Retraced 81/19 by John Davies Reviewed by Ryan Marsh M.A.

Retraced 81/19 by John Davies: Review

Back in 2013, when studying BA Honours in Photojournalism, a group of lecturers suddenly became interested in my photography which addressed humanity’s effect on the Welsh landscape. One of them asked “Is this the post-industrial landscape?” which I thought was a strange question. Most of the British landscapes from since I was born were post-industrial so I didn’t really know any different.

In this respect, English photographer John Davies’ work could be looked upon as a window into the past. In the 1970s and 1980s Davies prominently documented British industrial landscapes. He used medium or large format, black and white film along with framing conventions (like the rule of thirds, leading lines, etc.) more associated with cliché landscape imagery (think Joe Cornish). However, Davies’ photographs possessed substance by challenging the picturesque and documenting the effect of industry on the landscape.

Nevertheless, times change and industrial landscapes become post-industrial. This appears to be the thinking behind Davies’ new book published by GOST: Retraced 81/19, which (as the title suggests) features images made between 1981 and 2019. Specifically, Davies re-photographs the same location decades later to create a “before and after” effect that shows how much these spaces change over time.

The areas documented are Britain, France and Germany each with their own type of development. The United Kingdom goes from being industrial to post-industrial. The photographs of France depict the rural giving way to tourism. Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, are the depictions of Germany pre- and post-Berlin Wall. A particularly poignant image features the Wall which, in another picture, has been replaced by a skip. The Iron Curtain confined to the skip of history.

Davies’ use of medium and large format film works effectively. As someone who himself has used both formats, the risks are great and the working process slow. However, they are rich in detail (especially important for vast landscape prints) and the methodology makes the photographer thoroughly consider the picture’s content.

This is why with Retraced 81/19 it is great to see the pictures presented in the book first with the main text at the back. The reader views the images, forms their own opinions and then obtains information from the text. This prevents ruining the reader’s enjoyment of the book.

The text is by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and Davies. Barnes contextualises Davies’ photographs and praises them for their ability to communicate the enduring human spirit. Davies, on the other hand, provides in-depth background information on this body of work. Some of this does read like a history lesson but it demonstrates his knowledge and passion for the subject matter. The pictures would lack effectiveness without Davies’ understanding of these countries’ histories.

Regarding the book’s design, immediately noticeable is the bold red, white and blue colour scheme. I assume the colours are referencing France, Britain and, to a certain extent, the European Union. As the UK is leaving the EU, the …19 part of the title provides future generations with a rough timestamp for this change.

The book’s exterior has a nice texture to it with the embossed text emphasising the numbers of the title. However, it could do with a protective dust jacket or slipcase.

The thoughtfully arranged photographs and accompanying text within benefits how Retraced 81/19 is read. The basic order is first page: image, second page: text, third page: text and fourth page: image. Specifically, the first page allows the image to communicate which is then contextualised by the text opposite. Overleaf, more text establishes the next image and prepares the reader for the change represented by the following contemporary picture.

I admit initial confusion about the book’s square shape as Davies’ previous books were large and horizontal (or basically landscape) which suitably matched the shape of his photographs. It could be argued that it stands out from other Davies books on the shelf or that many images in a large tome would make it physically unmanageable and therefore unsaleable. Maybe it is a deliberate choice against making a cliché coffee table book about such a thought-provoking topic. In my opinion the pictures being on a smaller page communicate on a more intimate level. This therefore becomes less about creating grand statements and more about Davies quietly reflecting on the past.

Regarding Davies, I’m surprised he isn’t better known. The strength of his work lies in its broad appeal to all photographers. His knowledge on photography’s capacity to communicate is balanced by an understanding of how aesthetics can draw people to sombre topics. The ideas in his photographs should resonate with a wide audience, regardless of their background.

If anyone wants an easy and less intimidating entry into thoughtful landscape photography, away from the likes of Joe Cornish and Charlie Waite, then I thoroughly recommend John Davies’ Retraced 81/19. In fact, all of Davies’ back catalogue is worthy of attention but be careful, you might not think about and look at landscape the same way again.

John Davies Website:

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