John Woodman: Landscape Films 1977 - 1982 Review
In 1975 the Tate Gallery in London played host to series of screenings under the name of Avant-Garde British Landscape Films. Curated by Deke Dusinberre of the London Filmmakers Co-Op, the season served as a herald for a newly emerging faction of British experimental film, screening some 22 works across four programmes, all of which had been made between 1970 and 1974. It’s interesting to note that the concept had never really existed before in a homegrown context. Some of British cinema’s earliest surviving examples, such as R.W. Paul’s Rough Sea at Dover (1895), could arguably be classed as such, yet the twin arrivals of both narrative and sound soon diverted filmmaking into something else altogether. Prior to those titles shown at the Tate, only a very small number could be said to be making landscape films, most notably Margaret Tait, though her output took in everything from animation to portraiture.
The landscape filmmakers as classified by Dusinberre included Chris Welsby, William Raban, Renny Croft, Mike Duckworth, Jane Clark and David Pearce. Welsby and Raban (who have also collaborated on occasion) both figured heavily at the Tate screenings and are arguably the most visible members of the group today, thanks in part to their respective British Artists’ Films DVDs issued by the BFI. In all cases it is the relationship between the camera and the landscape which becomes so vital. Croft’s Structured Walks (1975), for example, fractures a journey by replicating the number of paces taken in the frame rate. Welsby’s two-screen Wind Vane (1972), on the other hand, transforms a pair of cameras into exactly that. These were structural films, in other words: self-reflexive, adherent to preconceived conditions and as much about the filmmaking process as they are the environments which provide their images.
John Woodman had been a photographer prior to branching out into fresh disciplines. Indeed, he saw the landscape film as a natural extension of the work he had already been doing. Despite being connected to the London Filmmakers Co-Op and involved in the experimental film units at both the Slade and St. Martin’s Schools of Art, there was little interest in the structural concerns of those artists whose work had screened at the Tate. It was the unpredictability which appealed to him, the changes in light, in colour, in weather and tides that can’t be controlled through pre-determined systems. Furthermore, it was these very changes which had proven so difficult to capture in his photographs. Works would often be exhibited in series, but this option ultimately came out second best to the moving image.
Rather than Welsby, Raban, Croft et al, Woodman instead took his inspiration from the fixed-camera real-time films of Andy Warhol (Empire, the numerous Screen Tests) and the single-take cinema of Michael Snow (Wavelength, La Région Centrale). Works such as Light Movements (1977) and Observational Series (1977-1978) translate such methods into an effect akin to living photographs, utilising the same static position and very particular framing of his still images but allowing them to exist for however long a reel of Super 8 or 16mm will last. Changes both subtle and abstract make themselves known, whether that means a slowly shifting shadow, a drop in colour temperature or the manner in which sunlight reflects on water. As Woodman notes in the accompanying booklet, “the ‘content’ is often minimal” (each of the films is also without a soundtrack), which only serves to create a highly contemplative mood. It’s a bit like watching the duck sequence from Abbas Kiarostami’s Five (2003) only without the ducks. In fact, one of the titles, Spider (1979), consists of 11 unbroken minutes trained on a cobweb. The spider could enter the frame at any point, but fittingly chooses not to.
In his booklet essay Malcolm Le Grice describes Woodman’s work as acts of exploration rather than acts of experimentation. The films, in effect, have allowed him to inquire into the subject matter of his photography more fully, to delve and to document their minutiae to a far greater extent. Their duration is therefore key, providing the means with which to fully experience that which is caught within the frame. Whether it’s a tree-lined footpath on Wimbledon Common or the tiniest fraction of the River Stour in Surrey, the simplicity of Woodman’s approach, and the lack of interference, is such we are able to become fully involved. The images present their own momentum, dictated by cloud formations or wind speed or the strength of a current. Each has the ability to render any given frame as either utterly tranquil or entirely abstract – the reflection of a footbridge can be reimagined as a psychedelic swirl in a split-second only to calm itself within moments; an isolated segment of grassland can descend into beautiful chaos without warning.
