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UTOPIAS vs. THE REALITIES OF LANDSCAPE:

REPRESENTING NON-PLACE THROUGH ARCHIVE


A CONVERSATION WITH MARTIN CREGG
by Philip Arneill
 

An Irish photographer and educator, Martin Cregg lives in Dublin and his work explores the history and culture of his native land, and his own place within it. Placing the photographic image at the centre of each work, he consistently draws on historical and archival sources, and wider movements in art to further contextualize and elucidate his projects. Twice nominated for the Prix Pictet, his book Midlands visually documents the conscious creation of place from non-place, driven by unchecked planning policy and greed. By retracting specific visual information and pictorial qualities, the work stands as a stark reminder of the havoc wreaked all across the Republic of Ireland by the failure of an economic model which eventually climaxed with the devastation of 2008’s financial meltdown. In this interview, Martin also discusses the deeply personal and emotional inspiration behind A Fading Landscape, in which he revisits both his familial connections with the land, and his ultimate and inevitable separation from it. His latest ongoing work, The Plot, rooted in the historical archives of 100 years ago, is a new and contemporary photographic reading of the intelligence war between Republicans and British Crown forces, fought on the tense, claustrophobic streets around Dublin during Ireland’s War of Independence.

 

Your Midlands work challenges the notion of borders as porous, and it seems to me, ultimately mythical. Since then more ‘regions’ (such as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’, or ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’) have been created for tourist capital, and we live in a time where the border is central to Ireland’s future.

To begin, what prompted me to do the project which ultimately ended up as Midlands was a map of Ireland I stumbled across in The Irish Times in 2002. A plan called the ‘National Spatial Strategy’ redrew the interior of Ireland into hubs, gateways and dynamic interconnected motorway structures. It immediately struck me that this map on paper included ‘The Midlands’ as a nucleus of transformation and of course, heavy inward investment. The plan to regenerate and repopulate the interior would obviously have had consequences on the landscape itself too. This was my first real concentration – to record change and transformation which is made visible on the landscape. The map was modelled on a Danish plan and adopted to the terrain of Ireland. Furthermore, there seemed to be dispute as to exactly what areas of the country constituted ‘The Midlands’ region.


Where do you feel Midlands sits in Ireland in 2021 - is it still as relevant as ever?

Unlike the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ for example, the ‘Midlands’ as a concept was not to draw tourists, but to draw people and businesses into a plan, into a concept that was not yet built but with the potential for heavy investment. Of course, the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ has always been there, but its concept and brand identity is relatively new to us. In a similar fashion, the National Spatial Strategy created a concept of ‘The Midlands’ to throw a new shape onto the region, to redraw the region, but also to offer it a new identity of sorts. I didn’t begin to photograph with this concept in mind, rather it was something that grew into the work. I very much considered the Midlands as a non-place, with no definitive boundaries, borders or identity. For me, representing non-place in approach means retracting details, contexts, locations, withdrawing information and emptying out the image of many of its pictorial qualities. I wanted to make a project that showed both the violent destruction of the landscape created by out-of-control planning policy and the emptiness of so many new spaces which were yet to be inhabited. The consequence of bad planning and an almost aggressive thrust of building activity created many useful industrial and potential living quarters. At the time, it's fair to say, these empty spaces held an aura of promise. When the country subsequently fell like a lead balloon into recession in 2008, all these empty estates suddenly took on a very new, very urgent and very dejected meaning. Midlands however was never about representing ‘ghost estates’, though this was naturally part of the 10 year narrative. It was more about the construction of this Midlands identity, the relationship between utopian tropes of planning and the realities of the landscape. It was ultimately about the collapse of this national spatial plan, the sense of abandonment of this over-ambitious strategy and the landscape of failure left visible in a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.





© Martin Cregg, Midlands Map from the series Midlands, 2016.




© Martin Cregg, from the series Midlands, 2016.




In A Fading Landscape you return to your place of birth and it seems to me to raise the idea of simultaneously belonging to the land and yet feeling alienation from it. Is that how you locate yourself and what was the inspiration for this body of work?

I come from a long line of farmers, connected to the same piece of land in rural Roscommon (Ireland) since the early 19th century, possibly even before. A census report called the Griffiths Valuation Report from 1848 details two brothers, Thomas and Luke Cregg, working on a plot of land under the auspices of the local landlord. This report is the first recorded piece of evidence of my family residing and working here, as labourers, while Ireland was under British rule. Since this time, the land itself has been the main occupation of Cregg men for generations – handed from father to son to carry on the tradition of hard labour in and on the landscape. I feel quite conflicted about the ingrained sense of obligation and tradition that comes with heritage and this sense of family history. As the oldest son of a farmer, I am the first to break the lineage of this tradition. I think this is my most emotional work; certainly it’s the work that I feel is the most personal, autobiographical, maybe even poetic. Many of the motifs found in the work can be found in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh or Seamus Heaney, I think. I fully identify with their subtle observations and their personal dilemmas are in tune with my own. Reading Heaney’s magnificent work Dig the sense of ‘distance’ the author feels from the father figure’s world of work is poignantly visceral. The creation of the work A Fading Landscape was very much a guilt project, a confession almost. It was provoked by the feeling that I had betrayed my own heritage, abandoned my family's world of work. These feelings were very real and created a great sense of anxiety and personal conflict for many years. When I look at the finished work now, which I occasionally do, I can see from a more detached position that it is a homage to my father, and his father, and to Cloonalough, my homeland. For me the work is created not from a place of guilt, but a place of love and connection.


