In Sickness and in Health

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist Colin Gray

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist Colin Gray from the series “The Parents”

“This work is, in a sense, a preparation, helping me to face the deterioration, and the loss I have endured.” These words, which close the “eulogical” end of work statement to Colin Gray’s “In Sickness and in Health” struck a chord; as did “Looking at myself in the mirror I see a reflection of my father’s face. I see the history in my own future. This is a curious and rather frightening experience.” Steidl Mack, itself an interregnum in publishing history, published Gray’s work that depicts a short space in time in the record of the artist’s body of work on the single subject of his parents. The project “The Parents” formally began when Gray had access to a borrowed Hasselblad in 1980 and continued until his mother’s death in 2010. The book was published in 2011. There have been many bodies of works that deal with the passing of one parent or another, or even both, but not so many that come after thirty years or more of studying the same subject. It was at the “Family Ties” conference, where Gray presented this work, and where I met him and discussed his, and my own, work, when I had the sense of the scale of this work, with its concomitant requirements of collaboration, issues over ethics and the whirl-pooling of narratives that weave, one into another. The book is beautiful; Joby Ellis at Steidl Mack had worked on the design with Gray and I recognize that I have a heightened sense of awareness about editing and sequencing which clearly accompanied this ‘read’. All the images are the same size, they are all square – suggesting full frame Hasselblad and the self containment of narrative content. Solid white margins with no text whatsoever apart from page numbering. There are some white pages, indicative of punctuation; there is no introduction and, as I say earlier, an end-statement with, finally, the almost obligatory (but un-headlined, in this case) acknowledgement. Words therefore seem less important to this document, the imagery left to the photographs, no direction home in this tale about home, family, love and loss. Simply put, this is a beautiful rendering of familial love, care and nurture. The three individuals who share emanance in each frame – whether they are physically present or not – the parents and their photographer-son propel the narrative with lyrical, poetic, and at times, harrowing imagery.

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist Colin Gray

Reproduced by kind permission of the artist Colin Gray from the series “In Sickness and in Health”

There is a lot to be said about the sequencing that I mention earlier; colour tones, physical structuring, short and immediate narratives – no more than the two page spreads, continue to build the sense of the meta-narrative – which isn’t, in my mind, determined to be deeply intellectual, but deeply emotional. The sense of scale of involvement between the three protagonists – woven into a story about ‘oneness’ is visceral. It perhaps didn’t mean to set out to touch raw emotion, but it does nevertheless, by dint of the honesty by which all three entered into the project, those thirty-five years ago. It wasn’t inevitable that Gray would photograph his deceased mother, but his father ceded to his son’s wish for a short time with her in order for it to happen. Gray, I seem to remember him saying, had no formal plan to do so, but did so because of inertia. I wonder how the passing of the surviving parent will be dealt with. The loss that I endured marked an ending with his death, and it is this that I am still trying to elucidate. This work of Gray’s has helped me see further into what it is I have been trying to describe. It isn’t “about” an abusive relationship, though it was certainly that. It isn’t “about” pain, though there was certainly a great deal of that. It is “about” loss, an absence of love and remoteness from it that I have tried to overcome without having a reference for it. “About” choices made and consequences thereafter. Most everything else I have tried to do, around Purgatory in this last year, has been to try and steer a course away from it. Purgatory though has provided the base camp and will stay there, I need to plan more imagery.


And so to imagery – updated

And so finally he makes an appearance. I scanned a number of negatives that I took soon before his death, some siblings wanted a memento of him, a memento mori.

I wondered about the image above, that it lacked a definitive sense of image and then added the margin below:

I plan to take him to Purgatory and photograph him in situ, to see what he looks like photographed (apologies to Winogrand).


Absence of presence

Introduced at the event as a ‘Study Day’ and suggested to me by Sharon as a conference, the “Family Ties Network: ‘Parental Concerns’” event on 3rd July was hosted in the Post Grad’ centre at the University of Bedfordshire – a fine facility despite the malfunction of the air conditioning on a very long warm and inspirational day.

‘Parental Concerns’ addressed on the day by three lens based artists: Colin Gray, David Jackson and Jill Daniels. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session moderated by one of the organisers. Each work represented a very personal perspective of a view of ‘parents’. Each told stories that whilst I recognised, with their observed familiarity a disjunction to my own, and perhaps no more so than that of fatherhood. One of the first works cited was Peter Day’s “Pictures of my Father” where the author sought to uncover/recover his late father by visiting familial homes:

What I found was space like it had never been before: empty and excessive. A vast emptiness, open in the totality and tonality of its knowledge, infinite in form, ambiguity and some memory (often vague and just then recalled) of what was there in the nothing that was still there.” P7. And then:

