Archives for posts with tag: death

Beautiful decay: Notes on Darren Andrews’ Beloved

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University

(This is the introductory essay I wrote for Beloved, the latest book by Darren Andrews which features this series of photographs, and which is available from his website. The essay is an expanded version of the exhibition notes which were in an earlier blog post on this site.)

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Death is the principal subject of photography. The fascination a photograph holds for us lies in our knowledge that the frozen moment captured in the image has passed. Whether chemical or digital, and whether taken over eight hours (like the earliest surviving photograph, which was a view from his study window taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826) or exposed in a fraction of a millisecond, a photograph is a monument to dead time, to the past. In appearing to stop time, the photograph offers the consoling fantasy that we can return to a particular interval in the past by gazing at an image of a certain face, object, building or landscape. This illusion is one of the main reasons we accumulate and store photographs in family albums, smart phones, and on hard drives and servers. However, a photograph is also a paradoxical record of loss. It is, as the French critic Roland Barthes puts it, an ‘image which produces Death while trying to preserve life’ (Barthes 1990: 92). Thus, the ambiguous, bittersweet pleasure of viewing family photographs rests on the knowledge that the people, places and events on display in the images are all locked irretrievably in the past. All we retain of those moments is a fragile trace that is steadily fading and yellowing (in the case of analogue photography), or susceptible to sudden, irreversible erasure and loss (in the case of digital photographs).

 

A photographic archive is a mausoleum, therefore, populated by symbols of dead people and dead time. Perhaps the clearest and most moving historical example of the photograph’s memorial function is the Victorian practice of ‘post-mortem photography’ in which formal portraits were taken of newly dead family members – often infants and young children – laid out in coffins, beds and cribs, or, disturbingly, posed by themselves or with living family members as if still alive.

 

It is appropriate, then that this latest series of photographs by Lancaster-based photographer Darren Andrews takes death as a central theme, and it is one that runs through his work. A similar subject was also explored in the previous series, Dark Corners of the Land (2012), a collection of images of the route through the Trough of Bowland that may have followed by the Pendle Witches when they were taken to Lancaster to be tried and hanged. Taken with pinhole cameras and marked by lens flare, blurring and visual distortion, those black-and-white images of empty landscapes represent the roads and wuthering fells of contemporary Lancashire as haunted spaces scarred by a violent history.  

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Shot in cemeteries around Lancashire, Beloved extends this exploration of the symbolic landscape of death through the documentation of headstones, memorial statues, and the makeshift shrines and grave tokens left by grieving relatives. This poignant series of photographs offers a record of contemporary rituals around death in an increasingly secular culture, and the ways in which we commemorate the loss of friends, family members and lovers with sculpture, flowers, children’s toys, kitsch decorations, letters, poetry and religious text and imagery.

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Consisting primarily of close-ups, small details of text on headstones, small wreaths and bouquets of flowers, and objects placed on graves, one of the most striking features of these images is the sheer eccentricity of these memorials. Like miniature post-modern art installations they offer a strange, unexpected juxtaposition of images so that we see neo-classical stone carvings alongside ceramic figures of Christ or the Virgin Mary, angels, cartoonish animals and plastic gnomes. Indeed, the work of the American artist Jeff Koons consists of an almost identical inventory of images, replete as it is with flowers, giant bunnies, teddies, Christian iconography and incongruous pairings.

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In one respect this suggests that there is an aesthetic continuity between the sober Victorian repertoire of monumental statuary (consisting of urns and figures in diaphanous clothing) and the disposable, kitsch detritus of contemporary consumer culture. There is, perhaps, little difference between a century-old melancholy angel carved from marble in the manner of a renaissance statue, and a vinyl Mickey Mouse doll, a ceramic fairy or a Santa Claus gnome sat astride a motorbike. As these photographs imply through their careful selection of details, none of these objects is necessarily any more authentic, tasteful, intimately meaningful or any less strange than the others.

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Rather than inviting us to laugh at the bad taste of some of these memorials, however, this collection instead invites us to reflect upon the aesthetic conventions of the representation of death. It invites us to ask why it is that certain images, certain forms, certain phrases have come to dominate our expectations of how death should be publicly symbolised. What makes some of these photographs particularly moving is the sense that people have found their own ways to mark the death of a loved one, with Christmas tree baubles, for example, a motorcycle helmet or a meerkat. In the dark, impersonal, formal context of the cemetery, with its conservative and anachronistic architectural aesthetic, we find in these images a democratic aesthetics of mourning. Friends, lovers and family members are interfering with, customising and individualising this space in sometimes irreverent ways and there is a striking contrast between the heavy fatalism of some of the messages carved into the headstones and the inappropriateness or disobedience of some of these decorative offerings, refusing to let their dead friend or relative go gentle into that good night beneath a tastefully uniform grave marker. 

