People tell stories. That is something we have grown up to accept and believe wholeheartedly, and it is true, people do tell stories. For a long period of my photographic career I was told that I needed to photograph people to tell stories that would interest viewers. I believed it. As a documentary photographer what else can one do? Lots! While people do tell stories, both actively and passively, it is often the space around them, frequently so subconsciously created, that can tell a much deeper and more nuanced story.
I once lived in Dublin, the charming and surprisingly dynamic capital of Ireland. During this stay I became very enamoured with contemporary Irish writers and read whichever ones I could find. A trilogy that really caught my attention was Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy. I found that the writing really captured the lighter, friendlier side of the areas I lived in in northern Dublin (the darker, more sinister side has also been described by other writers but that can wait for another day).
And so, it was with a fair degree of anticipation that I sat down to watch the film adaptation of The Commitments. Unfortunately, I was left thinking about what a missed opportunity the movie was. The books managed to convey a deep feeling of place, allowing the city of Dublin to assume a character-like role within the story. While watching the movie I remember remarking how I barely realised that the film was shot in Dublin not because so much had changed since it had been filmed but because everything was cropped so tight to the human characters that the character of the land and cityscapes became anonymous. I was bitterly disappointed by this.
Although I didn't realise it at the time this was my first realisation of the power of landscape. It has the power to tell stories in a way that humans simply cannot. It speaks of immense natural forces and our pathetic attempts to conquer these. It speaks of our continually wavering desire to either dominate or integrate within the natural world. Are we masters of this realm or are we really just another rung on the circle of life? A story with a well characterised landscape can provide these answers without ever posing the question.
Deborah Bright wrote a seminal essay on landscape entitled, Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, in this essay she stated, 'Thus, whatever its aesthetic merits, every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time.' How was this better exemplified than in the masterful first season of True Detective? As Matthew Mcconaughey and Woody Harrelson slowly put together the horrifying puzzle that was at the centre of the series how could one not notice the how the breathtaking natural beauty of Louisiana has been invaded by industrial pollution? Is this not the perfect representation of the world the series is based within? One where the rich (and some not so rich) and powerful do as they please no matter how greedy or perverse. If Mcconaughey's Rust Cohle was the star of the show he was only able to truly shine because of the frame the landscape placed around him.
Another series that knew how to use the symbolic power of landscape was the exquisitely shot French series, Les Revenants, or The Returned, as it became known in English speaking countries. The director, Fabrice Gobert, stated, 'When I wrote the script, I imagined that the town was a real character.' Key to allowing the landscape to take on the necessarily eerie and brooding characteristics was shooting at the right time of day. According to Gobert for many of the important scenes this was just as the sun was disappearing beneath the horizon and this often meant only having 10 minutes to get the scene. It was an extreme method of filming but one that certainly got memorable results placing the Alpine town and its surrounding landscapes right at the centre of this meditative elegy. It's very hard to watch the series and not think about how Simon Schama, an English historian who wrote widely about landscape theory, described landscape as, 'built up as much by memories as by strata of rock'.
If the examples I've included have made you think that landscapes are most useful when the storyline has a supernatural slant to it then I have another to disabuse you of that notion. Top of the Lake is a series from New Zealand that does not star orcs, hobbits or giant apes but it does star the mesmerising landscape of the country's south island. Filmed entirely on location around the small town of Queenstown it's not surprising that almost every review of the series included sections on the landscape. This included the BBC actually asking the question, 'Is New Zealand's greatest actor New Zealand itself?' I'm sure Jemaine Clement would argue this point but I can't help but feel The Australian's review nailed it when they said, 'And the landscape - the geography is really another brooding character - is a place of angularities, shadows and dark moods, or unsettling glaring sunshine, exuding a negative, antagonistic force.'
Which finally brings me to the series that inspired this ramble through wonders of narrative landscapes, The Kettering Effect. In many ways it's a combination of all the series mentioned above. It has the missing girl and damaged heroine of Top of the Lake, the questions of wealth, plunder and all the associated evils so beautifully framed in True Detective as well as the subtle eeriness and hints towards the supernatural that made the first season of Les Revenants such an engrossing watch.
Added to all of this is its incredible use of the Tasmanian landscape. There is an undeniable gothic nature to the landscape that runs through the series where it is often depicted as a malevolent, treacherous presence constantly threatening those that try to live within it. Interestingly, there is a counter current within the series focusing on how we are actually a greater threat to the landscape than it is to us.
The Tasmanian landscape is no stranger to either of these depictions with the trope of Tasmanian Gothic actually dating all the way back to 1983. Not wanting to get too in-depth and analytical about the academic side of things I'll paraphrase and say that there is a constant theme of the present being haunted by Australia's violent narrative of aboriginal dispossession and early colonial/convict history. All of this culminating in a sublime landscape of both grandeur and alienation, a landscape that one will never conquer and must always keep an eye on.
Another thing that these series all have in common is a rather sedate pace. You see, landscape can not be rushed. It is a character of introspection and contemplation. One doesn't force it to speak, you allow it to linger, to gestate, and if you're patient and open to these things you will be rewarded by a story of richness and nuance that is almost impossible to create otherwise.