Quite literally in the house, my father’s house, there was nothing. Nothing tangible of the events, no records, just nothing and no more – no more personal stories being created. Its emptiness was everything that once held the memories in its indefinite space. Here there is nothing left but space, an abstraction, this emptiness that has not been scooped up and disposed of but that somehow remains. And yet this is so real. Not one thing remains except the aberrations – the marks, the dust, and the dirt. The by-products of life that have no real value are created by this attrition of life itself. A quintessence of dust is described in the somewhere that there was; and that had been a man.” p12

 real leatherc2

Colin Gray, the first speaker started taking pictures of his parents when he was five, but started the series “The Parents” in 1980. Twenty years later, and still part of the overall The Parents’ work he produced “In Sickness and in Health” which formed the final stage of the work. Gray presented and talked about images for more than an hour from the huge archive he has created, all of which appeared collaborative, many playful. A fellow artist remarked to me after his talk that she felt concerned about the ethics of this series, that the parents were depicted in a fiction not of their doing, unimagined by themselves but formed from another perspective; I was less concerned about that. The series ‘In Sickness and in Health” has been published by Steidl and – from his website: ”In Sickness and in Health” forms the final stages of “The Parents” series. Begun in 2000, it shows his parent’s deterioration and, ultimately, his mothers’ death. The hospital and church visits became more frequent, the ailments more serious, the drugs regime ever more complex. Whilst his father struggled with his new role as a carer, Gray found that his photographs helped make sense of the deterioration and loss he was experiencing. Having reached the age his parents were when he started the project, Gray now sees their history in his own future.”

David Jackson presented work on his relationship with his father; a film, a spoken narrative and still images. I am interested in narratives about the father son relationship and Jackson, like me, recognised that his work is as much about him as a son as it is about his father. This duality is matched in my own work inasmuch as my work is also about my role as father. Jackson discusses various texts on the subject of fatherhood and read a long quotation from the six volume autobiography of Karl-Ove Knausgaard on the same subject, where the son decides to accept something very unpleasant rather than admit to his father his frailty, something I recognised acutely; a sense of subsumed pain providing the agency of control in the relationship. Knausgaard’s tale ended well for son and father – at least in the episode repeated by Jackson. I found the narrative of Jackson’s film to be one of reclamation of his father into the family fold. His parents had left England to go to Malta, the mother’s childhood home and when she died the father felt no need to stay and wanted to return home. Jackson, seemed to want to record that ‘reeling him in, back to a familial place’.

Jill Daniels’ introduced her work – an hour long film on the subject of her parents – with a short introduction where she quoted Michael Renov from his book ‘The Subject of Documentary (Visible Evidence) “We are all lost in the chasm before our desire to recapture the past and the impossibility of a pristine return.” Which seems to suggest that whichever way we look at the past it can never reveal ‘the truth’. Daniels also suggests that ‘secrets keep families together’ which primes the viewer to concern themselves with addressing what that/those secret/s might or might not be. And, as in the nature of secrets, they can only be secrets if left un-revealed. The film hints at secrets and purposefully reveals others. The film is less pertinent to my own work, but I found it fascinating to consider, in that I sensed a need, by the artist, to shine a light on those long hidden secrets and in the post presentation discussion she hinted at yet more. During the making of the film her mother passed away leaving her with her father and we, the audience, become aware that some revelations now have no path to the light – that impossibility of any form of return, let alone pristine.

Whilst the artist Peter Day went in search of his late father and found him in the presence of his absence, I went to see my mother immediately after the conference and found only an absence of presence. I had wanted to find memorabilia of him to enable me to place him in the frame, to incorporate his presence into the narrative. The small purse of assorted cheap cuff-links and shirt studs were all my mother had of him in the bungalow she downsized to after he passed on. After my father died I was given three rings by my mother and a gold chain (I presumed this was a necklace, though I never remember him wearing one). I remember only two rings, both of which had to be cut from his fingers prior to cremation – where this third one came from I have no idea. It seemed profoundly odd that my mother must have cleared out a great deal of his ‘presence’ to leave such a tiny remnant behind, and why keep these? She doesn’t want them back – I won’t want to keep them. Looking around the sitting room that she now inhabits, there is one photograph of my parents together – celebrating a wedding anniversary alongside a press-cutting of the event. Other than that he is absent, other than in the memory

I now plan to create a way to take my father into the frame and into the land and one of the thoughts is to take these negatives and place them in the land to include him. These are the only photographs I have of him that I made, they were made as a request by two of my younger sisters who wanted a memento. We all knew at the time that he was bearing the brain timor that would claim him soon after these negatives were made. I seem to remember making a few, maybe two or three prints for sisters, nothing more. These latent images have now lain dormant for nearly twenty years; perhaps they will accompany me into Purgatory.


gardening at night by Cig Harvey

It is curious to consider how I have come to a consideration of this work that instantly moved me. There is the student in me that might suggest that this is maybe a learned response after immersion in a subject; or it maybe that the work chimed within me, to an inner sense inscribed in the work that I had, and perhaps never will have, any control over. When the sensation of attraction to a work becomes instantly and engagingly visceral, before any engagement to any deeper intellectual sensibility, there is a provision within me to instinctively hold back. I usually desire to reserve that impulse to consume it, lest it’s core is less than its surface. But with this work I didn’t resist; it was both engaging and beautiful, it pulled me into into its fictive world. So should I regard it as a student or as layman, am I either?

