a fragment

I have been having a clear out. Sorting through drawers, boxes, wardrobes, cupboards, attics, and under beds. I am on a mission to cleanse and purge, making the most of a bit of down time before holidays and a new job in September. Such an unbelievable amount of ‘stuff’ we have acquired over the years as a family of four (and I guiltily admit to liking my ‘stuff’). It’s quite painful to get rid of things, I’m finding, and painful also just to come across things sometimes… when you sort and sift through the past, along with the dust and the stray objects long since forgotten and given up as lost – a treasured toy; a piece of misplaced jewellery; that key that fits that window you could never open or that vital lead that connects to something equally vital though you can’t remember what now… that tape measure you could never manage to locate when you needed it and replaced three times over; and such a miscellany of odd screws, buttons, paperclips, pens (where did they come from? What do I do with them? Surely it’s wrong to just throw away perfectly usable things?) – you stir up memories. Emotions. Lain dormant for a long while. Some things – especially old photographs I’m finding – I cannot even bring myself to sort through yet. I can understand how people become hoarders and prefer to live with their things all around them. It’s comforting to know that they are there, inhabiting their space like mute companions, without having to deal with them directly. Let them be. Let them gather dust and great significance in their rightfully-claimed-patch-in-the-world where they will languish until you are gone, and the fraught, messy job of ‘dealing with the stuff’ can be left to others.

But deal with our stuff I must, because our generously sized house is fast filling up with things. Books, it seems, are a particular weakness. Some things, though, it is joyful to come across. Some things make me smile. Like this little note from fellow photographer and blogger Cath Rennie of Settle and Chase. Occasionally, other bloggers send me things in the mail, and this was one such thing – small but delightful – which I have kept. Words to treasure. And the little photograph of the orchid she sent with it is pegged to my inspiration board above my desk, vying for attention between a scrap of original wallpaper from our study found by a carpenter building some bookshelves (a delightful discovery), an old postcard of the Eiffel Tower (from about the same period – late Victorian 1880s – discovered in a French market), and a polaroid-style instagram photo of some grasses blowing in the breeze. I think it was taken in Mexico about three years ago. I like to keep some of these little photographs dotted about the place and I often use them as thank you notes. I look at Cath’s little orchid often as I look at all of the things I peg up there, but I thought I had lost the note she sent with it and was happy to rediscover it.

memory-1


memory-2

© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

My grandfather’s faces

It’s been a while since I posted any pictures from my grandfather’s house. Here are some from last August I have only just gotten around to sorting through. My grandfather is a man who has loved and treasured beautiful things all of his life. He is a collector, and he has been fortunate to have the means to surround himself with beauty. When we are young we try so hard to distance ourselves from our roots; to assert our independence and turn our faces outwards, fiercely, towards the future we want so badly to carve out for ourselves. But as we get older we realise that the past has so much more to teach us, and looking back is not to be dismissed as shameful, or wallowing in nostalgia. After all, how can we really know ourselves without understanding where we come from?

I have always loved things. Trinkets, treasures, knick knacks. When I was small I made collections of marbles and rubbers and dolls – all sorts. I would line them up and categorise them obsessively. I began to understand, as I grew up, that I lived in a family that valued things. I didn’t appreciate that for a long while, but when I began to emerge from the secluded oyster of my world I saw that it was not so in every household, and now I find it is important for me to make my home a place where things are allowed exist, and not obsessively tidied away. I enjoy the gentle chaos of a home life which I grew up with, where there is comfort in the incongruity of mismatched objects, each of which holds meaning for us as a family in some way, and which live happily, haphazardly, side by side.

Many peculiar faces haunt my grandfather’s world. I’m sure he barely notices them now, but when I go there the wonder of a child froths up inside me as if I am seeing these things for the first time. And as time ticks on slowly, inevitably, they seem to want to tell his story more urgently to me.

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night:
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls ensilvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Shakespeare, sonnet number 12

clock face

Cat

Cherub boy

horse head

Chinese lady

Broken statue

Winged archer_edited-1

Ivory girl

Grandpa2

You can find out more about my grandfather’s house in previous posts on my blog here and here, and here.

