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.

Join in on my December shops and fairs


A busy couple of weeks has seen me getting ready for three Bristol Christmas shops and fairs. If you’re getting stuck for presents on the high street, come and visit one of these local markets for artists – everything on offer is uniquely and individually made by the best of Bristol’s artists, from jewellery and textiles to fine art prints and crafts.

Until December 9th, the Christmas Cracker exhibition is open at the Parlour Room (bottom of Park Street), set up and run by Bristol Creatives members. I am also sharing a stall with friends Amy Close (painter and craftmaker) and Sarah Trigg (Trigger Editions) at the Made in Bristol fair on December 8th, Colston Hall 10am – 4pm. And if you need last minute options, I’m also involved in Paper Scissors Stone, Made in Bristol’s shop in Quakers Friars, open every day until December 31st.

New art for two Catholic schools in Bristol

'Transpire' by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

As published in the current issue of Art & Christianity (No.70, Summer 2012, p.16):

Bristol City Council has recently commissioned two contemporary art works for St Bede’s Catholic College and St Bernadette’s Catholic Secondary School. Respectively, Transpire by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and Intersection by Michael Pinsky (both 2011), have transformed two public spaces where the footfall of staff and students enact the threading and crossing of ideas that created these pieces. From the outset, these art works were created alongside major building projects for the schools, as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme – indeed, they were a conditional part of these projects. As such, the integrated nature of the results speaks for the depth of encounter and consideration given to the commissions.

Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s piece, Transpire, is an installation of winding, stretching tree branches/roots which spill across the stairwell linking St Bede’s art and technology faculties. Traditionally-applied stucco and gold-leaf form a tracery along the walls and ceiling, with etched detail continuing the pattern across two windows. The windows, in fact, seem to be the site of the source of this spreading energy: a site of in-between, where the idea of the liminal space offers a particular resonance for the concepts of the work. The artist has identified the piece as representing ‘a search for something deep within us’, where ‘what lies beneath reflects above’ (the subtitle for the work); the Vice Principal Patrick McDermott has reflected on the course of knowledge passing from inside to outside and vice-versa.

What could remain as something of a Gnostic homage becomes richer for the setting of the school itself as a place of faith – it is as a tree of life, with its organic, tangled lattice and gleaming veins of flowing sap that the work is enlivened. Here is the acknowledged reference to St Bede’s interest in the natural world and to the biblical idea of a tree (or vine) that represents lineage and rootedness in God. Here too is the reference in the materials used to the highly decorated interior facades of Byzantine churches, where preciousness (both in the care taken and in the monetary value) is a fitting acknowledgement of the sacred.

In this regard, it is revealing that the commissions were organised by Art and Sacred Places, who seek to connect artists and their work with places of worship or similar sites. The commissioning process necessarily entails interaction and discussion as to the matching of ideas, faiths and hopes. For both schools, this was a lengthy process, taking several months alongside the inevitable questions about material suitability and safety. It might be a pertinent question to ask how successfully the sacred emerges from such conversations, there being a danger perhaps of dilution-by-democracy. Happily, it is to the credit of the contributing decision-makers that here the resulting art works embody something of a map of faith.

'Intersection' by Michael Pinsky

With Michael Pinsky’s work Intersection, this seems both the implied and the literal result of the commission. A pulsating, illuminated grid appears to glow at one end of the main school passageway, alternating between a negative and positive image. It is a composite image featuring the digitally-transcribed hand-drawn crosses of all 750 pupils at the school, whose individual post-it-sized drawings have been incorporated into one larger pattern. Formed from glass layers within a steel frame, the LEDs which contour the pattern create the rhythm of a light-house’s sweeping beam – a rhythm markedly different from the school bell – where the measure of place and situation is slowed and deepened.