And so, initially as a student, I write: The first few pages of ‘gardening at night’ by Cig Harvey contains no visual images, but images through text, ostensibly in the third person, a self portrait that situates the work as a whole, anchors the narrative providing context in a lyrical and poetic way. The tones that are wrought in these few pages continue to reverberate throughout the book. The notions of identity, love and the effects of time.

There may be some that might question the veracity of any of the story, but I felt drawn to this fiction. One that is rendered in an edit that seemed to be everything that I might want to create in my own work. Images created from words and photographs, where I felt that sometimes the visual image held primacy over the written image, where the contest between the two developed into a sum greater than the parts, and where those parts hold individual and inspirational beauty.

In the interview with the artist by Sharon Boothroyd the artist states: “I love the narrative structure of a book. Gardening [at night] is very much a story from start to finish. It is sequenced in multiple ways: visually, by season…” I noticed seasonal structure, but also the temporal that I felt was a vital element running through the ‘story’. The edit, which was accomplished as a collaboration with fellow artist Deb Wood with whom she has worked before, provided (in my view) layers of narrative augmenting greatly to the pleasure of reading. I noticed the use of colour toning to bring image pairs together and again in the interview the artist talks about “I always say that I like to make pictures about things, not of things, and I try to avoid drawing from only one genre or subject matter. For me, the story is always the most important element and all the formal concerns of light, frame, style are all in support of that narrative.”  This is something that I feel strongly about my work; I do not think of myself as ‘Landscape’ photographer, nor a ‘Documentary’ photographer, in fact I don’t think I fit into a genre as I want to create fictions, and the fictions may appear in the “land’ or in a domestic situation, it may be staged and with or without people. It might deal with events that have occurred or that might be about to happen. I am a photographer?

The visual images are all full bleed, which I felt contributes directly to the work. I felt a sense of (pleasurable) anxiety about what might be outside of the image, that the images – miniature narratives in themselves – only tell a part story. The imagery in the text, whilst beautifully rendered is less ‘Open’, more descriptive and I wonder whether this unbalanced perspective is purposeful or whether it is a happenstance of style. Again, as with other books that I have taken inspiration from recently, there is a clear linear narrative that begins at the start of the book and winds its way to the end. It is ‘Open’ in that there is no ‘ending’ to ‘Close’ the fiction, the reader is left to develop whatever closure might be apparent to them. And by ‘Open’ I mean it to be able to contain an energy that allows it to continue.

And if I read this book not as a student (even if that is feasible), I get the sense of the rapture of life, a celebration of the notion of how sublime the transience of identity and identities can be. Ageing has been forever been alluded with the seasons and use as metaphor, but I felt no sense of an ending as the autumn fell to winter, no ‘Winterreise’, perhaps, even the opposite as the work ends with the words – in manuscript: “I am running towards us”. These last few words, perhaps the most ‘Open’ of all the texts, suggest that the ‘us’ could be all the ‘identities’, or it could perhaps be that the ‘us’ is the both the author at the start and the end of the journey, an accumulation of the twin perspectives of a life into a single ‘I’.

So much to enjoy and learn from.

Assignment Three

Reflections on assignment 3

In order to prepare for this reflection I decided to take the work to a range of viewers for feedback and critique. I presented a series of photographs of Purgatory at the Thames Valley Group meeting Saturday (16th May 2015). The group, prompted by Sharon, undertook to make an edit of the images from the eighteen that I had taken to the meeting. The day after the TVG meeting, I presented the same set of eighteen images to my print group – Forum, which I set up about ten years ago – and asked them to comment. I have also sent a link to the work to fellow L3 students that will get together to discuss work every two weeks via Google Hangouts. Other students have also been asked to comment. My decision on the edit is now made, but I will consider both my thoughts up to this assignment and anything that has come from the various viewings I have asked for.

This has been one of the hardest assignments on the course thus far to come to conclusion, and that is because, I think, that it isn’t meant to be a conclusion; rather a pause in the work. And knowing when to pause to reflect became the defining task.

Background: Purgatory –

The work to date, represented with this submission, reflect my search for images that express the relationship I had with my father. Largely unexpressed until now outside a very small circle and certainly never as imagery; the work denotes how I feel about that connection left largely hidden for nearly half a century. It has had some profound effects on me, enabled me to surface issues and events that had been forgotten for all that time and allowed me to face my role as a father, which I will mention later.

It was a difficult task to attempt to render these thoughts about my this relationship in the frame. My process was to wander the area over a period of time; visiting at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. I accept that I have a ‘photographer’s eye’ to a certain extent and will be drawn to automatically ‘see’ images which are made visually compelling by contrast, light, ambient weather conditions, traditional compositional techniques of balance and harmony. I decided to try and not reject them, but to embrace them and to allow the frame to ‘find’ those images that I have previously rejected as ‘pretty’. This rejection of the ‘pretty’ I fully accept is a character flaw and work I have done with a therapist recently has identified strategies to circumvent this character trait, and so the work takes on that mantle as well.

My technique tended to try and elicit an image with the eye and then ‘find it again’ in the viewfinder. I wanted to respond to the image in an emotional way, fully aware of why I was in this ‘place’ called Purgatory. Many, if not all, of these images have very distinct personal connotations and one of the strands of my dissertation will be about the ‘Punctum’ that Barthes talks about; but, rather than in a photograph, I would like to consider it in the making of the image.