On occasion, Woodman chooses to intervene by creating in-camera edits. Beach Fragments from 1978, for example, makes use of a kind of crude time-lapse effect wherein he would only film during certain tidal passages, essentially skipping certain moments so as to concentrate on (and compare) what he deemed to be the essentials. Similarly, Pear Tree (1980) recorded only the salient information: four-second bursts of Woodman’s garden over the course of a number of years thus highlighting the dramatic shifts brought about by the seasons. The variations in light and sound mirror those captured in the real-time reels of Light Movements albeit on a grander scale. Much the same is also true of Dawn and Dusk (1977), which shot one frame every 30 seconds each dawn and dusk over the period of 31 days from new moon to new moon. Here periods of astonishing beauty –pink night skies, fog-shrouded mornings – become fleeting, accumulating their meaning instead as when considered as part of the whole. The contemplative intent remains, only the method varies slightly as Woodman seeks to explore further. (Time-Flow, also made in 1977, would combine the two on a pair of screens – the left-hand image projected in real-time, the right-hand image utilising increasing speeds of time-lapse.)
Woodman’s cinematic explorations would only last for a brief period of time. Between 1977 and 1980 he made 13 landscape films in all, nine of which appear on this disc. Afterwards he returned to photographer and turned his attentions to installation work in collaboration with Roger Polley. The sabbatical ended in 2010 when he picked up a digital video camera and, since then, has become incredibly prolific in the field once more. Among the numerous shorts has been a series entitled Observational Series 2, suggesting a clear link to the earlier work as well as a continuation. And it’s a genuine delight to be able to revisit much of that early work thanks to this new DVD release. Woodman’s particular brand of the landscape film – with its emphasis on perception and contemplation – remains a captivating experience. Calm, meditative and really quite beautiful.
As noted in the booklet, each of the nine titles which make up Landscape Films 1977 - 1982 were shot on stock that was developed straight to positive with no intermediate elements. As such Woodman’s films now come with the signs of age – scratches, fades and so on – that add another layer to the image. (One to contemplate too, perhaps?) As such we shouldn’t expect pristine presentations, though under the circumstances there is also nothing which proves to be disappointing. The original intent remains and there would appear to be nothing in the films’ transfers to disc which has prompted further issues. Original aspect ratios are adhered to, the twin-screen Time-Flow is presented anamorphically and the soundtracks are all silent as Woodman intended. There are no extras on the region-free disc, though we do get the 20-page booklet with contributions from both the filmmaker and Malcolm Le Grice. Woodman provides an introduction and brief notes for each of the inclusions. His Notes on Film Work, written in 1978, has also been reproduced, while Le Grice provides a more general overview.
Light Movements (1977, 11 minutes)
Observational Series (1977-78, 19 minutes)
Beach Fragments (1978, 6 minutes)
Pear Tree (1980, 18 minutes)
Spider (1979, 11 minutes)
Dawn and Dusk (1977, 10 minutes)
Bridge (1980, 14 minutes)
Reflections on My Shadow (1980, 30 minutes)
Time-Flow (1977, 11 minutes)
Landscape Films 1977 - 1982 can be purchased via the LUX website.
To celebrate the release of Landscape Films 1977 - 1982, as well as another LUX DVD release, Inger Lise Hansen’s Trilogy, the BFI Southbank will be hosting a special screening followed by a reception in the BFI Shop on Tuesday March 5th at 6.20pm. Details are as follows:
The awe-inspiring power of nature and its associated weather systems as explored across a range of groundbreaking works by renowned artist filmmakers. Subtle shifts in natural light, delicate tidal movements and the terraforming power of seasonal change determine the shape and structure of several of the films here. Others reflect with great beauty on the impact that nature has on our lives as an alchemical, elemental force. A timely programme for today’s changing world.
Breath (1975, d. William Raban, 16 minutes)
Colour Separation (1976, d. Chris Welsby, 2 minutes)
Colours of This Time (1972, d. William Raban. 4 minutes)
Water Wrackets (1975, d. Peter Greenaway. 12 minutes)
Three Short Landscape Films (1979, d. Renny Croft. 6 minutes)
Walk (1975, d. Jenny Okun. 5 minutes)
Bridge (1980, d. John Woodman. 4 minutes)
Aerial (1974, d. Margaret Tait. 4 minutes)
Aspect (2004, d. Emily Richardson. 9 minutes)
Proximity (2006, d. Inger Lise Hansen. 4 minutes)
Introduced by artist John Woodman and BFI National Archive curator William Fowler.
The programme will be followed by a drinks reception at the BFI Shop where there will be an opportunity to purchase Trilogy and Landscape Films 1977 - 1982 at special discounted price.