Thursday, 2 June 2011

#12 ‘What’s so special about a potato?’

I’m writing this on the 2nd June 2011 while I’m watching installers Danny Scott (who prepares for the install by working out in the gym) and Dave Hayes (who prepares by eating kebabs) get ready to hang ‘Potato’. I have already been treated to a comment from a member of staff at Lingfield (no names no pack drill) ‘What’s so special about a potato?’ I’m never ready for this kind of question - especially when I’m wondering why the riggers haven’t turned up at 8:00 on the dot and I’m exhausting all the possibilities as to why? They have had a crash, they’re coming next Thursday, and of course the answer… They’re not in a hurry or as anxious as me. It’s fine and everything is under control.

In fact this picture is late up. We seem to have had a month of strong winds with gusts at a minimum of 28mph daily which is too dangerous for the riggers to work at height.

The wind now is perfect for the first time in a fortnight and it’s a beautiful day.

So I while I wait to check if it will be put up straight (Oddly for a round picture it does matter and I have to drive to a nearby roundabout to check this.) I wanted to add to the blog to talk around how this picture came about and what it means to us. What is so special about a potato?

Well for starters we didn’t set out to make a picture called ‘Potato’.

Following our call out (see previous post) about the allotment project John and I joined a ‘boon day’ with about 10 people at the beginning of May to start off the new season’s growing with Darlington Friends of the Earth and allotment holders after Peter Roberts and Kendra Ullyart had put a call out to holders and warned them that we wanted to be involved. We had a brilliant spell of sunny weather at the beginning of May but plants had not quite started going yet after a hard winter. Nonetheless people’s thoughts had turned to growing and there was a feeling about getting things going again. The day was infused with the ‘rising sap’ and ‘sick of winter’ feeling that all growers get.

Everybody was working together to shift soil from the dumpy bags with which the project started (not a great success, too dry and looks a mess) into new raised beds and start growing for the 2011 season.

Rabbit control is a big issue with a number of fortifications (erm…. ‘enclosures’) taking shape and much discussion of rabbit meat/myxomatosis

The growers knew we were taking photographs which could be used for Futurescope and so it was, as it always is, initially a little awkward and contrived. I’m not an immediate people person but John is very good at making people feel comfortable despite the fact that he’s lying on the floor with a camera pinned to his face. As the day wore on the job in hand took over and they got more used to us the pictures got better.

Between us we took 406 photos and later in the day sat down to go through what we had got. Not really knowing whether we had an image that would strike us as ‘right’ and of course not really having worked out what ‘right’ was.

Odd because it starts with a situation and a group of ideas, involves some choreography and contrivance and then some post rationalisation - i.e. How will the picture fit in the sequence of eight pictures? It’s generally at this point that we give the picture a name. I’m haunted by the photographer William Eggleston’s memorable statement that he took photographs ‘to find out what something will look like when photographed’ because it is in the reciprocal relationship between the replication of the world and living in it that we generate ideas and action, discover meaning or gain perspectives that challenge and change our received ideas.

We divided the days shots into #1 those we couldn’t use because the people in them weren’t consented (a shame because some of these would definitely have found their way onto the shortlist), #2 Kids (All great shots but somehow not about allotments and growing plants), #3 Duffs (out of focus, tripped over a hosepipe etc.) #3 Lifestyle Shots - things that would look good in a magazine selling something. ‘Accent pictures’ if you like and #4 ‘Possibles’ and from those we looked at another group (#5) which ones we could crop into a circle. Despite the number of photos we have taken for Futurescope it is always surprisingly difficult to take a square picture for a round crop.

This was the shortlist, all have an inspiring sense of purpose to them.

Of these we agonised over two finally choosing this picture of Darlington resident Judith Ithurralde.

Judith is slightly out of focus but the soil is really sharp and we liked the way in which this moved her into the background of the picture. Judith had brought seed potatoes to plant in her raised bed in an egg box and when we looked at the photograph seemed to be handling them as if they were as fragile as eggs.

It’s important to us that the images are about the place and the activity and not about the people in them.

The potato is so small but it’s at the heart of the picture. The sharp focus is on the soil which is heavy clay that the allotment holders have to work hard to improve. It was deposited there when Lingfield point was constructed in the late 1940’s.

So again why ‘Potato’? Firstly we wanted to give some profile and exposure to the allotment project. We have always had the idea that the images could develop and respond to what goes on at Lingfield and show on the outside of the site what is going on at the moment. There is a propagandist element to the project and it is important to us to promote and encourage this activity. More people could join and do this and we felt that the image would ‘promote the project’.

So if you do want to join and grow at Lingfield Point call Kendra Ullyart on 01325 469 582.

‘Futurescope’ was intended to catalyse action and activity around the development of the site particularly where green issues were concerned. The allotment project is unusual. Not many property companies supply allotments on a low cost basis working with volunteers and the third sector and there is a demand.

With growing started we felt that the image of the plant being cultivated would be there when the plant was growing and encourage others to join. I checked on it today and here it is! As the Summer wears on the link between the image and the plant will be maintained.

Secondly, there is the wider history and significance of the Potato. Plants and their relationships with people are fascinating. The Potato has been a huge benefit to humanity as a food but has also been at the centre of significant tragedies where a dependency upon it became established. Also for the past few years I have been following the work of the American writer and Journalist Michael Pollan. A chapter in his book the Botany of Desire is devoted to the Potato which anticipates the next phase of our relationship with it as GM technology develops. It’s astonishing that something so ordinary is now so extraordinarily important and controversial.

What the potato does is metabolise sunlight, nutrients and water to make a starchy tuber.

Until we began to regard it as a resource at our disposal it just wasn’t important at all. On the face of it it’s a fair question…