Assignment Two

 

Introduction

Purgatory is that place of transience, a place that is neither one thing nor another, a place that is ‘twixt and between’ a holding zone for those not pure enough to enter directly the Kingdom of Heaven but not bad enough to go to eternal damnation. It is in Purgatory that one might be cleansed of sin and one of the key means by which these mortal turpitudes are exorcised is through continuous and predictable application of pain. This temporal inevitable subjugation of the body is key I think to the concept of purgatory. There is no short sharp lesson in that place, the expectation of exquisite pain has echoes today in the ritualized flogging of dissidents in Saudi Arabia, where the victim’s wounds need to heal before the flogging can be continued. Once the punishments have been completed, their soul having been purified and saved, the victim may then proceed to Heaven for everlasting life. The punishments in Purgatory were for the penitents, the unrepentant and the non-believers who would bypass the temporary correction zone and go straight to hell for an eternity of punishment.

Assignment

This assignment, and perhaps this edit in particular, sets out to express in visual terms depictions of how I came to describe this transitory state, whilst visiting the physical place of Purgatory. I have spent a considerable amount of time and plan to spend more so in Purgatory; I want to become accustomed to the ‘place’, experience the terrain and the difficulties of reaching it. There was a settlement in this vicinity for a few hundred years, until the very early part of the twentieth century – I am working with a local historian to find out how long it was inhabited and perhaps by how many – I have found out that at it’s height there were eight dwellings situated there. I am somewhat fascinated by the notion that it is now ‘unsettled’ and as much as Purgatory has many connotations so has the term ‘unsettled’.

After I had decided that I would work on this place as a subject for assignment two I have read three books which have influenced my thinking on the topic. The first was John Gossage’s ‘The Pond’, the second was Christian Patterson’s ‘Redheaded Peckerwood’ and the third, a novel, being ‘The Offering’ by Grace McCleen. All of these books deal with memory – as McCleen denotes – “All these years, there have been things I cannot remember, blanks where the colours had faded or the lines had been wiped out, and there have been others that darkened even as I watched, like photographic paper left too long in developing fluid.” 1

I looked first at dictionary and thesaurus definitions to help me find a way in to the work, I listed the various meanings and terms and then set about to describe what I felt about the word purgatory. After writing them down I looked at the images I had made to see if I could find connections, I tried not to force connections but to allow a free association. Most of the imagery deals with the psychological aspects of the term, only one deals with physical pain, and I realize that those emotional responses to the non-physical may be critically influence the reader if I accompany the image with the response that I gave it, so I have decided to redact those from the assignment, though of course I can provide them if required.

Another phrase from McCleen “…suggestive of things ravaged yet fecund with time.”2 also caught my imagination. That a place, though unsettled, might still echo with a past, with a history, echoed with me recently at the recent “Time, Conflict and Photography” exhibition at the Tate Modern where Indre Serpytyte’s piece (1944 – 1991) Former NKVD – MVD – MGB – KGB Buildings was/is being shown. These buildings, which are presented as isolated edifices – either as models or as highly worked graphic presentations – are very stylized representations, with a sense of ‘otherness’ about them – due to their ulterior as opposed to their anterior aspect. This contextual facet is very significant and finds an echo in what I feel some of this work in Purgatory is about – isolation.

The images are grey monotonic and bland, belying their history and their place in the history of their culture. Our – the viewers – contextualized knowledge about these buildings imbue these two dimensional constructs, that are clearly not mimetic, not depicted in a photo-journalistic attempt at verisimilitude, as a fiction; representing a greater sense of a narrative of what might have occurred, what might have been.

I too have been thinking of using black and white to delineate truth from fiction. I wonder now whether anyone still believes the age-old trope that black and white was a determiner of fact, of an attempt to mine for truth. My suspicion is that colour is the contemporary and ubiquitous disseminator of whatever might be considered as the ‘real’ and so by rendering in monochrome it will be seen as a manifestation of a fiction. And because I believe that truth is mediated, a monochromatic rendition of the narrative will alert the reader to any claim of veracity.

Patterson’s “Redheaded Peckerwood” is a story; no more a truth than my relating of my personal history, but the narrative potential of Patterson’s flow allows the reader to question the notion of a single truth and what I have discerned from this book is that I shouldn’t be overly concerned about telling a fiction about a truth, but perhaps more about being truthful about the fiction. Another influence on this work thus far has been Martina Lindqvist whose work ‘Neighbours’ are stark depictions of isolation, of crumbling edifices reminiscent of the disintegration of relationships and the unsettling of a place. The fact that Lindqvist is comfortable with extensive editing and ‘de-factualising’ the arena surrounding the place – including the re-situating of the sky to a uniformity across the series – has given me some inspiration regarding how I might eventually develop the narrative components in the Body of Work.

