I’ve been wondering lately why it is that abstract photography is so often assumed to be politically neutral. It’s tempting to treat the experience of abstract images as a kind of formal exercise or ocular game, but there’s no rule that says a photograph must resemble the real world in order to express concerns about that world. More than three decades after it was first penned, however, critic Ingrid Sischy’s oft-repeated indictment that ‘beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ continues to draw a line between those who understand the photograph as a way of documenting concrete social struggles, and those who use it to pose questions about the medium and the nature of representation itself. Although few would argue that politically effective images can’t also be aesthetically appealing, abstract photography and documentary imagery are usually perceived as two different things.
It is as though we are looking through darkened glass at images of some unnamed cataclysm, unearthed after a long interment, their creator trapped in a landscape that is ruggedly beautiful and full of hidden menace.
Not all of the photographs in Oliver Raymond Barker’s Trinity are abstract. Some are just about recognisable as landscape, but not a form that’s familiar in Western art. There are views of mountains and water – hazy and indistinct, more like smudged pastel drawings than photographs. In other images, the geometry of gates, fences and windowless buildings is locked in the embrace of dense foliage. Vague treeforms stand out against leaden skies. It is as though we are looking through darkened glass at images of some unnamed cataclysm, unearthed after a long interment, their creator trapped in a landscape that is ruggedly beautiful but full of hidden menace.
Trinity was shot in the area around the Faslane peace camp at HMNB Clyde, on the southwestern edge of the Scottish Highlands. The camp has been there for more than 40 years and has long been a hub for anti-nuclear activists – the base is home to four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident nuclear warheads. Barker’s images were created with a portable camera obscura made from an old camping tent, fitted with a lens that projects an image onto a sheet of paper on the tent floor. Unlike a standard camera, there is no way to see the image before the apparatus is set up, so Barker chooses locations intuitively, guided by impressions that go beyond the visual.
The description of Barker’s images as primal – ‘the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal’ – suggests that the unease they evoke is lodged not just in the intellect, but somewhere deep in the gut.
The resulting photographs give the reader relatively little information about what the place looks like, but a lot about what it feels like. Even as an object, Trinity mixes seeing with feeling. Each book is handmade, the photographs printed dark and mostly full-bleed, interleaved with sheets of coloured paper. They seem to vibrate and shimmer with movement. Sequences of monochrome images are interrupted by occasional bursts of vivid colour that an acquaintance of Barker’s described as ‘lysergic’ – evocative of that heady mixture of the hallucinatory, the terrifying and the transcendent that accompanies an acid trip. His persistent use of low viewpoints and occluded foregrounds suggests that the viewer is not looking out over the landscape from a place of safety, but immersed in it, hiding from some unspecified threat. Curator Martin Barnes’ description of Barker’s images as primal – ‘the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal’ – suggests that the unease they evoke is lodged not just in the intellect, but somewhere deep in the gut.
In the 1980s, British geographer Jay Appleton proposed a schema called ‘prospect-refuge theory’ to explain why humans are drawn to particular kinds of landscapes, both real and represented. According to Appleton, ‘natural symbols’ – environmental signs that aren’t created by us, but that are part of our perceptual makeup – helped us to find suitable sites for settlement in the past, and continue to shape our preference for different forms of landscape art. ‘Prospects’, from which we can survey our surroundings, and ‘refuges’, where we can shelter from danger, are appealing because they signal a safe environment. Appleton’s suggestion that landscape aesthetics could be discussed in the context of human biology and natural selection was roundly critiqued at the time. But affective signals – innate perceptions that feed back into rational experience – are now widely acknowledged to play a role in understanding, and Appleton’s theory goes some way towards explaining why it is that Barker’s images, which provide neither prospect nor refuge, feel so unsettling.
Faslane is located on the Rosneath Peninsula, said to be a sanctuary for early Christian pilgrims whose ghosts still haunt the place. A short story contributed by writer Nick Hunt describes his 2002 visit to the camp, and the protests he took part in, some of which involved swimming into the loch. Woven through the book in short segments, Hunt’s words evoke not just the area’s political present, but the layers of myth that suffuse its history. Entering the water on a freezing morning, Hunt imagines a leviathan lurking in its depths: ‘It rises up from the deep below. Its shoulder breaks the surface. Water thunders from its flank. The daylight makes it gleam. For long months it has been submerged in darkness and in secrecy, nursing its destructiveness. It has seen the bottom of the world, the undersides of ice floes. Now its weight is buoyancy. It surfaces to claim the air.’ In Hunt’s text, modern military hardware is cloaked in the historical image of the Loch Ness monster; protesters take their place alongside spectral figures that roam the shoreline. For Barker too, the spirit of this place, its past and its future, is manifested as allegory rather than fact, felt in the sharp-edged beauty of a landscape that is not quite right.
Ultimately, Trinity touches on the broader question of how politics is done, and how this doing might be represented.
Ultimately, Trinity touches on the broader question of how politics is done, and how this doing might be represented. Social media has transformed contemporary protest movements. The power of the photograph to bear witness has been compromised by its ubiquity in an ecosystem that sees individual images competing for visibility in social media echo chambers, where they serve a culture of rival social systems that run on the same machinery of exclusion: if you’re not with us, you’re against us. In a world laid waste by nuclear conflict, though, there can be no meaningful distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and Trinity sets the antipathy and alienation of more extreme forms of direct action against the slower, deeper burn of what Barker calls ‘quiet’ activism. His photographs also hint at a return to a more primitive form of existence and a more fundamental set of moral challenges. And if they leave the viewer unable to rationalise what they are seeing, this uncertainty makes space for new and different intensities of feeling that are the cutting edge of change.