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.

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…

Finding the right pond for the right fish

RPS exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery
RPS exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery

This week I went to two events with an eye to scouting the scope of my practice at the beginning of the year. Two local events: the first a networking event for freelance women in Bristol (Freelance Mum), and the second the Royal Photographic Society’s biennial exhibition at The Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster.

I first heard of Freelance Mum when Faye Dicker contacted me via Facebook a few months ago, with interest in my appearance on One Born Every Minute. She interviewed me for one of her regular podcasts (see here), and I was delighted to be able to share the aspects of my work, faith and ambition that weren’t entirely reflected in the programme. This week’s networking event had the high profile attraction of Rob Law, founder of Trunki, who spoke briefly about his journey in business. But the aim of the event was primarily for mums in freelance work to have a forum in a relaxed environment where kids are welcome too – a forum where business stays on the agenda, and common experiences are shared.

When this finished I took the opportunity to pop into the nearby art gallery for its photography exhibition, which in fact I’d already been able to scan online at the RPS website. I knew what I was getting: a row of same-sized same-framed prints, no detail nor explanations of concept except the accounts given by the 3 winners. Somehow the singularity of the entries and their presentation made everything homogenous overall, and I left feeling entirely uninspired, bar a few background questions about undeclared manipulation of the prints.

Both these events were good in themselves, but at neither did I feel at home. Despite the number of interesting events/exhibitions I go to in Bristol, there’s never quite that sense of joining the dots for the development of my practice, and I’m only just beginning to reflect on why. The way I work, and what I produce, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. I’m not a business in the same way that a studio photographer or wedding photographer is, and it’s not really a commercial reproducible product that I sell. Neither am I interested in photography for photography’s sake, in the gear, the print, the membership of a society. It’s more that I’ve got something to communicate, something that seeks to prompt rethinking and concepts and perceptions. I haven’t got any full-stops, but I’ve got lots of commas and colons and questions. Where’s the pond for my work? Who else looks like my fish?

SBL report St Andrews 7-11 July

St Andrews Old Course
St Andrews Old Course

The International Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature was this year held at the University of St Andrews for 5 days in July. Attended by over 850 delegates, the conference attracts international scholars working across a range of areas and disciplines relating to the Bible, the Society being the oldest and largest organisation in this field. With the University of Gloucestershire team support of Prof Gordon McConville and fellow-student Vivian Randles, I was pleased to be able to present a paper to the Bible and Visual Culture group, along with 7 others over the course of two sessions.

I say pleased, but the rather daunting prospect became even more challenging when my introduction to the conference involved negotiating a densely-packed programme, the combined brains of prolific and renowned biblical scholars, very hot seminar rooms and my own third-stage-pregnancy distractions. A popular opening seminar with 6 papers presented in honour of Richard J. Bauckham included presentations from N. T. Wright and Loveday Alexander; while a seminar on the Bible and Moving Image offered reels of interest on themes such as the unrepresentability of the resurrection and Exodus 8:2 in the film Magnolia. At nearly a dozen papers on the first day, I realised some pacing was in order.

A trip to the beach and an open top bus tour were, after all, necessary in order to better garner the original visual context of the subject of my paper – the 19th-century Scottish minister Rev Dr Alexander Keith. His introduction to photography may well have been in St Andrews through the friendship of Sir David Brewster (then Principal of the University) and his circle of pioneering friends who were making some of the earliest calotypes in the world. Photography led Keith to employ the help of one of his sons in photographing sites in the Holy Land, to undergird his thesis regarding the evidence for the fulfilment of prophetic texts. In my paper I discussed the ways in which Keith assumed a certain literalness of image and text, and their conjoined proof of God’s supernatural involvement in the landscape. Some questions and comments were helpfully engaging, and the paper was well-received.

Overwhelming to me personally however, was the committed and rigorous approach of all engaged in this area of biblical studies, particularly as encouraged by the Chairs of the Bible and Visual Culture section, Prof Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield) and Prof Martin O’Kane (University of Wales Trinity St David). On both days of the presentations, discussions were lively and animated as to the institutional and methodological challenges of this interdisciplinary field. Questions debated included what objects are we studying, for whom is the research, and how is visual critique to be encouraged in what is primarily a literary field? Though it’s obvious that working out answers to these questions will be ongoing into the long-term, it was nevertheless encouraging that SBL has recognised and fostered the increasing significance of visual modes of biblical interpretation – from the rise of popular culture references in contemporary media to iconographical tradition in the long reception history of the Bible in art.