Landing in Lacock

Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015
Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015

As I write my 100th blog post, it seems a fitting time to pause for reflection on my directions past, present and future. This summer I moved with my husband and two children to the village of Lacock, Wiltshire. I leave behind 20 years of living in Bristol, of which nearly 15 have been spent with part-time artistic practice. In the great migrations of my life, this is the third, and feels far more a move towards settlement and consolidation, since the first period (in Africa) was largely shaped by the missionary appointments of my parents, and the second period included my university placements in Canterbury and Nottingham. In biblical terms, I’ve moved from ancestral home to slavery at the hands of empire to… is it the promised land?

In the spring of 2003, I visited Lacock Abbey with Adam, 2 years before we married and a few months before I decided on further masters study in Visual Culture at Nottingham. I like this earlier photograph, I stand on the cusp of something, my hopes of intellectual stance forming a kind of waiting. I am resolutely facing east, with the famous abbey behind me and its primordial window. At the time, I was certainly aware of Talbot’s photographic legacy in this place but could have had no sense of its spiritual and geographical centering that has now come home to me. It does feel like a ‘coming home’ to something. As if the efforts of horizontal achievement in exhibitions, competitions, residencies has somehow to stop, and stay still, and be grounded for some serious vertical development. I am asking questions about what this entails, about my position here, and my husband’s related call to Christian ministry in this place.

Among other things, the promised land demanded reliance and trust in God’s provision of rain and pasture for the Israelites’ settlement. Yes it was to flow with milk and honey, and was deeply rich in goodness, but it was no site for empire-building projects, self-irrigation, impregnable city fortifications and monarchical authoritarianism. Israel remained small either side of Egyptian and Assyrian/Babylonian might, and her constitution ensured a community-wide model of dependence. Isaiah calls Israel God’s ‘heritage’ (19:25) – and the concept is deeply woven with the history of God’s tending and care of his vine/bride. Egypt and Assyria are called God’s people and the work of his hands respectively. There’s a backward and a forward glance in these terms, looking west and east, which at the very least suggests Israel’s orientation is locked into both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

What do I mean in the here and now? Something like going-to-ground, being geographically single and observing photography’s roots here and in me. My blogging will be less frequent, and my practice is working out the theme of Sabbath rest, as am I.

Leaves and Lincoln

Prof Larry J Schaaf's revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright
Prof Larry J Schaaf’s revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright

By way of an introduction to the conference Rethinking Early Photography held at Lincoln University earlier this month, Prof Larry Schaaf presented a lecture called ‘The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria and Historiography’. In the whirlwind speculation that swirled around this particular photograph, which had come up for auction in 2008 as part of an album, Schaaf’s comments at the time gave rise to unmerited suggestions that it was possibly an earlier photograph than Talbot. The name Wedgwood popped up, since a ‘W’ is found in the bottom left of the negative. In a welcome spirit of openness since the leaf’s quiet retreat from the public spotlight, Schaaf’s lecture gave the photograph its long-due much-deserved critical attention; and the results, while not the tabloid headline so hastily dreamed of, nevertheless open the door on other aspects of early photography.

Of no little interest to me is this early history in Bristol, and the likely female involvement. For Schaaf has discerned in the scrawled lettering on the back of the negative the initials ‘SAB’, standing for Sarah Anne Bright, the daughter of the Bristol MP Henry Bright (1784 – 1869) whose residence was in Ham Green. That the image is printed on paper produced by William West (of the Clifton camera obscura and the Bristol School of Artists) is highly probable – the ‘W’ is a likely link to the blindstamp identifying the paper with the stationer Lancaster, who was selling to West in Bristol at the time. I have written about West in the past (in my book Bristol Through the Lens), as his camera obscura was key to the tradition of landscape composition and view that developed in the South West – a particularly Romantic and photographic view, especially in the area around the River Avon and its Gorge, which includes Ham Green. That the leaf has been treated as a photogram, in the manner of a specimen, is not as far from this Romantic view as we might think.

In my paper for the conference ‘Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography’, I consider the vocabulary, context and direct evocation of biblical themes in and around early photographs. Leaves had something of an emblematic status, whether for biological perfection and detail (Talbot), for monogram experimentation (Herschel), or for revelatory apparitions (Enslen); at times, they come close to bearing the immanence of God through the way people saw them, with the action of divine light on the photo-sensitive surface. I argue that when we examine so many leaves, our view should not thereby forget that there was once a forest – that background milieu of religious or spiritual understanding. Nor need we suppose that we have ‘clear’ sight now, rather that we are grafting new philosophical perspectives into early photography.

