Patina and palimpsest: the legacy of Lacock

Talbot gravestones, Lacock
The Talbot family gravestones, Lacock, 2020

The time has come for my family to leave Lacock, having arrived in here in 2015. Back then, I welcomed the place for the resonances of its photographic heritage and my own geographical journey: it seemed to promise a moment of consolidation, of leaving lands connected to my upbringing and education, and finding home in something more intellectually rooted.

Five years later, and there is so much to be thankful for that has happened here. I could draw up a list of significant moments, a project report for a life lived across work, church, and my children’s early primary years. It might put some markers in the sand, in the way we tend to with autobiographical reflection. But here I want to think about it more conceptually, in the frame of considering a photograph, above, of the Talbot gravestones in Lacock’s cemetery. I walked past them every day doing the school run, and they often appeared to me like sentries: two upright, uniform guards, firmly poised amongst the tilting and wavering forms of nearby headstones. Their prominence grew in my mind’s eye when the two cedar trees marking the entrance to the cemetery were cut down, and they became the surrogate gate-keepers on a more prosaic, but human, level.

They’re ornamentally unremarkable, no decoration to speak of, no elaborate detail in the carving, not even any lyrical prose to mark this most influential family of the area. They don’t bear the marks of attention from the living either, becoming slowly more and more weathered, claimed by lichen and red valerian pushing up through the gravel. Recently a resident complained that they ought to be looked after, and tended to, by the National Trust, who own most of the land that used to belong to the Talbots. The Trust declined. The photographs in this local news article show the resident in one image arms folded, next to the gravestones, and in another leaning across to place a territorial hand above Talbot’s name. I wondered if my photograph should have me too like that, testifying to my purpose being there, claiming the connection as an authoritative steward of photography’s histories. Or whether I should adopt something altogether more poetic, something like John Dugdale’s self-portrait cyanotype, where he is seated below Talbot’s name in a frontispiece for his book ‘Life’s Evening Hour’ (2000).

Instead, my image has just the stones, assuming a formal portrait pose of their own. I like the lining up of linear histories, a testament to time that comes from verbal identification first – not personal association, not physical connection, but something embedded in language. It is language that assumes the patina, language whose greying clusters and diversions for rainfall draw the patterning of nature’s palimpsest. Everything happens around language, around Talbot’s world-changing invention AS language – even if I locate the scene, its shapes and frame in a pictorial mode (of that, there, then), I also draw it into association and conversation (a black-and-white lurch into semantics). Lacock for me was all about this, all about a shifting, layering landscape of photography. I think I had hopes that as a ‘promised land’ it would offer some concrete direction or place from which to orient myself anew – when actually it fostered something else, something less static, something still to be written, a habit of creating slowly, askew, and in the dark. Despite the spectacular lenses of film crews, Harry Potter and National Trust promotion, Lacock is a small place, and things remain small there, tended or untended. But I’d like to think that for me, they will also flow as milk and honey.

Blue supermoon, and two superstars, at Lacock Abbey

Sharington Tower in the Moonlight I

Photographing celestial events is something I can’t resist. I’ve had my camera trained on the Venus & Jupiter conjunction of 2012, two eclipses in 2015 (one lunar and one solar), and tonight’s blue supermoon. My approach is decidedly non-technical. With wildly varying results, I find out things at the time that either help or hinder what is a remarkably difficult scene to capture. Things such as realising that I can’t see the settings buttons in the dark, or that sitting in the car can create a frame and shelter from the rain. Lens misting between sequential shots when the temperature outside is below freezing – that made for a long night.

