Tywi source habitat 3 blog

All images © Andrea Liggins

This project started because of a meeting between two Professors from very different subject areas, myself and Professor Michael Christie, environmental economist and Theme leader of the Duress project (Diversity in Upland Rivers for Ecosystem Service Sustainability). Up until that point in 2015, artists hadn’t been considered as contributors to the project.

After several discussions I was invited as one of two artists to produce artworks around the theme of the aesthetic value of upland rivers. This is an extract from a photobook that contains a selection of images produced as part of the project.

I visited two locations, the sources or HEADWATERS of the two rivers Tywi and Teifi.

The sources of these rivers is in an area referred to as The Desert of Wales, a term which has been used to describe the area since at least 1860 when the following was written:

“The locality we were now traversing is one of the most untamed and desolate in either division of the Principality; it has indeed with perfect truth been called the “great desert of Wales.” Vast sweeping ranges of hills with round tops, add to the dreary aspect of this nearly unpeopled region.” (John Henry Cliffe, 1860)

I spent most of my time around the Teifi Pools, an area that, although I lived less than sixty miles away, was new to me.

“From the moment I set foot in this isolated landscape I was captivated by it’s wild emptiness that hides a wealth of sensory treasures, it is not ‘dreary’ as Henry Cliffe suggested at all. I am interested in how a place can be experienced through photography, not just how it looks”.

My photography is based upon PhD research, which has continued over the intervening years, and is concerned with how we perceive and value landscape, and how photography influences this perception.

Since the 18th century, images of landscape through paint and later through photography have often conformed to notions of the ‘prospect’ or the ‘picturesque’. In photographic practice there have been certain traditions in both the aesthetics of the image and in the method of its creation. The legend of the landscape photographer striding out into the hills to find the perfect view is still an ingrained part of our collective belief.

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The view from the hill, frequently adopted, however, reduces the environment to form and pattern, and often misses the essential detail, the disappearance of our hedgerow wildlife for example and even the hedgerows themselves (Mabey 1993). The fixed scopic regime of the surveyor places landscape in the position of other, at a distance, and creates a set of value systems based entirely upon a scene’s established picturable qualities, the worthiness of the view.

This may account for the fact that our earliest National Parks were regions labelled picturesque or sublime in the eighteenth century. Environmental conservation difficulties arise when an area being assessed does not fit with conventional conceptions of beauty, and this is particularly evident in landscapes such as lowland peat bogs or isolated areas of wetland. (Liggins 2007, Rolston 2000).

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I use two separate theoretical constructs to underpin the art practice and to determine the methodology. Firstly theories of scopic regimes applied to photographic representation, particularly the ‘Baroque’ (Martin Jay 1988, Sveltlana Alpers 1983 and Suren Lalvani 1996) with its explosive energy and disrupted composition that celebrates bio-diversity, and the disorder and messiness of the natural world. Secondly the more recent non-cognitive views on environmental aesthetics, particularly the ‘aesthetics of engagement’, which prioritises the contextual dimensions of the natural world and promotes a multi-sensory experience of it (Berleant 2013). I have been exploring ‘a landscape to look out of, not at’ (Mabey1993), placing myself and camera within the landscape, immersing myself within it. A combination of the ‘Baroque’ way of seeing and this immersion within the environment also provides imagery that represents another facet of non-cognitive environmental aesthetics known as the ‘mystery model’ (Godlovitch 1994), by using art practices that enhance the physical, sensual and spiritual experience of place.

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Following the paths of the banks of the stream/rivers, I produced photographs from ground level using a low definition plastic lens camera and also its digital equivalent to create a sensation of place rather than its description. The immersion into the landscape was literal, using an underwater camera the photographic viewpoint was from below the surface of the icy streams that feed the Teifi Pools. This photography was based upon theories outlined above and the aim was to find an alternative photographic aesthetic to promote environments that do not conform to the picturesque ideals, to raise questions regarding aesthetic value and assessment of such places.

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One of my quotes from the photobook,

“The aesthetic qualities of this ‘Desert of Wales’ do not just lie in the views, however spectacular they might be, but with the myriad of sensory experiences that envelop you when you become engaged with this place at ground or water level. Although the places seem empty and that is wonderful in itself, I believe they can be really appreciated and valued through celebrating their complexity, their diversity and their unknowable elusiveness. I hope these photographs give a sense of how it feels to experience these places, and will help to form new perspectives”.

A recent description of my photography suggested that, “ By adopting a viewpoint within nature Liggins reminds us of our interdependent relationship with the environment and its contemporary vulnerability.” (Webster, 2012)

In her analysis of the history of landscape photography in Land Matters, Liz Wells suggests that “Liggins is interested in counteracting legacies of Romanticism, and Cartesian objectification of nature, suggesting more intimate encounters within rural and semi-rural spaces”.

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