The session at the TV Group led to a set of nine images, all of which I think are composed and printed quite well and, given the tests of the various viewings and the contextual information, they provide a reasonable depiction of what I set out to achieve and form the submission to assignment three. The images are sequenced in the order they appear and have some text allied to them here – there are other edits from other students. This addition of text is a difficult issue with a virtual submission in that they could be construed as captions or titles, which they aren’t. Certainly the prints are absent of any text in any way, though of course they form a ‘textual commentary’ on the relationship they are designed to depict.

The ‘showing’ of these images to the various crit’ sessions enabled two facets that have limited opportunity for in distance learning. The first is to have people view the physical work and give their impression, whether from an academic standpoint or from an outsider perspective. And perhaps, just as importantly, it provides an opportunity for me to talk about the work, which allows me to understand the work from a wider perspective. I learn about my work by talking about it, find out how well it sits in my mind and how much I have to provide the listener in order for the work to work.

Some students have been kind enough to reorder the images into a narrative of their own, letting the imagery work with them to tell stories outside of my contextualization. I am grateful to them and encouraged that others have found enough narrative potential in order to do so. I think the images are fine in their creation from an aesthetic perspective and so I think I have largely succeeded in that respect, but to have the compliment of others engaging with the images at a level above ‘prettiness’ is gratifying and encouraging.

One comment on the contextual information that I provided, suggested that they were unable to engage because they had little experience of the kind that I was trying to portray. I wondered whether I should concern myself with that, whether by ignoring it am I reducing the prospect to engage with a wider audience or whether I should develop that thought and try to widen the ‘entrance’ opportunity? This is an issue that I have been struggling with in any case. I felt that the narrative ‘angle of view’ was narrowing and I had determined to widen this, to help to make the ‘story’ more appealing/tempting and the next part discusses that new direction in the work.

Moving on: Chance encounters.

The section in the course that I have reached talks about ‘chance’. Chance encounters, chance finds, coincidence &c. Two chance events have led me to a new place. The first was a discard of a magnolia bud that I found and how I immediately related that to my early years with notions of familial love. And then on holiday in Tenerife a couple of moths ago, where the weather encouraged people to be exposed to the sun and in doing so revealing inscriptions on their bodies. Tattoos. I plan to conflate all three strands: Purgatory, the magnolia bud and tattoos into a thread whose overarching narrative is about love. The absence, the presence and the proclamation of love. Purgatory wasn’t, I now realize, solely about the absence of patriarchal love, but as much about my own feelings and expressions of love for my own sons. Questioning the absence of a paternal reference and wondering how much I have failed them and not wanting them to experience the same and repeat it with their own sons.

I experienced a ‘Punctive’ moment when I started to view tattoos. I had largely been ambivalent regarding this form of ‘body-art’ until I started to consider the motivations of this form of expression. The first two tattoo texts that I looked at were on the necks of two different women, and I wondered why they decided to place them there, they were never going to be able to see them. The words, which they had painfully engraved on their bodies, at some expense, were surely for someone else’s benefit not their own. The third ‘text’ I saw though stopped me short. Whether because I had been engaged in considering the purpose of these texts or not, the twin words ‘Love me’ made me catch my breath. It read – to me – as an imploration. Written not on the back of the bearer, but on her upper arm, near her shoulder, facing forward as if looking for love.

And so I have been collecting tattoo texts. It was a fairly simple exercise in the heat of Tenerife, but less so in the early Spring of Oxfordshire, though there are more than enough if one trails through the internet. I am slightly troubled using the internet to find these texts as I have an instinctive mistrust, but using as much editorial care as I can muster I have collected a few more. I have also engaged with a tattoo parlour (is that still the correct term for a place to be tattoo’s?) and will discuss with them about texts. I will let the tattoist know that I have no interest at present in photographing tattoos, it is their perspective as a practitioner that I would like to gain about the underlying need to permanently mark one’s body with a text that will reside proclaiming its message in perpetuity. Like love, an expectation?

What I plan to do is to continue to collect these marks and make imagery to act as a counterpoint to them. My plan moving forward is to recruit father’s and sons (including my own) to pose for me in the land – probably Purgatory in the first instance. These images would then be conflated with the text references into a single piece of work whose underlying contextualized narrative is love. They will be purposeful fictions, the models may well be related but the texts are unlikely to be theirs; and this amalgam of text and image I hope will be ‘Open’ enough to allow readers to enter into the story and develop their own sense of narrative flow.

During the time between assignment two and three I have been involved in a couple of collaborative events. The ‘Memory‘ show, which is still ‘on’ at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford, and a residential event which is largely for L3 students to be held in Barnsley on 20/21st June. I am very interested in collaboration, I think that it the notion of distance learning students working together, primarily on a virtual platform, is underexploited within the OCA which employs a virtual learning ethic. Something to think about. The learning curve for both of these exercises has been steep and the work involved not inconsiderable. I will write up my experiences when they are both finished.

