Wind power

I am realising that the rather depressed tone of my last posting represented the end of a period of feeling somewhat demoralised about what I was doing, and not, as I thought at the time, a statement about being in the middle of such a period.  What helped me realise this were primarily the helpful comments to that posting, and several conversations on Twitter – social media can be a wonderful thing!

A few days after that posting we went to Strathpeffer for a weekend (weekends away are a very rare and precious occurrence, given my wife’s work!).  This is several hours drive from our home in Edinburgh.

Travel is often productive thinking time for me, and on this journey north an idea began to form.  This idea then encountered various stimuli over the weekend, including a conversation on Sunday morning with Iain Sarjeant and Iona Finlayson that touched on some key issues about what ‘home’ was, what and where it could be, and related topics.  As we were driving south after that, these ideas became much clearer to me, and I am now able to articulate them in an early form: I want to pursue a detailed photographic essay examining wind farms in Scotland.

What’s so special about wind farms?

If you follow the news in Scotland, you will be aware that wind farms are a very controversial issue, with proponents and opponents disagreeing about whether to support their construction or not.  It seems that much heat and little light is generated in these debates.  Perhaps, through some photography and writing, I can contribute a little to some light?

My journey north and then south again meant seeing a fair number of wind farms on the hills.  Just down the road from Strathpeffer it was possible to see a number of windmills on the hillsides.  There are wind farms fairly close to Edinburgh.  There are plans for more all over the country: last summer on the Isle of Lewis we heard of plans to build a wind farm in the centre of the island.  And the windmills themselves elicit strong reactions.  I began making some images last weekend, and tweeted about this:

Kath Hudson responded with a visceral comment:

When I said that I had encountered smaller ones in Germany that were still intimidating but nonetheless impressive, Kath wrote back to say: ‘They really did give me that creepy shiver down the spine feeling. They are just unnatural and WRONG. Too big, too alien… ‘

I think many people will relate to Kath’s reactions, but, whilst important, the key issue for me is only partly about aesthetics and emotional reactions of this kind.  On another level: it is undeniable that wind farms alter the appearance of the landscape, but so do nuclear power stations (see Bruce Percy’s study of Torness on the A1), or the dirty coal-fired power station at Cockenzie, just down the coast from me and almost always in view, it seems, when I’m on the beach:

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

Cockenzie power station from Portobello beach

The thing is… my leftie, green and social instincts all say “nuclear/coal etc. bad, wind/solar etc. good”… and yet, and yet… I do get the point behind some of the wind farm objections.  So what I plan to do in this essay is explore some of the related issues around wind farms and reflect on different ways of understanding and interpreting them.  If the only perspective, the only quilting point we use, is the idea of despoiling wild land, then opposition to wind farms becomes almost automatic.  If, however, we use alternative quilting points, alternative starting points, then we might find our response to wind farms becomes more nuanced.  For example, a slightly different perspective that comes to mind is a fairly common one: what about the alternatives – nuclear, coal, but also hydro, solar etc.? However, I am also interested in the question of power, understood in different ways: wind farms generate electrical power, but are also statements of power (over the landscape, in their construction, ownership and so on). How, for example, do these two forms of power relate to one another? Using that question as a quilting point leads to a series of other related questions and quilting points, such as:

  • windmills versus wind farms – why does Germany often have individual windmills, whereas here we seem to go for large wind farms?
  • what do wind farms say about my understanding of my home – how do I envisage and help to create the kind of home I want Scotland to be, for me, for those around me?
  • it is often argued that wind farms are put in places that are ‘wild’, but what do ‘wild’, ‘wildness’ and ‘wilderness’ mean in contemporary Scotland?
  • what is the meaning of ‘green’ in this context – ‘green’ landscape, and ‘green’ environmentally-friendly?  I might also add that I recently joined the Green Party…
  • local democracy – who gets to decide on the construction of wind farms?
  • if, as many campaigns seem to argue, ‘there’s a place for wind farms, but it’s not here’ – what and where is their place?
  • land ownership – how does the ownership of particular areas impact upon the construction of wind farms, especially considering much of Scotland’s land is owned by people with no significant connection to it?
  • social justice – in what ways do wind farms impact upon employment, housing and so on?

