And on that note, why don’t you join us on the OCA study visit to the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial?

Posted by author: Jose
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33 thoughts on “Edgelands

  • I find it hard to believe there are still spaces left for Brighton – I am really looking forward to it. This is a really fascinating post Jose, full of things to look further into and ponder on. The books look really interesting – and it’s nice to see Dewald get a mention alongside Sternfield and Southam and Power. ; -)
    I’m particularly struck by this post as it chimes with some thoughts I was having about Robert Adams’ work at the Prix Pictet. I liked Adams’s pictures very much and found the series very powerful, but at the same time it made me think of a nostalgia for a certain type of landscape – wild, rugged, untamed – that itself is foreign to most of us Europeans who’ve lived in spaces dominated by man for many generations. We are a long way from the environments our ancestors lived in.
    I’m shortly to start on the Landscape module, concentrating mostly on urban landscape, so any additional recommendations for reading or inspiration would be very welcome.

  • Edgelands is well worth a read, although I’m not sure how it’s affected me after Jose recommended it to me whilst I was doing YOP. Having said that, I’m struggling to see how anything is affecting me at the moment, although it undoubtedly is – I’m finding myself in an odd space, mentally, where my peers seem to moving on in leaps and bounds, yet I feel strangely stagnated. I’m being constantly blown away by some of the stuff coming out of OCA students at the moment. Maybe I just need to sit down and curate my stream of consciousness, rather than adding to it…
    Anyway, my copy of Edgelands is now with Dewald in Suzhou, or is that Hong Kong…? 😎

      • Thanks Jose!
        As your copy is indeed, Rob, on my desk, to be read as soon as I put down The Ongoing Moment.
        I’m in an odd place too, Rob, for me it’s more a thing about searching for something, but I’m not sure what yet.
        Interesting what Shaun says about nature / city invading / enveloping…

  • I have been watching Dewald’s work with great interest, although I get a different sense from his work. In China the city is expanding to envelope nature, the Edgeland continually pushing forward and overwhelming the countryside. In Joel Sternfeld’s book (copy of which arrived a couple of days ago) the impression is of nature invading the city and the countryside fighting back. Although, having walked the highline earlier this year, the city won in the end and the wilderness has been tamed yet again. The perpetual battle between concrete and nature continues to be fought.
    What I find sad is the thought that for many growing up in the city these Edgelands are their countryside, the few areas of untamed natural growth that they will see.

  • Just think of the job the Councils have to do, trying to remove these edgelands (for what?) and they just grow back again. Why do we use the word ‘weedy’ to describe someone who is feeble? Weeds are strong, robust, often very pretty and very, very stubborn. They require a lot of work to tame and, if ignored, just take over. Do you know anyone with these attributes? Next time you see them tell them they are weedy and see the reaction. Mmmm- this could be a good idea for a photography portrait project- shame I am not a photographer.

  • I saw an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge this summer entitled : “Edgelands – Prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy”. It was fascinating – wonderful drawings of those places we normally pass by. Has made me look at those wastelands again, as one can get some great pictures (drawing or photographing). Some of the plants classed as weeds are really beautiful and there were some lovely botanical-style prints of these.

  • I think I’m lucky to be living in an urban environment and yet have a fairly untouched (albeit cared-for) Common just across the road. Interestingly enough the lack of actual buildings there does mean that I’m unable to achieve images which combine nature versus man.

  • Interesting – I think I live in an edgeland. And spent a sizeable chunk of my life living in Chinese edgelands before this English one.

  • Also, reading the above about the Chinese edgelands, India also seems to be struggling with spreading urbanisation with an often uncomfortable mix of urban and rural areas.

    • Congratulations Mary … actually, Edgelands are sometimes referred to as brown sites I think. Not sure how long this has been an official term.
      Sternfield’s work was published in 2009 so he must have done the work in 2008 possibly earlier

      • i don’t think ‘edgelands’ was ever official, Shoard is a geographer I think, so I suppose it is an academic term??
        My quibble is that the whole world thinks Roberts and Farley are the originators and as such as the media luvvies.
        As an artist I should be used to the old adage it is not what you know but who you know!!!!!

        • To my knowledge, “Edgelands” has never been an official term … but “brown site” is!?
          Surely such areas have existed for centuries but they have assumed a greater significance.

    • Yes, like lots of tings, these ideas have been around for a long time. They go in and out of fashion and I suppose they are back in again. It’s nothing new but I think it is a bit more intersting than some of the trends that make a reappearance. I wonder what is next?

