This study visit was to view the exhibitions by Michal Iwanowski (Clear of People) and Paul Gaffney (We make the Path by Walking). This was an excellent opportunity to see the work of both photographers in close proximity to compare and contrast their individual approach to their subjects, both in terms of the selected images and how they chose to display them. For me, as one with limited experience of exhibitions, this visit reinforced the fact that seeing a body of work in a gallery really does so much more for the viewer than seeing the same photographs on-line, or even in a book. I was also struck, once again, by the impact the layout of the exhibition and the mounting of the individual photographs has on the viewer. Whilst both of the exhibitions were of landscapes the intent was very different, which, I thought, was reflected in the individual images and their presentation.
Michal Iwanowski, in retracing the journey of his grandfather and great uncle made after escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Russia, portrays very inhospitable landscapes with the occasional glimpse of what must have appeared to those men as absolute luxury in respect of protection from the elements and an opportunity for rest, although it is highly unlikely they would have been able to take advantage of many for fear of capture – is that what Michal is hinting at in his photograph of the bus crossing a somewhat barren landscape or the occasional isolated house? The photograph of the discarded cabbages lying in a pool of dirty water summed up the survival aspect of this epic journey, living off the land. Having undertaken some winter survival training in Norway I found myself easily slipping into the landscape and imagining what it must have been like for those two men and all that they endured; puts into perspective just a few nights ‘surviving’ in the open in those conditions. Certainly for me Michal’s desire to “encourage viewers’ reflection of their own histories and relationship to landscape as an anchor for personal and family experience” came true. In respect of the layout of the exhibition, I am still unsure as to whether the lack of any indication as to the geographical location of each shot, or indeed having them in sequence with the route, detracts from the impact; on the one hand there is the uncertainty which invokes the imagination but on the other, for those who like to relate things it could be a cause for some frustration – I guess it depends upon which Myers-Briggs Type Indicator you are!
Paul Gaffney’s exhibition, in contrast to Michal’s, is a lot more varied in both content and layout (use of differing heights for displaying the photographs giving some indication of the angle of view and thereby drawing the viewer in and also placing certain images at strategic points to guide the path of the viewer). Since this reflects a walk of some 2000 miles of varied terrain in order to explore “the act of walking as a form of meditation and its power to induce a heightened sense of awareness of one’s surroundings” it is not surprising that the images are varied as they are surely portrayed to induce different feelings depending upon the landscape being viewed. Clearly Paul is an exponent of ‘mindful walking’ which, if you try it, does heighten your senses and the surrounds do influence your feelings. As with Michal’s exhibition there was no indication of the location, although I thought there were groupings of similar terrain and, as you travelled through the exhibition, I felt there was an indication of passing through differing regions as indicated by the topography in the photographs. As I sit here reflecting on the exhibition I am still unsure as to whether what is being sought by Paul is delivered for me. Yes, the images are captivating and I know from personal experience that walking in different terrain does influence the inner being but this is also enhanced, or otherwise, by other senses. In this case I found myself engaged more by the question of where it was and, in some cases, why desecration of the landscape was being perpetrated rather than inducing the concept of meditation as I understand it. With knowing what this exhibition is seeking to do I accept that the viewer might be encouraged to explore the concept and thereby achieve its aim; perhaps the viewer’s own definition of meditation will influence the feelings these images induce. From a personal perspective, whilst certain photographs, or indeed paintings, are conducive to meditation and one can envisage walking that ground and being mindful of all that is present, I would have to physically walk the ground shown in the majority of Paul’s photographs to discover the concept being postulated – so if it encourages the viewers to try it for themselves then perhaps he has achieved the aim. Something of a ‘ramble’ on my part but I think, in summary, many of the images in this exhibition generated ‘questions’ rather than ‘feelings’; consider Thich Nhat Hanh (2011, p.197):
During the time you are practicing mindfulness, you stop talking – not only the talking outside, but the talking inside. The talking inside is the thinking, the mental discourse that goes on and on inside. Real silence is the cessation of talking – of both the mouth and of the mind. This is not the kind of silence that oppresses us. It is a very elegant kind of silence, a very powerful kind of silence. It is the silence that heals and nourishes us.
My thanks to Jesse and Helen for running this study visit and it was great to meet other students and exchange thoughts both on the exhibitions and in the following seminar.
Hanh, T. (2011) Your true home the everyday wisdom of thich nhat hanh. Boston: Shambhala Publication, Inc
Gaffney, P. (2014) We make the path by walking. Available from: http://paulgaffneyphotography.com/We-Make-the-Path-by-Walking [Accessed 24 February 2014]
Iwanowski, M. (2014) Clear of people. Available from: http://www.michaliwanowski.com/#/clear-of-people/4577315405 [Accessed 24 February 2014]