© Robert Frank, Mabou 1997 – image reproduced at Mutual Art
Stories are necessary, enchanting, evocative things; but they can also be the means by which our dreams are traduced or defused, defiled or filed away. We learn to read sideways. We learn to read by the light of secret planets and signs.
Excerpt taken from From one state to the next by Ian Penman (included in the forward to Robert Frank, Storylines)
One of the things I love about blogging is the opportunity it provides to make connections with so many other creative and truly inspiring people. When I posted the pictures Alex and I had taken of the house of a friend of ours I never imagined that they would provoke such generous response. Nathan Filbert at manoftheword asked me if he could use the images as writing prompts. I was curious to see what he would come up with.
I love the way that he has interpreted them, partly because it is so different to the way I interpreted them myself. When I write about my own pictures I am much more prosaic, I think. It’s really fascinating to discover what someone else reads into your images. Beautiful, lyrical, and very true to the work, his words evoke love, passion, deceit, a fracturing, deceit, destruction… then quiet acceptance, release and, finally, hope. I picture the push and pull; the ebb and flow of a relationship which is spiraling into self-destruct, and the images suddenly come alive for me in a completely different light. It’s like an exercise of fill the gaps – and so to my rough outline Nathan has added shading and definition; to my skeleton some succulent flesh.
Of course they were very much intended to be open to interpretation, yet it’s nice to have that kind of feedback that confirms that your photographs can not only tell a story, but they can provoke an emotional response, and one which has resonance. It has also confirmed my passionate belief that photographs can construct narrative, and that words and pictures together can generate a stimulating coupling. It is something I try to convey in this blog (probably with varying degrees of success). It is something that I am working on.
I remember the exact moment when I realised that exploring narrative in photography was something not only important but necessary, and that combining words with images was what I wanted to aspire to do in my own photography. It was when I went to see the Robert Frank exhibition Storylines at the Tate Modern in 2004.
Frank is a storyteller; he attempts to convey narrative and sequence in his work employing not just photography but text – sometimes just single words and images, sometimes scratching the words into the surface of the negative – as well as video and film to create a dialogue (although more recently he has focussed exclusively on still photography). His later more experimental autobiographical work (and especially his polaroids and Mabou series from his home in Nova Scotia) for me is extremely powerful; saturated with emotion and complex layers of meaning. Photographs are grouped together haphazardly, peppered with random words sometimes scratched angrily or smudged. Fragments of writing, like diary entries, sometimes typed or handwritten are cut and pasted onto sets of images, creating crude collages which further add to an impression of fear, confusion, but also of profound sadness. There is so much to look at and explore in this work which reads like an expulsion, an exorcism even, of inner torment.
Although his later work never received the critical acclaim of the earlier projects such as The Americans (perhaps because it is less accessible?) I found it very moving. It speaks (to me) and tells the story of a deeply disturbed state of mind, of a man who is broken.
© Robert Frank, Mabou 1987 – image reproduced in Fashion for Writers
And so, back to What Once was Here. Now it is something transformed. The exciting thing for me here and my images, is that words have charged them with new meaning. They have been taken in a new and intriguing direction….
I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to you Nathan for your words. Here they are:
WHAT ONCE WAS HERE: A Rhapsody
(photographs by Emily & Alex Hughes / text by N Filbert)
Rhapsody: n. [via Latin from Greek rhapsōidia, from rhaptein to sew together + ōidē song]
(Collins English Dictionary)
What’s left hanging, a dangling or loosened shadow, often ends determining. A note you
left with simple instruction opened on unprepared mystery. Unable to handle and afraid
of the dark, tiny conduits tunneling everywhere. The twine wobbly and knotted, but the
lines of the threshold so clear. When things are left hanging, though exciting and
ominous, possibilities frighten. The key to what once was here is risk.
Light flooded in, deepening our shadows. Made us strangely opaque while leaving us
veiled. We overlapped and enfolded, X’d-out and crossed over, offering ourselves to this
light. Details increased but wrinkled together and shaped themselves new in our joining.
Some things were lost in the edges. Gaps dotted the patterns we formed. Love imbued
what we made with exposure – tracings and bars from behind and before. They’d stay
with us. What once was here was not easy to see in its layers.
A sewing of selves in our mating. Geological ruts shaped in our time, cross-cuts we dug
and uncovered. We compared, we abutted. The ripples and tremors from you became
mine; I gave you my rifts and my fissures. This continental shift and dramatic drift, with
we stitching seams like a medley. Rolling fro to our solace and shadows, rolling to in
tempestuous waves. What once was here was a rhythm, a rocking. What once was here
– a confluence of dreams.