  • Excellent post…lots of great references…definitely will get hold of a copy of Edgelands book. Very pleased Dewald’s Edge of the City work has been recognised. I’ve been following this for a while and it is a stong body of work. My sense of this work so far however is that it is less about abandoned edgelands rather I get the sense that the green areas around the city are about to be swallowed up by marching hordes of high rise buildings!!!….my take Dewald,…Jose I am struggling with the concept of how edgelands can be beautiful….When describing beauty Burke uses adjectives like small, smooth, delicate, continually varying, clean and fair. Do we need to redefine the concepts of beauty and the sublime or do we need some new language???

    • A very timely and interesting article and follow upcomments, as I too have been thinking about beauty (aka Robert Adams) in the landscape but thinking more on the lines that there is inherent beauty in almost everything, including the images above. And so, if Berger suggests that aesthetics has no place in photography, then what else is left? I can not seem to define beauty at the moment but just believe that it is different to beautiful.

    • “Do we need to redefine the concept of beauty?”… perhaps what we need to do is not so much redefine the idea of beauty but expand it. At the end of the day definitions tend to constrict our understanding of concepts, particularly those which are abstract. Is beauty an aesthetic quality inherent to an object or is it a quality of experience? If it is the latter then it lies outside the object itself.
      I would argue that beauty is culturally determined. Take the case of sky burials in Tibetan Buddhism. Would you say they are beautiful? Probably not. But if you ask a Tibetan Buddhist they may well tell you that such act of generosity towards other sentient beings is very beautiful.
      I’m no art historian but I have the feeling we are suffering from the legacy of the classics and, most recently, Romantic aesthetics. A very good book that touches on beauty is one of the unit handbooks of the OU Industry and Changing Landscapes module – A207 From Enlightenment to Romanticism c.1780-1830. It also explores the ideas of the sublime and Gilpin’s The Picturesque. It’s a superb book that you can buy from Amazon for as little as 1 pence – ridiculous!

      • Will follow up on the book Jose…thanks for the link. You are right… one only needs to look at the changing nature of fashion to see how ideals of beauty are culturally defined. I wonder if websites like Flickr are shaping the way we perceive beauty through photography….to be seen as a beautiful photograph these days does an image need to have highly saturated colour and a retro or HDR look??

      • ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
        If Keats was right and if there is such a thing as truth (a debatable concept in Postmodernity but seeming to re-appear a bit in post-postmodernism) then if an image is true, it is beautiful. This ties in nicely, I think, with postmodern ideas of the sublime making an image of a nuclear mushroom cloud beautiful and sublime.
        Those who visited Simon Norfolk’s show at the Open Eye, Liverpool will have been looking at images that I feel are both beautiful, sublime and aweful (in the old spelling and sense of the word)
        There is no relationship between beauty and pleasant, pretty etc.

        • Aaaagh! truth???? beauty?????
          At their very best these must be considered to be negotiated terms, full of subjectivity and cultural impositions.
          Even a simple statement such as , “the sky is blue” is not a truth. What about if the shared viewer is colour-blind, or you are a classical greek whose language has no word for blue? (it is green in their world!).
          The very act of transferring actuality into an image alters the so-called reality of that ‘view’. Our eyes do not see what is in front of us but the brain fills in the gaps.
          Sadly it is those with more gaps then brains who seem to become art critics 😀

      • The familiar can be beautiful through being lived with, and through. And of course all of us do live at a constructed/natural boundary. I know what you mean by this time of year making such places oddly satisfying. I’ve been having conversations about the way the trees in cities buckle the pavements, and how there’s a certain ecstasy in knowing we will be overrun by nature as soon as we let it have its head. The Romantics tried to construct a perfect natural landscape. I think we have moved beyond such Victorian hypocrisies, and onto our own ‘greenwashing’ ones. Thank you for provoking these thoughts with your column.

      • In regard to sky burials being beautiful … Tibetan Buddhists go to such places not only to dispose of the dead but also to meditate …
        I can not think of an appropriate Buddhist quote yet one of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu nags me …
        “Without ugliness, beauty would not exist!”

  • One of my favourite quotes about the sublime is from, I think, Shelley. It goes something like this. ‘I love all waste and solitary space, where we taste the pleasure of beleiving what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.’ I think this means that we feel this sense of beauty or the sublime when it has a direct link with our souls and that must be different for everyone.

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