Journey into the Edgelands

After my initial discussion on the idea of ‘rurality’ (Beynon, et al., 2016) and how Watford exists as a place between countryside and urban sprawl, I have been considering this as a way to create links between the people I am photographing and the landscape. It was suggested that I also look at the book ‘Edgelands’ by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley (2011), which I have found to be particularly useful in exploring the boundaries of what makes the countryside and a town.

Figure 1: Roy Stryker (1939) Shooting Script for a small town

I have found that from some of my earlier research on the shooting scripts written for the FSA photographers by Roy Stryker (Fig: 1), as suggested by Todd Hido: “One of the most remarkable documents I’ve ever seen was the shot list Roy Stryker made of the things he wanted FSA photographers to shoot in order to convey the feeling of a common experience” (2014, p. 123). What I found immediately when reading through Edgelands, is the connection and links to the way that Stryker defined the areas that he wanted photographed in how Symmons Roberts and Farley are creating definitions of things and places within the concept of an ‘Edgeland’ informed by the experience of walking through them. What I have also found particularly revelatory, is that I have been photographing such places and objects fairly consistently (Fig: 2) and even more so, many of the areas that they refer to in the book are also places in the locality of Watford, for example the Lea Valley and the Ovaltine building in Kings Langley, not far from here (Fig: 3).

Figure 2: Phil Hill (June, 2020) Den photographed for Surfaces & Strategies WIPP (Unused). Dens are referenced in ‘Edgelands’
Figure 3: Zoopla (2020) Ovaltine Building in Kings langley

Symmons Roberts & Farley note: “Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas, a texture we build up speed to escape as we hurry towards the countryside, the distant wilderness” (2011, p. 5). This is a statement that I have particular resonance with as my own connection with the place is born out of this need to escape. Watford is built on its significant transport links; the direct rail into London, which is quicker than if you lived between two zones within the city in some cases. The M25 & M1 motorways cut through the town and multiple junctions service it. Historically, the canal also passes through. All of these transport link serve to bypass, go round, or straight through the town, to speed you in an out of London, or to the countryside (Fig: 4).

Figure 4: Google (2020) Map of Watford and surrounding area.

It is a concept that Marion Shoard also discussed in ‘Remaking the Landscape’ describing them as “vast in area, though hardly noticed” (2002) and in this sense, Watford is essentially an edgeland in the sense that its infrastructure has been designed to take you away from it. Considering Symmons Roberts & Farley’s own definition of what an edgeland is “The trouble is, if we can’t see the edgelands, we can’t imagine them, or allow them any kind of imaginative life. And so they don’t really exist” (p. 5), which is seemingly supported by Lonely Planet’s guide to Britain that makes no mention of Watford, even after making this assertion about Hertfordshire:

“Amid the ever-widening commuter belt surrounding London, the tiny county of Hertfordshire has somehow managed not to lose all of its open farmland to the suburban developer’s bulldozer, which lends the area a charming pastoral quality” – Lonely Planet Guide to Britain

(Else, et al., 2003, p. 250).
Figure 5: Lonely Planet (2003) map showing Hertfordshire without Watford

To be fair, Watford is neither Charming or Pastoral so probably doesn’t warrant a mention, yet Hemel Hempstead, a town a mere 7 miles away, does make the map (Fig: 5) and is mainly famous for the Buncefield Refinery fire of 2005 (Lewis, 2015). Instead Watford blends into the M25/London homogenisation on this map. A YouGov survey also recently concluded that 27% of people thought that Watford was a part of London (Cowen, 2020), suggesting that it’s place in the commuter belt is confused with being another part of the city – it is already on the TFL map after all.

Figure 6: Keith Arnatt (1986-7) From ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’

Using this as a basis for experimentation has a great deal of value as I have found it quite challenging to begin looking at landscape in a different way to how I have been approaching it up to this point. It is also quite a nice development that builds on the idea of the shooting script and how I have been utilising the black and white medium to reference photographic works, such as the FSA. The challenge however, is when hanging my approach completely on the concept of Edgelands it is the shear amount of work that has already been produced around this, whether explicit or implicitly. For example, Keith Arnatt’s notable series ‘Miss Grace’s Lane’ (Fig: 6),  also referenced in edgelands, explores the concept quite effectively, albeit attempting to empirically look at the detritus left down country lanes: “this is the work of an artist noticing things in the landscape without recourse to judgement or polemic” (Farley & Symmonds Roberts, 2011, p. 69). Perhaps my own differentiation and take on the subject might place more of a subjective viewpoint on the reason behind pointing a camera at such places, which is based in my own experiences of them.

Images inspired by Edgelands and rurality

I have started to photograph Watford as a kind if edgeland with the aim of showing the boundaries of the place; The locations and objects that frame the town and also where the rural elements start to creep back in (Fig: 7). From this investigation, I hope to be able to create a visual language that explore the characteristics of place and the impact that this might be having on the people who live here.

