Phoebe Kiely’s book They Were My Landscape might be the result of intense stopping and staring, but not at some poetic rural idyll. This landscape is generally the more prosaic urban environment which most of us inhabit (she is, after all, based in Salford).
If the concept of ‘mindfulness’ applies to photography, then it applies here par excellence. Some people focus their attention on nature, such as the leaves on the trees as they walk through the park. But Kiely looks longer and harder at her everyday surroundings. She looks at what’s there now.
No snapshots these. This is is the long look. And Kiely’s contemplative metaphysical approach to picture taking is matched by her physical approach to print making: she uses medium-format film and painstakingly hand prints the photographs in a darkroom on fibre-based paper. The images in the book were made from these actual prints, not some JPEGs from a digital camera reproduction, and not even from scanned negatives. So the pictures in They Were My Landscape are the result of a thoughtful and slow process.
They may be slightly smaller and neither quite as exquisite nor as tactile, but the pages in the book are a reasonable facsimile of the prints. True, the richness and the depth of blacks and the texture of the hand-crafted art objects are not quite matched, but the same feelings and thoughts occur to the viewer.
Subtle visual correspondences occur throughout the book: the form of a branch in one picture is redrawn in another by spume on water; the small angular shape in some whitewash is subsequently retraced in a tiny functional graffito; the tattered Union flag is later mirrored by a pert tree stump. There is such delicate subtlety in the photographs that there is something new each time you look.
You hear a lot about slow food, even slow journalism. Perhaps this is slow photography. The time and care invested in making these pictures needs to be matched by time and care spent looking at them.
So stop and look. Really look.
They Were My Landscape by Phoebe Kiely is published by Mack.