1 – Loc 150 Kindle edition.

2 – loc 176 Kindle edition

_________________________

And so to the images:

Image 1:

This image suggests to me of the difficulty of trying to move on, to find a way. There is no route forward other than this difficult terrain and no particular sense of anything better beyond what is in the frame.

Image 2:

A perspective of isolation.

Image 3:

I saw this image as one of hostility, one of demonstration of power, one over another, combative but futile for one.

Image 4:

This seems to me to be an image of neglect, not perhaps of the structural foundations but perhaps more of emotional neglect. I think the broken stairs are particularly important, there is no point in attempting to develop as there will be nothing here to support any ambition.

Image 5:

The first of two ‘horizon’ images which for me are subtly different. This one, because of the obvious, but indistinct references above the horizon line, presents an ominous looming

Image 6:

This is the sole image that speaks to me of pain, more especially of physical pain. I am distinctly aware that the image lacks definition in the white area, but it is a purposeful allowance on my part.

Image 7:

A small thicket at the edge of the space that is Purgatory has this plantation. The fog renders the distance impenetrable and the near distance equally so. Hopelessness and very clearly a man-made construction.

Image 8:

The leaf held in stasis by the ice on the footpath suggested to me down-trodden, unable to move. Stuck.

Image 9:

The indeterminacy of the future, the fog holds back any purposeful sense of a direction of travel, limiting the field of view, restricting outcome.

Image 10:

In looking for a way out, the blankness of the view ‘over-the-horizon’ offers no respite in the search for escape.

The fecundity of Purgatory

At the recent Thames Valley meeting I was left reeling somewhat. Presenting my work in the way I did didn’t provide me with any answers I was looking for, but did provide some very positive feedback on the work, which I hadn’t sought nor expected.

In my journal entry for the day there are three mentions of the word ‘statement’ and two of ‘position’ (..ing of the work); that is from only twenty that I wrote, a clear indication that this might be a good idea and also that for whatever reason my contextualizing of the work at the event didn’t do a very good job, in fact probably quite a poor job. I was of course pleased that the general feedback was positive on the quality of the prints; this despite how poor the paper was on a high number of the prints. However the exercise I had hoped for, despite the generous time allowance that I was provided, didn’t elicit the kind of reaction that I had hoped for. The images were just too ‘nice’. What I ‘knew’ them to be about wasn’t transferred at all to the audience, nor indeed a sense of what they were about and this despite my provision of texts freely distributed, and, how I talked about ‘purgatory’ as both a place and state. As fellow student Keith Greenough commented (and I paraphrase) “..the images depict something optimistic whereas the terminology (oral, written and printed) is the opposite..”.

Another edit is required, refining what I feel about the state of purgatory.

This divergence of outcome and expectancy has happened before and quite clearly I know now, if not before, that if I don’t provide a contextualizing statement then the work will not, is not strong enough, to stand on it’s own. Where I am going with the work cannot be expected to find any resonance with anyone else if I don’t provide a framework. However I am not ready to provide such a statement at the moment, firstly because I am not ready to because I am not entirely sure what that might be and secondly because of the nature of the work being personal.

Of the ‘space’ that is Purgatory I am tempted to invoke that notion of an ‘unsettled’ place, I am expecting some historical data that I could use as a fictional method of representation and a phrase from ‘The Offering’ by Grace McCleen comes to mind “…its most evocative aspect: fusty, acrid, furtive; suggestive of things ravaged yet fecund with time.” yet the element I am dealing with is better expressed as the bounty of memories. But it isn’t the place that I want to explore, but the space fecund as it is with memories.

Shooting into the sun

There is often something very revelatory about shooting into the sun, it allows a privileged view to areas not normally available – visual spectrums are distorted, illuminating perhaps normally darker places. I was drawn to the translucency of the protective casing that surrounds the sapling for two reasons: firstly it provides an ‘insight’ what is being protected and nurtured and secondly as a very visual metaphor for what this project is becoming about, more of that much later in the course I think.

