I first started thinking about the theme for my second assignment in earnest after completing assignment one. Some other students had mentioned that they knew what they wanted to do before embarking on any of the exercises in section two but I deliberately fought against being too assumptive as I wanted to try to let the course work wash over me before deciding too much on the detail of the assignment. I also wanted to give ideas time to form and develop and change. It wasn’t easy to keep an open mind and obsess about this work at the same time.
Here is a synopsis from diary notes of my planning, research, experimentation, thought processes and decision-making.
Brainstorming all the things that are really important to me in an attempt to get a shortlist of ideas to start bouncing around for my Fine Art submission. I am finding it hard to move from ‘What I Like to Photograph’ to ‘What I Want to Say’ as I have always felt like my art is what I make when I don’t really know what I want to say but just have a feeling. I have got as far as being able to write down some of the ideas that resonate with me or are at least intriguing. Some of the recurring themes are around illness and death which is particularly poignant for me after Matt’s prolonged health issues from September 2014 through to June 2015 and them him becoming ill again at the end of December.
I visit the Saul Leiter exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery. The mix of painting and photography strikes a chord as always but still seems to be something I am just dancing around, even though it is a logical step for me as a painter/photographer. It occurs to me that I have never actively pursued the idea of ‘art photography’ per se.
My list of ‘Things That Concern Me’ is currently as follows:
- Bigotry and laziness – people being closed to ideas and not bothering to research or think things through (too similar to assig one)
- Women being undermined and oppressed and feminism being dismissed by so many as no longer necessary
- Femininity being a social construct
- Equality for all – giving the invisible a voice
- Compassion vs political correctness – the difference between tolerance and respect (too similar to assig one)
- Assaults on freedoms – especially of speech (tackled to a certain extent in assig one)
- The refugee crisis (a very hot topic for contemporary artists and photographers plus it may be difficult to get access within very limited timeframes)
- Access for all – disability rights, transport/mobility issues (how much will people ever care if they are not disabled – too boring/annoying?)
- Death – the fleeting nature of our existence on the planet; loss, wasting time, not reaching the end of a journey
I seem to have decided to focus on the latter and see what comes out of it. I have re-read the article about finding your personal voice that Peter Haveland linked to on the OCA Forum and shall be mindful of this: “We need to be brave and deliberately set out to break some of those ‘rules’ we’ve struggled to master”.
We have already lost Bowie, Wogan, Rickman, Umberto Eco and Harper Lee this year. Today we said goodbye to George Kennedy and Father Jack (Frank Kelly). I mind-map some ideas and make word associations: transience, evaporation, fragments, fleeting, suddenness, arrow of time, entropy, flux, no closure, precariousness, regret, morbidity, quiet, forward telescoping. I like the idea of memory being a continual act of creation as we can never precisely duplicate what happened – would be good to play with this. All my thoughts circle back to the idea that life is fragile, fleeting, precarious. Death can come suddenly and the fear of this is with us to varying degrees for our whole lives. The loss of a loved one is devastating, life-changing and something we have all experienced. What can we do about it? We can make sure that we live in the moment and build a good life and that we do not take people for granted.
Study visit to see Jo Spence’s The Final Project I am wondering if there is a way to bring Day-of-the-Dead-rich-saturated-glory to this without it being too Old-Master-still-life? I would love to be able to present all the images in varying sizes as framed pictures on a mantlepiece like family photos. This would work in a gallery but not remotely. Park for another time.
Paul Daniels dies. Death is a democracy. I have briefly researched getting some personalised playing cards printed but for all 52 to be unique seems like it would be pricey. Concluding, thriftily, that depictions of cards, and especially collapsing houses of cards, are a bit hackneyed anyway.
Thinking more about Jo Spence’s work and ideas around preservation. Each image could be presented in a plastic bag as if it is evidence. I am now brainstorming other preservation ideas: scaffolding (made of straws?); being buried underground; wrapped in tissue paper (smell of mothballs?); frozen (wet and freeze the images and then re-photograph); under glass (vitrine or microscope slides); on a USB stick; in salt; pickled; printed on to tracing paper; under ash. The latter led me to thinking about simulating an urn of cremated human remains from BBQ ash. Possibly getting too macabre.