The submission:

To be read in the order they appear:


Slowing down

Love me

This event in Bristol organised by Colin Pantall, Jesse Alexander and Max Houghton has struck a chord with me. Slow is becoming a ‘thing’ at the moment and no bad thing it is too, I’m very aware that I need to steady the pace and to focus on less in order to move on. And so I aim to try and attend, it looks interesting. However this sentence struck me particularly in respect of my studies “It’s a day of sound and word and image and how they all tie together, a day where we go beyond photography to understand what it is that makes a place look, sound and feel the way it does, and how we can use these ideas to represent the landscape and the way we walk, sense and remember it.”

I’m wondering about this particular phrase “..making a place look and feel the way it does..” because that is precisely what I have been trying to do in Purgatory, which is to attempt to construct an image in the frame that describes what I feel about something. To say that I am a landscape photographer would be to greatly stretch the terminology; rather I have wanted to use the land to describe how I feel not how the land makes me feel. I have wanted to use the viewfinder to frame not what I think the land represents, but what it represents about me. Self possessed probably. However the imagery I have been striving to make is about some strong emotions within me, about how I can describe and come to terms with them.

The photograph that practically ‘flew’ off the wall at Artweeks, within a very short period of the opening, was the one above (without caption). It accurately describes my relationship with my father. I went searching for unspecified imagery that would become specific, to see if I could find through the sub-conscious, a ‘punctum’, fully aware that the context of the image is rested within only one person and perhaps could never resonate elsewhere. And whilst I had been focused solely on that bondless father and son connection I have now widened the work in the course to reflections on it’s meta-narrative, love. Some time ago I wrote some very short stories on that subject, the project was somewhat arrested by the talk I attended with Johanna Ward, who quite rightly suggested that if I wanted to be a writer I should enroll on a writing course. However the turn towards tattoos has reinvigorated, perhaps inculcated by repeated attempts to ‘open-up’ the work, the desire to tell stories.

Nathan 92

Tattoos are stories, and are stories that get told repeatedly for the life of the narrator. They are embedded into the proclaimer for whatever reason. Perhaps noting the love of one for another or for the lost love of one for another. Perhaps the loss of one or the arrival of another. There are of course multiple designs of tattoos – texts – that deliver all kinds of messages, football teams, affiliations, badges of allegiance &c, but my focus will about love. And so I’ve started to collect them. I have seen them, asked to see them, enquired about them, although I haven’t decided on whether I should photograph them, at the moment it doesn’t seem important. I have wondered about whether where on the body the tattoos are located would affect the ‘reading’ of them. These texts that are vital to the bearer, determined to be forever but which are “Open” for interpretation on the discourse of love.

And so back to the ‘slowness’ of photography. It has that ability to hold time and to present a narrative for consideration and musing which is perhaps unique. The mutability of a fixed image that flux’s for each viewing dependent on personal circumstance and cultural contextual references. Reflexive and reflective. Wonderful.

Lessons in love

The previous post A kiss seems perhaps a great departure from the work I was making previously, and after discussions with my tutor about this new work it was agreed that I should try and explain how I came to this place, and indicate any connections for the creative direction of my studies.

In my literature review, assignment two for CS, I wrote: “Geoffrey Batchen’s introductory essay to ‘Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida’ entitled ‘Palintode’ provides an explanation to the title of the critical work in the original French title “La chamber Claire”: An instrument, patented by an Englishman William Wollaston, provided the user of, what the English call a “Camera Lucida” an image directly onto the receiver’s ‘…retina. Thus, the image produced by a camera lucida is seen only by the draughtsman (as it was designed for) and by no one else…Here, then, was an apt metaphor for Barthes’ own text’ 1.  What Barthes, and by implication Batchen, is agreeing with, is that the viewer/reader re-situates the narrative of the image in their making, and that the “Punctum” ‘…that accident that pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)2 is a very personal reflection on the narrative contained within the frame.”

The work in Purgatory was to try and find imagery within the frame – not in the landscape, if that makes sense and whilst not entirely in a haphazard way, at least without the trappings of traditional landscape photography – tripod &c. I attempted, and to some extent succeeded, in finding imagery that punctured my sub-conscious and revealed to me narratives from my past. Which is interesting as Purgatory has no connection to the past I was considering, but nevertheless I purposefully became ‘open’ to it and by doing so found it. This latest development is about how I can develop imagery in front of the lens to purposefully reveal – and in this case illustrate the feelings that I hold to be the most important of all feelings. In Purgatory I went outside to find what I was looking for in my relationship with my father, now I don’t feel that urge, here I can purposefully work close to home, in my home even though I don’t feel limited by any geographic place.

I had always wanted to write about love, the last work that I did in the Documentary course was largely a reflection on love  – in an ‘open’ way – and the work that I am putting up for the Memory exhibition will be a new presentation of that work.

On a morning stroll recently I found, under a newly blossoming magnolia tree, a part of the bud that had protected the blossom through its infancy and development into maturity. It appeared to me to provide a metaphor for familial love, that nurturing force that conceives, develops and releases humanity into the world. I felt the tenderness of this discarded protection that must be both strong and tender to resist the worst of the weather and yet caring enough to nurse the bud from conception through to adulthood. And it reminded me of someone – the subject described the The kiss.