Little by little unmasked. The landscapes and portraits had been our decor. In the gaze
and reflection of us, our stories and fables were stains. We erased and absorbed, we
retold. And with time began peeling away – at each other, at us, at our space. Seeking
faultlines and secrets, hidden keepsakes and such. We wanted it all from each other – the
truth unadorned – but stripping it down wasn’t wise. What once was here was the color,
the dreams, the feelings and fictions of persons. What once was here was the different
story, what signaled us one to another. What once was here was ourselves, the many and
varied, the each calling each, the creations we stripped in our glare.
But look close, it remains. The mold of your thoughts, the worn edge of my fears. The
stiff stitching we wove will not hold, it is cracking. We press against things that won’t
change in the changing. Structures refusing to bend. Like a bite we attacked and we tore
and we warped. The surface beginning to seep. What once was here was a study
discovering. What once was here had been making more life. Some substances proved
an impossible impasse. Unassimilable to growing the web and its fade. What once was
here became focused on hard things, losing sight of a world all around.
Stepping back, we observe a merged shadow. A discernible action now blanched and
unsure. We set out on a search for markings and signs, some tokens of whom we had
been. Somewhere for imaging whys. Dissolving and tarnished our outlines were bleak
and colluded. Identities patterned with time. No doubting there had been an other – but
whom? We’d come to be looking so same! Let’s begin, we begged, rediscover – let’s
restore and provide a fresh space. What once was here had been sharper – with purpose,
intention and luster. We moved back, turning toward, growing dim.
And uncovered the remnants of frames. Spaces held, oh so vaguely, but there, all the
same. We marked what we found for the future and asked. Intent toward content and
memory. Divvying out and agreeing what’s yours, this is mine, we must place them
again, we must fill. We moved into a seeking as finding, the wishing we had it to make.
Shading the borders we shared, we founded the boundaries we needed, saving
establishing place. We engaged and departed, forging and foraging, inventing anew what
once had been here.
Lines had to be drawn to secure us. The grilling and divits were rough. We hardened
and scaped, we stamped out a sieve, we were leaking with sounds in our silence.
Austere. Our limits grew cold and unyielding, fears and defenses with no room to
expand. We were forcing a form like a unit; marching our freedom to death. Our love
wouldn’t give, it insisted. What once was here had been meant to protect. What once
was here became prison, severe. What once was here needing flow.
You pushed out of your hollow, your void. Swooped in and then turned. I respond with
a circling back, a new dance. Move forward, retreat; hold back, singing out – fresh
motions withdrawing our lines. I ache, you arched forth, we recoiled into balance, a
mysterious call and response, and it held. We’d slice out and dash back against
movement, swelling forth in compelling return. Unwittingly, exchange was emerging in
this – freed up yet in-formed and recursive. What once was here was springing to life,
swirling and drawing out depths. What once was here was transposing with all of the
requisite tones – melody, harmony, dissonance too, a swoon toward new resolutions.
A zone we’re commencing to build. Fashioning a firm and porous, liquid border we
texture a gradual glow. Each day we thicken and act, enabling both darkness and light.
We increase, inward and upward, fluid yet firm, purposely crafting a realm while leaving
clear traces, together. In tandem, we say, we are many – what once was here become
now and then an also, and also a plus. A joining like earth to its sun – such necessary
interdependence – a complex and dissimilar symmetry.
What once was here is bursting out. From damage strange flowerings grew. Whenever,
wherever, the tearing, and laughter. We each drew in lines at odd angles. Somehow it
cushioned our falls. Worn from use and worried with play, we threw ourselves reckless
in joy. Secrets crept out and wounds would appear, then we’d carefully tongue to their
health. There seems no intransigent ruin, our inevitable demise rhapsodized. What once
was here is incessant, reborn.
And thus we map our journeying worlds. Retracing trajectories this way and that, no
lines slip away, but are definite paths. Each wriggle, each stumble and stray and
excursion; riffing versions of high points and vales. The recording of what once was here
the organs and nerves of our bodies, divining effects and undoing – no occurrence not
finally seen. We call it the Geography of Now/Here” or “What-Once-Was-Here-In-
Process,” without end in our limited sphere.
What once was here is where we begin – an open field with loose leafage – the lines and
the tears, the staining and ripples are there inscribing relief, but what once was here is
always, just before what is will be, and what’s here right now is this pure between.
© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012