Sunday, January 29, 2012

Death and Photography

A couple of evenings ago I watched the documentary "Four Beats to the Bar" chronicling the life and art of David Bailey.  The hour long documentary covered his emergence as the trendy celebrity photographer of the swinging sixties, his relationships, and his many high profile friends.  However, it was his recent still life work and sculpture that struck a chord with some of my own thoughts about photography.  The recent still life images take dead flowers and bones, particularly skulls, which are then set against an almost blown out white background.

BJP Article on David Bailey

Whilst very dramatic and beautiful the images are also terrible.  As Bailey states: "Flowers are the first civilised thing in a way, when we started to grow things not to eat but to look at. Skulls are natural sculptures in a way and they’re our legacy, all that’s left in the end".  This work clearly references the temporary nature of life represented by the flowers and the finality of death, the end point for all of us.

In the documentary he echoes a thought that has been with me ever since I started to think about seriously about photography.  Photography is about death!  Unlike any other medium a photograph captures a moment in time and freezes that point for ever.  As time passes the people in the photograph die, the places crumble, the flowers decay, but the photograph persists; the fragile photograph has a longevity that far outlasts those elements that make up the scene it captures.  Although I rarely do still life these days, one of the reasons I like to photograph flowers is to capture that fleeting moment of bloom and through a print on my wall preserve it for years to come. The flower is long dead, but its beauty persists.

When my father died, he left a void in my life, one that I still struggle to fill, gone is the man who argued with almost everyone about almost everything, I miss that critical voice on the phone that I could share ideas with and receive sage advice. In Autumn 2007 a vital seemingly healthy man went into hospital to have a tumor removed, a mistake was made and 6 moths later after a painful struggle, he was no more.

Since then I have not been able to look at photographs of him, they signify death.  Although usually captured at times of happiness, generally after a few glasses of wine, these seemingly cheerful photographs now have a completely different meaning to me.  I am trying to force myself to deal with this, 4 years on, but it is a struggle and I suspect always will be.  His memory cheers me, his art work is carefully preserved, but photographs...  They capture an instant and then remain as a record of what was and will never be again!

This is the last photograph I have taken two months before the operation after that I could not photograph him, he was so diminished - I think I did not want that memory.  That last Christmas was the first time I took no photographs of the celebration.

When he died I tried to preserve another portrait of him, this is his shed, a space he had transformed into a workshop in which he built marvelous sculptures of zeppelins and cities made of wax with LED lighting.  After retiring as a particle physicist he was studying sculpture at the local art college.

A day or two before the funeral I could not sleep and waking early I went for a walk to clear my head.  I had my Dad's 35-350mm zoom on my camera, not ideal for early morning, but somehow right.  This photo and many like it captured my mood at the time.  Dark despair, but a hint of light slowly creeping into the sky.

Photographs are powerful objects, they contain huge emotion and experience in ephemeral packages.  They can gladden the heart, but will ultimately signify death.

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