Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Richard Long

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Josh on English artist Richard Long.

Time, outdoors: Richard Long and the art of walking

As someone who loves photography, the outdoors, and art, I’ve admired Richard Long’s work since I first saw it in my early 20s. I was introduced to Long’s work in 2009 by the poster he made for Transport for London’s contemporary public art programme ‘Art on the Underground’. The work was titled One Thing Leads to Another – Everything is Connected (2007). It depicted a foggy vista overlooking a mountainous valley in the Cairngorms. Text was arranged in two columns over the image. Precise and poetic, the words were drawn from the artist’s experience of an eight-day walk through the pictured terrain.

Long’s photographs are not especially ‘loud’ or heavily stylised; his compositions are not aggrandised in the way that many landscape photographs are. They show what exists, from a certain perspective, at a certain time. The work I am focussing on in this blog is one of Long's earliest. It was made in 1967 when he was a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London. The photograph documents the impression left by the artist’s movement through what appears to be a peaceful rural landscape. Long captioned his work with two lines of text: ‘A Line Made by Walking / England 1967’.

Richard Long A Line Made by Walking 1967 © Richard Long. All rights reserved. DACS, London 2023

Several questions go through my mind when I look at this work. What was the artist thinking when he walked back and forth down that stretch of field? What inspired him to do it? What sounds could he hear? Where did he go when he’d finished making the line? Where had he come from? Who was the next person to walk into that field, and what did they think when they saw a straight line in the grass, apparently leading into the thickness of the trees? Did they follow it?

The caption is a crucial element of this work, and text plays an important role in many of Long’s later works. The photograph validates a claim made by the caption, or at least, it appears to. The caption, on the other hand, explains what can be seen in the photograph, or appears to. Strengthened by each other, they might seem random and inexplicable in isolation. The words offer a means of understanding the image, but they are carefully chosen words, and they do not answer all of the questions.

Another element of this work is its expression of human impact on the environment. It’s a reminder that even the act of one individual walking outdoors can leave a physical mark on the landscape. Small, seemingly insignificant actions can intensify when multiplied and repeated over a longer period. This is relevant in all sorts of ways in life, society, culture, and especially when thinking about our ongoing contribution to climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

It can be political, but I think there is also something very personal and meditative about this work. A lot of people find walking outdoors helpful for their mental and physical wellbeing. Walking a familiar path can be just as rewarding as exploring and discovering new places. Long’s work recalls the enjoyment of being outdoors, surrounded by nature and fresh air. A relaxed sense of time; freedom of space and movement. His works can also speak of endurance and self-discipline against physical and psychological challenges. There is a sense of duration in a lot of Long’s art; that the works themselves are moments of creativity and reflection within a much longer, deeper journey. Often in Long's work, as in all photography, that which is unexplained is just as compelling as the captured moment itself.

By Josh Murfitt, 14 December 2022