The production of the book dummy is complete - courtesy of the great design work from my brilliant collaborators and friends Kasia & Vinny from Read That Image. It blends archive material, family documents, Super8 movie stills from beyond a generation ago with my own images of the landscape itself. The narrative drifts between bright, warm, nostalgic images with the cold reality of my own photographs. I also introduce some still life work of meaningful objects, scanned documents and personal writings into the narrative. In terms of publication, I guess I am hesitant to let the book go, for now. Maybe sometime soon when the time is right I will produce a small print run, but at the moment personal circumstances are not appropriate for publishing the project.


It seems that not only does a distinct visual aesthetic run through your work, but also a characteristically muted colour palette - how much of this is a conscious decision and how much is driven by the themes and content of your projects?

The palette or aesthetic approach is very much determined by the theme or subject. It's not something that I will choose before deciding on a project – it's very much organic and introduced or nurtured through initial experiments, or even by happy accidents. The idea of A Fading Landscape was a consequence of using out of date 120 film, which I discovered when used in dim cold morning light and overexposed, produced a really interesting kind of ‘charcoal’ effect. Instinctively I knew it suited the theme. With Midlands, I was very much a medium format Fuji NPC or NPH user. I adored the qualities of these film stocks. At the time they were cheap too! I was always attracted to muted tones however, to greys and neutral colours. There was a time though when I tried to push for an aesthetic of pure whiteness, of abstraction, while staying within the documentary mode.


During the process of making Midlands – the book stage that is - the biggest issue was to find consistency of palette to keep a visual flow within the work. Over ten years there were so many approaches, so many formats and different characteristics of individual film stock, that there were naturally wild variations in colour and other qualities to images produced at different periods. The eventual concession to palette priority was necessary: to try to tie the tones, temperatures and approaches together in a narrative form was quite hard when it came to editing down a large amount of images amassed over 10 years. With the production of the book of course there were consequences to the palette, due to paper choice and other printing factors, though the eventual look and feel of the book has an appropriate tone for the character of the project I think. Recently, with newer work, I have abandoned the medium format process in favour of digital processes. It’s really the cost of buying and developing film which cannot be justified in the world of parenthood and on a teacher’s wage.



© Martin Cregg, from the series A Fading Landscape, 2018.



Your current work in progress is entitled The Plot approaches the Irish War of Independence, one of the country’s most significant political events, 100 years on from its beginnings. You have gone to the written and visual historical archives as a starting point for the photographic process. Can you tell me a little bit more about the project and why you chose this approach?

The Plot is an ongoing work, started in August 2020. I had been researching the events of (the first) Bloody Sunday in Croke Park (November 1920) with an eye on doing something photographic which related to the event itself. I took interest in the backstory to the event and started to document locations around Dublin where a synchronized assassination plot was carried out by Republican volunteers against targeted British agents & officers on the morning of Bloody Sunday. My initial approach was to photograph all locations in and around the same time as the dawn raids had been carried out. Through access to witness statements in the Bureau of Military History, I was able to retrace footsteps of the men who carried out the attacks – using little pieces of the interview text with the image offered a sense of context to the locations. The Bureau has a large collection of interviews taken with many of the main players (on the Republican side) during the War of Independence and each has a detailed account of their activities and perspectives on key events of the time.


As with many projects I have done, the work takes shape as the process develops. I was offered a chance to write an article for the anniversary of the event by the Irish Independent and RTE’s Century Ireland, which really forced me to know the subject more, to research more and to map out the War of Independence as it unfolded on the everyday streets of Dublin. Since this time I have become obsessed with the period around the War of Independence. Much of my time is spent researching archives of all descriptions, and reading countless books and newspapers from the time. I am identifying little sub-plots: possible narratives within what has already been written about.


During the last few months I have developed a very clear and central focus to the project – an exploration of what could be called the ‘intelligence war’ between the IRA and British Agents in the context of the War of Independence itself. This played out mostly on the streets of Dublin: players on both sides, navigating the same small streets, each living in fear of the others’ activities. The spy games and subterfuge of this intelligence war is fascinating to unravel. The Plot, as it is titled, is a narrative of Republicanism in the 1920s, with its attempts to violently eradicate members of the Crown forces in Dublin and ultimately attempt to overthrow British occupation of Ireland. The use of spies, double agents and the general atmosphere of suspicion of the time is something I am trying to represent as an undertone running through the book dummy.


