Open Frequency 2008: Clare Richardson selected by Russell Roberts

Open Frequency 2008: Clare Richardson selected by Russell Roberts Clare Richardson, Untitled, 2002. 20 x 24 cm. C-type print

Russell Roberts profiles the work of Clare Richardson

Beyond the Forest

Born in London in 1973, Clare Richardson studied in Bristol for her BA, worked as an assistant for several leading fashion photographers including Liz Collins and Rankin, before returning to fine art practice. To date, her projects have explored marginal communities rooted in the idyllic and mythical; social groups beyond the mainstream who occupy alternative territories associated with another time, place and ideology. Behind this work resides the legacy of Richardson's own background of perpetual relocation ('a peripatetic childhood') that has instilled an ongoing fascination with a sense of belonging.

Richardson invests considerable time into the research and making of the work. Nothing is hurried, the temporal richness evident in the final images combining people and landscape in a manner that is clearly contemplative, a lingering gaze. Such an approach led to 'Harlemville' (2001). This project in North America grew from of an immersive experience within a rural community structured around the Waldorf Schooling principles of the renowned Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner.

After two years taking photographs of people in the village of Harlemville, Richardson concentrated primarily on children, who were seen to embody the Steiner philosophical principles of a 'back-to-nature simplicity' centred on the formative experiences of free expression, creativity and play. Her images depict boys and girls – swimming, wandering through woods and lost in thought, evoking a world of innocence yet one that resonates with the inescapable references to the impressionable side of childhood as evinced by William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

Definitions of community and its relationship to place have continued to inform more recent work. In 'Beyond the Forest' (a literal translation of Transylvania), Richardson looks to nuance the folktale relating to the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the surrounding topography and quotidian details of a Romanian village. It is a place that has special links with the Pied Piper myth in that its occupants are said to be descendants of the children of Hamelin.

Again, images of landscape are punctuated by the faces of those who live there, with portraits that are equally enigmatic and impenetrable as the place itself. For Richardson, 'Beyond the Forest' is an allegorical form that speaks of agrarian existence outside of mechanisation, an idyll of sorts, a site of resistance to external forces. There is a crafted Romanticism, tinged with the Gothic imaginary in these pictures that cumulatively draw the viewer into a world that is inextricably bound to the past. There is more than a passing reference to Caspar David Friedrich's study of abbey ruins framed by the humanised, dead, menacing presence of the forest in winter.

Photographs in isolation are never predisposed to narrative however; 'Beyond the Forest' is an attempt to use photography in relation to storytelling traditions, a pictorial encounter with folklore. There are corporeal and psychological metaphors at work here too; we see the changing seasons, the fecundity of nature and its symbolic decay, the fresh and pensive faces of youth, enigmas of landscape such as anthropomorphism, the silence of villages and the brooding sense of distance. 'Beyond the Forest' suggests a convergence between the old order and the new, between traditions that take the forest as a social and cultural boundary, but one that is interwoven with contradictions, with the dynamics of contemporary living and the spectre of the past tied to images of longing and a foreboding:

He lives in a world of silence. A world of hard work and necessary patience; waiting on the weather and growth. They call him Mr Pipe, a diabetic, water passes straight through him. His mother worries he shall never marry. He loved the butcher's daughter once, but her father sold the mountain. Claiming the common ground, he felled the forest and sold the oak. A rich man now, his daughter should marry well, a businessman from the town, perhaps. Spurned the boy strung up a lifeless scarecrow in his own image, a reminder to the girl of her father's betrayal.

The butcher's wife says the photographer is barren, and has come to buy children to operate her domestic machines. She welcomes the photographer, preparing a meal with the greatest of care and measure.

The forest is taken, the horizon restored. It offers no shelter now. An emptying landscape. As claims are made, fences erected and the horizon breached. Only Mr. Pipe remains, the others have now gone, the spoke of life beyond the forest.

Frontispiece from Beyond the Forest, Steidl, 2007

Russell Roberts, February 2008

Artist's biography

Clare Richardson lives and works in Camarthenshire, West Wales. Her work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and featured in Regarding Landscape, a major touring exhibition in Canada. Harlemville, 2003 and Beyond the Forest, 2007 have both been published by Steidl as limited-edition hardback monographs.

Exhibitions include Something That I'll Never Really See, Contemporary Photography from the V&A, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich; National Portrait Gallery Photographic Award, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2007; Utopian Mirage, The Frances Leman Loeb Art Centre, Vassar College, New York, 2007; Arcadia, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, 2006; Douglas Hyde Gallery (solo), Trinity College, Dublin, 2005; Other Times, City Gallery, Prague, 2004; Collection Agnès B, Les Abattoirs, Toulouse, 2004; Sylvan (solo), White Cube, London, 2003; Harlemville (solo), Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 2003 and White Cube, London, 2001; Summer Life, Alice Austen's House, Staten Island, New York, 2003.

Richardson will have solo shows at Ffoto Gallery, Cardiff (Beyond the Forest), in March followed by the Goethe Institute, Hamburg.

About Russell Roberts

Russell Roberts is a curator and writer. Born in Cosford, Shropshire, he studied in London for his BA and MA before joining the Department of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum as an intern from 1990-92.

Early curatorial projects included Memory & The Archive – Photographs/Images/Documents (1995) at the John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton, and the acclaimed international touring exhibition In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science & The Everyday(1997) at MoMA (Oxford).

From 1998-2006 he was Head of Photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (National Media Museum), where he is now Honorary Fellow in Photography. As a curator he has worked on projects for festivals and venues such as Arles, Photoespana and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Tate Britain, Moderna Museet and the Finnish Museum of Photography amongst others. Between 2003 and 2006: he was an advisor to Arts Council England; Research Associate at the Pitt Rivers Museum Research Centre at the University of Oxford; Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Newport; project director for the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council subject specialist network for photography; consultant to the National Galleries of Scotland and The Photographers' Gallery; and Chair of the Committee for the Jerwood Photography Prize.

In 2006 he joined the Centre for Photographic Research at University of Wales, Newport, in a unique partnership with Ffotogallery, Cardiff ( to work on developing a national centre for photography in Wales. Recent projects include Material Industries: The Photographs of Maurice Broomfield (2007). He is currently working on an exhibition and book on the archive and legacy of Mass-Observation in contemporary art with Photoworks and Steidl, and a book on 30 years of photographic art in Wales between 1978-2008 for Ffotogallery.

Research interests include: histories of photography, curating and contemporary art/photographic practice as historiography, documentary aesthetics, the cultural politics of exhibitions and collecting, and contemporary photography & The Museum.

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