These latter issues also play directly into the current social, political, civic and ideological context around the question of independence: the 2014 referendum in Scotland will decide whether Scotland continues as part of the union of England and Scotland or becomes an independent country once more. Independence in this context means, for me at least, that Scotland will be free to govern itself without undue interference from Westminster (and in framing the question like this, it will be clear that I am now firmly on the ‘yes’ side!).  Over the years I have sincerely sought to understand and reflect upon the ‘no’ argument, a position I almost ‘naturally’ come from, but, with Joyce McMillan, I see a paucity of any kind of positive vision for the future in the ‘no’ campaign, something that the ‘yes’ campaign inspires and addresses in a multitude of ways, sometimes naively, mostly realistically.  Decisions about land, home, planning, social justice and all these other issues that make up the kind of society we want to be are issues that play directly into the referendum. How would we think these things through if we could look at them afresh, as a ‘yes’ vote has the potential to allow, whereas a ‘no’ vote is likely to continue with the same rotten system we have now?  Using wind farms as a quilting point perhaps has the potential, as the 2014 referendum approaches, to offer interesting insights along the way – at least for me! 😉

There will be many more issues that can be addressed, and I’m sure I’ll discover new quilting points and new perspectives as I go.  For some of these issues, I can imagine the kinds of photographs and texts I might create, and for others I have no idea how I might address them photographically, or in any other way!  And yet this not-knowing is very exciting.  There is no end point, just exploration: I just want to see where all this takes me.  Of one thing I can be sure: there will be blog postings about this, and also gallery pages.

As an aside: my new large format camera seems ideally suited for certain elements of this effort: there are certainly going to be elements of architectural photography, and so utilising the view camera’s movements to photograph windmills makes sense.  In other contexts, I may find my smaller cameras more suitable.

I’m aware that there are many others who have pursued this kind of project in the past (for example, Rob Hudson recently sent me a link to Francis Hodgson’s piece in the FT on Richard Misrach), but perhaps there is still something new to be explored here, in my context, in my home?

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15 thoughts on “Wind power

  1. The Hill Mouse

    This sounds very interesting. Good luck with the project and I look forward to seeing and reading the results. As someone who has been involved in renewables for the past ten years I still find reactions to windfarms surprising in many different ways and you’re right about issues of power being involved. Interestingly, I believe there is evidence to show that historically, millers were often feared and despised because of the power that the held in local communities.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I didn’t know that about millers’ social status in the past – I’ll have to look into that, it could be a fascinating line to pursue (the historian in me is already excited!).

  2. Rob Hudson (@RobHudsonPhoto)

    Hi Michael,

    This sounds fascinating and I’m glad you’ve found your mojo so swiftly! I think there’s many angles to be explored here – and you’ve mentioned plenty already. Speaking as someone who has mixed feelings about wind farms – I like them intellectually, but don’t respond well to them emotionally I shall look forward to following the results.

    The question that always crops up in my head when I read these sort of preambles to projects is “Where is the art?” This is assuming it is meant to be art or straight documentary, but in either case you may not yet know as the art will be realised through the images. That’s one reason I thought the Paul Seawright link http://www.source.ie/archive/issue21/is21portfolio_Paul_Seawright_17_28_58_27-03-12.php
    is that there’s an immediate realisation through the images of his perspective and it’s personal and certainly because of that jumps the documentary boundary into art. So my heart sank a little when you mentioned using the tilt on your LF to correct perspective distortion. Why would your response necessarily be a correct, literal picture? Other options are available and to rule them out so early seems to me to be limiting the scope for expression before you start.

    I hope this has given you something to think about and I hope I’m not being too negative from the beginning, I’m really trying to get you to think about the realisation and to steer you away from a cold intellectual response towards something more profound and personally satisfying for yourself.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Hi Rob,

      thanks for your thoughts on this. It didn’t feel swift! But as is often the case, I find, naming it – in this case, the lack of motivation – was also instrumental in overcoming it.

