I’m fascinated by a platinotype image of a patch of rural Surrey by the Victorian photographer Frederick Evans. It is of Redlands Wood, a few miles south of Dorking, and shows a rough track running between an avenue of pines. No birds, no squirrels, nothing alive and kicking.
I admire Evans immensely. His pictures are all atmosphere – he loved light, but usually with an equal component of deepest shadow. He spent days camped out in sombre, draughty cathedrals setting up shots of aisles and transepts, waiting patiently in the gloom for the instant when the stonework was momentarily washed with sunlight filtered through the stained glass. As if he was waiting for the Holy Ghost itself to drop in.
What was Evans up to in Redlands Wood? I’m pretty sure he had no interest in wild life, and if he had spotted a badger in the viewfinder he would have waited for it to scurry through before opening his lens. I get the feeling he was using the trees as stage props. For a performance of what? And if so, where are the actors?
Nothing dominates, nothing grabs the eye, everything is misty, vague, and painterly. The conifers rise like the columns of a cathedral nave. Evans has cropped the crowns, so he had no interest in the trees as specimens. Maybe everything was a cathedral to him.
What I think I’m looking at is an image of nothing. This photograph is packed with nothing, congested with it. Evans has conjured a perfect image of absence and uncertainty.
There’s movement, but nothing moves. There’s a powerful sense of purpose, because the eye is drawn insistently along the track. But where’s the track going? My eye sprints along it and disappears off the end into God knows what.
Evans’s nothing is full of something. Something’s not there that could or should be. Maybe it was there and has gone. Or it’s just about to turn up.
I have a strong sense of sense Evans concealed in the trees, waiting. Whatever he was waiting for he believed he’d found – he was a master of his craft. But for me the photograph remains an enigma.
Oddly, the photograph of Redlands is one of the few to which Evans did add a commentary. He wrote:
A wind sways the pines,
Not a breath of wild air:
All still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead:
They are as quiet as under the sea.
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase:
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
Yet when I look at the photograph I see no sense that the pines are swaying. And Evans says just two lines on that all is still. And he has made no attempt to capture the ‘glowing’ mosses and lines of roots on the woodland floor. Without the poem we would never know that overhead and outside the confines of the frame ‘rushes life in a race’, or that ‘the clouds chase’.
Finally, Evans includes a reference to the fact that, like the pine cones, we all die. So is the poem fundamentally about death? Maybe, yet there isn’t a fallen pine cone in sight.
I’ve always been very fond of this photograph, but I don’t think the poem complements it at all.