‘People want me to say I’m alienated’: Ingrid Pollard on the myths of art, race and landscape | Photography
I first encountered Ingrid Pollard’s photography at a retrospective of Britain’s black arts movement in Nottingham in 2017 – a time when aftershocks from the Brexit referendum were still fresh, Trump was new, the Defense League English was on the rise and officials in Whitehall described their vision for Britain’s global relations as “Empire 2.0”. Faced with such a vacuum of political imagination, it seemed vital at this time to turn to the work of artists such as Pollard, Sonia Boyce, Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid and Eddie Chambers, who since the early 1980s explored creative ways to stand up to white supremacy from a uniquely British perspective. Pollard’s unique contribution to this movement, a beacon for black engagement in British rural geography, quickly found a special resonance with me.
Pollard is best known for her work in portrait and landscape photography. In projects including The cost of the English landscape (1989) and seventeen out of sixty-eight (2019), she challenges conventional wisdom about Englishness and brings what Baroness Lola Young called “simplicity and complexity” to themes of place, race, nation and sexuality.
Pollard decided about a year ago to break away from London life and moved to Highgreen, Northumberland. We had planned to do our interview – to discuss his first career retrospective, at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes – there, against the backdrop of Pollard’s new life in the north of England. But about a week before, she changes her mind: “I just moved here,” she explains. “It’s not really my house.” Instead, we meet at a cafe near the Lea Rowing Club in Hackney, not far from Pollard’s first home in Britain, where she lived after her family emigrated from Guyana in 1956.
On the opposite bank of the river to the rowing club, beyond the barges and the marina of Springfield, open the marshes of Walthamstow, paradise of the aquatic birds and the dragonflies. In 1970, while on an O-level geography field assignment and using his father’s camera, Pollard conducted his first photography project. here – on the industrial decline of the Lea Valley. “It’s an important landscape in my life,” she says. As we begin to talk, I feel the decision to meet in London may be because Pollard wants to avoid being portrayed as an outsider in an unfamiliar landscape. This is a common caricature, she says, based on misreading a work made almost 40 years ago.
This piece is his most famous work – pastoral interlude – a series of image-text compositions, made between 1982 and 1987, which combine photographs of young black people working or walking in English rural environments with words that are in uncomfortable tension with the images. A photographer leans against a dry stone wall, rewinding her film. A naturalist collects specimens from a river. A young man wanders playfully through a cemetery. Beneath the images, the words point to things you can’t quite see – stories of empire and slavery, hints of terror or vulnerability: “I wandered alone like a dark face in a sea of white”, we read in one of these texts; “Searching for seashells, the waves ride my wellington boots, carrying the lost souls of siblings overboard,” said another. Seeing them is a complex experience that, as someone who inhabits and opposes aspects of English identity, feels familiar to me.
A 2015 article by writer Robert Macfarlane illustrates, says Pollard, what irritates him about the misreading. Writing about the “strangeness” of the English countryside, Macfarlane quotes pastoral interlude and assumes that it is Pollard herself who “wanders alone like a black cloud…”. That’s wrong, says Pollard. ” It’s not a legend. [The text and the image] are supposed to be in opposition. She remembers the days spent in Derbyshire taking these images as a moment of pleasure. At the time, she was with her friend Anita Jones, one of the models in the photographs. They were taking a short break before heading to the first Black Arts Convention in Wolverhampton: “These are vacation photos,” insists Pollard. “People are happy in these photos.”
“People immediately say [about Pastoral Interlude]: ‘It is about alienation. These are white landscapes, blacks. It’s strange,” Pollard continues. “He takes the shape that people want him to have.” Rather, she sees this piece and her own work more broadly as a reflection of a lifelong engagement with the British landscape in all its complexity. Referring to an image from the series where Anita Jones is sitting, camera in hand, on a dry stone wall, Pollard tells me to turn my attention to the fence, hedges and peaks behind her: “Look at this landscape”, she says. . “It’s a landscaped landscape, the trees have been removed, there are dry stone walls, there are sheep. Everything is made there for industrial rural use. The barbed wire, the telegraph pole, the tarmac. Black stereotypes are constructed in exactly the same way.