Sharon suggested that I develop the metaphorical potential of the magnolia bud, but having looked at it, it appears to have lost a good deal of its previous vigour and so I may have to come back to that a little later. Purgatory as a space was overcome by love, I don’t mean the spiritual discourse provided by Catholicism – Dante’s journey – I am talking about my personal departure led by the love of, and by, someone else. The weather has changed. “The Kiss” a very short exert from a longer piece which was influenced in it’s structure by Calvino’s ‘Difficult Loves’ 3, a series of ‘open’ texts that enable the reader to develop a way forward. This will be very important to how I develop my work as I feel there is no single truth in life only stories about truth.

Purgatory still radiates with potent allegorical strength, my visit there earlier this week found me dismissing the place as I walked right on by, focusing on the land before I reached there and on the arrival of Spring as I left it, on the hour or so walk home. If Purgatory is about life and afterlife then the images I made on that walk were about birth and decay, where decay is but one part of the continual organic process of life that includes birth. I don’t see this project morphing to a comment on ‘green-ness’. It will however, be about love.

1 – Batchen , G, 2009. Palinode. In: Photography Degree Zero reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp 10 – 11.

2 – Barthes, R, 2000. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage pp27

3 – Calvino , I, 1996. Difficult loves. London: Minerva.

Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

I have little history. Antecedently my knowledge of largely unsearched for familial data severs its narrative two generations past, at my paternal grandparents. From whence he hailed I have no inkling nor care much more. I know he was a butcher and that he accompanied my grandmother on the piano as she sang in the pubs and clubs of Bedford. Even less is known by me of my grandmother’s prior history, a slight frail looking woman who, like her husband, looked down on my siblings and I as we lived ‘South’ of the river, never mind her son was our father. I am talking only of my paternal side, it is an easier tale to tell on my mother’s side where there existed a family tree going back to the fifteenth century, though that now appears lost. As far as I can remember we were visited twice by my father’s parents in twenty years, though we were ushered in the other direction by my mother in an attempt, I am sure, to curry favour. Little was forthcoming. Their mid terrace house in George Street still stands, long and slim and once the home to nine children and their parents, I never sensed the warmth of family when there and can’t do so now in retrospect. We were never ushered into the front room, we sat still and quiet in the living room and then went home; sometimes walking the five or six miles to do so, to save money and perhaps reflate.

Simon Schama’s view of landscape and his personal memory as he relates early in his book ‘Landscape and Memory’ is one which seeks to understand the bondage of one to another, perhaps his heritage of displacement seeks solace in comprehending and reasoning where he ‘is’ now and how he came to that place on that “other” worldly world that the Europeans made of the American continent. And in doing so ‘otherring’ those who worked those lands for centuries beforehand. Seeking explanations as to the why and wherefore of his place in the world, to have a knowledge of the path that had been trod by his forebears, and very eloquently, seems altogether normal for one who has every right to be proud of their history. Schama’s memory is fuelled by layers and layers of injustice, political intrigue, meta narratives that usurped the value of those tied to the land. The pogroms of Imperial Russia, the subsequent fate of those who survived, then to be further hounded by fascism only to find hope in flight to an other country. Answers to questions long ago asked is perfectly reasonable when those answers are in the soil of distant lands and time. Memories linger longer in the soil than they do in the stale air of stasis, where the land harbours no spirit for those that have no regard for it. So whilst I may have drunk copiously from the Lethe, Schama has bathed in it’s counterpart, perhaps sourced in the Steppe.

Landscape isn’t my subject, nor is it the means by which I wish to release my story. Perhaps there are fetid remains waiting to be uncovered or discovered, displayed and worked over in the narrative I’m wanting to unveil, but I’m not sure I want to find them. If, as I believe, the land, and perhaps most especially this old land of ‘Old Europe’, carries the burden of history, of the weight of people’s plight, their suffering, their joy, their hopes dashed or otherwise, then it is the occupation of historians to narrate, not mine. A detached third person account of hard labour fought and won, or lost, is best left for those with a desire to tell the stories of others – even if the others have lineage to the writer/historian.
When Schama, for example, meanders through his own history, it is an historical account of past pre natal; his context, like so many others, is to reach for higher and wider narratives to explain his current situation. Their histories are buried in the ground, stratified in speculation and viewed, usually, with a perspective enlivened through academic research and the need to reveal the courses of historical flow that led them to their current place of ease or unease. Scratching in the historical dirt won’t help help me tell my tale of fiction.

