There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood.

Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. In this book, Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light.

Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.

During the 1830s, it was the British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot who discovered and fully understood the potential of the photographic negative. His earliest experiments involved placing leaves directly in contact with a sheet of paper made sensitive to light with a coating of silver salts, and leaving them in the sun. The light darkened the paper, but where the leaf blocked its rays the paper remained pale. These he termed ‘photogenic drawings’, and today we would call them ‘photograms’. The technique could also be applied to paper exposed in the camera obscura, where a lens projected an image that was also rendered in a reversal of tones. Talbot’s simple but revolutionary additional discovery was that by exposing his ‘negatives’ in contact with a second sheet of sensitized paper, he could produce multiple positive prints. At first, negative photograms and images made in a camera were exhibited and appreciated in their own right. Their visual effect was unlike anything seen before. However, the artistic and commercial possibilities of reproducible camera-positive images on paper were so enormous that the negative quickly came to be seen as their necessary by-product. Paper gave the negatives a visual softness that was the result of its fibres showing through. In a bid for greater detail, sharpness and permanence, the support material for negatives was replaced by glass in the early 1850s, and then by plastics by the early 1900s.

In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channeled onto a light sensitive surface. Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location (in this case an area in Scotland) by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’.

For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white ground sheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.

Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’ produced in much the same manner as Talbot’s. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures. Aside from their visual distinctiveness, what is it that these painstaking, slow and partly antiquarian methods achieve? This is photography deliberately against the grain of conventional practice. It is a kind of image making that paradoxically deals as much with the invisible as the visible.

We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. Those echoes are brilliantly imagined and evoked in Nick Hunt’s writing elsewhere in this book. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of home made structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.
Raymond-Barker’s photographs function as the opposite of photographic journalism for he knows that conventional visual description does not allow for the evocative and lingering impact he seeks. His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force. Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …

Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and story telling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half remembered dream. He aptly chooses photographic negatives as the originating catalyst to evoke this vision. Its magnitude defies any hope of describing its actual subject in more prosaic terms. This is an approach with an affinity to mystic theology, the pursuit of the Via Negativa. This is a path on which the hope of locating indescribable divinity is in trying to delineate what surrounds it, to chart everything it is not. Despite the connotations of the word, following this path is not negative. Like the photographs in this book, it results in creative imaginings – a positive act that amid surrounding fear, lack of comprehension and uncertainty locates at least some coordinates as our guide.

Martin Barnes
Senior Curator, Photographs
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text comissioned for the upcoming publication Trinity.
All text copyright the author.