Frances Scott, Undertow

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Another Place Press (here). Softcover, 220×190 mm, 50 pages, with 27 black and white reproductions and 8 maps. Includes and essay by the artist and a 6 page insert with sketches and background notes by the artist. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Also available in a special edition, which includes a signed inkjet print.

Comments/Context: Frances Scott’s meditative photobook Undertow puts walking in a position of primacy. For most landscape photographers, the walking part of the process is generally left out – it’s the end product photographs that emerge from a bit of walking that they mostly want to show us. But for Scott, that imperative has been deliberately reversed – she’s interested in the walking, and the GPS-tracked maps, notes, and photographs that she generates while doing so document her process of physical engagement with the land.

Scott has set herself a monumental challenge – to walk all of the coastlines of the islands in her homeland of Orkney. Set off the northeastern coast of Scotland, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic, the Orkney islands are windswept and rocky, the jagged coastlines worn by the pummeling waves. Scott began her circumnavigation journey with the Orkney Mainland, which she completed over the course of two years; she has since moved on to other islands in the archipelago, methodically ticking them off one by one. She’ll be lucky if she can complete the entire project in her lifetime.

Particularly for island dwellers, the coastline of an island marks important physical and psychological boundaries – it represents the limits of land, or in some more mystical sense, the edge of the available universe, at least until a boat or airplane turns up. So Scott’s walks represent a kind of personal learning process, a re-introduction to familiar locations and a first glance at parts heretofore unknown. She’s systematically forcing herself to really look at her home, at the pace of footfalls, the journey becoming both outward and inward.

Undertow is of course a photobook, so Scott’s photographs are the main visual content, but her supplemental inclusions provide surrounding and supporting context that helps us to understand how the pictures fit into her larger process. Beyond using her camera, each individual walk Scott has made is documented in three ways: with a duration time (from under an hour to over five hours), a GPS map (a thin-outlined shape that is both technically accurate and somehow abstract), and a set of sparse and often poetic notes describing the notable events or finds during the specific trip (“speared by barbed wire”, “secret stone beach”, “painful rain”, “pastel light on hills”, “midges”, “salt sun happy”). Together, the information gives us a pieced-together sense of time, place, and even mood.

Scott’s photographs of the coast itself are filled with understated drama – the kind where we feel the power and rough grandeur of the scenes, but the artist hasn’t exaggerated that mood for undue romantic effect. Many of her images highlight the contrast of light and dark, with dark cliffs, carved grottoes, and gnarled pillars offset by frothy white seas. Others center on mismatches of scale or distance, where we peer down to deep hollows, or wind through eroded notches, outlets, and steep cut throughs. And still others pay attention to the horizontal striations, both in the rocky textures of slashed cliffs and in the flat slabs and planes that mark off tide pools.

Spending so much time by the sea on these walks, it was inevitable that Scott would become attuned to the subtle moods of the water. Underneath the weight of grey skies, she notices misty swirls, rippled waves, boiling cauldrons of violent whiteness, single breaking waves, rough seas that stretch to the horizon, and even lacy delicate surfaces that might normally dissolve without fanfare. These changing conditions seem to have made each walk its own adventure, the water a constant source of potential visual interest.

Back on land, Scott’s walks are often punctuated by discoveries, which she turns into compelling photographs. She uses backdrops of sky and water to make ordinary nets into sculptural studies. She turns a torn fragment from the deck of a shipwreck into an arced beach sentinel. She follows ancient stone walls as they sweep down a hillside toward the water. She finds dark shadows inside the blocky shapes of a concrete bunker. And she crops the marbled swirls of lichen on the rocks into an all-over pattern.

While Scott isn’t the first artist to make walking central to her artistic thinking (Richard Long and Hamish Fulton both set off on artistically-minded walks long before she did), her aesthetic approach feels more personal than conceptual. Her walks are teaching her about herself – each new encounter with her homeland enriches her connection and broadens her understanding of its unremarked treasures. Her photographs are infused with a sense of open-minded attention, the physical exertion and mental invigoration inherent to tramping around the coast breathing life into its cold rocks and wet sprays.

Collector’s POV: Frances Scott does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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