Garry Shandling dies. I worry about Matt’s heart even more than usual.
I sort of want to place images of my loved ones next to my secret worry-thoughts and actions but I think this would be too much candy floss. Memes on Pinterest have a lot to answer for. How do you urge people – strangers – to hold their loved ones tight and make the most of every moment (and without being annoying)?
Now researching more the links between the medium of photography and mortality…
I hear that a friend in America has died suddenly. Becky Williams was part of the Raindogs internet community and well loved. The expressions of shock and grief on Facebook and on the Tom Waits fan forums are sorrowful but comforting. I have long been fascinated by the idea of social media mourning and the digital legacy. It is estimated that over 10,000 Faceboook users die every day. The company has a process for either the removal of the deceased’s account or its memorialisation. I toy with the idea of using images from Streetview to create a visual of the Raindog reaction to Becky’s death but it feels like an inadequate response.
Ronnie Corbett dies. Death is such a taboo subject in our society that I have realised I’ve been secretive about the theme of this assignment for fear of being considered morbid or even tempting fate. We marginalise the planning for, and experience of, death almost to the point of denial. I wonder how to tackle depictions of Matt in a way that feels personal and authentic. I am drawn to the idea of a long landscape oriented triptych with the breaks representing his recent health scares and the interruptions caused to our life together.
Study Visit to Performing for the Camera. Almost too much to take in and new ideas are now whirring around with the old. Francesca Woodman was an obvious inspiration as she did ‘fleeting’ so brilliantly. My main takeaway was not to worry so much about doing what has been done before so long as I can be authentic and bring my personal spin to the work, whatever. Even in such a massive show everything felt unique.
Given that I want there to be a dreamlike quality to this work, I am fairly set on using creamtone and possibly heavy grain. I’m still hooked on the aesthetic of Bruno Boudjelal’s Frantz Fanon work. Hoping to create some images that look like stills from a dream/nightmare. I am also considering layers/ double exposure style to amplify the uncanny feel.
If I play with collage there is potential to include found images (eg imprint in snow of rabbit/hawk).
I could also look at obscuring images with newspaper clippings. Only seeing fragments is key. This would also allow the mixing of scale (Alice in Wonderland syndrome). I wonder if this could all work without any pictures of Matt. It adds a spin which overcomplicates things and is maybe just too personal to me. Ageing parents is universal but maybe ill health in a younger person is too polarising.
Victoria Wood dies. Loss of another national treasure. I am working through various ideas around a more physical approach than just flat paper such as box lids with insets or trinket boxes covered with maps. I could make vocal recordings to describe the mementoes but I am thinking this might work better for a portrait project. I talk to Dad about carving an inverse cone out of wood to inset images. He thinks I am being weird. I would like to incorporate pages from old books but this may just be for the aesthetic appeal rather than direct relevance/suitability. Would it be feasible to make a fictional map from photos of places I have been and people I know?
Prince dies. This one really hurts. He was way too young and, by all appearances, healthy. A huge part of my early years. I really need to crack how to capture the sense of fear of loved ones slipping away. Obvious ideas would be to make the figures small in the landscape. Other approaches: in the dark; disappearing around corners; faces covered; backs turned; shrouds; masks; eyes closed; blur/movement; hands over faces. I want to avoid any pale death-in-life faces. Would rather have ruddy, uber-human feel to portraits.
A weekend in Sidmouth gifts me a chance shot of a unusual rowing boat on an otherwise empty sea. This has a River of Styx feeling for me and feels like a good end (or beginning) for the series which is starting to form in my mind. I also manage to get an edgy sandcastle shot with a young girl. The small island in the background looks a little like a tumulus and so doubles the metaphor.
I am starting to pull together ideas:
- Hair over face
- Falling feather in the dark
- Cloth caught on thorns
- Face pressed against frosted glass
- Face under soil or ash
- Old photo floating in dark water (puddle or pond)
- Abandoned broken umbrella
- Face behind dirty glass
- Close up, closed eyes
- Ants, fruit, watercolour paint box and rain stained sketchbook
- Someone running up wooden stairs (ghost like/blurred)
Tried playing with the ash on a print. I like the effect but it feels a bit too heavy-handed for this project.
