Inspired by the writings of Miguel de Cervantes,‘ The Dialogue of the Dogs‘ depicts photographer and educator Richard Page’s personal journey through the cultural landscape of central Spain today.
Considering how history impinges on the present, the work seeks out the many ghosts that continue to haunt the empty landscape of La Mancha and beyond. Through images of details and landscapes, a meandering journey through this dusty terrain unfolds. This work depicts a quixotic search for something that never quite reveals itself, yet throughout there is a sense of a history that always murmurs beneath the surface, with images that allude to wealth, failure, loss, fallibility and misperception.
The work acknowledges the problematics of documentary; it does not seek to create an authoritative portrait of a place. Rather, it weaves a tall story full of plot-holes and inconsistencies; for places are built on subjective memories and contested histories as much they are on geographic certainties. This study is as much about how representations of place are constructed, and how fiction impinges on documentary realism.
Originally from the South Coast of England, I now live and work in Manchester. I have worked on various self-initiated projects over the last twenty years, exhibiting and publishing them regularly.
In that time, I have also devoted a large part of my life to teaching, something I greatly enjoy. I’ve taught on courses at Newport, Swansea and now Manchester, where I am programme leader of the BA Photography course at Manchester School of Art.
My practice has moved towards projects that are modelled on what has become known as long-form documentary. However, this is a pragmatic decision for me also as I find this method fits within the working patterns of an academic career.
For ‘The Dialogue of the Dogs‘, I made many trips to the region depicted, working in short bursts of activity, photographing and gathering material. I have returned many times over the last six years, and slowly the project has been crafted over time. I like this way of working – I spend more time thinking about the work than I do actually making photographs.
Tell us about your journey to photography.
I have been a photographer since first studying it at college in Bournemouth in the early 90s, and later studying it at BA and MA level, first at Newport and then University of Westminster.
I have always been drawn to the landscape and making images of spaces that reflect something about culture, people and places. The landscape has always been a political rather than pictorial subject for me, and I find within it a tension between belonging and estrangement – a theme to which I have often returned. Our psychological relationship with Place is complex and difficult to articulate in images, and I think this is why I am drawn to it. It’s a kind of idealistic endeavour.
I am interested in these topics because I feel that mainstream image-culture has always used photography to separate us from the world.
Consider, for example, highly aesthetic travel photographs which don’t bring the world closer to us but rather represent it as strange and exotic.
Or advertising images that present the unobtainable. Or news images of disaster zones. Or images of real-estate that present a kind of hyper-real sanitised world.
Critical practices of photography have tried to unpick this spectacle of space, where even our natural spaces are the product of construction and artifice. I spent years photographing rather prosaic spaces of the everyday, meditating on many of these ideas.
Let’s talk about your project ‘The Dialogue of the Dogs’
I first encountered Cervantes’ epic Don Quixote in the late nineties – a friend introduced it to me. The story of a deluded fool who rather unwittingly unmasks an even-more deluded world struck me as highly relevant then, but it continues to be critically pertinent in our age of post-truth today.
Cervantes wrote humorously about corruption, power and illusion, and I saw immediately the significant parallels with the photographic medium – illusory, fallible and unreliable as it is.
In Cervantes’ short novella, ‘The Dialogue of the Dogs‘ (from which I drew the title of this work), he gives two dogs the gift of speech for one night. One tells the other the story of his life, of the cruelty of his unfortunate encounters with humans and the corruption of his former masters.
In the story, Cervantes reverses perspective and humanity is depicted as brutal and animal-like, and the dogs as noble in the face of their adversities. When one looks at our leaders today, of those in power, one cannot help but see an equally deceitful brutality amidst their clownishness.
Photographs are often part of a network of misinformation that disseminate illusory images of power (and powerlessness) – they are coercive and pervasive. But this is not new of course.
So, when I heard that the body of Cervantes was being exhumed in 2014 for identification (its whereabouts had previously been unknown), I decided to visit the region of La Mancha in Spain where the author had lived and travelled four hundred years prior.
Central Spain had been devastated by the financial crash five years earlier and there was some sense of a history repeating itself. Sparsely populated and beautifully barren, this landscape became a backdrop for a journey of my own.
It started as a project about a place, but as the project gained momentum, it became a more meditative and meandering journey as I reflected on the difficulty for photography to speak about place or history with any certainty. The project is itself quixotic, because its own failure is embedded within it. It can never accurately articulate this place, only my passing through it. But then I think that’s true for everyone – we’re only ever passing through, and our encounters with place are always transitory.
There are many images about loss and this is the central theme the work navigates. I present the work as if it were a documentary, but it is not, not really – it’s a fiction.
While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out to you?
There have been several places I visited along the way that were extremely impactful. Franco’s tomb in within the Basilica of Valle de los Caídos, though he’s since been removed from there. The village of Belchite, destroyed during the Civil War and left to stand as testament to this violence.
Both were solemn, austere and eerie, but for very different reasons. However, the picture I made that I most think about is an image of a dead dog on the side of the road. I recall precariously balancing on the roadside barrier to get enough height to take the picture, lorries were thundering past just behind me and beeping their horns – I wonder what they thought I was doing.
The dog had been petrified in the heat, almost mummified, mortified in a grotesque pose with its teeth bared as if it sought to attack. As I looked down on this poor beast, I too couldn’t help but wonder what on earth I was doing – a kind of humbling moment of reflection on my own purposelessness. When I look at this image now, I am reminded that so much human activity – this project included – is potentially all quite silly. But that’s what Cervantes teaches us too.
Recommend us something.
During lockdown, I’ve been reading quite a bit. Rachael Cusk’s ‘Outline’ trilogy is a great lesson on storytelling.
China Miéville’s ‘The City and the City‘ – its citizens learn to “unsee” each other, a seemingly preposterous idea that becomes more and more plausible in a divisive age.
Max Porter’s ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ is a book that is beautifully melancholic.
A quality shared by Nick Cave’s ‘Idiot Prayer’ streamed earlier this year. On Netflix, I binge-watched ‘Godless’, and enjoyed Charlie Kaufman’s unnerving ‘I’m thinking of ending things‘.
The last photo book I bought was Ricardo Cases’ ‘Estudio Elemental del Levante‘, an ingenious use of collage and documentary imagery.
Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.
That’s a tough one. The first photographs I encountered that I gave any serious thought to were by Raymond Moore. I was on my Foundation course in Bournemouth and wrote my first essay on photography about Moore. I found his vision of the English landscape unique and unsentimental, and it made me consider photography as a possible practice. Although I was a naïve photographer at the time, perhaps I wouldn’t have chosen to continue studying photography if it wasn’t for seeing this work.
In the years since of course, I have been influenced by a wide range of work, and photography has moved on a great deal since – Moore’s work is certainly of a time. Nevertheless, there’s something about Moore’s melancholic perspective that still resonates for me. He’s well known in photography circles, but perhaps deserves wider recognition today.