music by Howard Skempton & photography by Peter Henry Emerson
Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff
This short film was made early in 2021 during the grey, suspended animation of another lockdown. Little pockets of creativity, no matter how small, stood out like landmarks in the thick flow of time and I welcomed the chance to shake off the stupor and - fleetingly - return to my former pattern of life.
The film - a simple idea - was one such landmark. Pianist Ian Buckle was recording Howard Skempton’s Reflections (composed 2003) at Stapleford Granary for a separate project. We - myself, Ian and music producer David Lefeber - were drawn to the photograph on the cover of the score. It's a picture of a man in a rowing boat on still water called ‘Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff’. It was taken by Peter Henry Emerson (1856 - 1936), a writer and photographer whose work is one of the earliest examples of photography promoted as an art form. Howard Skempton writes of his Reflections being inspired by Emerson’s photography, although there is no direct correlation between the piano pieces and specific photographs. Ian suggested we pair each piece with an Emerson photograph to create a montage, and so we did: 11 short pieces for solo piano bound to 11 photographs.
My role was to select the photographs from the hundreds which Emerson took throughout his lifetime. I limited myself to his early photographs from the same period as ‘Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff’ and the ones I chose are all connected to Norfolk, part of Emerson’s decade-long project (1885 to 1895) to document the work and lives of the people in the marshy landscape of the Norfolk Broads. The wherries and waterways were his muse, and Emerson spent years gathering stories and logging records of wildlife and weather, and was keen to expose the threats of industrialization to traditional ways of life. You can find both these concerns in his pictures; a derelict windmill stands alongside a steam-driven dredging mill, a lone fisherman is dwarfed by nature, dishevelled haystacks rise from flooded marshlands, a steamship struggles to break through ice on the Broads.
Emerson entered the photographic scene in the mid-1880s, controversially advocating what he called ‘naturalistic photography’. He sought fidelity to the experience of ordinary life and was vitriolic in his attacks on photographic assembled compositions which involved costumed actors with props representing rural life. To create his naturalistic vision, Emerson mimicked ‘ways of seeing’: he focussed the lens narrowly on his chosen object, imitating foveal vision (the narrow field of sharpness where we direct our vision). Like a film or theatre director, he controls the gaze of the viewer in order to tell the story in the way that he wants to. He is not opposed to making changes and intensifying the drama to suit his cause: in ‘A Stiff Pull’ he adds a threatening, stormy sky to the lone farmer to create a scene of heroic labour. He blurs the facial details of his human subjects so that they become, to quote Carl Fuldner, ‘generic icons of rural virtue’.
A Stiff Pull
Emerson’s beautiful pictorial stories (and they are stories - a monoscenic world depicted in a single frame) seemed to me to be frozen in time and action. The ‘director's gaze’ along with the ‘stilling’ of objects (a boat, animals, smoke from a chimney, people at work) separate the photograph from the world that it depicts, rather like a process of ‘cutting out’ the object from the place it inhabits.
But what happens when we add music to these images? I was wary of superimposing a new framework onto something already very complete, of creating ‘meanings’ which were not intended, of each art form filling up spaces in the other. And I was wary of the multi-dimensional recesses of ‘time’ at play: the linking of 19th and 21st centuries, the static pictorial world and the temporal movement of music, all compounded by the strange blurred-time in which we were living.
In my imagination the music seems somehow to unlock the photographs. It animates and transfigures the scenes, breaks up the order, opens up possibilities and alternative narratives: suspense, curiosity, surprise, unusualness, contrasts, plot switches. With the music, my eyes explore the images more fully and I want to look deep into the marsh waters, peer into the houses and gaze beyond tree-lined horizons. I half expect to see migrating winter birds flying across Emerson’s steely skies. The highest pitches of the harmony become pin-prick points of the wherry sails, the lowest pitches, their glassy reflection. As a small fisherman’s boat floats motionlessly, silently on water, the music is in the invisible ripples. Howard wrote to me; ‘The oars are resting on the water in Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff... I find the stillness of the waters to be preternatural’.
It was in this meditation on blurred thresholds that I started to think about our programming for Summer 2022 at Stapleford Granary. Inspired by the many layers of reflection embedded in the Skempton-Emerson project, we’re creating a season of exhibitions and events which asks questions of the landscape around us; how we preserve and care for it, how we move through it, how it (and our perceptions of it) changes over time. And underpinning these questions is the strange phenomenon of how something so vast and so global as the pandemic leads us to take more notice of - and pleasure in - small, everyday things, such as the changing seasons and patterns of nature on our own doorsteps. ‘The most touching image of the montage is the one with the children’ said Howard Skempton, ‘It reminds me that a single chord can contain a whole world of memories’.
Kate Romano, December 2021
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