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Picture Perfect

Some day I will go to the Aarus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eye-lids,

His pointed skin cap.       (The Tollund Man, Seamus Heaney)

‘Can you all get in a row please? Quickly, before the sun goes in!’. These words shape my family holidays. My mother has always had the photography bug and passed it on to my sister. As technology has advanced, so have the number of my mother’s cameras, and with that, the number of family poses, the number of print envelopes and the number of weary smiles. Every snapshot moment is recorded in three, fragmented across digital, film and mobile phone mediums with the latter resulting in a picture message sent to my brother so that at his office desk he too can partake in the moment as the shutter clicks. She is almost weighed down by her apparatus as various cameras clink together around her neck like a couple of Gok Wan ‘statement’ necklaces from a more futuristic age.

As we walked through the Terra Nostra botanical gardens on our family holiday on the island of San Miguel in the Azores last week, cameras were predictably clicking all around me, but the ways in which my sister and mother recorded each moment were startlingly different. As the latter arranged us in cereal-box, sunny, family poses in the tree ferns, my sister hurriedly frolicked from plant to plant. She was only interested in snapping forensically detailed pictures of moss, beetles and bark and crouching in the shrubbery with a high zoom to capture the skin of a strawberry.

strawberry

To me, both of these photographic tributes to the garden seemed to fragment its reality somewhat, either by glazing it with a layer of artificial neatness through my mother’s lens, or physically anatomising the garden into its composite pieces via my sister’s camera. The moment was no longer a whole, but remembered in parts. A photograph can never encapsulate the essence of a place or person in its entirety, but just a glimpse of an expression, the fall of light, the flick of a branch in the breeze, a put-on smile. In this way, can it ever truly immortalise an occasion? Does it just break apart the truth and emboss memories with a sense of something staged, printing one tiny moment onto fragile paper so that it is vulnerable to fade, to crinkle and to tear? Or are these papery traces of the past a fitting reminder of the way that time decays us? Just as material fragments dug up at archaeological sites become valuable jigsaw pieces to understand the past, perhaps photographs, even though they are constructs, can put back together a moment that time has decomposed.

On May 8th 1950 on the bogs near Silkeborg, Denmark, a peat digging family came upon the body of a man. Unearthed from under 2.5 metres of peat,  his dark, leathery frame was almost perfectly preserved, with the whites of his fingernails still visible, his chin still grizzled by stubble and his forehead creased and lined as if squashed up against a pillow in slumber. This remarkable find became known as the Tollund Man, a conserved relic of Iron Age life and practices that has fascinated not only archaeologists, but artists, writers and poets, inspiring Seamus Heaney’s words above for example. Snapped from every angle, we imaginatively and emotionally engage with his foetal fragility and lifelike expression, but in the same instance we cannot help but recoil. Around his delicate neck, a muddy noose is wound, and it severs us both temporally and culturally from him just as it severed his life.  The majority of photographs of the Tollund Man skim over this problem, instead working hard to emphasise his humanity and similarity to us, with the zoom angled towards his furrowed brow, his soft lip, the curve of his clenched fist and minute detail of his hand. Aestheticism and emotion shape the photographers’ purposes, as they soften the focus at any suggestions of trauma and torture, sacrifice or murder. Even Heaney’s poem, less dramatic in many respects than a raw photograph, processes the Tollund Man’s body in a series of fragments. Heaney breaks his face and frame into pieces to make it more manageable, emphasising the tiny human details rather than the alien and unnerving whole.

Tollund Man

The lifelike face of the Tollund Man man is remarkably preserved

tollund man 2

A very human detail

A very human detail

Does the eye’s desire to view this body in parts bring a sense of subtlety and delicacy to our curiosity, as we tentatively and respectfully approach a figure fossilised by mud in his dying moments? Or does it romanticise, creating an artificial image that inadequately represents the Tollund Man’s whole and skims over the darker potential of his death?  Karin Sanders’ book ‘Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination’ explores some of the ethics of photographing archaeological finds and convincingly argues that photographing specific body parts from various angles does create something falsely emotive, but still sets up a reverent distance in seeming to photograph the Tollund Man twice, regarding his whole face before shifting the focus to his lip, eye or leather cap. For her, just as the ‘age-old dark room of the bog’ has preserved him, so can our photographs. Now as I remember my groans and jaded smiles in the Botanical Gardens, I feel a little foolish. As the Tollund Man’s example has shown me, even if images are only pieces and parts of a greater whole, they can carry a past moment into the present. We are not simply trying to work against time’s passing in photography, but work with that passing, reflecting upon its powers of fragmentation and decay in the mere flickers and hints of moments that we manage to capture on film.

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