I finished my Field Notes project! The final book contains thirty-six pages of photos and poems. I’ve printed a small edition of 18, and it’s also available through Blurb. This project was graciously supported by a Professional Project Grant from the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council. As part of my grant I wrote a final report for the NLAC, and thought I’d post it here.
Field Notes is a series of poems and photographs about writing outdoors, and explores symmetries between human relationships and our attachments to landscape and place.
The work consists of fifteen photographs, each paired with a poem. Each photograph is of a brief phrase composed outdoors with found materials, such as spruce needles or reeds. These photographed passages are reminiscent of fragments from letters, suggesting distance and longing. They allude to relationships (a distant friend, a long-lost lover, a cherished place), and share an anonymity with messages left on highwayside stones, declarations of love carved in treebark, or postcards found in a curiosity shop.
I made the photographs first, mostly in fields, forests, beaches and backyards near Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. Each involved finding a place to work outdoors (preferably where I would not be interrupted), spending some time in the location, identifying a material to work with, assembling the text, and finally photographing it. Some materials were easier to work with than others; the spruce needles were particularly finicky, especially if it was at all windy.
When I would go out to work on the project I’d bring a list of possible passages to write, but I found that the best images ended up being the ones where I thought up a new text on the spot, in response to the location. I made about twenty-five of these works in total between fall 2013 and summer 2014, and chose the best fifteen for the final series. I printed eight of these as a series of postcards.
Fifteen poems comprise the other half of Field Notes. As I worked on the photographs I kept a small notebook, noting details about my working process or the environment around me (the softness of rotting wood, a crow overhead, finding a toad). In the summer and fall of 2014, I polished each page of notes into a poem. Some required much more reworking than others, and in general I found this the most difficult part of this project. Most of my notes started as descriptive passages about working with natural materials, but the poetry expanded to describe the wider range of reactions and emotions that welled up during the making of the work, from disappointment and bitterness to a sense of wonder and renewal.
Generally, the poems are intended to give context and description to the photographs. While the photos can work on their own, the poems only really make sense when displayed alongside the photographs. A book seemed like a natural medium for this work.
After completing the photos and poems, I began to put them together into a book. I am a graphic designer, so I was able to do this myself using various software. I made a final photograph for the cover, and wrote end notes and a “thank you” page. Once everything was ready, I ordered a test print of the book. It arrived after a few weeks and I made a few small changes, then ordered a small edition of books. The printing is done through Blurb.com, a high-quality print-on-demand service. The books are hardcover, 36 pages, full colour, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out.
Like any creative project, Field Notes evolved as I worked on it. I had originally planned to make all the photographs in the fall of 2013, but the snow settled in sooner than expected, and the snow-covered landscape didn’t lend itself well to the kind of images I wanted to make. So the work ended up taking much longer than I’d anticipated, but I think it is all the better for it. The photographs benefit from being spread out over the course of a year, and are littered with little indications of season, such as orange autumn needles or new spring shoots. The poems, too, have a much richer sense of observing changes in a landscape over time.
I found myself much more nervous than I’d expected about working anywhere where I might be asked what I was doing. As a result, I sought out places where I could work without being disturbed, which were sometimes the backyards of close friends. So the landscapes I worked with ended up being less “wild” than I had imagined. Some of the poems explore this tension between domesticity and wilderness, the rhythm of the human world versus the vagaries of wind and weather. Made soon after I returned from a year living in California, the work is also a little bit about rediscovering a sense of home.
For a project that involves a lot of solitary work, this also ended up being a more social endeavor than I’d imagined. During the making of the photos there were many opportunities to connect with friends and fellow artists: walking with a friend up the pipeline trail in Margaret Bowater Park to scout out locations, catching a ride around the bay, or borrowing the backyards of colleagues in Corner Brook. I also posted work on Facebook as I progressed, and a few people made suggestions which ended up being incorporated into the final work.
My working process for this project was inspired partly by the work of Andy Goldsworthy. When I teach, I often show students the documentary Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides, so I’ve seen it many times. I am also interested in the work of Marlene Creates, who often bridges photography and language in her interpretations of the Newfoundland landscape. The work of Nina Katchadourian, who photographs small interventions in natural scenes (such as repairing a spider’s web with thread), was also in the back of my mind. As I worked on Field Notes I came across the work of a few new artists whose work resonated, including Song Dong (who writes ephemeral messages with water) and India K (who photographs cut-paper texts hanging in various landscapes).
As part of my research for Field Notes, I wrote an article about Paul-Émile Miot’s remarkable 1857 photograph of Album Rock in Ship Cove (on the Northern Peninsula). Miot’s photograph shows the word Album painted in large white letters on a prominent rock which, over 150 years later, is still known as Album Rock. He intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos.
As I worked on my Field Notes photographs on the edges of my home in western Newfoundland, the images also found a home on the web. I posted photographs on Tumblr as I made them, along with a few animations I’d made from some of the photos, and received lots of interest and encouragement. I had first started using Tumblr for a previous project (a book of photos and handwritten notes called Small Landmarks), so I already had a small audience when I began posting work from this project. Tumblr has a strange and capricious community, and its users freely share and remix images with enthusiasm and earnestness. One of my images (i don’t know how to say this) has been “liked” and reblogged more than 70000 times. It continues to bounce around the web, and has undoubtedly been seen by many more people. Another image was posted on the Tumblr page of Hyperallergic. I don’t know that this implies an engagement with the work beyond tapping on an image on a phone screen, but it’s still encouraging. I also received a few touching messages from complete strangers, which was wonderfully heartening.
