home features exhibitions  | interviews profiles webprojects  | gazetteer links archive | forum


A Critical Review of My Practice

James Hankey


I have always been interested in the ocean and coastlines, and one of the main reasons I came down to study in Cornwall was because the county has five hundred miles of coastline.  Part of my fascination with coastlines comes from living near Lyme Regis.  Also, I have acknowledged that coastlines are the most natural (untouched by man) landscapes there are (1).  This really intrigues me as you can see marks that natural processes alone have made. 

After looking at artists like John Pfahl and his ‘Altered landscapes’ series, I had preconceived ideas about what I could do. I really enjoyed the way Pfahl’s images played with perspective.  He created (seemingly) two dimensional shapes in a three dimensional space, - for example Bermuda Triangle, Bermuda (Fig 1).


These images are great because they show that the artist has a genuine awareness of his surroundings and of the characteristics of the land. 

At the same time I was looking at the work of artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.  Their art work revolves around the process of walking. They use walking as a way to get closer (physically and psychologically) to nature and their artwork aims to promote an awareness and appreciation of nature.  Fig 2 is an example of Richard Long’s work that I found very interesting as he was repeating and almost re-emphasising marks left by a natural occurrence – the tide.


Fig 2 Richard Long

I knew that that I could create similar images (i.e. line drawings in a space) using long exposures (10 minutes to 2 hours) at night and moving around the frame with a lit torch (influenced by Thomas Flechtner’s book entitled ‘Snow’).  I produced a few images that were reflective of Long’s work.  

Fig 3 'Following Tidal Marks' james hankey

fig 4 'Motion of a particle' james hankey

Whilst looking at the images from these shoots I realised how important site-specificity was. I had made marks on the photographic film by highlighting seaweed left by the tide or emulating how erosion can change the location of a particle on a beach; with the intention of promoting an awareness of natural processes.  I realised though, that these areas that I was photographing were not the best examples of places where obvious natural occurrences occur i.e. erosion from waves or long shore drift.(2)  I wanted to return to my home town - Lyme Regis because it is constantly changing due to landslides and there are many good examples of long shore drift (3) in the area.  One of the images I am most pleased with is the image below of Chesil beach.  

Fig 5 'Cycle' chesil beach, james hankey 06

I feel it works compositionally and has an element of intrigue but more importantly is one of the most site specific images I have produced.  Any shape repeated inside it-self would draw the eye into the image, but I wanted to use a circle because the shape has symbolic significance with infinity and cycle, which is reflective of how the 17mile long beach or spit (4)(longest spit in Europe) was made. 

The image below (Fig 6) is a long exposure of the incoming tide on a sand bar near Charmouth beach and the light lines are me walking in the frame holding a lit torch. 


Fig 6 'walking motion 1' Charmouth, james hankey 06

Fig 7 'Walking Motion 2' Monmouth, james hankey, 06

I produced a series of work on coastlines using this technique of walking back and forth.  I became aware and fascinated with the work of Chris Drury when he presented his work at a R.A.N.E lecture (Research in Art, Nature and Environment) at Woodlane. I really like the way his work uncovers and makes relationships between patterns that naturally occur on very different scales (i.e. weather patterns and heart cross sections). When I looked at my work, I recognised that the marks made by the torch (held at a point on my body) had a direct relationship to the ground I was walking on – the flatter the ground the more uniform the frequency and amplitude of the line and visa versa (Fig 7). The pattern made by the light (in Fig 6) is suggestive of the ripples in the sand and also the motion of a wave. The pattern reminded me of A-level physics – when we had to plot sine graphs or simple-harmonic-motion graphs. This pattern is inherent in many natural occurrences – wave motion (whether sound, light, water or electromagnetic) as well as correlating with circular motion, which in this case can indicate the circular trajectory of the moon around Earth – creating tidal changes.

I produced a series of work on southwest facing cliff tops. I used lit newspaper to record the traces of the prevailing/predominant south–westerly winds and also to emulate cliff erosion.  This work was the start of the adrenaline inducing and slightly silly (in terms of safety) work, that later was to become quite important.  For this work I would wait until it got dark, start the exposure and proceed to walk (with no torch!) onto and around cliff top edges (that could be 20 minutes walk away), - and set alight newspaper to let the wind take the paper on its due course.  Either that or I would wrap (in news paper) loose stones found at the cliff top edge, light them and roll them down the cliff letting gravity and the contours of the cliff compose the marks (reflective of the process that produces boulders at the base of these cliffs). Observing the unpredictable movement of the burning paper was really rewarding and almost meditative, despite the fact that one slip in the wrong direction and I wouldn’t be here writing this!


Fig 8 'Halezephron cliff' Cornwall, james hankey 06


It was at this point I realised that I needed to research more into the physical characteristics and geological significance of specific parts of the Cornish coastline.  I started by referring to geology text books, which informed me how specific rock formations were formed, where fault lines were situated, and what terms like ‘dyke, zawn, and upright tight synclines’(6) (!) referred to.  Consulting a geological map, I marked on my Lizard O.S. map where different types of rock lay next to each other on the coast. Out of curiosity I wanted to see if I could find exact locations of where these rocks met.  The results were mixed, but on the whole I found that these locations were always intriguing in terms of the physical attributes of the land – protruding rocks, caves and zawns were often present, even quarries - Porthoustock.

