Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker uses an innovative take on the camera obscura to uncover visible and invisible networks and complex histories embedded in a Scottish peninsula whose water-and-landscape is home to nuclear arsenals, peace activists and pilgrims’ spiritual traditions.
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Last November, I joined other artists presenting work as part of Planetary Processing, a gathering for whom photography is a mode of speculation on geological, celestial and bodily systems. I showed prints and text from my latest project, Trinity.
I created this body of work during residencies at Cove Park arts centre in Scotland, where I could engage with the unique ecology of the Rosneath peninsula: the landscape itself, the networks visible and invisible that have been imposed upon it and the complex histories embedded in its fabric.
Beneath land and water
The peninsula is dominated by the presence of HMNB Faslane and RNAD Coulport, the home of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Existing alongside these sprawling sites are the small, temporary constructions of itinerant activists — locations such as the Peace Wood bear traces of their occupation.
Trinity references the early Christian pilgrims that voyaged to remote corners of the British Isles, such as Rosneath, in search of sanctuary; peregrini who sought to use the elemental power of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment. However, it also alludes to the contemporary use of the land — promised into the service of conflict, boundaries delineated upon the surface that pay no heed to its deep geological history.
I made these images using my own ‘backpack obscura’ — a custom-built camera obscura designed to allow me to capture large format images in remote locations. A light-tight tent, it uses rudimentary materials and a simple meniscus lens to project the desired image onto the floor of the camera. As well as being my means of image making, it also served as my shelter from the elements.
After two extended stays on the peninsula I felt I had enough material to begin the editing process. However, I soon realised that conveying the depth and breadth of what I had experienced was going to be difficult using image alone. The idea of creating a publication seemed the perfect solution as a means of expanding and extending upon my work. I feel the combination of critical and creative texts really help to locate the imagery whilst also providing a platform from which the reader can access the project.
What follows, with some of the images I took, are edited extracts from the two texts that have been provided for the book: Not Negative, an essay by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Trinity, writer Nick Hunt’s creative memoir of his stay in 2002 at the peace camp near to the naval base that’s home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent of three Vanguard-class submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads, where he engaged in several direct actions against the base.
Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light. Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light-sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.
In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channelled onto a light-sensitive surface.
For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white groundsheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.
Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures.
We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of homemade structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.
Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …
Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and storytelling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half-remembered dream.
He approaches from the south, a small man in a ragged robe. He comes carefully through these woods. There is no razor wire. Sunlight and shadows slide off him, spiderwebs break silently. The skeletons of dead leaves cling to his rough hair.
Behind him is the Irish Sea, cold and grey, with white-capped waves. On the rocky shoreline lies an abandoned coracle. Crabs have made their homes in it. Its willow ribs press on its skin. He will not need it now, for there is no return.
He traces the long line of the loch, stitching himself into the land. Around him is an interweave of oak and ash and pine. He picks his way through tangled thorn. There is no smooth road. Beyond the trees a wet wind blows over open water.
It rises up from 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.
Beneath what is visible is a vast shadow.
The call goes up just after dawn. I stumble from my tent. People are staggering around, pulling off their sleep-warm clothes. I spill coffee on myself. Someone blows a trumpet. The loch is hidden by the trees and I can’t see what the others have seen. There is something I’ve agreed to do in this eventuality but I do not know what it is. My brain is still stunned with sleep. Then I know again.
People are running to the loch. I follow without shoes. We leave the camp, cross the road and stand upon the lapping shore. There are no police around. There is no time to think. From the wet heap at my feet I select a thick black skin and drag my legs into it, heave it over my chest and arms, being flayed in reverse. It is clammy, tight and cold. Its smell is like an old tomb. We wade into icy water clad in neoprene.
He passes dwellings in the trees. Bivouacs and benders. Turf-roofed huts and tents. The camps of charcoal burners. Through the smoke he glimpses them, the gentle outcasts of these woods. Those who fled from villages. Those who are misshapen. He sees them gathered by their fires telling stories, singing songs. He blesses them as he walks by. They do not notice him.
