Robin Friend captures the dual nature of Britain’s countryside

Robin Friend captures the dual nature of Britain’s countryside

Robin Friend’s newly released book, Bastard Countryside, is the unplanned result of 15 years of photographing the British landscape. When Friend – a Wallpaper* contributor – started taking the large-format pictures that appear on the book’s pages, he was still an undergraduate at Plymouth University.

There are also photographs taken later, when he moved to London, where he completed an MA at the Royal College of Art. It was at the RCA that he met Robert MacFarlane, the British writer who has revived interest in writing about the landscape in his books and essays. Macfarlane introduced Friend to Victor Hugo’s contemplation of a ‘bastard countryside’, a place between urban and rural, and has contributed an essay to the book.

Bastard Countryside looks outwards at a changing landscape, but it is also a personal documentation, of a person maturing as an artist and as a man, and in his vision of the world through his camera. For Friend, who was born in London but grew up in Australia before moving back, this dual perspective also reveals itself in an insider-outsider view, the imprint of culture on nature. Friend treats Britain’s creeks and canals, flora and fauna, industrial sites and scrap yards, with the equal curiosity and distance of a foreign eye.

There are dramatic, monumental scenes – a shipwreck, a beached whale – that touch on themes of death and human destruction. Other images surprise with unexpected beauty: piles of scrap waste suddenly look like magnificent sculptures. There are juxtapositions that provoke laughter, such as his snapshots of scarecrows. Friend’s understanding of colour and light brings a surreal kind of magic: his pictures of satellite dishes rusting in fields of lavender, or pinkish bales of hay piled high, look exotic to a native.

Like a long line of landscape painters who have sat out in the teeth of the weather, Friend, with his cumbersome large-format camera, has abseiled and climbed (and even slept on shipwreck) to take his photographs. Some are carefully coordinated shoots while others are spontaneous sightings. This physical engagement with the landscape is as much part of the work: we look at it from different angles, above, below, up-close and from afar.

Juxtaposing the natural and the manmade, pollution and its victims, wreckage and renewal, Bastard Countryside constitutes ‘an archive of a country’s margins during an era of austerity and marginalisation’, as MacFarlane writes in his essay. This is not a depiction of pastoral perfection but an ode to a tangled, snuggle-toothed terrain whose charm isn’t obvious but has been overlooked. §

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