Sally Brampton kills herself by walking into the sea. This strikes me as a beautiful way to commit suicide, although that is entirely missing the point and probably quite inappropriate. Brampton has written brilliantly about depression, helping a lot of people gain a better understanding of something mostly unfathomable for anyone who does not suffer it.
We visit best friends in Bristol. John’s Mum has died recently and he is still devastated. He agrees to let me photograph him next to an empty chair. I try to work out how best to portray how all encompassing his grief feels to him. My idea that it is the biggest part of every day for him leads to an idea of it being headline news – literally. I feel stupid for missing the opportunity of getting a picture of him holding a picture of his mum.
The lounge wallpaper seems to reflect John’s troubled thoughts and the demons he has battled with for many years but I think the patterns may have too many other connotations for viewers so I am not going to include anything from this part of the shoot.
Visit to Photo London. Lots of inspiring work and interesting juxtapositions of old and contemporary. I was impressed by the technical achievements of Paulette Tavormina who has produced a series Vanitas inspired by 17th Century Old Master painters. Sumptuous tableaux are carefully constructed to remind us of the fragility and futility of life. Traditionally these still lifes have religious symbolism and classically include hour glasses, skulls, mirrors, butterflies, flowers, candles, fruit etc. I have been toying with including at least one tableau in my series but this helps me to decide not to. In fact, this has inspired me to make a list of all the cliches so I am conscious of which are included or actively rejected.
Cliches: street tributes (flowers on lampposts), moths, skulls, nature taking over, skeletons, decaying fruit, candles, dandelion fluff, sand egg timers, clocks, symbols of life, mirrors (infinite reflections), bubbles, poppies, doorways, evening light…
I am wondering if there is potential to bring in some religious undertones so closely associated with death and mourning. I don’t believe in a god or heaven and I don’t want this work to be over-complicated. I do believe in the idea of heaven on earth though and I want my images to be contemplative and hopefully encourage people to take stock of their lives and appreciate how fleeting our time really is.
Building the longlist of ideas slowly:
- Matt on the bed (aerial view on black and try also on white)
- Dad walking down the garden in the dark (lit by flashlight; focus on the axe in the wood)
- Mum – holding candles
- Mum – 360 degree portrait
- Dad looking away
- Dad in dark garage/shed
- Mum lying on sofa
- Matt behind flames (BBQ)
- Tower Hamlets cemetery (overgrowth only, no gravestones)
- Self portrait – melancholy/lonely/ afraid (probaby not)
- Brian in a tunnel, rain/car headlights
- Jess – silhouette in corridor at Capital House
Cato (Burt Kwouk) dies. I send over my initial ideas to my tutor to get some feedback.
My boss calls my mobile. Never a good sign on a Saturday afternoon. A beloved work colleague has committed suicide. Apparently, he got up from his chair on Friday afternoon, leaving his journalist’s notebook open on the desk, went to Edgware Road tube station and threw himself in front of a train. I spend some time rereading Sally Brampton’s writing and watch the suicide video of a friend-of-a-friend to try to make sense of it all.
Still struggling with a title for the project. My shortlist so far is ‘Taming Death’; ‘Mawkish’; ‘Inherent Vice’; ‘Crying for the Moon’; ‘Mortal Remains’. None are quite right yet. The problem is that I am juggling with a lot of interrelated ideas but I don’t want this to just be maudlin and scary. Every time someone else dies I feel like another dusty layer of anxiety settles over me. I am more conscious than ever of keeping my relationships in exchange, my affairs settled, accounts balanced. I am overusing the love emoji on Facebook. I try to pinpoint what this all looks like and I see freeze frames, stills from a bad night’s sleep, banal reminders of the direction of travel. People I love are very slowing moving out of sight, slipping through my fingers, falling through dreams.
Muhammad Ali dies. I can’t stop thinking about Malcolm’s last few hours alive. What must he have been thinking about? What were the last things he saw? I sit on the platform at Edgware Road, deliberately missing trains. The cables and wires are complex and beautiful. Someone has painted “Empty box’ on two junction boxes. I can never understand how hard life must have been for Malc for so many years but this seems to be a fitting metaphor that evokes some inkling of depression. This is what I must photograph.