I am considering colour versus monochrome and there have been a few reasons for me to consider what that choice means, or might mean for the significance of this work. Colour, we have been told, largely from it’s availability as a commercial option to photographers, tended to be used for commercial photography. Still we see references to monochrome work as a testament to veracity, stemming from the work of documentary photographers, photo’ journalists, those crusaders for truth and justice. Whether one believes/accepts those received notions is of course another matter. But I am curious to understand my perceptions on the use, or non-use, of colour.

I am acutely aware that the post processing of an image, specifically that of a digital image, is one of mutation. Ignoring the incontrovertible system of translating analogue light into a digital dimension, the subsequent conscious transliteration from a provided arbitrated text to a surreal text is one that interests me. Reading the Fundacion Mapfre 2014 exhibit catalogue of Vanessa Winship’s retrospective I became interested not only in the beauty and narrative(s) that have been assembled – I have been a fan of her work for some years now – but her continued determination to work in monochrome. It may be that she works only in film and that monochrome working, perhaps especially ‘in the field’ might be easier that attempting to work in colour, but she has spoken many times of her practice of working with large format cameras and how that alters the way by which she works, so I am unsure about the medium.

It may be that these books have used the same printer/base paper combination, but when I examine similar images from say ‘she dances on Jackson’ and from the exhibition catalogue the tones are remarkably consistent albeit the catalogue paper has a sheen that isn’t present on the monograph. I am interested because of the fictions that are constructed. That ‘conversion’ into monochrome is now accepted, I would suggest, to be a artifice (perhaps even when it is black and white film as the recording means?), a very obvious and purposeful fiction from one – normally seen as ‘normal’ – perspective to one that is a clear fabrication. In other words if I want to be clear to my viewer that I am not purposefully attempting to write a document, not wanting that reader to be confused about discerning a truth, that clearly any sense of verisimilitude will have been washed away with any trace of colour? The reader should not be confused about what I am presenting, it is a fiction and one of the clearest indications of that is to demystify it by the purposeful use of monochrome.

Winship’s narratives aren’t linear, the route isn’t from page one to the end, there are no chapters, no segueing of the narrative line, one can enter anywhere and work the imagery from whichever direction seems fit, as Carlos Martin Garcia writes in the introductory essay for the exhibition catalogue “…It is here that we find the foundations of a optic gaze that avoids the presentation of specific contexts or any direct involvement of her work in debates of immediate political significance.” p11. And in that same essay Garcia quotes Winship as saying (about her use of monochrome) “.. My images of course are made from life and the people in them are not actors or models as such. Black and white is a wonderful tool of abstraction. It enables us to move between time and memory.” p12. My project is about memory,  certainly re-situated, fictionalised and mediated via time.

I am in the process of creating an edit of the images I have made so far. All the ones that I present will be in colour, although I am making monochrome alternatives as well as altogether different images in monochrome. I am very conscious that my fictions are fabrications, non indexical and perhaps impenetrable thus far, my task is to try and find a way that will communicate with an audience – even if that intercourse bares little, if any , resemblance to my story!

Redheaded Peckerwood

In her essay that accompanies the book Karen Irvine, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago says of Christian Patterson’s ‘Redheaded Peckerwood’ that “…the most important implications of the (fictional or otherwise) crime are located not in the social, not in the collective, but more truly in the interior realm of our individual selves, where we harbor our own truths.” I wonder how many people, even those that come to this book, were aware of the events, or even the outcome in those few short weeks in 1957/8? The events that have led to popular culture to immortalize the ‘killing spree’ this book being another evidence – indeed a direct result of that perpetuation. Patterson’s fictional account though contests the notion of the single truth, making it manifold and this ‘openness’ is, for me, the strongest element of the book/work. It, the contextual arrangement of ‘evidence’, allows the reader to develop/enhance the narrative(s), to conject, to connect pieces together. Each image becomes imbued with potential because of its place within the sequence, the loose narrative becoming tighter or slacker as much because of what or how the viewer’s experience colours the mise-en-scene. Like “The Pond” the narrative flows from a beginning to an end, a serial narrative that defies, because it is in book form, ‘unstructuring’. The linear flow from front to back sequences the history of the events no matter what the evidence being presented is, its place in the chronicle and its narrative content continuing to develop, adding to the contextual framework, providing evermore substantiation. Truths I suspect are like secrets, once uttered are forever sullied via mediation, becoming something other than what they once were. Irvine previously also proposes that “… the meaning of memory is carried in the body..”, I wonder if what Patterson is doing here is to suggest that the evidences brought forward into the ‘real’ are also accented by the temporal sequencing as much as the evidence they provide? They appear in a chronological form and therefore their importance in the narration is amplified? That these are evidences of the memory of the protagonists, prefaced by the jointly signed scripted ‘Confession letter’? Either way it appears to ‘place’ the piece in the words of Starkweather and Fugate, a first person narrative account suggesting a privileged psychological perspective, allowing us to ‘walk in their shoes’. This would seem to me to be a prurient view but it suggests an altogether different aspect to both the case, which I have no great interest in, but, more importantly for me, how an alternative fiction can be developed to depict both the mundane and the other. The sensational slaying of eleven people by a young man and his even younger female accomplice, the consequential folkloric retelling in film and words, now also picture book would possibly inevitably tap into a sub-cultural national, perhaps international psyche, but the construction of a fiction – however rooted in fact or otherwise – via a sequence of images with residual textual anchorage is an accomplishment. The structure that enables the viewer/reader to develop imagery, sympathy and judgment through single purposeful sequence of photographs is inspirational, and particularly so in this stage of my studies. I have taken a lot from this book.