Experimenting with the approach
Figure 8: Phil Hill (October, 2020) Reflection on the surface of the image

I wanted to explore the idea of a boundary by utilising the qualities inherent in the photographic process to create a visible boundary, which I discussed in a blog post on ‘Flatness’ (Fig: 8). I enjoy the abstraction that these images create (Fig: 9) however, made a decision to re-look at my existing approach informed by edgelands. There might still be potential to include some of these into the wider narrative as that starts to form, perhaps in a similar way to how I aimed to resolve my wipp in Informing contexts, maintaining links to imagery and research there. However, the work may become disparate, which is something I am keen to avoid as I respond to feedback on the links that I make with my images.

Figure 10: Richard Billingham (2004) From ‘Black Country’

There was a chapter in edgelands dedicated to the way that artificial light inhabits the land at night, disrupting and penetrating spaces that would naturally be void of it during this time: “What does an edgelands night look like? Looking up, a cloudy night can give back anything from a muddy orange to a bruised magenta, with many nuances of pink and red and brown in between” (Farley & Symmonds Roberts, 2011, p. 233). Richard Billingham photographed such places in his series ‘Black Country’ (Fig: 10), utilising the way that colour film resolves artificial colours to create and interesting mix of flood lit orange and fading blue skies that create a solemn feeling of a nigh time landscape void of people. Not wanting to emulate this but also consider it as a way of showing the boundary, I created an experiment in black and white (Fig: 11) to explore the concept however on reflection feel that it is leaning to far towards an entirely different direction that needs development together with the need to additionally develop the technical execution of the technique. Again, there is potential to include some into the wider narrative once the sequencing of the work starts. I am considering methods of including a more cinematic approach to this, which might be valuable to have some time of day options.

Photography as dialogue

I have referred to this concept but not as yet really sought to develop it. If I am aiming to have a better dialogue with the place that I live through my images, what is it that I am trying to glean from the images that I am making? Is the communication that this suggests clear and concise? Clearly, I have some work to do in this area to better define what I mean by a ‘dialogue.’ Tiffany Fairey & Liz Orton, when referring to Ariella Azoulay et al state:

“They call for a renewed articulation of photography that moves us away from a singular, vertical focus on the work of specific photographers and seeks to understand photography as a ‘certain form of human being-with-others in which the camera or photography are implicated’”

(2019, p. 299)
Figure 12: Phil Hill (February, 2020) Discussing Patrick Waterhouse and Martin Parr

Therefore, my own approach will require me to analyse all the ways that I am engaged in conversation and collaboration with both people and place. Fairey and Orton’s discussion around this topic is particularly important to the way that I have been approaching as they make particular reference to the work of Patrick Waterhouse (Fig: 12) who I have discussed and referenced as a good example of collaborative and socially engaged work, yet they note that caution is required “as it is unclear how much control the Aboriginal participants have had over the final published collection of images” (2019, p. 303). I had ultimately not considered this argument when discussing this work.

Figure 13: Phil Hill (October, 2020) Developing a funded project application.

Consideration to the above will play a particular importance to my work putting together a funding application for a socially engaged community project (Fig: 13) and in turn will inform my research project in preparation for the FMP. I must aim not to impose my ideas of an outcome on those I am working with but instead come to a collective agreement, which is only facilitated by me.

What I am still missing and how to develop my approach?
Figure 14: Vanessa Winship (2012) Colleen, Lexington, Kentucky

There appears to still be a disconnect between my portraits and the landscape images I am creating now. Much of this is born in the way that I am separating the process of photographing. I specifically go out to photograph one or the other and rarely cross over. This is a clear area of development for me. Key influences for the way that I have produced portraiture are informed through the work of Vanessa Winship and Alys Tomlinson who use a individual approach focussing on the subject together with a shallow depth of field (Fig: 14) however, it is still clear, even subtly, that the portraits are connected to the landscape and detail images. I must make more of an effort to provide subtle hints of place even when solely focussed on the individual. Sequencing and juxtaposition may play a part in this when I come to editing my next WIPP

Robert Frost Desert Places and Roland Barthes Living Together.

An area of research that I intend to return and see if I can inform these connections is Roland Barthes’ lectures on ‘How to Live Together’ (2012) and the links that Stene-Johansen, et al (2013) make to Robert Frost’s poem ‘Desert places’ (Frost, 1936), which may provide a justification to the way that individuals live separately yet in the same spaces, or ‘iddiorythmically’ (2013, p. 16).


Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Beynon, M., Cawley, A. & Munday, M., 2016. Measuring and Understanding the differences between urban and rural areas, a new approach for planners. Environment and Planning B. Urban Analytics and city Science, 43(6).

Cowen, J., 2020. The number of people who think Watford is in London. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 30 October 2020].

Else, D. et al., 2003. Lonely Planet: Britain. 5 ed. Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications.

Fairey, T. & Orton, L., 2019. Photography as Dialogue. Photography & Culture, 12(3), pp. 299-305.

Farley, P. & Symmonds Roberts, M., 2011. Edgelands – Journeys into England’s true Wilderness. London: Vintage.

Frost, R., 1936. A Further Range. Transcribed eBook ed. s.l.:Proofreaders Canada.

Hido, T., 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York: Aperture.

Lewis, K., 2015. Buncefield explosion: ‘I thought a plane landed on us’. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 October 2020].

Shoard, M., 2002. Edgelands: Remaking the Landscape. London: Profile.

Stene-Johansen, K., Refsum, C. & Schimanski, 2013. Living Together: Roland Barthes, the Individual and the Community. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

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