Posted on December 17, 2017
interrupted by a daydream, 2014
She tugged at her apron and bit hard at her bottom lip, watching as three drops of blood fell, staining the perfect blanket of starched white cotton.
The memory shifted into place: a bolt unlocking. She didn’t want it – not now – it was all too painful. Exhausting. But there it was, tugging at her. It seemed insolent to try to ignore it, or chase it away. The ‘kerchiefs, the pillowcases, always white, they were. White as those sweet little snowdrops. Ada had scrubbed them daily but the blood still came; first drops (just a few) and then they were sodden. She had tried to hide them, her ma, stuff them away under the bed sheets, in pockets, but Ada had found them. In the end it came in a torrent bubbling and spilling out of her; through her mouth, teeth and lips sticky and stained black-pitch, even her nostrils. There was so much of it. Later, she had looked at her waxen skin streaked with red and the halo of crimson which bloomed around her head and thought that they were like the tears her mother had never cried, which had built up inside of her. Tears of pain. She had kept it hidden for so long from everyone. All those months of coughing and wheezing and secrecy. She had nurtured her suffering jealously, an unborn child, hers to bear and hers alone. When the dam broke, Ada had been surprised and shocked by the force of it, this wellspring inside of her mother, tiny and fragile as a porcelain doll.
She shook her head, as if to try and scramble the memory. Knock it out of her.
Not now. Please.
This is a short extract from a longer story which I am currently writing.
© words and images by Emily Hughes
Posted on March 15, 2014
The journey of a photograph is looking for new participants. It has been such a creative and inspiring journey, but it’s not ready to end yet. Currently the photograph resides in New Zealand, and although I’m sure it’s enjoying it’s little sojourn there by the beach with Maureen of kiwissoar (and how envious I am of it), it needs to move on to new destinations. If you are an artist, writer, photographer, or any other type of uncategorisable creative being (aren’t they the best types?) and think you might have something to add to the journey, please contact me , or sign up via the blog. Contributions have been varied and unique, each and every one, from solargraphs to mosaics, and poetry: check out the blog to see where the photograph has been and what it has inspired thus far. I can promise your practice and even your being will be enriched for it. And you get to join a wonderful little virtual community of creative minds.
The journey is an entirely collaborative effort. Visit the blog to read more about its beginnings.
Here’s to travelling onwards…
© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014
Posted on January 25, 2014
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
© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014
Posted on January 15, 2014
I’m back! And so is the photograph. Following a brief interlude, it resumes its journey. Read about the Journey of a Photograph Project here…
The intimate is not a space but a relationship between spaces.
– Beatriz Colomina
I was forced, recently, to take a break from blogging. Not really by choice, but because life burst forth in a relentless tidal wave of busyness (as it does every year at the same time), and something had to give. However, I have been continuing to make pictures, and the past few months has been a process of consolidation and gathering together of things which I have been thinking about and working on for a long time, years even. I have not made any ‘new’ pictures as such; it is the nature of photography that you can be extremely prolific when you are clicking a button (that’s the easy part), yet it’s the editing that take the time; the drawing together the threads of the narrative and the sifting through the rubble to seek out those lustrous gems. It has been more a process of looking back, reflecting, and…
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Posted on May 9, 2013
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
Posted on April 24, 2013
© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013
Posted on April 5, 2013
There is an old nursery rhyme that tells of Muhme Rehlen. Because the word Muhme meant nothing to me, this creature became for me a spirit: the mumerehlen.
Early on, I learned to disguise myself in words, which were really clouds. The gift of perceiving similarities is, in fact, nothing but a weak remnant of the old compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically. In me, this compulsion acted through words. Not those that made me similar to well-behaved children, but those that made me similar to dwelling places, furniture, clothes. I was distorted by similarity to all that surrounded me. Like a mollusk in its shell, I had my abode in the nineteenth century, which now lies hollow before me like an empty shell. I hold it to my ear. What do I hear? Not the noise of the field artillery or of dance music a la Offenbach, not even the stamping of horses on the cobblestones or fanfares announcing the changing of the guard. No, what I hear is the brief clatter of the anthracite as it falls from the coal scuttle into a cast-iron stove, the dull pop of the flame as it ignites in the gas mantle, and the clinking of the lampshade on its brass ring when a vehicle passes by on the street. And other sounds as well, like the jingling of the basket of keys, or the ringing of the two bells at the front and back steps. And, finally, there is a little nursery rhyme.
“Listen to my tale of the mummerehlen.” The line is distorted – yet it contains the whole distorted world of childhood. Muhme Rehlen, who used to have her place in the line, had already vanished when I heard it recited for the first time. The mummerehlen was even harder to rouse. For a long time, the diamond-shaped pattern that swam on my dish, in the steam of barley groats or tapioca, was for me its surrogate. I spooned my way slowly toward it. Whatever stories used to be told about it – or whatever someone may have only wished to tell me – I do not know. The mummerehlen itself confided nothing to me. It had, quite possibly, almost no voice. Its gaze spilled out from the irresolute flakes of the first snow. Had that gaze fallen on me a single time, I would have remained comforted my whole life long.
From A Berlin Childhood by Walter Benjamin
© images Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013
Posted on March 24, 2013
I wonder if she will remember this moment. The feeling of his vast hands cocooning hers. All the impetuous haste of youth, she had.
I can do it!
He tried to slow her down. To show her. With the wisdom of the knowing tortoise. (She didn’t listen, of course.)
I have saved it for her, anyhow. For later.
For when she is ready to remember. When she needs to understand who she was, and who she might be.
© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013
Posted on February 20, 2013
She worried at her memory, tugging gently at soft silken skeins tightly bound by neglect and smudged by time. She smoothed them apart, just as she smoothed out her lines every evening at the bathroom mirror with the pads of her fingertips. They always came back, those little rivers, carving out a pale etching of her life. Each laugh, each frown, each smile. The same every time. The tears when they come remember the tracks easily enough.
She smoothed the delicate threads apart, combed them carefully and set about the meticulous task of unraveling the tangled fictions of forgotten pasts. They were slippery, but surprisingly weighty, draping heavily through her long thin still nimble fingers like an expensive chiffon. But they lay limp and heavy in paper-frail arms. She laid them out flat, those strands, so fine like spaghetti, or perhaps the hair of an angel. Tricky not to let the straight, perfect lines snarl up. She stepped back to admire her work, but it all looked a little lost and flat, somehow still unfamiliar to her.
So she went back to the very beginning, lightly brushing her fingers, now warming to their task, down the length of each tiny fibre, like a blind person tracing braille dots, until she slowly found the thread. And then she was lost, on a journey, but this time to a place she had known; a place she had been to before, and she felt sure she would be able to find her way back. She didn’t stop until she finished, at the very end.
© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013
Posted on September 11, 2012
See here for my previous post about my grandfather.
© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012