Dreaming of the resurrection

Natal, 2018

I almost don’t know how to write. It’s Holy Week (or Still Week, as in Denmark; or Suffering Week, Germany). This year, more than most, I find myself small in the face of Christendom’s elegiac, centuries’ old commemoration of Jesus’ last hours. I’m feeling it partly because of my husband’s seried, close attention to the preparation of church services, one on every day until Easter Sunday. I’m feeling it too because I’ve been following the Lenten journey as presented in Biola University’s online series of reflections: a frankly outstanding and deeply sensitive collective of images/music/texts coordinated in commentary and Bible reading. But I’m also acutely aware of a sense of timing in the publication of my new work, Natal, for an exhibition which opens on Maundy Thursday. Selected for the Chaiya Art Awards, the piece became my answer to the exhibition’s posed question, ‘Where is God in our Twenty-First Century World?’ Here I explore some of the ideas behind the piece.

The figures stand in a poised relation, on the left a semi-naked man we might recognise as Jesus, and on the right, a full-term naked pregnant woman. This is my friend Helen, who posed for me when I embarked on a series of work about motherhood and iconography. My writing and photographs, as well as my appearance on One Born Every Minute in 2014, all drove the creation of work about the rite of passage that is giving birth. Born Again has become the project title, for which Natal is the first in production. But Helen didn’t meet her companion until I thought about the exhibition question. I’d had in mind to show her with an effigy from a cadaver tomb, those unusual forms of church monument where the body of the deceased is carved in stone as the likeness of a skeleton – her life and the life she carried were to be contrasted with their opposite. But then I stumbled across the portrait of Jesus here, by Fred Holland Day, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Taken 120 years ago in Boston, USA, Day posed himself as the dead Jesus for The Entombment in 1898. His austere pose, and the controlled identification with such a statue of stiffness, were a catalyst for a whole host of connections.

In the first place, I thought that the subject of the dead Christ has become archetypal of a certain strain of Christian doctrine – his death is central to the gospel stories of course, but why and how others have said it matters has tended, traditionally, to focus on the death’s substitutionary power (he died so that we don’t have to). It follows a neat logic, but its doctrine is necessarily fixated on something quite closed, on endings, on the mortal. Even those outside believing doctrine, such as Nietzsche, capitulate to the final (human) ideology of death, when he pronounced ‘God is dead’ in the same decade as Day’s picture. It was Hannah Arendt who I first read for a theology that reframed this for me with the concept of the natal. Isn’t that what Holy Week leads to? Isn’t the resurrection where the money is? And isn’t that about the exploding horizon of a humanity now defined by new life, new birth, and what Jesus said he came for – life to the full? I’ve since read others around this subject (Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and W. H. Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting among others), but I also increasingly want to raise the question of a woman’s perspective here. Like what has been said of the film Mary Magdalene, released in the UK last week, can we recover a ‘position of feminine difference from the misogynistic, patriarchal disciples’ (Michele Roberts on Front Row, 14th March). If we can, what might it look like?

A ‘Tribe’ of photography & childhood

Heidi Kirkpatrick’s Garments of Light, 2015

Tribe is a photography exhibition currently on display at the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock (3rd February – 20th May 2018). A group exhibition of 7 US women artists, the impetus behind the work is given its manifesto in the words of curator Lori Vrba:

We are earnest American Women of Photography walking in the footsteps of the greats who have come before us. Dorothea Lange, Imogene Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Margaret Bourke White, and Sally Mann… we honour the path you have paved and feel called to excellence because of your life’s work.

We, as women, have shared our lives intimately throughout history in the cycle of nourishment. We have instinctively supported the greater good as mothers and daughters and sisters in childbearing and caregiving. We nurse the world together. We are Tribe.

Our work is feminine without apology. We are drawn to that romantic notion of story-telling, memory, nostalgia, the natural world and family. As artists, we come together within our medium for inspiration, collaboration, postulation, and celebration. This connection provides a deep well of power that we as makers are strengthened and sustained by. It is our commitment to Tribe that not only elevates the work itself but keeps us moving to the lunar rhythms of a passionate and sensitive creative life.

It’s a strong statement, echoing the current climate of female voices in self-assertion and collective affirmation. It finds some of its resurgent energy in what is a year of remembering women’s suffrage, and in particular at the Fox Talbot Museum, a year of celebrating the work of women photographers. The group is vividly and dynamically articulating something unusually singular in what is habitually a profession of atomised, individual, art practices. It does so, unembarrassed, with a kind of lived-in (lived-through) ideology, not one dreamed in idealism and words. To my mind, this is the new stature of the feminine in the twenty-first century – less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation. It has a greater degree of expressed reflexivity, the inherent values of womanhood (though their inherency may itself be a matter of fluidity). It touches on the ‘lunar rhythms’ that I described in my previous post.