      Regarding art: (i) I couldn’t get that Paul Seawright link to work, though I have been looking at his site here: http://www.paulseawright.info/home.html. His work is thoroughly engaging, and I’m grateful to you for the pointer. But I do want to (ii) interrogate the assumption you seem to be making about art (and we’ve sort of disagreed about this before, though I think our positions might actually be quite close!), and connect it to Seawright. I am not, really ever, seeking to create ‘art’: all I want to do is create a perspective on what I see and feel is all around me and interpret it in a way that is true to myself: https://marten.org.uk/2012/11/18/photography-as-an-expression-of-self/. I am seeking to say something about the world around me as I see it, to create some kind of order by sifting certain elements and excluding others, and though I don’t have the audacity to compare myself to Seawright, I think he is doing the same in, for example, his http://www.paulseawright.info/invisible.html and http://www.paulseawright.info/volunteer.html series. I find some of these images astonishingly beautiful, and would undoubtedly see him as an artist, but as I read his texts and study his photographs, I’m not convinced that is what he is aiming to do: I think he is aiming to enable an insight into the part of the world that he is engaging with.

      I’m aware that I may not be understanding you completely correctly here (after all you do say ‘you may not yet know as the art will be realised through the images’), but I think there is an underlying assumption that I am wanting to create art. I am not. Whatever I produce may turn out to be (regarded as) art, but my primary purpose is different, as noted. And this is perhaps why I don’t understand your comment about the LF camera: perspective distortion happens to be something that non-view cameras cannot normally correct (without expensive perspective control lenses), but does that mean distorted vertical lines make for art, whilst correcting such tilt means they don’t? I don’t seriously think you think that, but… At one time, perspective correction was the norm (and yes, that may have been a hundred+ years ago, but still…!).

      I can add that in some contexts I am hoping to try something quite different with the LF beyond literal reproduction (which never happens anyway, 3D to 2D etc. blah blah blah), but given that I have researched how to do certain things and am wondering about how I might do others, but have not yet tried applying them, they may not work! 🙂

      And unlike the What Lies Beneath project, where I kept everything back until it was ready as a complete set, I intend, for methodological reasons, to show the images and texts as I go. It may all sound a bit vague, but do bear with me on this, you might like it, and I do want your input!

      Thanks,

      Michael

      1. Rob Hudson (@RobHudsonPhoto)

        So you don’t intend to make art? How thoroughly lacking in ambition! More, you say it may be regarded as art by others, but you aren’t troubled by such definitions. This strikes me as completely wrong headed. If there’s a point to using a camera to explore an aspect of our lives then it is surely that it gives visual expression to our discoveries, insights, thoughts and feelings. These may well be vague, they may well be at times contradictory and sometimes they may be beyond the scope of language to express. Otherwise you may as well just write an essay – and I’m sure you could! But of course I know full well that you will want to express those very ideas which are to some extent instinctual; that convey the message with a directness (or vague confusedness!) that words cannot hope to express so succinctly or maybe so subtly. The point, the joy and the value of creating art isn’t whether it is regarded as art by others, it is whether it is regarded as art by you. Whether it is YOUR art. Whether you find it fulfilling and a satisfying expression of what you want to express. So I’m sorry, why are you using a visual medium? Have you considered PowerPoint instead?!

        Okay, that’s cleared up that one. Next up, if it is to be YOUR ART, then you will have to invest a great deal of yourself. That’s going to be integrity, passion and sincerity to produce a personal expression of MEANING to explore the aesthetic, emotional and social relationships within the physical environment. To do that you’re going to have to express it within a confined physical space known as the photograph, or photographic series. So stop worrying about perspective and start worrying about YOUR perspective. There are no right or wrong ways of expressing yourself in art, the important thing is that you express what you find in a way that is honest to yourself. Not because that’s the correct way to do it, but because it gives your viewers a sense of what your want to express. That means it’s perfectly acceptable, if stood under a turbine feeling dwarfed, to point the camera upwards and express that feeling visually. Hell you can have the sky any colour you want it, nobody can tell an artist it’s wrong, only the artist knows if its a genuine and sincere expression. I’m not arguing against investing a considerable amount of technical skill in our work, far from it, but by all means be prepared to direct that skill to YOUR ends.

