The Country Life series, curated by Val Williams, invited artists to respond to the George Garland Collection, archived at the West Sussex County Records Office. Garland made thousands of photographs from his studio in Petworth of the rural England that he knew would soon disappear (1).
Here are a few examples of the 70,000 photographs Garland made:
Garland’s photographs were taken in the first half of the 20th century. Yes they are romantic and painterly but they would certainly accord with many people’s memories or imagination of life in rural West Sussex at that time.
Lipper’s response to Garland, commissioned by Photowork contains the following introduction:
American photographer Susan Lipper depicts rural English village life as an alien landscape… Lipper’s colour photographs make up a diaristic account of her experience travelling through the area, staying in old-fashioned Bed & Breakfasts, and follows her attempts to understand and to find her own meaning in strange scenes and fragments.
Here is Lipper’s depiction of rural English village life in the 1990s:
The words I immediately wrote down having looked at the series were: Snobbish, disrespectful, poorly informed, disconnected. How is this West Sussex? This could be anywhere. Why a US photographer?
But let me try for a more balanced reaction. Of course, Lipper is entitled to document her travels in any way she wishes, but her brief was ‘respond to the George Garland Collection’, presumably therefore to document contemporary West Sussex. This photograph could easily be taken today in New York, Paris or London:
In his introduction to Lipper’s book, Davis Chandler writes:
How, for example, can a typical bed and breakfast image of a kettle and a teacup perched on convenient shelving penetrate into the complex web of the English psyche so affectively as it does here?
Has anyone not been in a cheap hotel in Memphis, Rome or Manchester that didn’t look like this?
In every location globally we could find these images at the margins. But to hold these up as somehow representing anything meaninful about West Sussex seems fanciful. To give a Barthesean twist, there is no West Sussexicity about these images.
It seems that Chandler agrees. He says:
We would be wrong to assume that Susan Lipper’s photographs lead to any definite conclusions, nor can we successfully speculate on a well-defined attitude here; are the pictures uniformly critical or just quizzical, are they funny or sad. Perhaps they encompass all these things. In the end, Lipper’s account of West Sussex is an entirely subjective one, it is her response to a particular formation of English country life. Others will inevitably see things differently.
My criticism is that we could copy and paste these images, taken from the margin, to form a response to practically anywhere in the world. So yes this is her response. It just isn’t that useful in my opinion.
Photoworks. 2000. Numbered Portraits – George Garland – Photoworks. [online] Available at: <https://photoworks.org.uk/shop/numbered-portraits-george-garland/> [Accessed 4 September 2020].