In 2019, a friend of mine and I decided to go hiking in the Isle of Skye in the middle of winter. While we’re both life long environmentalists and both love nature, we found that we come to the same things from different places. Talking about photography, he (a British man) remarked that he felt photographers from the USA often were antagonistic towards nature, and that British people often had more harmonious attitudes towards the outdoors. I, from Australia, responded by pointing out that in the UK most danger has been exterminated and what is left is a very human-friendly landscape. We spoke then about whether it is fair to claim harmony with nature if it is the result of extinction.
Sam Contis’ book Overpass comprises photographs of the human-friendly British landscape and constantly alludes to the tension between the outdoors and human habitation. I think that Contis, through this book, engages in a romantic view of the environment, while consistently reminding viewers of how human-centric most of the United Kingdom is. I read her depiction of the outdoors (as opposed to nature) as romantic: it is clear that Contis feels appreciation and love for the English landscape . There is a tenderness, attention to detail and intimacy in her depiction of her subjects that feels genuine, though Contis is careful to never let this overwhelm the deeper questions of the book.
Because of how she has handled this balance, throughout the book I continued to wonder: is a certain type of romantic view made easier where one feels safe? Could this type of bucolic view of the land be as easy somewhere inhospitable or dangerous for humans? Does manicuring an environment to be lovely to look at and easy to move through rob nature of something essential: the feeling that there’s something else out there?
Returning to the book, it is primarily a book of photographs of stiles. A quintessentially British construction, a stile is a way over a fence. It could be a three stair staircase, a latched gate, a few rocks or even a plank or two, but in each case, stiles provide walkers a welcome passage.
Flicking through the book, then, most of the photographs comprise of stiles, fences, fields and sparse forests. One of the most interesting things about this book is how varied the images look and feel. Whereas many typographic projects tend to rely on repeated framing of a subject, Contis plays with the camera’s position to the stiles: closer, further away, on top of and even a few motion-blurred images as she crosses over one. What results is a book with a specific language that never quite feels as repetitious as it really is.
Overpass comprises photographs of the human-friendly British landscape and constantly alludes to the tension between the outdoors and human habitation.
At times, Contis shows viewers how absurd some of these passageways really are. In some cases, almost empty fields are stamped by a fence and a gate, neither coming nor going anywhere notable. Other times, the stiles themselves are so ramshackle and minor (a plank wedged into a short stone fence) they feel redundant, almost silly. But what is crucial throughout this work is the sense that wherever one goes in the United Kingdom one cannot escape other people. While you might not spot a person (and none are photographed), their presence is always there. One is never, really, separate from other people. Therefore, in the places depicted in the book nature is never, really, given its own space.
Midway through the book, an essay by Daisy Hildyard punctuates the photographs. Primarily, this essay touches on the concept that a landscape is a historical record. Hildyard engages with this thinking, drawing parallels between bacteria forming and the creation of desire paths, writing further about forms of farming and the patience they require. However, I found it a bit odd not to mention how the stiles, fences and fields exemplify the result of a prolonged period of taming and control. It was especially confusing that Hildyard quoted George Monbiot without quoting his extensive writing about how grass fields are a dead zone, robbed of life by the desire to farm, and his claim that Britain has been ‘destroyed’. Contis’ photographs, to me at least, situate themselves in a romantic view without becoming too rose-coloured. The essay, however, did not remark on the cost borne by flora and fauna that comes from extensively clearing, farming, monocropping and creating easy passage for human users.
While you might not spot a person (and none are photographed), their presence is always there. One is never, really, separate from other people.
As the book nears its end, a subtle seasonality is introduced. With the photographs made with winter’s snow, the way that previous images have recorded the seasons suddenly becomes clearer. Crucially, the photos of winter feel much more stark and desolate which balances the work. This is a smart strategy, and allows an engaging re-read of the work. And the final few pictures, where stiles and fences are absorbed into the thicket or forest, really makes it seem that perhaps these structures (or the thinking that built them) is fading away. Whether that is for better or worse, though, is up to the reader.
Contis’ previous monograph, Deep Springs (MACK, 2017), touched on similar themes of land use and our relationship with the natural world through photographing an agricultural college. Overpass is an examination of structure more than behaviour but both works engage with a caring view of place. Overpass is a very intriguing book, which manages to use a romantic surface to hint and probe at the more troubling and one-sided relationship represented by the ways we have stamped our desire onto the land. In this way, the book is imbued both with a sense of appreciation and a very gentle sense of remorse. At the end of it all, the book shows viewers where we can walk, what our paths and barriers look like so that Contis can ask one of the most vital questions of our time: ‘should we?’.