        So sorry I’m not allowing the its not intended to be art line, it’s all art if you intend it to be so. That’s not a particularly interesting discussion, the point is whether or not it is good art and that is only something you can decide for yourself. That’s defined by what you put in and what you get out, whether its satisfying, honest, sincere and genuinely insightful. Art is far more about the process of creation for the maker, not some post hoc critique of the results by the likes of me.

        1. Michael Marten Post author

          I have given this some consideration, and do you know what? I don’t think we are saying anything very different, although you are more keen to call what is happening here ‘art’ (as I think we may have discussed before). I don’t say that as a way to try and stifle the conversation (which I am enjoying), but I have waited these few days with this in order to read and re-read your comments, and reflect on them. I think our differences are relatively small.
          I have already said that I want to engage with this on a variety of levels, including emotional and instinctive and so on, and I need the photographs in order to do that – basically because words are not enough, even for someone as loquacious as me! The photographs are one way I hope to express what are ‘truths’ for me (as outlined in my previous blog posting that I link to above). In this case, these ‘truths’ will be about wind farms, and I expect and want them to be images that nobody else could or would want to make – they’ll be MY art, if you want me to use that language.
          As for perspective: there are multiple ways of interpreting that term – literal and metaphorical – as you will have been aware when you made that comment. I don’t NEED to have every windmill perfectly vertical, and I don’t believe I said that would want that (quite the opposite). But it is nice to have a tool that easily allows that to happen if I want it. There will no doubt be images of windmills from odd angles etc., but they need to express something in me, such as fear or whatever, and that’s what I want the photographs to do.
          So, to refer to your last paragraph, it will all, of course, be good art, even if I’m reluctant to use the term ‘art’ as liberally and frequently as you (that’s not intended as a dig, though I’m aware it could be read as such – don’t do so!).
          Incidentally, I want to point out that you seem to have missed something about all this: I have deliberately not called this a ‘project’ but am using the term ‘essay’: I intend there to be words and images together, as I say in the initial blog posting. How these will emerge and coalesce I don’t yet know, but I want there to be texts accompanying the images: maybe these will be analytical, historical, technical, narrative… who knows? These may well be in different forms, but they will be intended to add to the images. To me, this makes it even more obvious that this is a deeply personal exploration about an issue over which I have no clarity, but exploring it in images and words might lead me somewhere towards greater clarity – or perhaps not. Perhaps there is no clarity to be had here for me, and if that is the case, my images and words will no doubt reflect that. After all, I’m not beholden to anyone in this venture, and that allows me to put in as much of myself as I want and am able to. If others like or can understand it too, that’s a bonus, but I don’t much mind if they don’t.
          And if you want to call what I’m doing ‘Michael’s art’, that’s fine, but don’t make me use the term all the time if I’m not happy doing so. I can find other ways of expressing myself if I want to.

          1. Duncan Fawkes (@duncanfawkes)

            It feels like I’m stepping in on a conversation here – and one that long pre-dates this blog post I suspect! – but I’m commenting as Michael beckoned me over from Twitter, and he can be very persuasive 😉

            From what I can see I don’t think you’re really talking about different things. I think Michael is just less keen to name it “art”, even if the outcome is the same.

            Personally I’ve given up with – yet continue it here! – any angst that I’ve previously felt about “art” and calling myself an “artist”. Rob’s right that photography goes far beyond the literal rendering of a scene and purely documentary usage. So taking a photograph is almost – by definition – art (as far as I see it), as it’s the way you saw, interpreted and expressed that which is in front of you. I don’t think it’s for me or anyone to say what’s “art” for other people, that’s the job of critics I suppose, but for me as long as it comes from a pure voice from within me that I listen to rather than the crowds baying for photographic blood then it’s “art” as far as I care about.

