Tag Archives: time

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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The 2013 Vintage

‘Definitely something you could wear on a winter’s day at the races’.

These were the words my boyfriend said to me as I pirouetted in front of the speckled mirror of a vintage shop last weekend, balancing a felt trilby poked with a pheasant feather upon my head. I dismissed his enthusiasm with some comment about frivolity and expense as I ran my hands over and through the whirligig of silk scarves near the counter. The shop had that very vintage feel, brown carpets, brown clutter, brown counters, an array of brown leather bags and tortoiseshell aviators. The shopkeeper had done very well to make it say ‘old’. The only thing that was missing was some schmaltzy jazz crackling on a gramophone and perhaps I would have been endeared to purchase my trilby and step boldly from the door, ready to turn heads.

A typical vintage array

A typical vintage array

‘Vintage’ is a term that we have adopted to cover a loose range of essentially bric-a-brac concepts. Clothing, quaint tea rooms, Bakelite kitchen appliances, cars, cake stands, jewellery, notelets, cosmetics. The Victorian chemist in Haworth, Yorkshire is one particular example. Beautiful and frou-frouey as it is, lit with soft light and staffed by ladies in crisp white petticoats, it is difficult to imagine Emily Brontë popping her head round the door at the peak of her consumption for a scoopful of lavender bath salts. ‘Vintage’, like any other word, is drained of signification when overused, a process not too distant from economic hyperinflation. As its value has been manipulated, it is increasingly becoming an equivalent term for ‘shabby-chic’, ‘pre-loved’ or simply, ‘second hand’. ‘Vintage’ in the sense of something being an old model or style, particularly of a vehicle, was first coined in 1920s. Surely then its proper application as a term should be to art deco items and beyond. And yet we seem to appropriate it to a much greater timeline.

Writing my dissertation this last term on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, an elegiac sequence written to commemorate his wife, my thoughts have been deeply preoccupied by how we process memory, time and time’s passing. It is interesting how much a moment in the past can mutate with each day. In retrospect, memories seem to change, to become resurfaced with a gloss, with a strange new emphasis. For Hardy, this emphasis is disturbing, awakening feelings of guilt and remorse, a failure to value and understand the then present when his wife was living. In a vintage shop however, the effects of looking back only seem positive. As we hold a pair of 70s sunglasses we are flooded with feelings of nostalgia. Putting a felt trilby on your head gives a rose tinted reflection in the mirror. Drinking tea from an ornate teacup as you sit in your lounge done up with chintz seems to transform the little ordinary details of our lives into something romantic, golden, perfected. Or does it? Originally coined for a year’s crop of wine, one of ‘good or outstanding quality’, ‘vintage’ is meant to label the very best of the best. But we have absorbed it as the buzzword to talk about anything pre 2000, be it sparkling or shabby.

The real vintage?

The real vintage?

I attended a talk recently at Pembroke College by Martin Rowson, a political Cartoonist for The Guardian and The Independent. As an English alumnus, he had ploughed his way through my syllabus, digesting the greatest works of literature week by week. It is what he did with all that he had read later however, that I found most intriguing. As well as his work on newspaper cartoons, he has spent considerable time transforming Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s The Wasteland into graphic form, dredging up the famous narratives of the past and sketching them with the same thick black lines of a modern day political satire cartoon. As a satirist, Rowson said his job was to break things up into smaller particles in order for us to process them more easily. The awful was in this way made more bearable. What was remarkable was how well the graphic form suited Sterne’s rambling and boisterous tale. Perhaps the people of the past that we look back at with dewy eyes didn’t think very differently to us. Sterne and Rowson certainly seem to have the same sense of humour. Through Rowson’s adaptation, a satirist of the present and a novelist of the past work in symbiosis to create something utterly novel. It seems that the past should not endlessly impose itself upon the present in the form of dress shops stuffed with fur, pearls, beads and Bakelite and old fashioned tea rooms decorated like a scene from a home front documentary. Instead, we should work to see how the present can enter and redefine the world of the past, be it through modern film adaptation, theatre or graphic novels.

Martin Rowson's book cover

Martin Rowson’s book cover

On my coffee table sits a chunky graphic edition of Vanity Fair, a Christmas gift that I am yet to fully peruse. But as I flick through the pages, the story is punctuated with punchy black and white illustrations drawn in the style of a superhero comic. Personally, I feel this manner of delivery suits the novel’s intrigue perfectly without marring, changing or romanticising the original story. In this way, unlike the somewhat synthetic concept of ‘vintage’, past and present can collaborate so that re-visioning the past works as a ‘seeing again’ but not a ‘seeing again’ that manipulates what was ordinary and everyday then into a false ideal now.

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