this is how the earth must see itself  Interviewed by Kim Shaw
Photomonitor (Dec 2021)

In this special year-end interview, Tamsin Green is speaking about her newest publication This is How the Earth Must See Itself which has recently been published to great acclaim. In conversation with Kim Shaw, Green reveals the background to her latest project, on view later this month at Photofusion, London.


Kim Shaw: This is How the Earth Must See Itself is your second artist’s book (Born of Purest Parents was self-published in 2018).  Both books concern themselves, in one way or another, with geology. You are a qualified architect and geology could be described as the study of the Earth’s architecture, its structure and the materials that give rise to the structure.  I wonder how your interest and training in architecture has informed your photographic practice?

Tamsin Green: That is a big question. When I go out walking in the UK I take both the Ordnance Survey and the British Geological Survey maps. I find the underlying geology fascinating in appreciating time, scale and process in the formation of the land. My photographs are taken in the landscape and extract from it spaces and details. They often illustrate the coming together of elements; rock and water, rock and vegetation, or elevational textures and material samples.

I am very interested in the two-dimensional image as a representation of the three-dimensional. Both geology and architecture employ abstract representations of three-dimensional structures. In geology a tool or object is placed in the photographic frame to provide the viewer with reference to scale. In architectural drawings (and maps) grids and scale bars are provided. By omitting or tampering with these elements the way the image is read changes.

With the book form, these two-dimensional images are then placed into a three-dimensional space, where new materials and structures are introduced. Both of these works reference the textbook or manual. The format encourages the viewer to believe the content. Scientific methodologies and rules have been used to make the work but the output is not necessarily truthful and often crosses the line into fiction.

KS: You say that the output isn’t necessarily truthful, but that the format suggests credibility.  Enter the ordnance survey map! The first such map was created by the defense ministry – the Board of Ordnance – to provide the kind of detail necessary for moving troops and planning military campaigns.  What was it about the Ordnance Survey that captured your imagination?

TG: Maps always have a purpose and are a reduction of visual information to those elements that communicate their objectives. The project deals directly with the Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25 000 Explorer map, whose purpose is to allow users to ‘make the most of the Great British outdoors’. I was interested in exploring how the landscape is therefore represented in this map and whether the symbols had been re-evaluated as the purpose shifted to civilian exploration.

I attended a masterclass with the OS cartography team at the British Library in early 2020, and they subsequently helped me to research the development of the symbols. They signposted the National Library of Scotland that holds a large proportion of the OS archive. Thankfully this archive has been digitalised as I was conducting this research as we entered into the first lockdown. Several key text books emerged from our discussions that covered the evolution of the OS map sheets, published by the Ordnance Survey and the Charles Close Society (CCS). CCS also publishes a journal called ‘Sheetlines’ that delves into many niche corners of the history of the Ordnance Survey.

From these sources I was able to trace the origin of the current rock features back to 1958 when the symbols had been re-evaluated, and the move made to deriving the line drawings from aerial photographs. This in itself was fascinating and created a cyclic relationship in my work whereby maps were used to take photographs, and photographs were used to create maps. My questions around why these 5 rock natural features had been selected remain unanswered.

KS: The images themselves are stunning. The ease with which you move from the macro to the micro, and the suggestion of a fractal-like feedback loop in these natural patterns makes for an immersive visual experience.  Can you talk a bit about the photography itself?

TG: The photographs were taken on walks along sections of the English coastal path from Kent in the East, to Cornwall and Devon in the West. I’ve been walking this path for more than 20 years, and the earliest photograph included in the book was taken in around 1999.

The surveyors’ rules for categorising the landscape often include references to orientation and scale. By playing with these variables the images find the big in the small and vice versa and speak to often incomprehensible geological processes and timescales. In pairing and sequencing the images I was interested in how the language of the map symbols could often be found in the images. I wondered if this was conscious or unconscious when I went out with the map to make photographs.

The photographs are interwoven with archival drawings. These drawings are of fossils that were collected by the surveyors during the original mapping of the Cornish Coastline, subsequently drawn and published in 1841. Some of these drawings look like photographs, and some of the photographs could be drawings, building on the cyclic relationship between these two mediums.

KS: There are an increasing number of women who are getting noticed for their work within the landscape.  I’m really interested in the conversations around the female gaze as it relates to landscape photography, both in terms of the work itself and the experience of making it.  By that, I mean the experience of being in a remote space where women can feel physically vulnerable.  Has this ever been a consideration in your own practice?

TG: It is interesting that you talk about landscape photography. Whilst I am making work in the landscape, it doesn’t neatly fit into the parameters of the genre. Our experience of the landscape is shaped by personal memories and cultural references. It’s therefore crucial that a diversity of voices are represented.

There has definitely been a lot of inner turmoil for me when walking alone and sleeping outside. I spent time in the Romanian mountains whilst making my previous project, Born of the Purest Parents. I remember being strangely comforted when seeing my lone footprints in the snow from the day before. 

I recently undertook my first solo wild camp on the Westernmost cliffs of Cornwall. This was such an empowering and incredibly beautiful experience. However, it took a lot of reconditioning for me to reach this milestone. I am trying to normalise it in my own mind by reading female nature writing and connecting with other women who walk and camp.

KS: Manual Editions (your publishing imprint) have started an artist book library which is a brilliant idea!  What inspired this idea and how will it work?

TG: Thank you for picking up on this initiative I wasn’t sure if the idea was brilliant or bonkers. But we have just had the first loan request so there seems to be an appetite for it. The idea is that the books can be borrowed for a week for £10 including outward P&P. The book is affixed with a library label to track the adventures that it goes on, and in some sense to act as an honesty system to encourage the borrower to return the book.

There are a couple of thoughts behind it. Firstly, there is a big gap between briefly looking at a book at a bookshop or book fair and making the commitment to buy it. Often I would like to spend more time with a book, but don’t necessarily need to own it forever. Secondly, borrowing is more environmentally conscious than buying, so it is something that I think we should be encouraging more broadly. Thirdly, these books are handmade in small editions and so the number of people that can own one is limited. By introducing the library model, a greater number of people can experience the physical books. 

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