            Yet I’m ever aware that the path between that little subconscious voice and the realisation of it through a photograph has to pass through a conscious part of me, one tainted and clouded by my own and others’ expectation, past experience, other’s work, etc. I like to work quite intuitively but in so doing I need to make sure that my intuition is well rooted rather than a shallow interpretation centered in conscious thought. How strong that taint is is what detracts from “art”, something I would describe as “uniquely me”.

            Jeez, does any of that make sense – I think I’m trying to sound more clever than I am! 🙂 Ultimately what I’m saying is as we’ve exchanged on twitter – as long as I am satisfied that I’m taking the photograph for myself and not in an intentional way for others then I am quite happy to call it art, it is my own interpretation and creation and so it’s a little piece of me immortalised. That’s good enough for me, and that’s as far as I’m going to consider “art” for the time being. As long as what I’m doing feels right to me at a deep level, then I’ll keep on that path.

            (Note that it doesn’t always feel “deep” – but I’m always wanting to dig deeper, stripping back the layers of cliche and superficiality. That’s part of the journey.)

            Michael it’s clear from what you say that you intend to capture your reaction to the windfarms and what the impact they have has on you. If that were me, I’d call it “art”. You might call it something else, maybe even at times call it art. If it comes from within the outcome is the same, what it’s called matters not IMO.

            Just my 2cp, don’t flail me!

            1. Michael Marten Post author

              No flailing on my site, don’t worry! 🙂
              And to all intents and purposes, I agree with you – so long as it is ‘authentic’ to me, it is fine. If I start doing things, for whatever reason, that result in images that are not ones I feel I can answer to, I’ll not show them, and probably delete them. I think that is art…
              One thing that does make me think here, is that we are talking about art as an individual(-istic) pursuit: if I think/feel it is art, then it is. However, I do also think that there is perhaps something collective of importance here too, and perhaps not just in the sense of a collective audience. But that is perhaps a topic for another day!

  3. tomwilkinsonphotography

    Hi Michael,

    This is exciting and its a really good feeling when you’ve found a ‘hook’ and want to explore it! I personally think that you are at the most interesting stage of proceedings now (and perhaps the most difficult at the same time!). This is the point where you will be mentally and practically sorting out all the ideas in your head and in your camera(s), distilling them down to a singular project(s). The eight bullet points you outline above could very well be mini projects within the overarching Windfarms subject, and straight away you have identified the areas that interest you and that you think have meaning. Impressive!

    I am at this stage with some of my own work in the above respects and completely see where you are coming from. What I think you now need to do it just get out there and start making photographs! There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind half way through, or finding a particular direction isn’t working for whatever reason- whether it be in getting meaning across or a practical concern (i.e. the perspective correction issue). I always find that no matter how much strict planning and forethought and pre-vis you give a project (particularly with found images), the landscape will always have its say too and there inevitably have to be some compromises made somewhere along the line. If you’re after a simple yet powerful ‘typologies’ approach check out (but you probably know them well already) Bernt & Hiller Becher. Amazing! The reason their typologies work so well for me is that they are all shot with the (for all intents and purposes) exact same weather conditions, shooting perspectives (height etc), and this produces an extraordinary way of looking at these utilitarian yet almost alien constructions of water towers, mills and the like.

    In terms of Art, I tend to agree with you in that it doesn’t have to be a primary concern, and I think in this respect it shouldn’t be forced. In retrospect, the art may come from the personal/political statements you make through your creative expression. Ultimately this journey is your own. Nurture it and cherish it and try not to succumb to any expectations (even from yourself!) and let it all flow! Really looking forward to seeing what comes out!