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

These wilder things

And I will waste my heart on fear no more
I will find a secret bell and make it ring
And let the rest be washed up on the shore
They can’t be tamed, these wilder things
No they can’t be tamed, these wilder things

From “These Wilder Things” (album of the same name) by Ruth Moody

***

It was like these wilder things grew wilder
and more serious
sparkling in their electric world
relaxed in their sun-drenched skin
inhabiting that sweet groove
which skates between joy and recklessness
polished granite
a surface to flip, skim and fly
a tarnished penny
carelessly tossed aside

They felt safe to tumble freely in their imaginations
shrugging off the scrapes and the bruises
(I envied them that)
laughing and shrieking with abandon
they found solace conspiring in clandestine business
bowed heads sharing furtive words

A pavement is a stage for drama
dodging yawning caverns
molten lava traps
they rustle and pop around me noisily like static
enticing me to act in their superstitious fantasy
but I am already seated for the show

Like vines they grew
plasticine limbs stretching longer
bones denser
and their toes tiptoe cautiously
around the confines of  our adult lives
sparrows snatching at stray breadcrumbs
but all words to them are pingy, elastic
just like them
so they play and stretch and tease
until their world becomes a little bigger
a little wider
a little taller
to accommodate them

But there were also dreams which were darker than before
and they found to their surprise that it was possible to hate, as well as love;
to feel shame as well as pride,

these wilder things

***

wilder things1 wilder things2 wilder things3 wilder things6 wilder things7 wilder things8wilder things11

wilder things9 wilder things13 wilder things14 wilder things15 wilder things16 wilder things17

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Presence

Florence 2

A portrait of my daughter, age 5.

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Three plums

3 plums

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Treasure and trash

treasure and trash

I was thinking about some of the comments I had on the Treasures post about how my children would arrange their stuff and I thought: yeah, ok, but it just looks like a big pile of mess! And then I thought: It’s funny how they don’t distinguish between things of ‘value’ and things which are ‘worthless’; that distinction – of value and worth – is one which society and in turn we as adults make and impress upon them. To them, a gemstone is just as precious as a plastic toy from a magazine, or a shiny sticker, a metal bangle, or a worthless string of glass beads. So I was playing around with ways to juxtapose the imposed order and ‘objects of value’ with the jumble of junk, plastic tat and general disarray which overwhelms any average child’s bedroom – the ‘treasure’ with the ‘trash’ – and I decided to try presenting them in a diptych format, using one of the ‘treasures’ images and also a shot of one of the insides of my daughter’s many treasure boxes. I like the formality and constraint of the diptych layout, but there is a bit of chaos there threatening to burst out.

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

Let me tell you about Walter

drifting

Drifitng

The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object … which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

journeys… childhood… memory… history… home… traces…. objects… spaces…. magic… home… memories… traces of memories… journeys… secrets… magical objects… childhood memories… ghosts… traces of journeys… secret spaces… memories of home…

layering… merging… mingling…

There have been some loose threads floating around my blog of late. A little indefined. Vague, perhaps. Though not entirely disparate. It requires for me now, I think, at this point, to attempt to weave a shuttle through those loose ends; to bring them (if only briefly) together. I feel I have now come to a point where I need to write about Walter.

Yes, I think if I tell you about Walter, it might all start to make just a little bit more sense.

I am not generally a person who craves neatness or completeness in her life in any way. I am comfortable with the ambiguous and the abstract. Vague ideas and concepts excite me, even. I enjoy trying to wrap my brain around impossible notions and theories. In the end, I really don’t need to tie it all up in a ribbon with a perfectly neat bow.

But. I do need to understand. I need clarity. I need structure. This is vital. Since without clarity, or an attempt at it, there is no understanding. There is nothing. Just words, just fragments, drifting.

Now, it may be that you understand already. Or it may be that you understand better than I, or it may be that you don’t that much care – in which case you’ll skip this post, and just look at the pictures (that’s fine, by the way) – but I need to understand, and I also need to believe that I have made some effort to bring clarity into your thinking as well as mine.

