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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. 

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

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This is the introductory essay I wrote for Pleasureland [2012], a book of photographs by Darren Andrews, a Lancaster-based photographer and musician [http://www.darrenandrewsphotos.co.uk])

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This collection of photographs of seaside resorts in England shares its name with the seafront fairground which opened a century ago in Southport, Merseyside. In one sense the collection’s title is gently ironic, insofar as these photographs emphasize the distance between the utopian promise of sunny, liberated bliss implicit in the name ‘Pleasureland’, and a material reality of cold weather and grey skies, empty promenades and beaches, ugly graffiti, discarded syringes and abandoned vehicles. However, more subtly and significantly, it also describes the sense, which is captured strongly in these images, of the seaside as a separate realm, out of phase with everyday normality and the routines of work, and disconnected from history. When we visit this place, the conventions and proprieties of dress and behaviour that we follow for the rest of the year are briefly suspended. We are repeatedly drawn to the seaside with the hope that we can step out of our habitual roles…slow down…and stop. Indeed, many of us go to the beach on sunny days in order to sleep. ‘Dreamland’, the name of Margate’s now defunct amusement park, is a particularly appropriate encapsulation of the appeal of the seaside. The seaside is a place (comprising many places) with a tenuous relationship to reality.

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Darren Andrews’ photographs frame the seaside as a theatrical, carnivalesque, and sometimes darkly sinister zone in which locals and holiday-makers rub shoulders with costumed, bewigged, tattooed performers – punks, drag acts, freakshow artists, clairvoyants, magicians, jugglers, dancers. Viewed from this perspective, it is a world of masks, surfaces and signs in which identities become fluid and hard to read. In one respect these images highlight the way that old traditions of popular entertainment that have been erased and over-written elsewhere linger on in the marginal spaces of seaside resorts. The seaside bears the traces of history in a different way from other parts of the country. Just as geological history can be read in the fossil record represented by the rock strata of a corraded sea cliff, so we can read social and cultural history through the different periods of architecture stacked up alongside one another in the buildings lining the seafront. Victorian Moorish, Edwardian neo-mannerism, art deco, post-war minimalism and concrete brutalism are sandwiched tightly together to form a three-dimensional timeline. However, it is also as if time moves more slowly at the edges of the island and the attractions that would have drawn Victorian millworkers to the seaside on their annual wakes week holiday – deck chairs, donkey rides, piers, Lidos, fortune tellers, portrait photographers, fairgrounds, variety theatres – are still (if only just) present.

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The images collected here also dramatize the way in which we are all called upon to perform when we move through any social spaces. More so than most other sorts of public space, however, the seaside resort is a stage. Promenades or esplanades were designed as places to be seen, to be on display, to become exaggerated versions of ourselves and the dancers, musicians and performers in excessive make-up embody the demotic theatrical spectacle of the seaside.

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Some of these photographs are also characterized by a certain surrealism. They depict the seaside as a strange, crepuscular, oneiric place dotted with incongruous objects. There are images of a crushed car half buried in the sand, a ballet dancer in tutu and pointe shoes stretching on the promenade, a ghostly three-masted sailing ship emerging from the sea fog, an iron man waist-deep in the water facing a wall of wind turbines. Andrews’ untitled and undated photographs are not simple social documents, stylistically banal ethnographic records of particular events, but reframe reality as ritualistic and poetic. Rather than reinforcing familiar, comic and condescending stereotypes of working-class culture and leisure activities to generate a parodic image of ‘British people in hot weather’ (to cite the title of a song by Manchester band, The Fall), they present us with an image of ‘weird’ Englishness. This is a theme that is explored further in his most recent series of photographs, Dark Corners of the Land (2012). Shot with home-made pinhole cameras (a format that demonstrates Andrews’ commitment to the creative labour and physical materiality of traditional photography), this series of black-and-white landscape photographs depicts points on the possible route from Pendle to Lancaster along which the ‘Pendle witches’ were transported four hundred years earlier to be hanged. These photographs, marked by visual distortion, lens flare, unusual angles and varying sharpness of focus, were exhibited with a sound installation derived from field recordings made in the same locations (which was created by ‘Victor Noir’, a shadowy Lancaster-based multi-media art collective), and they present the familiar and bleak geography of Lancashire as a troubled landscape haunted by violence and death, and also as a space marked by a visionary mysticism. This concept of certain locations as symbolically and historically loaded, spaces in which the past continually threatens to irrupt into the present, is a continuity that runs through Andrews’ work. At certain points Pleasureland shows us an apocalyptic landscape in which wintry seas threaten to engulf the land and it is a landscape which is barely illuminated by the sun. Some of the images have the same unsettling, non-naturalistic quality as film scenes shot with a ‘day for night’ effect and recall also the ‘moon-blanched land’ referred to in Matthew Arnold’s poem, ‘Dover Beach’.

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The final photograph in the accompanying book, Pleasureland, is of a single streetlight on a seafront esplanade in this half-light. Painted on the tarmac cyclepath in front of the streetlamp is the word ‘END’. This melancholic image epitomizes a sense of the seaside as both symbolic and geographical limit or extremity. It constitutes the end of the road, the edge of the world or, to borrow the title of a short story by JG Ballard, the British writer whose work is preoccupied with the hallucinatory, disorienting environments of beaches and holiday resorts, the terminal beach.

Some of the most well-known contemporary photographs of the British seaside are those of Magnum photographer, Martin Parr. Parr’s flash-lit, harshly coloured photographs depict the British seaside as a crowded hellish space littered with junk food, rubbish, unsupervised children, and grotesque bodies sporting gaudy and ill-fitting clothing. Collectively titled ‘The Last Resort’ (1985), his images of the New Brighton resort on the Wirral peninsula display a quite different sensibility from Andrews’ photographs. Martin Parr’s satirical photographs, which draw on the caricaturing aesthetic of seaside postcards, emphasize the tastelessness, abjection and false consciousness of working-class culture and cast a contemptuous eye over the spaces and people in front of the lens. They prompt us to ask how any of the figures captured in the frame could possibly imagine that they are enjoying themselves, how they could possibly imagine that they are in a ‘Pleasureland’.

Andrews’ photographs, by contrast, are far less cynical or patronizing. Rather than the ugliness and absurdity recorded by Parr’s work, Andrews’ images find a poetic beauty and an unsettling particularity in the bodies, faces and spaces on display. In this regard one of the British photographers whom Darren Andrews has most affinity with is Bill Brandt (1904-1983). The German-born Brandt wrote in 1948 that ‘the photographer must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country’. Brandt’s atmospheric landscapes, portraits and photojournalism portray Britain as an unfamiliar, enigmatic almost alien environment. In a similar way, Andrews’ eye is drawn to the oddness, eccentricities and mythical potential of the English seaside, and this collection of images invites us to view this strange land from the same perspective.

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