Capturing the spirit of a community allotment
Hello, I’m Amber Brown, a Northumbrian photographer heading into my final year of a Photography degree at Edinburgh College of Art.
I have been working on a Grow Wild funded project which truly celebrates Northumberland’s allotment culture and the thriving community behind it – working directly between three allotments in my coastal hometown, Amble and Morpeth, where my family heritage lies.
I approached Grow Wild after hearing about their Youth Project funding through the University. My aim was to develop the work over a 6 month period to put on my first solo exhibition, which would also be my first time exhibiting in my hometown – a nerve-wracking prospect!
What inspired me
A lot of the time, rural teenagers yearn for a city life – the kind I am currently enjoying – but ever since moving to Edinburgh, I’ve developed more and more passion for home and the identity that comes with it.
Throughout my three years away, I’ve constantly made trips home to carry out all of my documentary projects about the North East, and why we should celebrate its cultural landscape - through locality, history and sense of community belonging, or as the recent Great Exhibition of the North said, ‘the idea of North’.
My own exhibition, ‘Earthworks’ curated a marriage of photography and printmaking, depicting allotments in Amble and Morpeth, and the community at the heart of them.
A passion for photography
My photographic style is entirely analogue. I love nothing more than developing my film, being in the darkroom, and the meditative hands-on time involved in every step of producing a final image.
For technical context: I have gradually challenged myself by progressing from 35mm film, to medium format (a larger, square negative) and eventually found my favourite type of camera, the large format camera.
Shooting in large format requires a lot of planning, patience and bulky equipment – with which I was travelling down from Edinburgh to Alnmouth at least every fortnight! Doing this gives you an opportunity to really slow down, and to think. For my collection, ‘Earthworks’, all landscapes – and those that were further developed into printmaking - were shot on the large format, and all portraits on a medium format camera.
Getting to know the community and landscape
Creating this work over several seasons allowed me to experience the allotment through its cyclic stages of growth. Naturally, come Spring, more and more plot-holders spent time at their green havens.
Many of them were so kind to spare an hour or so to show me around their plot, tell stories of what their hobby has brought them and let me take their portrait in the space.
As you can see, here is Paul at the allotment, with his dog Indie who always accompanies him and his wife to their plot. She really likes to be involved!
Throughout this, I was developing my landscapes by creating a long, laborious, yet rewarding, process that would mimic the physicality of gardening.
I chose techniques that were quite physically demanding and required more time, patience and preparation. From this I discovered a way of working that was as long and as mindfully beneficial as possible.
I often used materials that were found in allotments for various printmaking techniques – such as etching onto metal, which is used to build structures and section plots. I experimented with leaving the inked-up etchings outside, letting nature make its mark!
I chose to exhibit at a fairly new community space in Amble called Dry Water Arts Centre, which is ran by two amazing artists - Frances Anderson and Paula Turner. Their wonderful initiative works as a multi-functional space, which also provides a dementia-positive programme for locals.
Dry Water have been so supportive ever since day one; the founders are two of the most kind, strong and creative people I have ever met and I’d highly nudge anyone interested to have a look at the wonderful things they do! In recognition of their support I decided to fundraise for their dementia-positive programme through donations on the opening night and the sale of artworks over the course of the exhibition.
For the opening night we gathered a wonderful crowd of family, friends, people from the local art scene, plot-holders and committee members from allotments and many more, including passersby.
Curating and putting on exhibitions is something I would love to do on a professional level in the future and I can’t describe how overwhelming it was to see my project come to life in that setting, with its own space to breathe. And how amazing it was to know what a creative and supportive circle I have in the area!
During my time with Grow Wild, I’m honestly, absolutely over the moon to say that my project (which is a work in progress) was shortlisted in the top ten selected works at Belgrade Photo Month 2019 - and published in the coinciding Grain magazine - shortlisted for the Astaire Art Prize 2019 and also won the George Jackson Hutchinson Memorial Prize 2019!
‘Earthworks’ will definitely continue as the seasons change the land. I hope to continue with this theme and make my art a tool for celebrating community and landscape in the future, potentially engaging others in the process more and using art as a gathering point.
I couldn’t be more thankful and appreciate for the support that Grow Wild have offered, without which this would have been so much more difficult to achieve.