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.

Back to the beginning with Fox Talbot

W. H. Fox Talbot’s 1835 negative and positive photographs ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’

 
A photographic image is true and false in equal measure.

(Quote from Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, p.8). The earliest days of photography don’t bring any ideological foundation to its trajectory through history. The one thing you can’t do with a consideration of photography’s story is to call it The Story of Photography. Even in the 1830s, it was postmodern. There are, as Gerry Badger has pointed out, many stories of photography, and it proves impossible to ask them to form a neat line. As Fox Talbot so aptly showed in The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), even when you ask photographic images to show us what they can do, the multiplicity of the ‘picture-ness’ itself defies a confining logic.

Talbot’s book is a series of commentary on 24 photographs (all originally unique calotypes), produced in instalments over two years. Architectural scenes, still life, copies of drawing and print, the textures of manmade and natural objects: an eclectic choice of subjects are all accompanied by short texts of description or reflection on the image-capture process. Ian Jeffrey has noted the uncertainty in this presentation of ‘the new Art’ (Talbot’s term used in his introductory outline of the process at the beginning of The Pencil of Nature), suggestive of the surprise at being made ‘acutely alert to seeing itself’ (p.26, Photography: A Concise History, 1989).

Fox Talbot remarks on the camera’s ability to see everything ‘all at once’ (after Plate III, Articles of China), to ‘introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation’, being found to ‘give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented’ (after Plate X, The Haystack), to ‘awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings’ (after Plate VI, The Open Door), to produce copies of any number of artefacts which ‘may be preserved from loss, and multiplied to any extent’ (after Plate XXIII, Hagar in the Desert), ‘as much larger or smaller than the originals as we may desire’ (after Plate XI, Copy of a Lithographic Print). He even muses on the possibility of the photographic image making visible the invisible, by virtue of fixing ultraviolet rays (after Plate VIII, A Scene in A Library).

Each of these, and others besides, act not only to endorse the polyvalence of a photograph’s possible meaning, but also to present the paradox of photography: we both see the subject as immediate, as a short-circuit to visual reality AND we inhabit the interpretative process which is always invested in a picture, undermining such objectivity. Like Talbot’s first negative of 1835, above, this reveals that perceptive flip of comprehension, where the impossibility of operating in two modes at the same time is brought tantalisingly close. Close enough to explode the dominance of all previous means of representation.