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Andrews is a technically accomplished photographer who enjoys the craft of analogue photography and the physical materiality of cameras and photochemical film and paper, and is conscious of both the limitations and possibilities that are set by the medium. For example, a photographer has to select and compose an image with comparative care when shooting on film, and so on a typical excursion with a 35mm SLR camera Andrews might only shoot three or four frames. By contrast, shooting with a digital camera offers the photographer the opportunity for almost endless waste (since taking 100 pictures costs no more than taking one), and a much greater capacity to revise and modify the image later. With digital photography, some of the selective decisions the analogue photographer would have to make at the point at which she releases the shutter (such as which precise moment to take the picture at, how closely to frame the shot, how far to over or under-expose the image, which lens filter to use) are deferred until later. This is not to say that taking a ‘good’ digital photograph is any easier, but rather that the specific properties of the digital camera and the digital photograph require the photographer to think differently about the types of image digital photography can produce in terms of both subject matter and form.

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This is the first body of work Andrews has shot with a digital camera, and it is a particularly suitable intersection of form and content since the hyper-clarity and intense colour of the digital medium reveals another unexpectedly moving dimension of this imagery. Beloved shows us in high resolution the way in which these symbolic monuments to the dead are also all undergoing beautiful decay. Thus, these images are about death in another much broader sense, reminding us that every surface and every substance is subject to weathering, degradation, disintegration, and entropy. The photographs capture the rich textures of frost-damaged, acid rain-etched, soot-stained and lichen-covered granite and marble. They also record the rich colours of withered flowers, rotting wood, fading plastic, and the sodden, matted fur of soft toys. There is a long artistic tradition of the ‘memento mori’[1], moralistic art-works that remind us of the fragility and brevity of life (and earthly wealth) through the symbolically loaded imagery of skulls, burning candles, delicate blossoms, ripe fruit and hourglasses. There are examples of such art from around the globe, but it is best epitomised by the emergence of the allegorical still-life ‘Vanitas’ painting in 17th century Holland comprising exquisitely detailed, sometimes almost photorealist renderings of objects that are emphatically impermanent, subject to change and decline. Although the moral framework of Beloved may be rather different since the photographs don’t impose a symbolic significance upon the objects within them in the way that these paintings do, nevertheless this series of photographs about death and material decay is a subtle, moving and fascinating contribution to this artistic tradition. 

 

Reference:

 

Roland Barthes (1990) Camera Lucida (London: Fontana)


[1] Latin for ‘remember that you will die’ or, perhaps, ‘remember to die’.

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(These are gallery notes for Beloved, a forthcoming exhibition of photographs by Darren Andrews at Lancaster City Museum)

Image

Death is the principal subject of photography. The fascination a photograph holds for us lies in our knowledge that the frozen moment captured in the image has passed. Whether chemical or digital, and whether taken over eight hours (like the earliest surviving photograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826) or a millisecond, a photograph is a monument to dead time, to the past, a record of loss. The bitter-sweet pleasure of viewing family photographs rests, for instance, on the knowledge that the people, places and events on display in the images are all locked irretrievably in the past.

 

Appropriately, then, this latest series of photographs by Lancaster-based photographer Darren Andrews takes death as a central theme. Shot in cemeteries around Lancashire, Beloved consists of images of headstones, memorial statues, makeshift shrines and grave tokens left by grieving relatives. Thus, this is a series of photographs about contemporary rituals around death and the ways in which we commemorate the loss of friends, family members and lovers with sculpture, flowers, children’s toys, kitsch decorations, letters, poetry and religious text and imagery.

Image

 

This is the first body of work Andrews has shot with a digital camera, and the hyper-clarity and intense colour of the medium reveals another moving dimension of this imagery. Beloved shows the way in which these symbolic monuments to the dead are all also undergoing beautiful decay. The photographs capture the rich textures of frost-damaged, acid-rain etched, soot-stained and lichen-covered granite and marble, the rich colours of the withered flowers, rotting wood, faded plastic, and matted fur of soft toys. There is a long tradition of the ‘memento mori’[1] in European art, art-works that remind us of the fragility and brevity of life through such symbolically loaded imagery as skulls, burning candles, delicate blossoms, ripe fruit and hour-glasses. This series of photographs about death and decay is a subtle, moving and fascinating contribution to this tradition. 

Image


[1] Latin for ‘Remember that you will die’

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