THE RETREAT 

Sean O’Hagan gets a rare glimpse of a special place

In Issue 01

 

 

It was Diane Arbus who said, ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.’ Looking at this photograph by Amber Rowlands, it strikes me that it is a secret about a secret about a secret place. It is the first time I have seen the place in question, although I feel I know it somehow even if I do not really know it at all. 

Pin Mill, Suffolk. A small, raised wooden house above a river estuary. A retreat. A sanctuary. It looks quiet, peaceful, even idyllic. I knew all this already, though, because I have heard Amber talk about it on more than one occasion. I know what it means to her. I can see why she would want to keep it a secret. Or a half-secret at least, cherished, shared with just a
few friends. 

The photograph maintains the sense of secrecy, the mystery.
The house is glimpsed through spreading leafy branches.
The wooden walkway promises more than it delivers. It ends
at a closed gate before a closed door. You can only imagine the view from the other side: wide, expansive, heart-settling.
The calming closeness of water. You can almost hear the rustle of the leaves, the creaking of the branches. Almost. But mainly silence. Solitude. A deep sense of place. 

You can tell just from the photograph that Pin Mill is a place in which to escape the clamour and ever-quickening thrust of the city, the discontents of contemporary life. A place to go to relax and recharge, to daydream and even to be bored. 

‘We need to allow ourselves to daydream more,’
the psychologist and writer Adam Phillips once told me
when I asked him what shape a balanced creative life might take. ‘What I would suggest is more time wasting, less stimulation. We need time to lie fallow, like we did in childhood, so we can recuperate. Rather than be constantly told what you want and be pressurised to go after it, I think we would benefit greatly from spells of vaguely restless boredom in which desire can crystallise.’ And creativity crystallise. 

One of the best ways to allow creativity to crystallise is to create a place – a space – where one can be alone. A reflection of oneself, a room, a studio, a workshop – a place where one can close the door on everything else. A silent place. 

Photography has something to do with silence. ‘In a portrait,’ Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, ‘I am looking for the silence in somebody.’ This photograph of Pin Mill is a kind of portrait. Like all photographs, it is, on some level, a self-portrait. You can sense what this small, raised house on a river estuary means to Amber in the depth of the silence coming off the image. In the sense of place. In the pure simplicity of the portrait. It is a secret about a secret about a secret place. It tells you quite a lot, but it withholds even more. 

Words Sean O'Hagan
Photograph Amber Rowlands