Two things pointed this up to me mostly clearly at the conference: the first was the final question put to a panel at the end of the last day, a question that sought an answer to our persistent search for photographic origins, for photographic ‘firsts’. Amidst the general replies that questioned points on a historical line rather than the existence of the line itself, I found myself offering the comparison of linear photographic perspective: within its system, we can continue to plot and map our direction and position – but beyond this, surely we have all already woken up to its system-like nature, to the limitations of it, indeed to the falseness of it? And isn’t it in fact photography itself that has done this – in our increasing awareness of its subversion of normative perspective? So the question of origins needs a rather more radical a-historical discussion.

Secondly, 36 of the 52 speakers at the conference were women. In a varied programme that crossed several disciplines internationally, from geography to history, from literature studies to conservation, this high representation of women to me suggests the lack of entrenched patriarchy in what is still a relatively young subject. It bears the mark of the social eclecticism which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Sarah Bright’s involvement in photography, though here it’s rather more an academic eclecticism. Practicing or studying photography, it is remarkable that so many women are telling the story, which volunteers another radically new, still unrecognised perspective.

Let the pulpit meet the pews

Methodist pulpit and pew
Methodist pulpit and pew

Back in February, I found myself applying for the gift of a Methodist pulpit, which was being offered to an artist(s) by The Fishermen’s Chapel in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. My proposal met was met with enthusiasm, and follows below. Since then, with thanks to Trinity College, I have also been given two Methodist pews from the recently closed Wesley College in Bristol, who will happily join forces with the pulpit to form an even more exciting art work and installation. Once they’ve arrived at my studio over the summer, they will undergo a period of hibernation before the ideas below start to emerge…

This pulpit is a powerful and striking symbol of God’s word. To me, the clean design and structure of the object (as compared to, for example, the ornate stone ‘thrones’ of many a parish church) is something that needs to be celebrated. It bears in its image the specific focus of Wesley’s pioneering preaching of the word, which kept things simple. It also has fantastic resonance with Wesley’s peripatetic ministry, for being mobile. These two aspects of simplicity and mobility are what I would like to concentrate on with my proposal.

I would like to install in the pointed architraves (and possibly the lectern top area) a sequence of photographs or lenticular prints, so that it becomes a pulpit with photographic panels. I am keen to keep the look clean and clear, maintaining the integrity of the existing shapes and outlines.

The content of these photographs will have a starting point in one of my existing pieces of work, The New Passage, 2012, which is formed from the composite arrangement of photographs taken of the Severn Estuary, from the point at which the Wesley brothers crossed to Wales (as commemorated by a plaque at the site). Linking the New Passage with the pulpit from the New Road Methodist Church is the incredible geographical correspondence for having a near equal latitude, and for both being sea-facing sites. An east/west dimension is complemented by a north-facing/south-facing estuary view. In this respect, I would plan to create a photographic record of the tide at Leigh-on-Sea from the Fishermen’s Chapel itself at the end of September, when the autumn equinox brings the complementary highest tide to spring’s equinox (which is when my Severn Estuary pictures were taken).

I would later work with these two bodies of images to create a story of transition which could be ‘read’ across the face of the pulpit. The unique feature of lenticulars, if funding permits the use of this medium again, is the ability to engender a movement from the viewer, and therefore an engagement, which seems to me to reflect the intended effect of preaching itself. Extending this idea, and that of Wesley’s travels, I would want the finished pulpit to complete its own journey from New Passage to New Road, finding suitable stopping points on the way for display and engagement with the public. One such point would surely include the New Room in Bristol (where I have shown work before), and I would hope that others could include outdoor venues.

I am extremely excited by the opportunity to work with and on this pulpit, not least because it is a real gift and expression of faith in creative endeavour.