An important influence is the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960’s early 70’s.  The artists that were and are most appealing to me are Giuseppe Penone and Giovanni Anselmo. In the work entitled ‘Tree’, along with many other works of this nature, - Penone reveals the tree that is latent in the common form of a plank of wood. Penone uses photographs to reveal a ‘process in reverse’ from the plank growing into the tree. I really liked the way Penone reveals natural forms in a functional material that is usually accepted for its face appearance.


Fig 9 Guiseppe Penone

The more I read and explored, the more I understood about the significance of rock type in conjunction with its geographical situation (whether the site is prone to wave erosion etc), - in the formation of the physical appearance of the place.  I experimented with double exposures to try to create a visual interpretation of this.  Below (Fig 10) is an example of this, - a photograph that was taken facing south-east towards Kynance Cove.  

Fig 10 'Tremolite sepentine and Kynance', Kynance Cove, hankey 06

Fig 11 'gabbro amongst bastite' coverack, hankey 06

Fig 10 'Tremolite serpentine and Kynance'  
This image seemed busy in its composition and I originally questioned the necessity for a long exposure. Fig 11 is the result. This image is interesting, and something I didn’t initially intend. The pattern of the boulder’s surface draws visual similarities with lightning, and also the patterns of maps; - perhaps reflective of the journey the rock took to get to its present location(7). I experimented with other locations but found it difficult to find rocks that had clearly definable lines of weakness.

I also used double exposures as a way of revealing the necessity of camera position in showing a natural process. Fig 12 is a photograph of a landslide with the cross section of that landslide exposed on top of it; - almost to make the viewer aware of the coefficient of friction (or angle) needed to create the landslide.


Fig 12 'Landslide and cross-section', Dollar Cove, hankey 06

Although I really liked the daylight image, I recognised that I was extremely fortunate to come across a recent landslide in Cornwall, opposed to West Dorset – an area that I come from and whom Jem Southam repeatedly visited and documented landslides. I also became conscious that the images that worked really well were the long exposures where it was obvious I had moved within the frame. (Example - Fig 13)  

Fig 13 'Slip Dollar Cove' Cornwall, Hankey 06

The ability of a long exposure (in moonlight- effectively reflected sunlight) to record colours that are close to, yet sometimes very different from daylight, even though the human eye only picks up hardly distinguishable hues of colour, really adds excitement and anticipation to the outcome of the image. This, - combined with having to walk to the locations and climb on the rocks themselves (which, as I have already mentioned previously, can be and normally is adrenaline inducing) is really important to the overall image making process. 

In the photograph on the next page for example (Fig 14), I had to traverse down the entire ridge of the cliff (in the dark) to reach the arch at the centre of the frame. I had to work out (by observing the waves and rock formations below) where the start of the opening to the arch began, so I could make a similar light line that would reflect the obvious weakness in the other (left) side of the arch.


Fig 14 'Arch into Stack' Cadgwith, hankey 06

I hope that the peculiarity of the image and image making process will invoke questions in the viewer. Questions’ that are perhaps similar to that which Giovanni Anselmo’s work asks. Anselmo’s ‘Untitled, Eating Structure’ 1968 for example, makes the audience visually deconstruct the process of the decomposition of the lettuce and its affect on the structure of the sculpture. The smaller granite block falls out when the lettuce decomposes.  

Fig 15 'Untitled Eating Structure', Giovanni Anselmo, 1968

The images that work most successfully have a balance between function - in informing the viewer of what has or might happen; and ambiguity - in provoking a question of how and why the image was made. For example – Fig 16 below  

Fig 16 'Weakness Lines', Porthoustock, Hankey 06

(1)In the UK it would be difficult to point out any stretch of land -no matter how natural in appearance, that hadn’t been shaped somehow (directly or indirectly) by man.  Coastlines are the exception, with the relentless force of the ocean, the shape of the coast constantly changes at various rates.
(2) Although every coastline erodes, all have different rates of erosion and because of the geology of Cornwall, its coastline erodes very little compared to other coastlines i.e. West Dorset/ East Devon and therefore it is a bad example.
(3) Long shore drift is where beach matter travels along the coastline in the direction of the dominant or prevailing swell.
(4)A ‘spit’ is a narrow and long stretch of sand/shingle that extends out to sea, or partway across a river estuary caused
by the process of long shore drift.
(5) At different locations on The Lizard you will find all six layers of the oceanic crust, many different types of rocks including rocks that are usually 10km below the surface (bastite serpentine). You will also find many examples of dykes, fault lines, zawns, caves, blow holes, arches, stacks, as well as very rare plant and animal life.
(6) A ‘dyke’ is a protrusion of rock sandwiched between another type of rock, formed when magma under pressure finds weaknesses in the spreading axis of the more solid crust of rock above.
A ‘zawn’ comes from the Cornish dialect for chasm. Basically it is a weakness in a rock, which over time has been eroded by wave action – often forming perpendicular lines if rock or possibly small coves.
 ‘Upright tight syncline’ just describes the shape of layers of rock that have folded under heat and pressure from colliding land masses.
(7) In the severe cold of the last ice age, “ice penetrated the fissures (cracks) in the cliffs above, then expanded and cracked off huge blocks. When the hard ground thawed into mud, the cracked off crusairs (gabbro boulders) tobogganed down from the tors” to there present locations amongst bastite serpentine. Extract from ‘Beneath the Skin of The Lizard’ 2000 pg 26
(8) Turner presented the work on an island only accessible at high tide, encouraging the audience to understand the subject of the work –the moon and its influence on the tides. – Something that is quite difficult to do in photography.


James's website is at www.jameshankeyphotography.com.

This essay is an abridged version of an essay written during James' degree course at UCF. The original essay can be read there.