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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.

Seeing ‘The Heart of Things’

Paul Hobbs' 'The Gate' and (background) 'Ten Words'

Paul Hobbs’ ‘The Gate’ and (background) ‘Ten Words’


Prompted by Trinity College’s Quiet Day, on Wednesday I visited an exhibition of Paul Hobbs’ work in St John’s Northgate, Gloucester (The Heart of Things is on until 21st November). Together, the exhibition and the pilgrimage afforded a stretching of perception into something more contemplative, even passive – which is actually a significant part of the Christian tradition, and part of the training of church leaders that goes on here.

The strongest of Paul’s pieces work along conceptual lines which play with different aspects of this passivity and activity. In a work such as Ten Words (2012), consisting of wooden blocks with various colours and printed news stories, the interaction encouraged from the viewer is of direct engagement and physical involvement. One can construct or deconstruct both shapes and language (including the words of the Ten Commandments), one is relationally complicit. However, the nature of a puzzle is also one that asks the viewer to remain if not physically distant, at least mentally distant, so as to frame the purpose of the activity. In this case, the puzzle frames the question of reconciliation between God’s words and the journalists’ words, while yet excluding the viewer’s words. I am both outside and inside this piece.

Similarly, The Gate (1995) as a sculpture of a slightly-too-small garden gate, has a conceptual outside and inside which relates not to the geographical space around it but to the invitation to a passive or an active response. There is literally no fence to sit on, and the point beautifully (if uncomfortably) captures the invitation from Jesus to “enter through the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13), with all its sense of binary promise. Another striking piece, In Emergency Break Glass (1995), has a machete behind the glass frame we in the West associate with a cry for help or escape when in danger – our way out is here associated with the hand of violence and toxic fear (by way of reference to Rwandan and Kenyan conflict), which causes another uneasy relationship between passivity and activity.

Ultimately Paul’s work, as well as engaging mind and body in biblical or spiritual references (by way of allusive, creative suggestion in paintings, prints, collage and installation), has a deeper, more soulful engagement that’s something like grounding. It’s striking that the four central pieces in this exhibition (Ten Words, The Gate, Holy Ground and Attitudes) all bring attention to their place on the floor. It’s as if groundedness is the only possible starting point and ending point for the work – which turns out to be a great place for a quiet day.

When I met Verity

Damien Hirst's 'Verity' at Ifracombe

Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ at Ifracombe


I’ve seen quite a few Hirst pieces in my young art journey: at the landmark Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, and up to recent appearances in Gloucester Cathedral and Bath Abbey. I’m always conscious that it’s impossible to ignore him on the British art scene, but the levels on which I have been interested in his work have nevertheless remained at something of intellectual distance. I’m not shocked by his work, and I don’t dislike it, but there is a sense that I take them on as a kind of conceptual exercise, toys to play with in terms of imagery that gets me thinking – whether the references to disciples and saints, to visual religion, to butterflies. I’ve been recently excited by the techniques of digital foil printing and lenticular printing that he’s employed – glad that he’s doing it, and finding the results quite beautiful at times (‘For the Love of God’ as a 3D lenticular) – but the explosion of his self-marketing has a slightly hollow inflation which I haven’t quite settled in my head.

So it was something of a surprise to find that when I met Verity, on holiday in Devon last week, I was deeply moved by her. Verity is a 20-metre bronze-clad sculpture sited on the harbourside of Ilfracombe, a recent loan to the town where Hirst lives nearby. She is certainly a talking-point, and since installation last year in October, has received much negative and positive press about the connections and benefits she brings to the area – largely negative on the aesthetic response. She stands facing out to sea, in a pose that deliberately recalls Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer (c.1881), one side of her showing unmarked smooth skin and countenance, the other revealing a stripped level of skull, muscle and foetus. She holds a sword aloft in one hand, and scales in the other, while standing on a pile of law books – she represents Justice and truth.

For me, her monumentality had everything to do with being pregnant and exposed. She seems to exude both triumph and indifference in her state, without being locked into any male gaze of suitable womanhood, desirability, appropriateness etc. She doesn’t have a certain confined self-consciousness – or rather it’s more like a self-possession that means she can stand with her back to the town and the glances of others without seeming to hide. The exposed baby is key – the pregnancy is internally felt by her more than it is externally assumed by others. I love that. I felt an affinity with not just her, but Hirst who has in some way recognized a particularly visceral, interior burden and not simply a rounded glorified symbol of fertility (and/or nudity). This woman’s corporeality is the same as that of Virgin Mother – Hirst’s 2005 version of this sculpture without the objects in hand or under foot. She is not demure, she is feminine, she is humanity doubled – as receptacle of new life she is not just a passive recipient of something external, but rather the configuration and conjunction of internally-borne life, wrestled life, bloody life.