In the exhibition, it is the value of childhood that I noticed weaving through the 40 or so works on display. Heidi Kirkpatrick’s vintage child dresses (above), with their cyanotype photographic detail, imbue cloth with an immersive, organic experience of the world – ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ alongside ‘Willow’ and ‘Fern’. Like the photographs on the small tiles of mahjong and dominoes, the objects themselves speak of absorption and connectivity, and the photographic is a tangible extension of this. In Heather Evans Smith’s series, works from Seen Not Heard include her daughter in portraiture whose surroundings compete with relational expression. Furnishings, bushes, and their interactions with legs and arms, are chameleon-like situations of domesticity and play. Childhood emerges enmeshed. Kirsten Hoving and Emma Powell, in contrast, are a mother and daughter whose scripting of scene turns on the abandon and adventure of a grown protagonist, Svala. This mythical heroine is at the centre of a ‘photographic fairy tale’, in which Icelandic landscape ricochets with ‘magic and metaphor’. The reverberations invoke the childish connotations of story, where purpose and self-discovery are a voice for our own stories.

Childhood through the lenses of these artists has its own way of being seen. Its qualities are not particularly soft or diffuse, but they are poetic. Photography, then, reveals its latent visionary capacity, a view of coopted, relational, even tribal, world. In such constructive hands, photographs reveal perhaps some of their more feminine traits.

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 there be light!

Enslen's 'Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf', 1839/40
Enslen’s ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’, 1839/40

Coming up in the middle of June, I will be presenting a paper at the Rethinking Early Photography conference in Lincoln. Below is my abstract for Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography:

Largely absent from discourses on the development and context of early photography is an examination of the religious and theological backgrounds of its pioneers. This paper will consider the evidence for a Christian spiritual hermeneutic both in the plates/prints and through the backgrounds of Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot; further, it will discuss the surviving work of Johann Carl Enslen (1759-1848), a largely neglected figure in conventional histories of photography. Enseln’s 15 extant salt prints, including ‘Face of Christ Superimposed on an Oak Leaf’ (1839-40) will be shown to explore a concept of divine immanence through highly experimental collage techniques. Of critical importance is the argument that the birth of photography was pervaded by a Christian spirituality that manifested itself in both the culture at large (in the popular press and in the background of empirical scientific endeavour) and in the individuals’ inclusion of biblical or theological reference in their images. The manner of such references will be examined, ranging from textual quote to conceptual collage to the reproduction of religious paintings/prints.

Historical discussion of such evidence of spirituality must also challenge the discourses pertaining to photography’s ontology, so this paper further argues that the so-called hegemony of photographic realism is somewhat complicated by its religious affiliation. Considered as a misplaced ideology of the Victorian era from which we have an enlightened critical distance, it will be suggested that such notions of objective realism are helpfully resisted by an understanding of Christian spirituality (rather than vice versa). The tools of contemporary photography criticism are all the richer and sharper for the heritage of theological terminology and concepts, and this paper attempts to bring such a heritage to light with particular reference to the term ‘index’ and its ongoing usage in this field.

The gilding of photography

Niépce's 'Christ Carrying His Cross', 1827; heliograph on pewter
Niépce’s ‘Christ Carrying His Cross’, 1827; heliograph on pewter

It comes to something when 7 hours of travelling effort was required to go a photography exhibition – and when that effort was supremely worth it just to see this photograph. Despite coaches not turning up and trains being cancelled, I made it to London to see Drawn by Light at the Science Museum’s Media Space. It was a fantastic collection, with over 200 photographs from the RPS, including Emerson, Rejlander, Stieglitz, Holland Day, Frith, Fenton, Käsebier and Brigman.

But the highlight by far was seeing this image, one of 4 heliographs created by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) in 1827, the first photographs in the world. This one, and its two accompanying plates, are less well-known than the View from the Window at Le Gras, which captures a view from Niépce’s window. The three exhibited here are contact prints from other artwork, which, having been made translucent (by wax), impress their ‘shadow’ on the pewter plate and its coating of bitumen of Judea.

A reproduction of an artwork about which nothing is known, Christ Carrying the Cross, like the other reproductions, is sharp in its delineation, but nevertheless hard to see on account of the highly polished surface of the pewter plate, the shallowness of the etching and its limited tonal grey scale. Yet it is highly significant because it marks the birth of photography with religious possibility as much as with scientific possibility. Niépce’s own upbringing (including the priestly schooling and later teaching at the Society of the Oratory of Jesus) and written thankfulness to God for successful experiments is behind this image. Holding it together is a certain type of culturally-accepted and pictorially-conventional Christ, who takes up his cross and beckons ‘Come, follow me’ into the divine light, which in this image has echoes of Old Testament cloud and fire.

But the image’s story also belongs to photography’s medium, which takes up the unwieldy mechanics of its discovery and bids ‘Come and follow me’ to anyone who will listen. The road might be uphill, on rocky ground, but is consumed by a luminously real, captured yet elusive, light. This isn’t a Passion image, it’s a calling straight from Matthew 16:24. There’s nothing like a strident mysticism to help get the medium going.