Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The solidity of the living

See a larger sized image here

Yesterday I went to visit the tree under which we spread my mothers ashes and made a self portrait. It is the last of the oak trees, high upon the Sugar Loaf mountain overlooking Abergavenny. If you've ever been there you can't miss the Sugar Loaf, it's the one that looks like an extinct volcano.

The past few days there's been continuos freezing fog and a little light snow in the South Wales mountains, it was bitterly cold and the upper branches of the tree were encased in ice. Not so much a haw frost, but more of a shroud of ice. The weather was on the cusp of change, and the wind blew chunks of ice upon anyone foolish enough to stand down wind. It felt like the dead were angry, which wouldn't have been unusual for my mother. Or it would have done, but unlike previous visits, I felt none of that grasping for presence, the fight for memory. The years have obviously salved that wound which death makes us carry within and reveals sometimes unexpectedly when we make associations.

It would have felt cold and impersonal to photograph this tree for Songs of Travel, not least because that series is in many ways a celebration of the landscape and how we move through it. However much those wounds have healed this will never be a place of celebration to me, but one where I will contemplate the space between the dead and the living.

This week I’ve also been involved in some interesting discussions with fellow photographers about the nature of our work and how much of a personal nature we should reveal through our work to the wider audience. There was also a very important discussion on what makes a photograph important between Francis Hodgson and J M Colberg in which the passage that stuck a cord most closely with me was Colberg's assertion that "The art of photography is not taking pictures, it’s making very good pictures, with rich layers of meaning." That doesn't necessarily indicate that we must always bare our souls, but for me one of the roles of the photographic artist is to be scrupulously honest with ourselves. And there will be times when that results in our needing to delve into some of the darker recesses of our souls, so that we may open ourselves for the catharsis of others. We suffer so that we give openly and honestly of our inner lives, as so many will not be capable of doing so. And yet, if we are not honest with ourselves and present an edited version then one has to question the validity of our work. If as Hodgson said "Far too many photographers don’t even realise that they might be expected to have anything to say.” And what we have to say can only come from within ourselves in an open, honest dialogue with ourselves.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'. You can find the original by linking here

So here we have a photogram of a doll, it is on the surface a simple picture, sure it's slightly distorted, but we shouldn't dismiss it lightly as some wilful abstraction. It's the kind of photograph within which we have to make our own associations based on sparse clues, not a simple story and certainly beyond mere illustration. It is thankfully one of the few photographs (as are many of her's) that I'd want to spend time living with, pondering and thinking and being moved.

There is something profound at foot here, but what exactly, is to some extent a matter of personal interpretation. Lucy is not the kind of artist to preach on high with simple tales that are easily grasped in the short time frames of mass consumption engendered by social media. They stop me in my tracks and challenge me to think and engage. To wrestle with disentangling its meaning. The most obvious is the title ’Self 1’, this is meant to be seen as a self portrait.

Why a doll? There's an element of the shared experience here - we all had dolls of some description as children and our children still play with them now, even in the modern electronic age. There's something profound about a doll, something Jungian even in that depiction of a tiny, plastic, fragile person. But more than that: does the choice of a doll depict in some ways the objectification of women? There's certainly an element of physical idealism in the slim, long legged fragility here. It's as women are expected to look if they are to conform to the social forces that surround us in our everyday lives. From billboard models to ’pop princess’ we are constantly barraged with this imagery. Plus there's the fact of us looking, it's a knowing reference to the visual consumption of the image. It's as if we are complicit in a guilty secret more so because it is deeply personal and to some extent revelatory.

What other clues are there?
Perhaps the most striking is the blue haze surrounding the doll. This is not as far as I know a normal result of the process when laying objects on photographic paper. Again there’s deliberateness here.  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see the ’doll’ as if it's trapped in sadness. A shroud of pain, whilst the light exists beyond.

Then there are the apparent stigmata on the upturned hands. That position is deliberate, unnatural and asking us to look. Again it's a symbol of suffering, but perhaps a willing suffering as Christ being crucified to cleanse mankind of sin. Does this perhaps represent her role as mother and carer? Or does it hint at something deeper, darker something from the past that is carried with her? We cannot say for sure, it is one more element to ponder.

And yet this doll is faceless, again this references the objectification of women where bodies are considered above the person. Where women are seen as objects of consumption by men. Not as real people with personalities, histories and emotional lives of their own. But this is both faceless and distorted, perhaps forced by some pressure of life, squeezed in an unwilling direction.

Finally there is the process - the image wasn't fixed it has been allowed to fade naturally. This electronic record is all we have remaining. This is the artist engaging with process on a far more profound level than many can conceive. Quite what allowing oneself to disappear means to Lucy I don't know for certain. Perhaps it's a wish for release, perhaps even death. Or maybe a simple putting behind her the past or present, a time to move on, forge ahead and look forward hopefully?

We are dealing with allegory here, symbolism, metaphor, surrealism and the archetype.  A story is being told, we are allowed glimpses, but not the full story. Perhaps more will be revealed in later works in the series? Maybe, but we will always need to examine the clues in her work and to an extent we are given liberty to find our own associations and meanings, to engage on our own terms. This is after all a work of art. Art in the truest sense, that is about engaging ourselves.