My source material is very broad to begin - everything from witness statements, volunteers’ pension files and personal stories to more formal accounts such as Sir Ormonde Winters’ official papers or The Spy in the Castle by David Nelligan, for example (Winters was head of Intelligence in Dublin Castle and Nelligan wrote of his life as an IRA spy inside the castle itself). I feel like I am building up a detailed insight into the invisible battleground of Dublin city in the 1920s. Through research I have found covert locations which were places for drilling and training; undercover munitions factories; arms dump and safe houses for the IRA; locations where dispatches passed hands or agents would meet their handlers; and houses which were under surveillance by one side or the other. I am currently still building the work, but it's taking shape as a book.



© Martin Cregg, Raid, from the series The Plot, 2020-ongoing.



© Martin Cregg, from the series The Plot, 2020-ongoing.



How important is the idea of archive in your work generally?

As a visual storyteller, I came to the conclusion many years ago that photography alone is a very limited means of representation. I have always understood the value of surrounding texts, documentation, archive imagery and such frameworks and contexts to create visual narratives. With Midlands, the use of maps, charts and documents was very necessary to build the project to something a bit more comprehensive as a finished body of work. For A Fading Landscape the use of family archive images was crucial – to offer relations from past to present, from warm nostalgia to cold reality. Archive images and texts are building blocks to the overall narrative, as are photographs. As an imagemaker, the freedom to mix, for example, images with archive or texts, or documents and landscapes with still life work, offers great freedom and further context. Sometimes the use of archive can anchor the work in important ways. For myongoing work The Plot I have found strategies for introducing archive images into the project. I feel it's important to try to use, recycle or appropriate any material relating to the topic - if it benefits the overall story.



What event(s) brought you to this conclusion that photography is a ‘limited means of representation’?

During the production of Midlands, it occurred to me that without opening-up my own practice a bit more – to writing, or utilizing graphics, maps, surrounding materials, etc. the work would be significantly diminished as a subject and as a product. Blending what I feel to be relevant resources available to me at the time was really important to how the subject could be represented and contextualized. I think the end product of Midlands, in book form, really benefited in every way from not just taking pictures but from collating, using and reimagining material connected to the subject. It also benefited from a lot of writing on the topic, employing relevant data and information to give further context to the work; to anchor the work in a very historical situation for our country. Equally, as a product, it was enhanced by personally screen printing the cover. By saying photography can be a limited means of representation I am not admitting any failure of photographic practice. I feel that image-makers should feel comfortable with having licence to be more than just ‘the photographer’ – to expand the practice into other areas, if it helps to represent the subject more effectively or enhance the work creatively.


Do you think that in this ‘post-truth’ world of the internet awash with misinformation and manipulation that photographers have an increased responsibility to contextualise their work with, for want of a better word, ‘supplementary’ material in the way you describe?

Photography has evolved in such an exciting way because of the freedoms practitioners have: artistic privileges which allow us to become more mutable in terms of what the work of a photographer actually entails. I admire how contemporary practitioners are challenging and redefining traditional ways of perceiving what a photographer is or should be. In current times, there is a necessity to broaden our skills-base and consider all the possibilities of venturing into mixed-media or other territories. It's ultimately very liberating and for me keeps the love of exploring the practice very much alive after twenty-plus years.



In terms of positioning your own body of work, do you see yourself as primarily a documentary photographer, or is this an arbitrary distinction when you are blending so many different elements in your work?

Maybe terms and categories we impose on ourselves are arbitrary and quite interchangeable. Maybe we overthink them. I guess the term ‘visual artist’ might be more appropriate for what I do. Maybe ‘lens-based artist’? Although when challenged to define my ‘type’ of work, I tend to go to the default position of being a ‘documentary photographer’. Maybe the definition itself is inconsistent and really depends on what subject we are applying our skills to. The subject determines the approach. The approaches we take can make the definition feel very fluid and uncertain indeed. I like to think that Midlands, for example, was modest and committed to documentary practice at its core, while taking in aspects of Conceptualism and Minimalism. I certainly looked carefully at, and employed a broad range of non-photographic references from other art practices to create the work. At the heart of the work however was a necessity I felt to record something very real that was happening at pace in and on the familiar landscapes of the Irish midlands. I felt an obligation to do this work. Finding the best way to represent what was being witnessed was an education which stretched well beyond the refining of my chosen visual profession. It was not breaking any kind of pledge made to photography. The subject guided me through new creative territories which became part of my identity as an image maker. Photography is an ever-evolving and ever-mutating practice. With it, we must constantly evolve, mutate and keep questioning and challenging definitions.


 

To cite this interview:

Philip Arneill (2021). Utopias vs. the Realities of Landscape: Representing non-place through archive. A conversation with Martin Cregg. Archivo Platform. Available from https://www.archivoplatform.com/post/interview-mcregg


All images © Martin Cregg. Courtesy of the artist.

Interview developed within Archivo Editorial Internship Programme.

 

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