As I fled to Purgatory in the hope to find a narrative to drape my context around, I was enticed by the ‘place’. I found the un-ease of the physical journey a tempting corollary to my chance of witnessing what I wanted to portray. Knowledge of the ‘un-settled’ nature of the physical place, with its concomitant ambiguities of historical and geographical contexts, would assist I thought in helping find the ‘space’ in the ‘place’. And those early forays in difficult conditions certainly helped to form some ideas. Purgatory isn’t a specifically defined area, the place isn’t marked, except perhaps on one side by the River Dorn, but land-side it drifts to a public right of way and to an agrarian scape on another; no land marks to discern its limit. It is perhaps just the building, an empty edifice sat proud above the flood plain amid the clear ruins of older dwellings that defines what Purgatory is, and this carapace is imbued with its own history, a history that I wasn’t getting past as I try to reveal what it is that I want to narrate.
Memory lies in the sod and soil to be sure, the land which Schama describes is fecund with lost remembrances waiting to be excavated to the page, connecting the prior to the here and to the after. During the most recent conflict in South Ossetia – there have been many – a BBC correspondent asked a local about why there was so much trouble between the two peoples. The interviewee replied, with some venom, about how their enemy from the North came over their border, to a local village nearby and “raped our women, killed our children and old folk”. The reporter confessed to have been quite moved by the account, about how detailed the atrocity was portrayed and so asked the interviewee whether he had reported it to the local governance, supported by the Russian state, as it clearly was a crime against all the conventions. The response was that that might be difficult as it was committed in the thirteenth century “but we don’t forget!” What chance of the land forgetting when humanity inscribes it into myth and folk lore? There is every reason to believe a similar story is held by the other side on the other side of the hill or the plain or the river forming a landscape, hiding as many truths as untruths, or maybe replete in only half truths.

Lines are drawn across the earth, scarring both the land and the people, drawn and redrawn; one has only to consider the human cost of human expediency and incompetence the nib created across the Punjab, or the lives/yard across the Somme, the list is very long and we remember to remember. Schama’s book re-invokes memories or brings them fresh to the reader in an act of explanation for those who might never have known to remember. Memory and Landscape, is a book less about landscape than about memory, and maybe as much about history as about memory and it is these twin frail witnesses, constantly open to reinterpretation that Schama provides for the reader in his book. No one should believe anything in these pages, but just as equally one might just trust in the veracity of his prose, after all it is more than eloquent enough.

Histories are fictions, lines are drawn with treaties and agreements, but the land is impervious to conventions of man’s making, it’s spread of comprehension is somewhat wider and deeper than that humanity has cause to think important. Schama provides context to fleeting moments of he earth’s history, contexts mediated by his own twin witnesses, stringing together narratives of man’s inhumanity or otherwise to his fellow man? And largely it is the inhumanity we record, the South Ossetian’s seven centuries of bottled vengeance isn’t balanced by how they were offered a kindness from those inhabiting the ‘North’. Purgatory’s unwritten history is at least a blank piece of paper to clothe in fiction, to seek to find echoes, but I’m wondering about the benefit and the purpose.

I have little history, and what scant remains of it there is I wish to reject. If it were a landscape to describe my current perspective it would be of a distant horizon looking forward and to leave history behind using my memory to reveal the future.

A river of memory

‘When we think of the reality caught in a photograph as a “slice of time” or a “frozen moment”, we paste the image into a particular type of historical understanding.’ – so writes Ulrich Baer in his introduction to his book ‘Spectral Evidence’. I have much more to read from this book and will return to that later. However this quote chimed with me after attending the TVG meeting at the weekend, where I presented and talked about where my project on Purgatory has reached. Baer goes on to quote Heraclitus about the inability to step into the same river twice and these two thoughts are echoing in my thoughts.

My work is about memory, about a specific time, and the more I consider that episode the more I sense the fluidity of memory which militates against the idea of that ‘frozen moment’ veering toward that metaphorical body of water flowing, escaping from my grasp, not being fully able to trust what comes to mind. These memories that I am trying to fix from the subconscious, to force out like some deep-seated abscess are becoming more difficult to discern, more difficult to take hold of.

The notion of establishing a critical framework for the project led me to Dante and to the second of his Divine Comedies – Purgatory – and in order to experiment with the text I chose to construct images with verses from the text. My strategy was to use text that was abstract, Dante uses a lot of landscape imagery in the text as well as overtly spiritual both of which I wanted to steer away from. My intent wasn’t to illustrate the image with text nor vice-versa, however upon presentation it appears that this conflation of text and imagery didn’t work too well, if at all.

The general feeling about this image/text presentations wasn’t favourable. I had already decided that the presentation of the text wasn’t right – too large a font and its relative position to the image seemed neither connected nor unconnected and, although I ensured that the centre of the text and image matched, they appeared separate. One of the comments suggested that the text was too directive, another that it appeared to be a crutch that I was employing and that the imagery would/should stand on its own.

I had noticed, after printing the images, that these images all had a structural element that I wasn’t aware of, either in the framing of the image nor in their post production. Part of my strategy is to reproduce images as full frame as possible, I wanted to editing to be done in the composition, in the act of image conception; however these particular images had the object/subject central to the frame. And this composition suggested to me at least, either the dominance of the object/subject or the fragility of it; it is something to think about – this inconsistency as it suggests I am not sure what story I am telling.

