Hilary Mantel loves them and pioneering American photographer Stephen Shore had a hand in the development of them - George Miles on photography, the picturesque and his Views of Matlock Bath
“Straight away I knew here was someone who saw things in the same way as I do," he adds, "and he had managed to perfectly express this back in the mid-70s.”
Shore has been mentoring and guiding Miles on a photographic journey for the last decade and his Views of Matlock Bath, a touring exhibition with accompanying monograph from Black Dog Publishing seems, on the surface, to be influenced by the the 'new topographics’ movement pioneered by the American photographer in the 1970s.
They certainly resonate with the strangeness and beauty of the American towns that Shore and his contemporaries, such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, photographed in the 1970s. But Miles’ large-format colour photographs also mine a wider British landscape tradition and are rich with the dialogues and dissonances of a place that has cradled both tourism and industry.
One of the first package holiday destinations (organised by Thomas Cook in 1841), Matlock Bath was much admired by Byron and Ruskin for its mountainous vistas. Yet only a mile or so downstream, on the banks of the River Derwent, lies Richard Arkwright’s First Cotton Mill. A more awkwardly prototypical English place you couldn’t hope to find.
So how did the guiding hand of Shore come to bear on such English subject matter? Miles’ first encounter with his work was at Tate’s 2003 exhibition, Cruel and Tender. For many artists, the experience of finding someone who had achieved the very thing you had spent years striving for would have been a crushing one; but the meditative Miles says he found it “liberating”.
“Not only because he was in Tate Modern and people were looking at his work,” he adds, “but also because I thought, ‘ok, I’m not insane to be looking at motel table tops and Formica and things like that.'”
Five years after his epiphany, Miles sat down and sent the eminent photographer a considered email. Now the exchange of ideas flowing between the pair has resulted in a series of beautiful photographs that celebrate the everyday juxtapositions of a very English landscape.
“I have always been interested in contrast and contradictions and Matlock Bath is full of them,” he says. “It’s a seaside town that isn’t by the seaside, it’s got arcades and chip shops and it’s got a promenade, but there’s no sea. Instead of the sea there’s this wall of beautiful woods.
“At the start I thought it was to do with the new topographics, but as I walked the valley I realised there are a lot of views here that open up to you in this man-altered landscape.”
a photo of a hillside with undulations, shrubs and trees
a photo of a fairground in a wooded environment seen across a stretch of water
a woodland scene with nettles and bracken in the foreground
a photograph of a wooded valley with autumnal colours in the trees
a photo of a cafe table with four fixed plastic chairs
a photo of a black bench on a path with a dry stone wall supporting a gentle bank of brown leaves
a photo of a rock outcrop covered in ivy and foliage with brambles in the foreground
a photo of a large white house surrounded by trees with a white hatchback car with a wheel jack under a missing wheel arch parked on the driveway
A photo of an empty car park with trees in the distance
a photo of a dry stone wall with small garden shed sited in a gap halfway along
“This landscape tradition and this idea of the picturesque – seeing the land as a picture – was important,” he says. “It’s hard to a take a picture of a craggy rock with ivy on it and clumps of trees without it ending up looking picturesque.
"So in a way I was striving to consolidate that landscape tradition. Constable and Joseph Wright of Derby and Alexander Cozens all came through here on the British Grand Tour and sketched High Tor and other views.”
The great subtext of these photographs, however, is beauty tempered by a pervading sense of the everyday - a subject explored extensively in the US, where the everyday and banal seems fascinating whether shot through the stark filter of black and white or via lurid colour. And colour is something that Miles seems to be very comfortable with.
“That’s where the influence of people like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston come in,” he says. “They pioneered the use of colour in art photography and allegedly allowed us all to make pictures in colour - and yes, they also championed the everyday and this tradition of finding the sublime in the ordinary, which is something I had been attempting.
“I find plastic chairs in a certain light utterly beautiful and I had been making pictures of them – occasionally with some success.”
In Views of Matlock Bath you may be looking at an ornamental pond or an ivy-strewn bank, then a crisp packet will hone into view or a broken chair. It’s these incongruous signs of life that give Miles' photographs an oddness putting them somewhere between the everyday and the uncanny, without recourse to cynicism or any over bearing sense of post modernity.
There’s beauty to be found in all of these apparent flaws and it’s tempting to think that Shore’s guidance and advice refined the approach.
“He would very rarely tell me what to do but he would ask questions of my work that were very direct” says Miles. “I would come back to Britain or put the phone down after talking to him and as I unpicked what seemed like a simple question it unravelled so many things about my practice.
"I’m very lucky he’s as good a teacher as he is a photographer, so Shore and the valley together helped me find my feet and allowed me to express myself in the way I wanted to.”
The Miles mode of expression has won him quite a few fans, among them the author Hilary Mantel, who told the Independent: “George Miles appears to be photographing the inside of my head.”
“She’s uncanny,” he says of the Wolf Hall author. “She seems to see things the same way as I do. She can put into words things about my pictures that I can’t express – I send her a picture and she writes something about it. Words and pictures are sometimes difficult to put together – ‘the dark art of kitsch’, she calls it. She gets it and skewers it. She is a wonderful person.”
Kitsch might not be what immediately springs to mind when you see Views of Matlock Bath, but the dissonant elements of beauty and the banal are never far away from the surface.
“I want to help people to appreciate what is around them and realise that many things are both beautiful and meaningful,” he says. “I guess I’m just trying to help people appreciate how amazing things can be that are overlooked most of the time.
“Somebody said to me, ‘every time I look at your pictures it’s like being on holiday and I forget that I’m at work.’ Some people just like the pretty ones. But hopefully if they spend enough time with them they will see they are all pretty and they all have some value.”
Views of Matlock Bath is published by Black Dog Publishing, priced £19.95.
George Miles is showing at the Format International Photography Festival in Derby from March 13 – April 12 2015. Visit formatfestival.com/artists/george-miles for more details.
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