Tonight, unexpectedly, was a story in motherhood as much as in moon-gazing. The business of my business often doesn’t fit the procedural, strategic, model of efficiency that one might imagine of photographic employment. That’s primarily because it’s a form of photographic self-employment that meanders around artistic impulses, constellations of interests (rather than programmes), and unpredictable hours. But it’s also because I am a mother. My visit to the nearby Abbey, at around 6pm, was loudly scrambled in between toast-parcelling tea to my 7- and 4-year-old children, enthusing about the sky while getting 3 bodies into 3 layers of clothing each, yelling out ‘who last saw the tripod’, stopping the kids running into the road to find the moon, checking the alignment of moonrise online, and wondering if this was a good idea. Today it felt like a cheerleading crowd of enthusiasm, on another day it might have felt like being shot down in flames. Admittedly the enthusiasm was carried by me later in the evening as the cold, the mud, and the dark didn’t seem so exciting; at one point the serious conversation about ghosts and faces in the trees took place in between exposure counting (for the ghosts to go away) and making shadows of our own (with my phone’s light so I could see where I was putting the tripod). But the kids found the stars amazing, and my daughter pointed out a silhouette that I would have missed, while we played ‘I spy’ waiting for more height.

Here’s the thing: both the kids and the moon invited another way of working. The individualistic self-directed self-determining professionalism of orderly working practice is the norm. It’s like doing photography in the daylight, even like Talbot’s way of doing photography might have been. Photography at night, however, is somehow wayward, tinged with suspense and the hovering feeling that you are not in control, not even the centre of your universe. Having kids around is precipitous and galactic; seeing the moon so luminously brilliant asks that you look twice, through doubling exposures, and reflected uncertainty. My UV filter played tricks in these images, creating a rather fitting additional blood moon in an in-camera reflection. I also had over twenty dud shots. But in that slightly crazed patterning, there’s also a bigger, slower, slowed, identification: the moon carries on in stately rhythm, the superstar kids grow in their orbit around me, and the world is miraculously held together. When I spent time tinkering with the images later, that’s the feeling I was soaking up, and that’s where I want the images to come from.

Launching in Lacock

Thresholds at Lacock Abbey

The season turns, and it’s time to re-emerge again in a more public frame for practice and research. It has been two years to the week since the last blog post, in which I declared a ‘going-to-ground’ period on arrival in Lacock, Wiltshire. The characteristics of such a long withdrawal are far from being blank, though they are a deliberate stance against working modes characterised by visible productivity. What you can do with invisible time and space is enter whole new worlds, as I experienced this week at Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds exhibition at Lacock Abbey.

More on the virtual experience in a moment, but by way of what I’ve been up to in the last two years, 2015/16 initially saw an enforced break on work patterns, firstly in the aftermath of moving and secondly in a family member’s ill health. I spent a lot of time digging, literally turning over soil and dragging out stubborn roses – it felt like a spiritual exercise in identifying and living with ground zero for a while. I came circling back to what it was I wanted to grow in my PhD, while finding footing at the local campus for Bath Spa University in Corsham Court. 2016/2017 then was a solid twelve months’ writing my doctoral thesis, part-time. I worked out the number of words per week that I needed to average, as well as the number of pages I could read in a day. I ploughed. Finally on the 4th August this year, I submitted over 80,000 words to the University of Gloucestershire, and look forward to a viva there next month.

It was absorption, with great intensity. Absorption in a world much like that recreated by Collishaw: the world of original photographic encounter. In his case, he has built a ‘room’ to mirror the setting of one of Talbot’s early photographic exhibitions (in Birmingham, 1839). You are given a headset and backpack, are guided blind into the blank white space, and then experience its sights, sounds and textures through the room’s virtual recreation, complete with wooden display cabinets, mice on the floor, street sounds from outside. I loved this world, and I loved the tangibility of its interpretation – it felt like, in microcosm, a material confirmation of so many academics’ verbal interest in photography. But its absorption was also lacking in intensity, limited by clunkiness, six minutes’ viewing time, and regulated space. It was interesting to experience the incompatibility of presences: my own was not ‘visible’ in the virtual space (others were ghosts, and staff were occasional disembodied voices at your side), yet I did enter a ‘thereness’, physically. Ultimately I found it a gift to visual imagination, and at my own threshold of new forays into word and image, it marks the moment with new, dynamic, possibilities.

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.