For Pollard, the work exposes the dominant myths about the English landscape and Englishness: “People want me to say I’m alienated because then they can say, ‘Oh, I get that. Black people should be in the Caribbean or Africa, that’s where they’re from.
Pollard left his parents’ home (then at Crouch End) in 1972, and his work emerged from London’s popular culture of the 1970s and 1980s, a scene that nurtured his creativity. She settled in a squat in Bromley and did odd jobs – gardener for the local council, telephone operator, “gruntler at the bottom of the British Library”. “If you were arty,” she says, “you’d work in a cafe or something, but people would ask you what your real job was, if you were a composer or an artist.” A friend knew the family of social historian GM Trevelyan, who owned a large house in the Langdale Valley in the Lake District where Ingrid and a group of friends stayed twice a year for three or four years: “Because that we were a group of artists”. Pollard explains, “We all tended to have cameras. For a week you would have a roll of 36, or two rolls if I was feeling rich. It had to last, so everything was very carefully photographed. Everyone was taking pictures in a slow, slow way. I just got the virus,” she says.
Meanwhile, in London, an ecosystem was beginning to form around her creative practice: “Someone lent me an enlarger,” she says. “Before, I used to print in the kitchen. There was [also] community darkrooms and screen printing evening classes. It wasn’t about getting exposure at the Tate. You were looking for liminal, alternative spaces. You would do your own thing.
A first exhibition took place at the People’s Gallery in Camden. Shortly after, she landed a job at the Lenthall Road Workshop in Hackney, where she really started to bond. “This [job] kind of changed things,” she says. Artist Claudette Johnson also worked there. Photographer David A Bailey used to come. Pollard began working for feminist publications rib and to write. “Yes [for example] Alice Walker was here doing a poetry reading, I was going to photograph her. Pollard became active within the London lesbian scene – initially a “white feminist world” – but later as part of a black lesbian dissident group. She attended the first conference of OWAAD – the Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent: “It was mind-boggling,” she says. “There were like a thousand black women here who called themselves feminists.”
Outside of this dynamic social and political context, pastoral interlude and The cost of the English landscape have been created. Time spent on holiday in different pockets of the countryside has revealed blind spots in England’s image of itself for Pollard, an image underpinned by a romantic view of the landscape that begs to be challenged.. “Wordsworth and Coleridge both wrote about slavery and abolition,” she explains, “but some of Wordsworth’s funding came from people involved in the slave trade. Dorothee Wordsworth [his sister] writes in her journals that she saw an African at the door! There were black people around. Corn [the Romantics] I just haven’t really written about it.
During the 1990s, Pollard’s projects would point to a growing recognition that all of our identities are, like the landscape, equally constructed. The multimedia installation Competitors (1995) is an anatomical exploration of boxing culture. Gloves, helmet, bandages – the perfect attunement of male boxers’ bodies to endure pain and inflict injury – are printed larger than life to loom above the viewer. Pollard evokes a sense of masculinity as something constructed, something made.
More recently, Pollard has returned to landscape, where the certainty and solidity of stone is questioned. In Landscape trauma (2001), it presents large format photographs of geological formations taken among the rock forms of Northumberland. These striking images expose processes in deep time; England’s landscape, she says, is itself shaped over millions of years by “a kind of superficial trauma” that is so much deeper than the accounts of human history. Here, violence and trauma give way to fertile spaces and creative possibilities: “You can grow things in this [section of] land, while you can’t grow things in this [other] Earth. People cultivate the land or build because of what is in the ground. Then we mix it.
We see a boat pushing pontoons with a crew of four Hasidic Jewish women and it reminds me of Pollard’s last split-screen film, Rhythms at hand (2022), which captures the moving bodies of dancers and rowers. She remarks on how things have changed – how you wouldn’t have seen the Jewish community engaging with the yacht club when they first started coming here in the early 1990s. Her use of rowing as a motif, she says, also finds its origin here. She recalls how in 1992 she was so inspired by Steve Redgrave’s Olympic success at Barcelona that she tried to get involved with Lea Rowing Club only to experience so much racism that she opted for the club instead. upstream at Broxbourne. Racism, she insists, is a response she has experienced in the English countryside, but also in “London, Belfast, Poland”. For Pollard, this does not define the experience of a landscape, and it never will.