Thursday, April 30, 2009


Having posted the post on posts really quite flippantly, on reflection, and reading your comments, I find I have quite a lot more to say, on posts, and on the idea of typology, and the connections between those two things, as wellas quite a lot more photos of posts. This in turn lent itself to another punning title, which clinched the matter. (Though I think I'll resist Dave's clever idea of a blog entirely dedicated to pictures of posts, a post a day...)

In fact, one of the first photos I ever put on the internet was of a fence post! It was before ever I had a blog, but I heard through a friend's of the Festival of the Trees, and asked if she'd publish some pictures I'd recently taken on a trip to New Zealand. They were of the great forest god, Tane Mahuta, whose avatar is in the mighty kauri tree in the north of the North Island.

It is very difficult to photograph these trees and give any sense of scale which demonstrates their enormity, but in the shot below, the tree fern directly to the right of the trunk is perhaps the size of an ordinary sycamore or somesuch in an English park, and only half of Tane Mahuta's trunk is visible.

A day or two later, I was scrambling about on a headland, where the wild white freesias filled the air with perfume, above a beach of radiantly silver sand, when I encountered a more humble, but nevertheless imposing, incarnation of the forest god, in the shape of an old fence post.

My friend agreed to put the pictures on her blog, but suggested that I could always get a blog of my own, if only to post about trees once a month. So I did, and named it after a tree I was fond of, though I rarely post about trees now.

I've even been known to draw fence posts. For the Flickr group pool, 'Drawing Close to Nature', which I love but unfortunately don't contribute to as often as I'd like.

Back in the winter, over Christmas, when we had those amazing crystalline air frosts and ethereal morning mists followed by cerulean blue skies, I also collected a number of photos of fences and posts, with a view to a post that never happened. I tend to think blogging, especially of photos, shoud be seasonal, topical, immediate; once the moment is past it's too late, but why? It is often quite interesting to be suddenly taken back to another season.

The posts and wires, outlined solarised by the frost, introduced a graphic element, markers in a landscape whose form had become uncertain,

and this function became further enhanced with the more overt meaning of the finger post,

and the weightier one of the old stone cross on the corner.

So what is a post? It is a node and and a nexus, a support and a pin, it helps to define, delimit and enclose - and if you are a cow with a persistent itch, you can scratch your back on it...

Which provides one connection point to the subject of photographic typologies (there are others, stay with me if you will ...). It's to do with rhythm and pattern and markers, of containing things within fields, and with finding what you're looking for, to scratch an itch.

Cara Phillips' criticism about typologies giving work 'the illusion of cohesion and intellectual rigor', which I think I was not alone in thinking initially sounded somewhat intimidating and snobbish, does perhaps have a point, (though I'd be the first to admit to being one of those 'people who have no real conceptual thinking in their work'; I'm a blogger who does it for fun for goodness sake, not a conceptual artist or documentary social commentator...).

I suppose the possibly spurious sense of meaning would derive from the sense of order, of pattern and rhythm, qualities which, as a species, we are constantly seeking to give a sense of meaning in a world that sometimes threatens not to have any. The appeal of the typology is the appeal of the stamp album, the bird book, the wallchart of flags of the world, of the collection of whatever, variations on a theme, things the same but differing, and of things labelled and marked. And, as Phillips also points out, it's quite difficult to avoid reference to typology in photography, the medium lends itself to it, that's what it's always been used for, often without any artistic or aesthetic motive, simply as a utilitarian record, or sometimes for more sinister purposes. But it satisfies us aesthetically because, I suppose, we like order.

A collection of things, too, often contains an implicit narrative. I remember years ago seeing and being fascinated by pictures of different kinds of barbed wire, which, apparently is much prized by certain collectors , who understand its history, often military, and its associations. The electric fencing many of these posts support has replaced barbed wire - though some of those I've shown pertain to large square wire mesh, to enclose a small and unusual paddock of sheep, or chain link, to seal off someone's residential property, hence the red 'Propriété privé' sign in the previous collection. To contain and restrain cattle, one strand of electric wire is enough, sheep, agile and heavy fleeced, are less easily discouraged from wandering, and human's who wish to keep other humans off their patch resort to the more forbidding chain link. Electric fencing is, on the whole, a gentler and more environmentally friendly solution than barbs; it can be powered by a small solar panel -though it rarely is, more often a portable rechargeable battery - smaller animals, and people, can pass freely and safely under or over it, and though Molly has occasionally fallen foul of a stray strand, and great has been the screaming and shuddering that ensues, it is nevertheless less damaging than the torn skin and blood poisoning that barbed wire can cause. Now, she seems to hear the tell-tale electric pulse, and give it a wide berth. In some of the pictures, the posts are wound about not with wire but with blue bailer twine. This product, ubiquitous in the agrarian landscape, is often used as a makeshift boundary for the cattle, for example along the tracks where they are driven from place to place; they seem to see the electric blue line as real electric wire, and, at least for a short time, can be fooled into not pushing against it. Sometimes, on a foggy, monochrome Brittany day, a line or squiggle of the turquoise twine is the brightest thing in the landscape.

Electric fancing has also replaced the child labour that, within living memory, was used to keep watch over the animals.

Typologies often deal with man-made objects, in isolation ( check out Germans Bernd and Hilla Becher, I tried to work them into this but couldn't really without unacceptable digression, that's a Wiki link, and there's also a good article here, from an exhibition of their work at the Tate Modern). But I find what appeals about the fence posts is that they seem to provide a transition, a conciliation, between the natural, organic forms and textures of the wood, and of the lichens and fungi that grow on them, and the human intervention in the landscape which uses them to demarcate, contain and enclose. Often the timber around here is chestnut, split along the grain rather than sawn, like the chestnut rail fencing that the young Abraham Lincoln is said to have spent his youth making, and the random roughness and irregularities of the wood, the grain and lines and knots, the peeling bark left on it, are offset by the geometry, the lines and circles, of the wires and the ceramic resistors attached to them.