When photographing do you see what i mean, I also made a short video of the sun passing through the letters as if reading the words. This video was screened at Eastern Edge Gallery as part of Wade In, a travelling series of art videos.
As I worked on the poetry part of the project, I printed postcards of eight different photographs from Field Notes. I really enjoyed sending these postcards to friends, and mailed about thirty of them with handwritten messages. The phrases I spelled out in the photographs are meant to feel like fragments from letters (with any luck; write back soon; these things happen), so in a way postcards are the perfect medium for the photos. I like the idea of postcards spreading handwriting in the world. In a world of screens and printed pages, handwritten postcards feel simultaneously archaic and intensely personal.
I have had artwork from a previous project accepted for publication in issue 20 of Riddle Fence (which should be published in November or December), and they’ve agreed to insert a postcard from Field Notes in each copy of the issue as well. I also have postcards for sale at Monastiraki, a gallery / art shop in Montreal.
This project has been challenging in many ways. It felt good to make art out of my “comfort zone,” which is very much digital media. Working with very tiny materials and tweezers on breezy days taught me a lot about patience. It was also very useful for me to tackle a serious series of poems, as writing is becoming a larger part of my creative practice. I learned a lot about my personal limitations, and got better at balancing the need to plan ahead with the desire to work spontaneously. I also realized that I love postcards as an art medium – they’re an inexpensive and personal way to give my photos and writing to others. This project also helped me improve several practical skills, such as working with found materials, book design, and using Tumblr effectively to promote work.
One conclusion from this project is that I’d like to work outdoors more often, expending less of my creative energy in front of a screen. Printing postcards has allowed me to share my work in a new way that I find intriguing, and will continue to explore. I also moved to St. John’s over the summer, and I find it easier here to focus on both making art and writing, and to connect with a larger art community.
Making Field Notes has been an experience that’s given me many moments of quiet solitude, mindfulness, and taught me a lot about frustration and patience. I’m very grateful to the NLAC for the generous grant that made this possible.
Paul-Émile Miot was a naval officer and photographer who documented the French migratory cod fishery in Newfoundland between 1857 and 1860. He made this photograph in 1857, having convinced his shipmates to paint the word Album on a large rock in Sacred Bay. The print is slightly damaged, and it’s difficult to spot some of the sailors. One is silhouetted prominently at the top of the outcrop. Below, a second man stands above a short ladder, his white shirt easily mistaken for a punctuation mark as he embellishes the letter M. A third lurks beneath the L, barely visible but for his collar and a staff he is holding.
Apparently, Miot intended to use the image as the title page of an album of Newfoundland photos. The paint could not have lasted long, but because of this image the landmark is still known as Album Rock, and there is a small exhibit about Miot in the nearby community of Ship Cove. Miot’s photographs are some of the earliest made in Newfoundland & Labrador, and many (including Rocher peint par les marins français) can be found in the National Archives of Canada. The National Gallery is currently exhibiting Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland.
I am charmed by Album Rock’s implausible dignity. Atop a wind-blasted rock in the far north of the island, a man poses, aloof, as if in deep thought. There is a kind of yearning in the stylized detail of the lettering, every serif carefully in place despite being bedraggled by the rocky surface. The albumen print is scuffed and scratched, seemingly as timeworn as the rock it depicts. Looking at Ship Cove on a map, the notched peninsula itself is like a serif on the glyph of Newfoundland.
I feel certain a kinship with a man who, in the age of wet-plate photography, would expend precious plates and chemicals on a whimsical experiment. “In spite of the difficulties encountered on board in setting up a small, suitably-equipped photographic laboratory,” wrote Miot’s collaborator Georges-Charles Cloué, “Mr. Miot has succeeded in producing photographs of harbour entrances which offer the highest promise of what this highly-skilled officer could produce with an instrument that has a powerful lens and if he were not frequently halted by an inadequate supply of chemicals.” One hundred and fifty-six years later, looking at Album Rock, it is difficult to imagine Miot describing to his men the necessity of painting the massive word. Scrounging up buckets of leftover paint, perhaps improvising mops into paintbrushes. Historical photography so often preserves scenes of industry or formality, much less often such moments of idle whimsy. There is something incredulous about the entire scene. It’s as if Miot managed, somehow, to photograph a daydream.
A few years ago, walking in Point Pleasant Park, I found a seagull feather. I dipped it in seawater and wrote with it on a rock, the first phrase that came to mind: i miss you more on cloudy days. I photographed the words as they evaporated. Later I made another of these, spelling out with fragments of seaweed: why am i not surprised. I left it for the wind to disassemble. I called these field notes and wrote a poem to accompany each.
I’m happy to report that I’ve received a Professional Projects grant from the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council to continue this series of gestures. So I’ll be posting progress and research notes here as I go.
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