So what I’m hoping is that Walter will provide a sort of loose context; a framework if you like. Less tying up ends, more catching them together. Briefly. Just imagine, please, a little girl in a park with a fistful of brightly coloured balloons. It’s a warm, breezy Spring day. She’s clinging onto those threads for dear life because she doesn’t want to let them go. In the end, she knows she will have to let them go, and watch the pretty balloons floating away into infinity, but she is holding out as long as she can.They are something beautiful, and transient, like all the best things in life. She is enjoying the experience of having those balloons. She feels insanely happy inside, but there is also a unpleasant shadow of a sensation fleeting across her, quietly hovering, clouding her sunny day and tugging at her bursting heart. She knows it must end. She has experienced moments of pure joy like this before and the memory of having to let them go is surfacing and it is painful, but she is learning to control her emotions. She is a little too old to tantrum and whine. She is also learning that the bitter aftertaste which coats the sweetness of a joyful moment is the flip-side of that heady emotion; that we cannot hold onto joy forever, and part of the process of experiencing it, is also letting it go. Watching the rainbow orbs carry away bobbing gently on the wind, fading ever so gradually into nothingness. They were there, in her hand, and now they are not.

Now they are shelved somewhere in a compartment of her brain.

Memory: holding a brightly coloured bunch of balloons in the park on a windy Spring day.

This, for me, is one of those moments where I am trying to hold on tight for as long as I can; pulling the threads together. It requires thought and concentration, and willpower. It requires me to focus my energies. And in the end I know I will have to let them (the thoughts) go their disparate ways as they will pull and tug and try to out themselves from the confines of my words. (I will let them go.)

I’ll do my best.

So, let me tell you about Walter, and maybe, together, in the process of me writing, and you reading, we will come to some kind of transient state of deeper understanding. Maybe.

Now, I am being overly familiar of course, but I do feel very connected to the late Walter Benjamin. I have always had a fondness for German Intellectuals, and he is unashamably my favourite and most treasured. It is true to say that he has been a great influence on me, my photography and my thinking since I first discovered him in my early university years. Since then he has cropped up again and again in my life, been rediscovered countless times. Possibly one of the most under-rated literary figures of the 20th century, for me, he is up there with Rilke, Baudelaire, or Goethe. He wouldn’t have described himself as a poet: an essayist, social critic, translator (he translated some of Baudelaire and Proust’s work) historian, diarist maybe… an assembler of words; a master of the literary montage. But to me he has always been, and will always remain a poet. His words work some kind of naive, awkward magic over me and continue to resonate time and time again when I am searching for that something which connects everything into place, locating me in that sideways vantage point where I can find distance, and reflect, and yet at the same time place myself firmly in the here and now in a way in which everything around me seems more alive and more exciting. Maybe it’s fate, or serendipity, but my thoughts seem to spiral a trail which lead me back to him, there at the core every time.

Let me explain a bit more.

When I write about phenomenology, I am mostly thinking about it as a philosophy of experience; a celebration of how the self engages with the everyday world around her. Because it is the subjective consciousness which is key in this experiencing, the sense of perspective is also important, requiring a sort of immersion into the sensory world of ‘things become magical’. Like watching a rain drop drip, diffusing undulating ripples in a puddle, or pocketing an irresistibly tactile pebble for my son’s collection. When I look at the world like this I am Alice, who has shrunk to tiny proportions after foolishly eating something labelled ‘drink me’. I am in a state of wonder at the world so familiar, yet so strange and surreal at the same time. There is much more to be explored, of course, but in relation to photography, I suppose, this is what interests me most about phenomenology as an ontology, and as a way of seeing. The sense of perspective and the large-miniature dialectic is important because it serves to heighten that sense of awe, exactly in the way a small child experiences the world around him.

Isn’t it true that when we go back to visit places which were important to us as children, like schools, treasured secret dens in the garden, playrooms… they always seem smaller to us than they did then? And as their proportions normalise to our adult eyes and adult perspectives,  they somehow lose their magical, transformative properties?

Explicitly, Benjamin didn’t have a lot to say about photography, but it was there in the background, in his contemporary history, and it surfaced from time to time in his writing. However I am not so much concerned with what he said or wrote about photography, as his writing style itself which is so descriptive, and so focused on the minutiae of life that it could be called photographic. This is what interests me, as this is the key to understanding his writing, and his thinking on history, the past, and memory.

A Berlin Childhood is probably Benjamin’s most personal and poignant of works. It takes the form of a sort of assemblage or tableaux of ‘moments’, which are recollections of his childhood in Berlin in a middle class Jewish home at the turn of the twentieth century. The recollections are unusual, perhaps, and written with the perspective of an adult who remembers clearly what it was like to experience the world as a child (see for example The Mummerehlen). Benjamin believed in a kind of material history (he described himself as an ‘historical materialist’) which is buried in the strata of our everyday lives. To uncover the past, then, we must take on the guise of archaeologist-detective and search for the clues of the past in our present. Memory is an important medium in this search, since it plays out our past in the way that a theatre stages a play (see the translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, 2006 by Howard Eiland, for more on this), but memory is also complex. It is not linear, instead appearing in flashes, which burn brightly and briefly… and the next moment are extinguished just as rapidly. These memories – flashes of the past – must be snatched at that very moment at which they burn at their brightest:

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.

Benjamin,  from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Chapter V, in Illuminations

Memory is also composite. So as archaeologists we have to delve and dig deep. It is messy. It overlaps, much like a multiple exposure (see Eiland again, translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, p xiii). We have to scratch at the surface to expose the faded, peeling paint layers of a forgotten history: rubble trodden underfoot into the receiving earth, waiting to absorb its bounty; layer upon layer of stretches of time compressed; centuries compacted into seconds.

It seems to me then an obvious and small step to make to link Benjamin’s writing style to that of photo montage, or collage. The principle of montage (of which Benjamin was a great admirer for its revolutionary potential) is one of interruption. It creates a gap which is like an inbuilt critique mechanism, inviting a space of questioning. In The Arcades Project this takes on a structural and visual form, but here it Berlin Childhood it is more directly linked to how we experience memory (in the sense that the structure of the text is built up of seemingly random snatches of memories from Benjamin’s childhood, so is more akin to how we experience memory). Michel de Certeau describes how the signifying practice of language can, through the structure of literary forms, create spaces; “ellipses” and “leaks of meaning” in The Practice of Everyday Life.

The verbal relics of which the story is composed, being tied to lost stories and opaque acts, are juxtaposed in a collage where their relations are not thought, and for this reason they form a symbolic whole… Within the structured space of the text, they thus produce anti-texts, effects of dissimulation and escape, possibilities of moving into other landscapes.

(p. 107 of the 1988 publication)

These spaces, then, open up gaps, possibilities of departure, of escape, of other landscapes, other stories. This is especially relevant to my recent thinking around photography and memory-making, layering and composite image-making:

Is a “broken” or multi-layered mode of expression a more effective approach in attempting to convey memory? Is it more akin to how we actually experience memory? Is this the only way that the medium of photography could truly come close to the real experience of memory, and move beyond mere nostalgia?

For a long time, life deals with the still-tender memory of childhood like a mother who lays her newborn on her breast without waking it.

Benjamin, A Berlin Childhood, ‘Loggias’

For Benjamin, the most important repository of memory was childhood, in turn, the repository of the past. In childhood we are closer to ‘things’ and their magical properties. The child experiences the world around him in a state of mimesis; she (also the collector and the flaneur) truly dwells in the everyday and alone is privileged enough to be initiated into mysterious, enchanted life of everyday objects. For the child, objects come alive – they are comfort and security, but also portals to another, more exciting dimension of play and imagination and other-worlds. The door which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy step through, and which leads them to Narnia is just an old wardrobe door, full of old coats. An everyday thing. It is only the children, fully engaged in the world of things, who are privileged to have it revealed to them. Thus the magnifying eye of the child enlarges seemingly insignificant objects, which become clues, or portals, unlocking the secrets of a hidden world.

Where this journey will eventually take me I am still not sure, but it will involve some detective work. I’ll worry at the gaps and the cracks. I’ll dig my fingers into the very soil of the watchful earth. I’ll turn it over to sift, to search, through the exquisite detritus. I’ll whisper to it to yield up its secrets. And there, I’ll discover gems, dance with spectres, and etch shadowy traces on the blasted canvases of the past.

 © images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

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