Intersection works by opening up routes for the sacred. It makes sense both of an individual’s singular description of a cross, and of the interconnectedness which such descriptions suggest for a whole community. It is also a sign for a literal journey of faith through secondary education. More than the simple use of an abstracted symbol, it prompts the static form to become spiritually meaningful in its (and because of its) context. Like Hadzi-Vasileva’s work, it brings dynamism to the appropriation of religious symbol, neither sealing it tightly with doctrinal declaration nor allowing it to disintegrate in irony, cynicism or pluralism.

Perhaps this is a strength of the particularly conceptual approach of both artists. In numerous successful exhibitions, internationally as well as locally, both Pinsky and Hadzi-Vasileva have produced work which facilitates other people’s worldviews – from the green cross understood to signify religious divide in Mas d’azil, France to the tree as representative of our living systems in the New Forest. In the schools, to the surprise of the management groups, concepts can and have become the malleable carriers of meaning through a style of art that is not readily celebrated by such institutions. While this may still seem to be a ‘strange place of religion in contemporary art’, it nevertheless champions the sacred in deeper and richer forms.

Photographs by Sheona Beaumont
www.michaelpinsky.com
www.elpihv.co.uk

St Stephen’s show opening 24th April

The Four Elements

My show Elemental: Earth, Fire, Wind and Water opens in just over a week’s time at St Stephen’s Church, Bristol. From the press release:

Elemental is an exhibition of photography and photo-based installations exploring the imagery of the elements, as seen through Christian spirituality and biblical symbolism. Both cafe walls (Dennis Anthony) and church space (myself) will be transformed to bring contemplative and conceptual encounter to life.

The elements earth, fire, wind and water were once considered the building blocks of all matter by ancient philosophers and scientists. Today, it is their symbolic capacity which captures the imagination, not least through the multiple lenses of faith, which offer a deep and colourful reflection on the human experience. In this exhibition, two photographers draw on their own Christian backgrounds and their love of nature to consider how we might look at the elements in a more mystical way.

Sheona Beaumont’s work includes a film, two lenticular prints, a multiple-photo collage and four large abstract canvasses (seen above). Her photographs are digitally-manipulated to produce a range of stunning effects, from the impression of space in a 3-dimensional print to the illusion of movement in an animated print of the Severn Estuary’s tide. Each piece has a sensory impact, and the accompanying text challenges the viewer to link their experience to specifically biblical concepts.

Dennis Anthony’s photographs are windows on moments of stillness in the busy café. Here you’ll find both large-scale celebrations of the brilliance of the world around us, and closer-to-home views to re-enchant our looking at a basic level. With nature as his inspiration, Dennis draws out the effect of the elements on his own personal journey of faith, and offers the results for contemplation.

This exhibition features as part of the Bristol Festival of Photography: a biennial event in May where a host of art institutions and photographers join in on exhibitions, talks and other events celebrating Bristol’s photography scene. Sheona will also be exhibiting at Colston Hall’s Glass Room and St George’s Crypt Gallery – see the festival website for details, www.bfop.org

Two launches in one week

Second edition launch

Launching the publication of the second edition of Bristol Through the Lens: An Exhibition and an Essay. Published by Tangent Books, this edition sees the inclusion of two pieces in the series which were made after the original exhibition in May 2010 – the first a commission from the New Room (John Wesley’s Chapel in Broadmead, Bristol) and the second an installation piece for a community project organised by the Pierian Centre on College Green, Bristol. Available for £10, either here, or through Tangent Books, or at my fairs/shops this month (see below and Current Exhibitions). In my essay in the book, I explore ways in which photography can challenge the typical snapshot of Bristol sites – the text can be read in the library section of my site (images are only available in the book).

Bristol Creatives' Pop-Up Shop
Also opening today: Bristol Creatives Pop-Up Shop at Quakers Friars, Bristol. This lovely bunch of local artists have got together and are running this shop until 24th December. It includes my work, predominantly from my Bristol Through the Lens series, with Christmas cards and other prints also thrown in. Some pretty crafty things going on, and a great example of resources and creativity amounting to mounds of delight. All welcome to pop in and see!