“I see the bastard countryside everywhere I go,” says Robin Friend, pointing out of the window of his studio in East London, where an ivy plant has climbed up a nearby wall and is wrapping its vines around a rusting CCTV camera. “I ran with this idea of city and countryside splattering into each other, creating this hybrid nature,” explains Friend, who has been producing photographs for his book, unknowingly at first, for 15 years since he started his BA at the University of Plymouth, where he studied under Jem Southam.
“Bastard countryside” is a phrase coined by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables, in which he describes the city of Paris as an “amphibian”, stretching out into the countryside and devouring everything in its path. It is a zone in which the urban and rural mix, the manmade and the natural, clashing and colliding to create a strange form of beauty and ugliness.
Friend was introduced to the phrase during his MA at the Royal College of Art by the British landscape writer Robert McFarlane. At the time Friend was working on several “mini-projects”, such as one on scarecrows. But once he started to see the “bastard countryside” in his work, the projects began to merge, and eventually, after filling in some gaps, they culminated in a book, to which McFarlane has contributed an essay.
Friend was born in England, but moved to Australia when he was one, and spent most of his childhood there before moving back to Sussex when he was 14. “It had a big impact on how I interacted with the landscape,” he says. “Surfing, going to the bush, looking for wildlife. When I came back I was still looking at the British landscape with an Australian filter.”
In his short introduction to the book, Friend writes, “At the bottom of the hill where we used to live, a creek had been realigned to prevent it from flooding. Huge concrete banks on either side created a narrow canal that stretched as far as you could see. With the creek on our right and the city behind us, we set off on our bikes – until eventually the sewers, motorways, backyards and industrial sites gave way to the flora and fauna of the Victorian bush.”
And so begins Bastard Countryside, with huge trees are entangled in pylons, their trunks threading themselves through cogwheels, while dilapidated windmills stand alone on the edge of a barren riverbank. “In some ways, I don’t know why I’m making the work. It’s about the unknown, an anxiety about what the future holds for us,” says Friend. “I also love how the camera is an excuse to go out and explore. If I didn’t have the camera I’d feel a bit silly, wandering aimlessly, looking for something that I don’t know.”
Friend stumbles across a lot of the landscapes by chance, but others are sites that he reads about, or hears about from locals along the way. For one photograph, he drove up to Lincolnshire to photograph abandoned radar dishes, which were used during WWII and have now been demolished for scrap metal. For another, he abseiled down into a mine to find an extraordinary case of fly-tipping, including not just scrap metal but several cars. Once down in the mine, he blew up a rubber dinghy and sifted through the water to move bits of rubbish out of the shot, before setting up a long exposure for the impressive result.
Friend dedicates a lot of himself to these subjects, so much so that during an MA project – in which he was exploring the idea of place – he spent a night in a shipwreck. “I was a bit naive. I thought I’d be really cool and sleep on the boat, but it was fucking scary,” he says. “It looks really calm, but that’s just because of the long exposure and the cloudy sea. The ocean was battering into the ship.”
Friend mostly works in large format, which he adopted from his first tutor at the University of Plymouth, Jem Southam. “The negative was sacred to him,” he says, “at the beginning I felt the same and was always against post-production. But over the years, I’ve shifted. If you can dodge and burn in the darkroom, why not push and pull in other areas?” Friend drum scans his negatives at a high resolution, which allows him to take certain colours away, and give others “more of a pop”. “I stopped being so prudish. The negative isn’t really sacred, it’s about the final image at the end of the day.”
@robinfriendstudio https://www.robinfriend.co.uk/ Bastard Countryside will launch at Donlon Books in East London on Thursday 06 December 6.30-8.30pm. It is published by Loose Joints, and available to purchase for £40 https://loosejoints.biz/projects/publishing/bastard-countryside/