What is Sense of Place?
In cultural geography and anthropology, the concept of sense of place refers to an essence a place can possess as well as something that its inhabitants can feel. Places with a strong sense of place are loaded with meaning and have a specific identity that is deeply felt by many people. In photography, sense of place is about capturing this identity and feeling through visual imagery. However, fine art photographs should always meld sense of place with a sense of the photographer in the same image. This caveat helps us to understand that sense of place is always simultaneously both a shared experience of place and a personal interpretation of that experience.
'The South' and Sense of Place
I have been working for over a year now on my photographic project, A Southern Sense of Place. It involves capturing an essence that many people from ‘the South’ would recognize as the unique feel of southern places. These places gain much of their identity from being situated within the historical and cultural region of ‘the South’. Our experiences of growing up and dwelling within this region are colored by the meanings and almost mythical qualities we ascribe to it. When we experience ‘the South’ we are experiencing a deeply felt identity of place.
In my photographs, this feeling of place is filtered, of course, through my own experiences of growing up in Kentucky. Using subject matter, color and treatment, I attempt to tell a story about sense of place in 'the South'. Colorful, digitally aged images of barns, fields and cows in summer capture a romanticized vision of place conveyed by the feelings they inspire. These photographs express my personal nostalgia for a long past period of my life and the places of my childhood. I believe that they also inspire feelings of nostalgia in many of the people who view them.
Nostalgia and Sense of Place in Photographs
Google defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”. Sense of place is one of the primary vehicles for nostalgia. Nostalgic photographs communicate romanticized notions of personally and culturally important times and places. To romanticize is to idealize; to make something seem better than it really was. So it is with the photographs in A Southern Sense of Place; they do not document the way things really were. Instead, they communicate my selective, romantic memories of growing up in a specific place and time, colored by my present circumstances. The images are felt as warm and familiar by many, because they stimulate embodied memories of some common experiences of place in ‘the South’.
Embodied Memories and Photography
To really understand the power of sense of place in our lives, one must come to the realization that memories are embodied phenomena. Memories are not somehow located in a disembodied cloud we imagine as ‘the mind’. We are actually made of memories, as our neurons, sinews, bones, and biochemical components are shaped into our selves by innumerable life experiences. Capturing sense of place in photography is possible because viewing photographs that combine imagery in specific ways can stimulate bodily recollections of experiences of ourselves in place, along with the meanings, symbols and beliefs associated with that place. Sense of place is more about experiencing ourselves in a place, in a specific space and time, than it is about the place itself. This is where nostalgia gets its power.
Understanding Nostalgic Movements in Photography
Nostalgia must always be understood through present personal and social circumstances. Nostalgic experiences are not just about warm and fuzzy memories of past times and places; they have a purpose in the present context. Photographic projects, like mine, that embrace nostalgia may originate from highly personal motivations, but they are always interpreted and understood within a larger cultural, social, and political context. It’s worth remembering that artists have little control over how their works are understood by the public or how they might be appropriated into some unintended service.
I believe that nostalgia and sense of place are nearly always political in some way, because they are ripe with complex and controversial commentary on our lives, as well as society and our place within it. Feelings of nostalgia are dearly held and protected. Political struggles rage over the power to define what was the ‘good old days’ and to determine by extension the social and cultural realities/ myths that will be preserved in contemporary legal and economic structures.
Viewing a photograph can spark powerful feelings of nostalgia that well up from our embodied memories of sense of place. Indeed, photos have been an important means of propagating nostalgic social movements since the invention of photography itself. These kinds of movements can grow in size and power quickly, simply because they are anchored in very specific personal feelings of nostalgia. Props like photographs are used to provoke nostalgic experiences in ourselves and others that either reinforce or undermine a particular view of the world. Nostalgic movements in society, as well as in art, don’t just randomly happen – they tend to emerge in times of social, cultural and economic uncertainty. And I think photographers tend to become nostalgic in their work as they age and/or experience personal crises and periods of uncertainty.
Experiencing Fine Art Photographs
These are all reasons why I think it is very important to approach photography with a focus on how people experience photographs and bodies of work. I find that ‘regular people’ around where I live in Tennessee and Kentucky (as opposed to photographers) tend to really like the images included in my series A Southern Sense of Place. They feel them and identify with them. Perhaps they remind them of home, but they do so in a way that is also conspicuously unreal. I have worked to embed the impression of artifice in these photographs through digital manipulation. It’s obvious that they are not really old. I hope as a result, that these images also make it obvious that places and photographs are both creations and, to some extent, fictions.
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-- Angela Martin