Archive for Reviews

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.

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).

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.

Following shoals to Birmingham

Gillian Wearing's 'A Real Birmingham Family' (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham

Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Real Birmingham Family’ (2014) in front of the Library of Birmingham


After last week’s post on local events in Bristol, this week I went to the Library of Birmingham for GRAIN’s ‘The State of Photography’ Symposium. In marked contrast to last week, this event was, for me, a dip into the larger sphere of photography in this country and abroad – specifically photography as fine art. Neither photography as commercial business nor photography as hobby is, ultimately, the field for me. In some ways, I’m only just realising which hand I’ve been holding onto all this time, and it’s very much a sense of a bigger picture, which I now need to scope.

At this symposium, scoping involved listening to some extremely proficient experts in the fields of photography festivals, photography agency, photography critique as well as photography fine art practice. Respectively, this was Louise Clements, David Birkitt, Tim Clark and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. I suppose I take interest in these fields in increasing order of enthusiasm: festivals are all well and good for those who can easily travel (thanks to time and cost availability) but are by no means a circuit open to me at the present time; agency is a bit of a photographer’s dream, but in this case involves a commitment to production and to a certain kind of commercial brief-fulfilling capability (which is a second-stage possibility); critique is definitely high on my agenda as a first-stage aim, since the communication and engagement it involves is such as to place my work centre-stage; which is ultimately afforded by the fine art practice platform of Broomberg and Chanarin.

Without this symposium, I might never have discovered their work – and suddenly the trajectory of this event takes a turn towards me that really sings. Because it boils down to the fact that my practice sits alongside my research – and THAT, really, is the job in hand. The PhD into photography and the Bible has just found another chapter’s focus in Broomberg & Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, which reproduces a KJV with photographs and underlining. I await my signed copy, on order, and in the meantime, keep the percolating practice considerations at bay…

Seeing red with Paul Cummins

A Paul Cummins' poppy hits the dirt

A Paul Cummins’ poppy hits the dirt


It’s 2015. We’re thinking about the New Year. But this is my stake in the ground for the old year, for memory, for something inscribed in the winter ground of dirt and decay. Arriving in the post a couple of days ago, my poppy from Paul Cummins’ installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.

Its simple singleness in my garden is somehow equivalent to my inadequate comprehension of 1st World War – I didn’t see the installation in the flesh, I don’t come anywhere close to understanding the trenches in the flesh, but I do know that, for me, this single poppy (a rose, in my daughter’s eyes) is both a point of connection to my great-Uncle’s death in the Second World War on the HMS Gloucester, and a symbol of the flourishing beauty embedded in the world.

In some ways, it’s only family that connects us to the past – through their heritage, their stories, their relationships. I’ve recently published my mother’s memoirs (Family: A Bridge For One World), and experienced the unexpected hostility from family for whom the memories did not reflect reality. I’ve felt at a loss over this. For my Mum, the truth and beauty embedded in the world as she has seen it and lived it is something to which she testifies. This is not the same as the facts and the sentimentality. In the same way, the 1st World War doesn’t connect through facts and sentimentality – though often that’s the ‘mediatized’ language – but through truth and beauty. This is the kind of art work I like, and remains the biggest challenge for the kind of photography I like. I’m so grateful to my Mum for being so full of integrity as to show me a glimpse of it. In many ways, the garden in which I’m planting my poppy, is hers.