My concern though at this stage is where to take this project. Image and text seem to me to provide a very real chance to develop dialogue within the viewer. The work I am presenting for the ‘Memories’ exhibition seems to work very well, the ‘openness’ of the imagery and the text allows the reader to enter the work, whereas the general feeling of the viewers to these images was much less so. A suggestion was made about the use of Dante’s work that I could provide a contextualising text which was associated with the work – alongside, but not coupled – to provide that structural contextually, something to think about. There were also comments that the imagery wasn’t as potent as some of my earlier work in the project, whereas I see some very powerful signs in these pieces, so perhaps it is a strong signal to find a better way to be able to communicate. I also feel that the work at present is very focussed and that perhaps I should try and find a way to allow it open up a bit more, allow it to breathe a little which might allow me more opportunity to help me write this fiction.

Baer’s suggestion that photograph’s are a slice of time from a flowing river also concerns me. The fluvial metaphor that Dante employs, running its course from the ‘gateway to paradise’ to the inferno below, is the River Lethe and which, after imbibing from it, the drinker will forget all their sins as if they never existed, expunged from their memory and, by implication, from their sub-conscious. These images I have made aren’t evidences, this work will not be about ‘what happened’, no ‘slice of time’ as I am fully aware that there is much that I don’t remember, nor do I want to revisit that place. However there is a ‘spectre of evidence’ that I do wish to investigate, to depict and to interrogate through this work. But I need to find a language and syntax that does it better than I have managed to find ’till now. I also wonder whether I should step out of the land, and whilst not leaving it, think about other strategies to help describe what I want to express. Perhaps to employ more poetic imagery that I began using and which is being employed in the ‘Memories’ exhibition. After all it seems to have a root in an appropriate trope.

In search of lost memories

You could be in danger

You could be in danger

Obliquely I have been led to Proust. David Bates’ essay ‘The Memory of Photography’, suggested by my CS tutor failed to ignite any sense of connection with my research until close to the end when, towards the latter stages of the essay Bates suggests: ‘It can be said that photographic images do not destroy personal memories, but that they interact with them in very specific ways, which may not always be conscious. The binarism implied in the distinction between cultural memory and individual memory collapses as photography re-figures their relationship.

I’m particularly interested in not only whether the unconscious memory can be stimulated by images, by photographs &c, but by found images in life wherever they manifest themselves. My wandering in Purgatory has had me looking for imagery that sparks what Proust talks about in his “In Search of Lost Time” as ‘involuntary memory’. I haven’t read Barthes “Camera Lucida” in the French original – the English translation doesn’t include a Proustian reference where ‘ is suppressed’, but apparently Barthes’ notion of ‘punctum’ has a similar conceptual base – Bates also compares ‘Studium’ to ‘voluntary’ memory.

‘Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, or what period in my past life.’ Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way (volume 1), Overture, Kindle edition Loc 868 The narrator has just tasted a piece of ‘madeleine cake’ that he had recently ‘dunked’ into a cup of tea whereupon he experienced ‘… a shudder ran through my whole body…. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin..’ ibid Loc 844. The narrator goes on to describe, in effect, that the experience came from a place that he had no knowledge of ‘…It is face to face with something which does not so far exist [to the narrator’s consciousness], to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.’ Ibid, Loc 850.

I have just completed the printing/mounting of my exhibition pieces for the forthcoming show that I am co-curating with fellow student Penny Watson. I have continued to work on the project I used for the my final assignment at Level Two on Documentary and my thoughts about it afterwards and my prints will be a ‘new’ narrative based on where this work is today. And whilst I have been busy with the mechanics of printing and framing, of sequencing and therefore forming a newly developed narrative, I have the sense that what I am doing/have done in BoW is a continuation of the work that I started previously, its just I didn’t realise it, or expect it or look for it. My reaction to the imagery wasn’t predicated on a formal plan, other than the plan to make images about what attracted me – an ‘involuntary’ response, a subconscious response, a ‘punctive’ response to what appeared in the frame – I am aware of course that it is a photographer that does the framing and I will naturally (sub-consciously?) exercise the viewfinder in a practiced way. The notion of ‘pretty pictures’ comes to mind, however I am less concerned with that now and more interested in how the images turn and what they might reveal.

The show, to be hung on the 2nd May, is entitled ‘Memories’. The title was decided upon as an ‘open’ entry for Level 3 students of photography – surely all photographs have the past imbued within them? I am though wondering about the active process of searching for memory.

In his essay Bates talks about “Freudian slips” ‘…where we may recall a name “wrongly”, these more permanent “memories” turn out to be based on a forgetting, the substitution of one memory for another or, indeed, one memory laid over another or embedded inside of it.’ This ‘slipperiness’ of memory is something that concerns me, I have distinct memory of some of my youth, though my siblings can remember major incidents from that time that I have absolutely no recollection of. And here I go back to Dante and a liquid thread that stems from the entrance to Paradise through Purgatory and into Inferno – the River Lethe. Despite it’s headwater in a land where it never rains; the water has the power to erase memory. Drinking it ensures the imbiber that they will never recollect their sins – no mention is made of other, sinless memory, only the turpitudes of the sinner as they make their ascent inexorably from the foot of Mount Purgatory to Paradise. Purged of the stain of sin, and with a memory expunged of all ill remembrances, and therefore unencumbered by notion of sin, they walk through into an Edenic glory for eternity. I wonder whether no memory would be a paradise on this mortal coil……

I have been in search of lost memories, I wonder if I have remembered what it was I was looking for.