Fog and Frost in Purgatory

The fog and frost of yesterday morning yielded yet more photographs that I have printed, perhaps another 50 or so to add to the nearly 100 from my previous two trips to Purgatory. It may well be an aesthetic gimmick, but the work from yesterday seems to express a lot of what I now feel is likely to be my narrative subtext, perhaps surtext for the project. I’ll rest on that declaration for a while, perhaps until I have spoken to Sharon.

As I have suggested previously it isn’t the place of Purgatory that I feel I will narrate, rather the space. I currently don’t feel equipped to negotiate the terms of the project, that conversation with my tutor will perhaps help navigate to that point – or at least chart a course – but the collection of  narrative elements, and maybe especially these from yesterday are helping to confirm how things may shape up.

I am purposefully mixing colour and monochrome (black and white) and the reason for doing so is to keep options open. I have also printed some images that I have found aesthetically pleasing on A3+ paper to what they look like as photographs/as prints – I am also increasingly concerned about the screen providing an other perspective. The only criteria for the larger scale prints is that I ‘like’ the look of them; however I am finding that looking at these larger prints help to reinforce some of my thoughts about what this project is all about.

Something that Sharon suggested in her assignment report was for me to discuss more of what the images meant to me and “…the danger of not doing so is that they become an illustration of your thought / essay ponderings …….. we should delve beyond the theoretical and technical considerations..”.  I think this is an entirely fair summation of where I am, and whilst I appear to be reluctant to discuss what these images contain, I am not yet in a place where I can freely discuss what they mean to me. To be clear, these images are all pregnant, to a greater or lesser extent, with personal narrative, but of course the context is still within me and I need to find a way to release that. Some of these these images have become stronger with the post processing and printing, some though have just become prettier.

I am seeking help to find a way forward…

Images do not have memory…

Liz Wells, Landscape Matters, loc 4615. “memory is a human faculty; it is one of the facilities we bring to the disentangling of images…. Photographs appear as images removed from the flow of time. But the affects of photographs, how they work on us as we respond to them, is less clear.”

Had it not been a bright sunny day I might not have spent the day inside printing, cutting and editing; as it is, the late sunlight streaming through the office window isn’t shedding light to the way forward, rather it is indicating how poorly the screen in front of me has been cleaned recently. I have realized that I am quite excited about Purgatory and I have several strands of investigation to work in. The quote from Wells’ book points to one possible thread, that of the invocation of memory. Memory is a complex issue; of course I have no memory of the place having been to it only a few times, though I have been on the track that leads to it many times. I consider though, at this distance, that the simplest and perhaps the least valuable means would be to create a work that invokes a memory of the place i.e. this place was a hard place in which to live and die. More interesting might be to develop a narrative that centres on the place, a sense of isolation, not necessarily its geographic remoteness which is real – no road, no services etc – but how it might reflect on the human condition, or perhaps more accurately my own.

I have no attachment to the ‘place’ that is Purgatory but I sense a real attraction to the ‘space’ that is Purgatory and it’s name is another layer that will need further investigation. I’m not sure how that might be developed; it is a distance to walk to the place and not without its visual attractions, and that distance will become, I think, part of the narrative or part of the context. Today in the absence of a softer light I have printed around ninety small prints from which I started to edit in a loose way. I have also made a dozen or more A3+ prints to see what they look like as prints. I have been scribbling down some notes about future forays to the ‘place’, about the journey.

I’m not confident enough to say that I am on my way with this project, but there are several signs that seem to indicate positive possibilities and I am now looking for inclemency in the skies to draw me back to the track.