So, there you are, from looking closer at something as banal and unremarkable as the humble fence post, I seem to have learned quite a lot, and some previously neglected photos have seen the light of day. Thanks to everyone who left thoughtful comments and observations, and got me reflecting and looking. Perhaps my conceptual thinking has even come on a bit! I'll keep you posted if I have any more insights...


Zhoen said...

Drawing dark crayon boundaries, mathematical sets of circles. using utilitarian discarded wood and wire.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Interesting thoughts Lucy. It reminds me of a book of French poetry I read a little while back called 'Jalons'. I didn't find the title very easy to translate but I think it means something like 'waymarkers' or 'mileposts', possibly both of these meanings. I prefer the French word though and its resonance with "talons" giving the idea of gripping or taking hold of something.

Are posts not also like Robinson's Crusoe's markers of time passing: 6 posts with a cross bar representing the day of rest.

Another thought: posts may be used to keep animals in, but also to keep them out and so they stand at the fault line created by that primordial rupture between the Cains and the Abels of this world: between those who till the soil and those who mind sheep. As I remember, Bruce Chatwin made much of this division in his book The Songlines, siding himself with the Abels, the eternal wanderers.

Bee said...

Lucy, when you do a thing, you do it thoroughly!

I do think that your "post" pictures have benefited from their winter setting. As much as I love all of the green, it does tend to overwhelm, doesn't it? You have highlighted these simple shapes beautifully.

Something about that finger post beckons me.

christopher said...

I carry a barbed wire scar from a brief period when I lived as a second grader in Midland Texas, a West Texas town near Odessa. Oil country. I was 8 years old. I tried to cross a downed fence at the back of my step grandfather's property and hooked myself on the inside of my left knee.

julie said...

Ooo, I love the drawing, Lucy!

Granny J said...

LOvely pictures (as ever)and a most interesting commentary on the subject of posts. Typology, I'm sure, also has to do with the very human insistence on finding patterns in the most random of stimuli. Perhaps it is a necessity for us.

Jean said...

Quelle belle série de photos !
J'adore en particulier la troisième en descendant !
Malheureusement je comprends mal la langue anglaise !
J'ai vu qu'existe un site anglais : Festival of the trees .
J'aurais bien aimé qu'un tel festival existe en France !

Merci pour votre mot sur mon blog !

Roderick Robinson said...

Too much, too much for a piddly comment to handle. The posts are perhaps atavistic, gradually reverting to a fossilised version of what they were in their youth.
Barbed wire is lethal by intent yet heavily and poignantly symbolic - a silhouetted curve suggests the whole of WW1. But how about this for ships passing in the night? Remember Plutarch's admission about the cheese shop in Neal's Court? My diary from 2001. "Ahipara - Waipoua Forest. Visited 'God of the Forest' and 'Father of the Forest', first and second largest kauris in NZ. Nicely arranged walks for both." I'm particularly proud of the poetic incisiveness of that second sentence. My creativeness, it seems, never sleeps. Do you recall overtaking a shuffling giant clearly underwhelmed by too much nature?

Unknown said...

Barbed wire is fascinating both for its horror and sculptural intererest. It is dfficult to keep the two aspects apart. The painter Graham Sutherland, who was interested in painting thorns, was I think also drawn to barbed wire.

Not entirely irrelevant, a famous cartoon showed a post in the middle of a barren moor. The post carried a notice with the words "Do not throw stones at this notice"

Pam said...

Goodness, Lucy, is there anything you can't do? Please tell. You write, photograph and draw so well and you know what typology is. I mean, I can work this out from your post but I'd never heard of it. I'm feeling thick. Please confess something: you can't do algebra, or you can't knit or you're not very good at handstands. (Actually that wouldn't help; I could never really do handstands myself.)

Pam said...

Lucy, I've been doing the ironing and suddenly wondered if my comment would come across as sarcastic. I didn't mean it like that at all! It was admiring - I hope you realise this!

Lucas said...

Where wood and wire and grasses meet, is just legible the story of us and the Earth's story. fabulous photo stream!

herhimnbryn said...

Just back from walking with Dog. Boundry posts along pastures here are wet with dew this morning. Thought of your previous post when I saw them. So, there you were L. walking with me along a track on a chilly morn in Australia!
Then I came home and found this stunning 'post'. Like bb, a comment box doesn't do justice. But, that frost has me graving some sparkle in the mornings here.

Glorious, L, glorious.

herhimnbryn said...

That would be Craving!

HLiza said...

So far my passion in photography still focus so much on portraits, people and buildings. Nature..I'm very drawn to..but not very talented and I don't quite like the results. You're good in drawing (I've realized that for quite some time!) and your poetic soul make you appreciate nature more I supposed. I enjoy coming here every time with so much poetry in your words and photos. So calming.

The Joined up Cook said...

I just keep coming back to have a look at these.

Especially that one with the lichen on it.

It looks like a story in wood.

The Joined up Cook said...

I just keep coming back to have a look at these.

Especially that one with the lichen on it.

It looks like a story in wood.

The Joined up Cook said...

In fact I liked it so much, I posted that twice. Sorry.

June Saville said...

I'm into fence posts too - the older the better. They often have such character. They protect. They enclose. They create order. They have integrity.
June in Oz