Behind the scenes, Book Making, Inspiration, Theory

Sequencing and the Unconscious

I made a maquette recently from pictures I brought back from a cycle trip in Morocco. In many ways it was just a cycle trip, yet I was serious about the pictures I made and I had an idea of an over-arching theme that I wanted to explore through its course. This post is first and foremost a response to a question about sequencing during the editing process – something I found a joy despite having very little experience of the process. The dummy is shown in the video above.

By making pictures in an arbitrary location, Morocco in this case, using a bicycle as the vehicle for changing the objects and backgrounds, one can spend a period of time recording what the eye sees and the mind thinks. The reason for a particular picture can be re-interpreted after the event and when joined with others, can be re-organized into sequences which the photographer thinks visually appealing or, more ambitiously, aspires to communicate something other than what is present in front of the lens. This is now a collaboration between our two selves: on the one hand the person we are now (the editor) and the person we were then – when we looked through the camera viewfinder and clicked the shutter. Philosophically speaking, these are two different people.

This is the interesting and rewarding aspect of sequencing a book. One might follow a figure in a landscape with a detail of a translucent plastic bag, but the bag might loosely reference the shape of the person, and somehow become an allegory of a life. One might link the deep lines of a weathered face with the shafts of light raking across the surface of a cracked pool table – the fissure echoing the remains of a snake, tattooed into the tarmac of an undisclosed location. A light bulb might paradoxically reference both modernity and poverty, then, on the next page, celebrity and power might be obliquely alluded to with a specular reflection from the surface of a framed and mounted portrait.

Meanwhile, one may have an overarching theme, through which the disparate aspects of the book might emerge. I was just about to get married, so this was always in the back of my mind, a kind of backdrop onto which everything else was projected and which (for me) changed the meaning of things. The metronomic motion of legs and wheels helped to release my mind from habitual concerns to deeper thoughts of love and commitment. This is the realm of the symbol and the metaphor, where nothing is arbitrary and everything has a significance and meaning, but it is skewed by the mind: the ‘backdrop’ always ‘intervenes’ and changes what is in front of the eye.

the-unseen-eye-w-m-hunt

In the preface of his fascinating book ‘The Unseen Eye’, W.M Hunt describes his images of people whose eyes ‘are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed,’ as somehow portraits of himself. They are all, he says, ‘in their unique way, manifestations of my unconscious.’

Similarly, the lone figures with their backs to the viewer in the maquette I made are all pictures of me, walking away into my new life.

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Inspiration, Photography and current affaires

The power of the familiar

Familiarity with the natural world, particularly that which is close to home, does not necessarily engender an intense sense of engagement.  Unlike the sublime – mountain tops, canyons, vast oceans, where a feeling in the moment is all consuming – the ‘familiar’ occupies a space within the subconscious mind where memory resides.  Here, a sense of belonging may replace the exhilaration experienced when encountering environments which thrill us with their scale and splendour.  Photography can act as a medium for remembering –  family portraits for instance – collected over decades, which reveal in (sometimes) uncompromising detail, the passage of time.

In nature these shifts happen with the rhythm of the seasons.  Often, one has to look closely at the subtlety of the changes to realize their significance.  The work of the photographer Jem Southam deals with these changes which one may casually dismiss as insignificant, but which imply a sense of the effects of time, both on the landscape in front of the lens, but also that which is stored in personal and collective memory.

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

By making repeated visits to places he knows intimately, Southam becomes attuned to hundreds of ‘small traumas’, which build like whisperings among the leaves, creating a sense of movement through time.  Altered notes – in a musical sense – become fractures and fissions, which then become significant when compared to the next rendition and so on.  It is this familiarity and love of place which could be seen as a metaphor for the universality of memory and the frailties and struggle implicit in human experience.

In this case, that tension is created by Winter – or the retreat in sorrow (trauma) of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest.  It would perhaps have been an obvious starting point for Southam to time his wanderings with forecasts of torrential downpours and the river in spate.  However, this approach would have removed space for rewarding contemplation.  Instead, an intense engagement with a quality of light which occurs around dawn, suggests the forming of a new relationship with place, binding the series together in a stream of consciousness.

When considering Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath project on the attack on the World Trade Centre, the writer David Campany coined the term ‘Late Photography’ – the idea of photographing the traces of an event, rather than the event itself.  These pictures are ‘of’ a river and ‘of’ winter, but also allude to thaw and flood, which link them to this overarching concept, and by association, to traces of natural process and the cycles of trauma.

In his book Spectral Evidence, Ulrich Baer discusses his views on the connection between the arrested moment explicit in photography and the act of remembering.  He connects pictures of historical sites of trauma – concentration camps – with memories, by arguing that it is precisely the nothingness – or familiarity – within a photograph, which removes it from historical reference points and draws it back into the unconscious mind.  It is this disconnect with history and current affairs, which acts to steer Southam’s pictures towards associations with memory.

The river, Winter pictures are above all moments of discovery and communion.  It is this sharing of the familiar, which draws our attention to that which we have not before cared to register.  The effect is to re-calibrate one’s notions of significance.  The ravages of water, rendered in exquisite detail, remind us of the complex relationship between beauty, death and re-generation. A relationship which is exploited by Southam through the  descriptive properties of his 10x8in plate camera.

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