At the start of 2011 the British government commissioned a ten week consultation period on a proposal to privatise woodland currently managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the nation. The consultation was abandoned after three weeks and the proposals for the legislation were withdrawn. Such was the public opposition to the idea that a poll quoted in The Guardian newspaper showed 84% of the nation considered it unacceptable. It reflects a fascination with a place that has a history other than our own, a fascination that has a legacy of artistic investigation. Woodland is central to our culture and our idea of Nature.
It is a commonplace these days to recognise the fact that there is no land in England that does not show evidence of human intervention, deliberate or accidental. Matthew Conduit’s photographic journey began within the sylvan surroundings of Lathkill Dale in Derbyshire but he later found himself returning to the edgelands of the city, within earshot of a main road or a Council dump-it site, and making photographs a short distance from his Sheffield home. These are photographs of common places frequented by ramblers, dog walkers and kids on bikes, but also places of beauty, a common beauty uncommonly regarded.
Although this is not an entirely self-seeded flora, there are no explicit signs of human interference - no stray plastic bags, no urban structures or tyre-tracks, no clearcut and burned; the photographs concern themselves only with mystery, not mastery.
Conduit’s woodland is not that of a conventional picturesque. There are no mighty oaks or twisted beeches. This is scrubland - birch, hawthorn, bramble and buckthorn, excluded from any sense of landscape, pictorially removed from horizon and sky. Nor is the photographer interested in the rhythm of the seasons - no spring canopy or autumn fire. It is primarily a winter landscape where the lack of foliage allows the twisting, turning, interlocking and competing patterns of growth and decay to assume centre stage.
I am reminded of the painter Edward Bawden who reportedly said the approach of Spring “filled him with horror knowing that everything would turn green”. Conduit’s palette too, reflects the extensive muted colours of dormancy among the wooden ribs of the plants. Although there are bright exceptions - the flash of red dogwood stems against silver birch or the green of moss on bark - young buds, you feel would be acknowledged, a rampant display of blossom would not; a bullfinch would be a distraction.
The bewildering complexity of the plant forms, ordered by encoded patterns of growth, demanded that the photographer respond by ordering the picture space with equal precision, pushing him to produce large prints of extraordinary clarity. The high density of visual information makes its demands on the viewer as well. It is not possible to dismiss these spaces as generic woodland; they demand attention to the particular, and the austerity of the vision prevents a collapse into easy favour and prettiness.
The photographer and writer Paul Hill comments ”There is an elegant intensity to the way he renders the complexity of tree formations, which is enhanced by his careful use of vantage point and framing. You are drawn in by this, but cannot find a way through. They are not trees, they are implacable photographs.”
Conduit himself says “I’m fascinated by chronology. My work is in continuous development - each new image informs the next and there is no ‘end’. The fine rendering of the subject through the photographic process is fundamental - how a fairly innocuous scene or arrangement of materials is heightened and becomes important through merely being photographed”.
These images clearly represent the formal, picture-making concerns of the artist, to create visual pleasure from apparent chaos, but in their celebration of the determined complexity is a tacit acknowledgement that plant life has purpose of its own, and in that, the pictures also offer a connection back to that vague but indispensable sense of a Nature with which we may one day be better integrated.
Adrian Wynn 2011