Seeing in Green in Westbury-on-Trym

Winning entries
Winning entries

A total of 30 entries were submitted to the Seeing in Green photography competition, and displayed as part of Westbury-on-Trym’s Community Fair on 9th May 2015. The junior and youth categories were merged to form one young people category of under-18s, in which there were two winners: Annie Clough-Hillman’s unmanipulated print of a view through a window, and Edward Smith’s digitally-created circular composition. Both images concentrate the eye in a layered process of looking: Annie’s framing segments the view of house and garden with precision, while nevertheless softening the exterior/interior boundary across the sunlit glass. Her image is atmospheric, quiet and pays attention to the mark-making process of light’s action on a surface. Edward’s centrifugal collage has a intriguing balance of image references, which alternate between the softness of a green leaf/surrounding trees and the hardness of metal/turbine sculpture. The suggestion of movement brings a dynamic life to the image.

In the adult category, Simon Smith’s similarly centrifugal composition of a magnolia flower wins the unmanipulated print category. The magnolia stands out like a beacon in a sea of concentrated blur, a brilliant technical accomplishment with a zoom lens, but also a singularly iconic choice of imagery. The blossom has all the clean, bright beauty of spring, which is focussed so that we might see it more clearly in the midst of the whirling world. Of the smaller selection of digitally created entries, Christopher Richards wins with his entry of Bristol bicycles. A suggestion of bicycle overload is created with the mass of wheels, frames and metal all pushing up against a bank of green – the parked up transport visually has nowhere to go, despite Bristol’s efforts to promote cycling, this seems an apt depiction.

Congratulations to the winners, and thank you to everyone who took part, and to the prize-givers (Photographique, Lee Spencer-Fleet, and ICVL).

Will artists have patrons in heaven?

'Lenten Spring' (2012) at Trinity College Bristol
‘Lenten Spring’ (2012) at Trinity College Bristol

Maundy Thursday in Trinity College sees the finishing of my Lenten installation in the dining room – a progressive installation where I’ve daily been putting up photographs of bulbs growing, both day and night. As always with Lent, it’s symbolic of a journey, and in this case it’s been a journey that has led through challenge and reflection with regard to the wider support for artists in their practice today. It’s fitting that I’m suggesting parallels with Lent and Maundy Thursday in particular, because most artists are sole practitioners, ploughing an individual, singular and sometimes lonely furrow; and most artists maintain a kind of interior spirituality that stays hidden.

Before I get where I’m going, I do want to emphasise that this is a good thing, and normal, and true. The spiritual landscape of prayer and connection to God that Jesus practised was often done in solitude, and was often ‘slow’ time. By which I mean that he resisted the world’s values of being ‘on it’ the whole time, of being always visible in his doing, of needing to build in justification for his singular life. Artists can be examples of this resistance too, which, although it opens us up to misunderstanding of all sorts, remains a positive and VERY culturally necessary thing.

The problems that can arise, as I’ve found them, are to do with a lack of trust that this is ok – a kind of self-destructive, victim mentality can change how we feel about our invisibility. ‘What’s the point? – No-one wants to buy/champion/visit my work.’ When I had to move this Lenten installation, a third of the way through, from its original starting place in a corridor (because some other work of mine had been allocated the space, in a very wobbly exchange relating to miscommunication and unsaid expectations), I really struggled with the motivation to put it up anywhere else at all. I went from feeling the wind behind me, to feeling like everything involved battling the wind. Not just this work in this situation, but I started to question all my aims with my work, all my ability in keeping a project together, and finally took on the assumption that in order to avoid future hurt/failure I had better exert my singularity with a programmatic self-control: lists, deadlines, working harder. At this point, and only very recently, I realised that (good) solitude had turned into (bad) isolation.

Now a logical answer to this situation, if you asked the artist, would probably be patronage. The answer is support – practical, financial, emotional, verbal. And ABSOLUTELY artists can’t and don’t live in a vacuum, we make work for the showing/telling/engaging/living. There is a massive crashing together of idealism with realism here, often uncomfortably so, and it is certainly the case that artists find themselves having to educate their friends/buyers/employers with respect to their needs. Even here at Trinity, where in one light I’m the beneficiary of patronage on a plate for a limited time (studio space and an engaging community), in truth there are deeper cultural gaps in understanding and it’s not the simple answer you might think.

Ultimately, I have to go back to practising trust. Ultimately, when Jesus reached his crunch moment of isolation and misunderstanding on Maundy Thursday, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, he loved to the end’ (John 13:1-3ish). All things into our hands? Yes, ALL things into our hands. The patronage from heaven is already here.