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Hi Tom,
      thanks for your thinking on this. Yes, I do feel very excited about it! I have been reading a fair amount about the topic, and have images in my head that I want to create, and texts I want to write. There are, I realise, two aspects to this: (i) all windmills look pretty much the same to me (apologies to any windmill engineers reading who’ve just keeled over in shock!) and so it is fairly easy to conceptualise ways of photographing them, but (ii) part of the point of this essay is to explore them in their context, and that means I can’t just go and photograph a dozen windmills and have them all look pretty much the same without any context! So there is a corrective there that I will need to think about as I explore each windfarm and hillside that I visit. It is in this context that I had thought about the Bechers – yes, they do offer a kind of way of thinking about industrial structures, but I want to contextualise my subjects much more than I think some of their work did, and so intend to avoid the identical-conditions-format that you describe.
      But, as you say, things may yet change, so who knows where I’ll end up with this?! Apart from that there will be a lot of walking up windy hillsides with camera equipment, there’s not too much else that I can directly foresee at the moment! 🙂
      Thanks,
      Michael

  4. Duncan Fawkes

    Hi Michael.

    I think Tom and Rob have covered most of the meat of this. Anyway, I’m glad that you’ve found some fuel for the fire. It’s an interesting and emotive subject.

    As I think you allude to in your last comment, I think the context is what makes this an interesting and emotive subject. It’s man forcing itself on the landscape, taking and destroying until there’s no more to take and destroy. It’s weird that we all know it’s coming and we’re doing nothing about it. Or rather, our only response is to create wind farms to destroy what we’ve so far left (relatively) untouched by nature. And we put them on peatlands that release carbon thereby completely negating the carbon advantage. Bonkers.

    I’ll be interested to see this develop. I’ve got a few ideas of how I would explore this, but I don’t want to taint you! Good luck 🙂

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Hi Duncan, thanks for commenting.
      I agree that the peatlands issue seems totally bonkers to me. This was the debate on the Isle of Lewis that I alluded to above, where parts of the vast peatlands across the middle of the island were to be covered in a wind farm. However, I am not, at the moment, as clearly against wind farms in other contexts as I am on the peatland question. Part of the exploration in this undertaking will be some reflection on precisely what ‘wild’ actually is. There are some very interesting reflections taking place on this, and I have some ideas about how to tap into that for future parts of this essay.
      In the meantime, my first large-format images of the windmills at Dun Law should be back on Monday, and I can see what, if anything, has become of them!
      I look forward to your reactions and thoughts on this as it goes.
      Thanks, Michael

  5. Duncan Fawkes (@duncanfawkes)

    To be clear I’m not against wind farms at all. I’m against their siting in untouched natural landscapes. We’ve destroyed enough of it – and should’ve learned our lesson by now – that I’m sure there are plenty of sites in and around our cities that could be used to erect turbines even if this came at the cost of lower efficiency (esp considering peat land destruction has 0% efficiency!).

    In Australia now I believe that all new housing has to have solar panels and water butts installed as standard, and there are substantial incentives to retro-fit. Why can’t we have mini-turbines, etc mandated on our houses and factories?

    Also, siting these things out where few can see them (which would seem to be a reason in
    favour of doing so in some people’s eyes lol!) is very much “out of sight out of mind” – they do nothing to boost green awareness. If they were in and around our manmade landscape we’d be very much more aware of the issues. One day in the not so distant future we’re going to run out of natural landscape anyway. The situation isn’t going to improve, so why wait?

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      I’m inclined to agree with most of this – except that I’m not completely sure I think there ARE many “untouched natural landscapes” here any more. But that is something I plan to explore in more detail in the coming months.
      Germany also has solar panels all over the place. In rural areas, where there are lots of farm buildings, a great many barns (most of them not exactly objects of great beauty in my eyes!) have solar panels on the roofs – these large areas presumably generate substantial amounts of electricity, and the roofs would be there anyway. We need a much more realistic way of thinking about these things in this country, but sadly, a mis-placed sense of ‘conservation’ seems to dominate. For example, our house in London wasn’t allowed to have double-glazed sash windows when we tried to get them, because it was in keeping with the traditional build of the town house, and from a certain angle, people walking past would see a double-reflection that they would not have seen 200 years earlier when the house was built. This is madness!

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