Behind him are the gilded robes that he shed for plain sackcloth. His hand exchanged a crosier for a staff of blackthorn.
These woodlands end against the shore and he walks the pebble beach, the wind harsh upon his skin, following the undulating highlands with his eye. A seabird turns in the air. There is a stink of wrack. He could build a chapel here but something tells him to walk on, away from the long water with its access to the sea. He does not trust those depths. That shadow in the water.
The grey waves part on either side of its gliding topmost fin and join again behind, leaving no trace of its passing. It monstrous mass keeps pace below. Seabirds keep their distance. As it slides towards its home it scans the confines of this sound, reading depths and distances, alert to any obstacle. Its brutal, sleek intelligence seems evolved and not designed.
In its wake, a flying machine hangs and buzzes watchfully.
There were glaciers here once that tore strips from the land. Then the sea flooded in. It travels in their absence.
The first steps into coldness hurt, the next ones not so much. The water grips my legs, my thighs, my chest. I start to paddle. At first we cluster in a bunch but soon the swimmers scatter out. Spectators gather on the shore, shouting exhortations.
The low horizon of the hills goes up and down beyond the waves. Small waves slap against my mouth. I concentrate on breathing. The water feels very dense, made sluggish by the cold. This is not my element. The distance feels hopeless.
Far out, a noisy helicopter turns slow circles in the sky. It must be half a mile away. Below it I can see the shape of something great and dark.
He wanders enraptured, ruptured. The sunlight breaks upon him. On the shore he falls to his knees with the immensity and stares upon the awesome light that floods the shadows of the world. The god of love is everywhere. It is all a marvel. He closes his dazzled eyes and the world appears in negative, the black sky and the white trees, the incandescent veins of leaves, the bleached water opening to some great revelation. A vision flashes in his mind of blank structures on the shore, hard-edged and unknowable, working to some vast and terrible design. The revelation fills him but he cannot understand it. When he opens his eyes again, everything is as it is. The trees, the stones, the small waves are fixed in their positions.
It registers nothing of these things. Nothing penetrates. Its mind, if it has a mind, is as blank as a stone. It has almost reached its home. Its velocity starts to slow.
We doggy-paddle, thankful but defeated, back towards the land. As I focus on the shore I see a man stooping there. Water flows from his cupped hands. He gazes somehow through me. I think about solid ground, warm clothes, a welcome fire. When I look again he is no longer there.
Find out more
Planetary Processing took the form of a six-month artist-led peer forum, funded by Artquest and hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.
A fully designed mock-up of Oliver’s photobook, Trinity, was shortlisted in the 2019 Kassel Dummy Award. “This year we again invited all photographers worldwide to take part and to send us their unpublished photobook mock-up. In total, 362 photobooks from 37 countries from all over the world were sent in.” The book will travel around the world for the next six months for various exhibitions.
The book is designed by Loose Joints: “For this sprawling publication we used an interplay of papers, sizes and colours to re-structure Barker’s immersive images, which are made using a backpack-mounted camera obscura to make and print photographs in situ. The result is a swirling mixture of tones and sensations…”
In his essay, Martin Barnes says, “There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye-opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood … Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location … by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’. … His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force.”
Nick Hunt adds in a note to his piece that “St. Modan, the son of an Irish chieftain, renounced his position as an abbot to live as a hermit in the 6th century. His relics are kept at Rosneath Church on the shore of Gare Loch.”
The full texts of Martin’s and Nick’s texts, Not Negative and Trinity, are available at Oliver’s website. Oliver’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone, explores his encounter — on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry — with a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.
In his essay, Martin Barnes refers to the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, the account of that hero’s encounters with the monster Grendel, who terrorised humanity from his lair beneath the shadowy mere. For a discussion on an alternative imagining of Grendel and Beowulf and the perilous meeting of worlds, see Bringing Our Monsters Back Home, my review of John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel.