Avebury Project - Photographer's Statement

Perhaps it is a mark of me getting a little older, but for this project I wished to return to the kind of "feel" my 35mm film cameras used to give me when I started making night photographs back in the early 1980s. Accordingly my Avebury images here have been created with an APS-C format camera, mostly pushed to 1600 ISO to simulate film grain and to achieve a slightly reduced range of colours. The lens I chose to use most was the excellent and fast Sigma 18-35mm f1.8.   This lens at its widest angle setting gave me a perspective similar to my much loved 28mm f2.8 "M" series objective on the good old ME Super, although I am the first to appreciate that the older technology couldn't deliver the round star images that digital can - trails were the order of the day back then!   This was a major deficiency with film.

This attempt to return to the imagery of a simpler time reminds me that as a photographer I have always prized the atmosphere of my images above all other considerations. All the technical photographic perfections that are meant to be so important like absence of grain, corner sharpness, lack of vignetting, correct use of the “law of thirds” and so forth, have never been my guides, never seemed worthwhile as long as my images felt atmospheric to me. I want to prove to myself through my photographs that the world only appears dull when I am being lazy, not looking hard enough, failing to see the true wonder of what is in front of my nose at that moment. I have not always found that task easy.

Which is why my discovery of Avebury has been so very important to me. I have never been anywhere so incredibly redolent of other times and other worlds as this. Avebury is nothing if not atmospheric, visiting at night has been like leaving the planet and going somewhere completely new and unexpected, and strangely finding a welcome there. This large and freely accessible site was built in Neolithic times by 30 generations of people whose outlook, religion and concept of art are so very different to our own. Exploring any site at night means to some extent abandoning our normal rational and complacent vision and sense of security, and instead opening ourselves up to the true spirit of an alien place. At Avebury this means being highly aware of the ancestors who stamped their personality on this landscape, and also having a sense of being accompanied by the magical characters so subtly carved into the stones all around. Indeed while photographing at night at Avebury it is very difficult to feel that you are ever completely alone.

Avebury was abandoned for huge swathes of time after the Neolithic ended.   Time that has erased nearly all of the folklore its builders sought to represent in their works of earth and stone, much of their purpose forgotten forever.   While time has robbed us of Avebury's mythology it has also washed away memories of the fear and darkness that once co-existed with the beauty of the Neolithic, a fear of death and starvation, fear of the cycles of nature stalling, and the fear of the supernatural. Its not helpful to sugarcoat the Neolithic which was a harsh time in many ways, but ironically the amnesia wrought by the passage of time has amplified many of Avebury's more positive attributes. Today, amazingly, Avebury survives as a living monument, people come here to feel in touch with their ancestors, mother nature, the seasons and the skies.   The stones tell us of an alien but wonderful humanity, they speak to us now largely of awe and beauty.   I am sure that countless visitors have a favourite stone that in some way they build into their lives. I have seen people touching the stones, even lifting their children high into them. Surely these acts show that some of the original meaning of Avebury survives, it has come to life again.   This is in sad contrast to nearby Stonehenge, which has been reduced to a consumer tourist hotspot, a corralled charging opportunity which can only be seen by fettered visitors who must tramp dismally round the central monuments on a circular track, like inmates at a prison. Any sense of a real connection with our ancestors there gone. While Stonehenge has become a dead end, Avebury remains a city of dreams.

Part of Avebury's living legacy is of course the effect produced by the sculptures.   The very existence of sculpture at Avebury is controversial. Some archaeologists deny that the stones incorporate any man made images at all. But the visitor to the site can hardly escape the feeling that there are faces all around. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that neolithic sculptors took raw sarsen stones that had some natural resemblance to figures in their folklore, and then modified the stones minutely and subtly to bring out characters under different lights and at different times of the year. The more imaginative visitor can easily believe that they are continually surrounded by neolithic gods, spirits, icons, heroes, fertility symbols, animals, star-gazers and constellation figures. At night the restraining reason of the day is no longer a fetter on our minds, and the ancestors and their pantheon of characters seem ever present.

I hope that my photographs contain some echoes at least of these mystical accompaniments, but I am anxious that my work not be seen as a catalogue of stones.   Rather it is a personal attempt to explore and celebrate the intimacy, scale and diversity of the monuments, their congruity with nature and what remains of the ancestors' mythological heritage - a heritage presided over by the feminine creative force that they so clearly worshipped.