Response from Jesse:
The Audrey Linkman has now been ordered but Secure the Shadow is too expensive and my local library too crappy. These books have thrown open some new thoughts on what my project is really about. I actually don’t want it to be about death in itself but how death can bring life into focus.
I start reading The Nature of Things by Lucretius. The gist seems to be that death should not be considered evil. Life and death are bound together as the product of the push and pull of atoms – collisions and cohesions. Even the ordinary can be strange and wonderful.
“Sometimes the phobia of death can grip a man so tight
He comes to loathe his very life and looking on the light,
And in his mournful heart resolves to die by his own hand,
Oblivious this fear’s the source of what he cannot stand…
Thus we must put the shadowy terrors of the mind to flight,
Not by the illumination of the sun and its bright rays,
But by observing Nature’s laws and looking on her face.”
Visiting Cheltenham to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. I agonise over how best to capture the sense that I my time with her and Dad is slipping away. In the end I settle for a closed-eye portrait of Mum to allow the viewer to linger on her lovely old lady face and contemplate their own ageing relatives. For Dad, I get some close up shots that have an abstract, landscape feel to show him as my rock, a monument. A solid force in my life which is moving out of sight and one day will be gone.
Anton Yelchin, aged 27, is killed by his own car. I photograph Mum holding a bunch of candles to represent the people she cares for (and worries about) the most. Initially I opt for a frame with the candles just having gone out but in the end choose one with them lit to represent the light of love keeping the darkness at bay (even though this is clearly fragile and fleeting and ultimately a delusion!).
Caroline Aherne dies, aged 52. Everything is so fucked up at the moment this almost doesn’t surprise but is incredibly sad nevertheless.
I am finally starting to home in on specific choices.
- Boat on the ocean
- Girl – sandcastle
- Hand – candles
- ‘Man’s Mum Dies’ – newspaper headline
- Dad – rock/monument
- Empty box – Edgware Rd
Now to find the right early life images and middle age contemplation…
I try to get hold of Peter Hujar’s Portraits in Life and Death but it is a little costly to say the least! The aesthetic of his portraits really appeals to me with the warm greys and quiet contemplative sadness.
Have been spending a lot of time thinking about how much text to include. Given that I want the set to be ambiguous and ask questions of its audience, I fear that individual image titles and text will anchor too much and become heavy-handed.
A visit to a small island in Sweden and I have discovered the final pieces of my narrative. I harass some baby goats and send a Danish friend into a field to contemplate the meaning of life and death. And there through a dirty window I see a brood hen. It all fits.
A young woman in silver shoes kicking at puddles during a thunderstorm. What could be more impermanent on a Sunday night in smalltown Sweden? I think I am definitely winning on the way to a regret-less deathbed.
After an extended period of anxiety over the name of this series, I finally stop everything else to work out what the hell it should be called. After going down a lot of Google rabbit holes I go back to basics and reread some definitions of the themes I am tackling. And there it is on the Wiki page about Memento Mori: Ultima Forsan. It is later than you think. Bingo.
More from Lucretius: “So who are you to balk and whine at death? You’re almost dead in life, although you walk and breathe. You fritter away most of your time asleep. You snore with your eyes open; you never leave off dreaming, and a score of empty nightmares fills your mind and shakes it to the core. Often, addled and dizzy, you don’t even know what’s wrong – you find yourself besieged at every turn by a whole throng of cares, and drift on shifting currents of uncertainty.”
I soak and then freeze a print. It melted within seconds but looked great briefly. Too tenuous for this project though. I will pursue in future.
John gives me the nod on using his image for the ‘Man’s Mum Dies’ newspaper pic. This is a great relief as I was not sure how he would feel about it. It feels like things are really coming together although I am worrying too much about how to order the images. Do they need to be ordered? Will it matter or am I trying to control the narrative too much? I want this to be personal and subjective and ambiguous – full of gaps that the viewer can fill themselves. The idea of a cycle of life does not need to be explained.
Reading September’s BJP on the bus, I am amused by David Molina Gadea’s comments about the importance of having a title. “The title is very important – there is no project without a title.” I am very happy to have found my title. The final pieces are falling into place. The whole journey has been about chasing a feeling and I think I have captured my little photographic Pokémon.