'Fishing for Trout by Frances Kearney' by Sarah Kent
‘And I can’t wait to see this dream in which I’ll be a child again and feel happy again because everything will be still ahead, everything will be possible.’ (Andrei Tarkovsky)
A girl practices tai chi with the focus and concentration of a zen master, which makes her appear more mature than her years. She is about twelve years old, yet her face has the serenity of a madonna; but whereas the Virgin’s placid features express the sorrow of resignation (at the fate awaiting her son) this girl’s introspection is a source of strength. Her preoccupation makes her seem at one with herself and her surroundings, despite being out of place in this almost surreal setting.
She has chosen a derelict greenhouse in which to perform her routine. This building must once have been a hive of activity, since the glazed roof and supporting ironwork seem to stretch for miles; but it has evidently lain empty for years. Dead leaves cover the ground between rusting irrigation pipes and, between the pillars, grass has grown and died. The sense of decay is enhanced by the autumnal colours that saturate the scene and, with her red hair and maroon jump suit, the girl seems to have adapted, chameleon-like, to her mellow environment. She must have sought out this spot since her bicycle lies on its side nearby, its yellow-gold frame blending in with the dry grass, as though it had been chosen for this reason. And of course it had.
Everything down to the minutest detail of this tableau vivant was selected and choreographed with infinite care; perhaps that’s why Frances Kearney’s photographs remind me of paintings. Clearly, the images have been created rather than captured; instead of lying in wait for the ‘decisive moment’ as described by Cartier-Bresson, Kearney plans and deliberates; these are not split-second responses to fleeting moments, but simulacra in which motion is stilled rather than frozen. Her images occupy the present tense of paintings, in which the moment is extended into an endless continuum. Because of their beauty, clarity and intensity, her images are often compared with film, but these narratives unfold only in the imagination. This girl will never complete her routine and, because no other frame will follow, she will remain forever enclosed in this state of enhanced concentration.
As viewers, this gives us the chance, deliciously, to indulge our longing for beauty and desire for meaning. The low camera angle exaggerates the girl’s height, turning her into the queen of this decaying realm, which convinces us that this is no ordinary moment but an event laden with implied symbolism. We see nature reclaiming the man-made, collective enterprise giving way to emptiness and solitude and the unspoiled potential of youth being contrasted with the implied failure of dereliction. But none of this leads one’s thoughts to any predetermined conclusions.
For although Kearney’s attention to detail is almost obsessive, once she has chosen her model, clothes and props, found her location, set up her shot and, in the post-production stage perfected every aspect of the image, her control ends there. Her formidable directing skills are geared to the production of photographs whose meaning is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended; which invites one to dwell on and savour every aspect of these images, since their riches are not readily exhausted.
Fishing for Trout is a series of ten photographs featuring pre-pubescent girls totally absorbed in the strange rituals of childhood. They seem to hark back to a golden age, before anxious parents began to reign in their offspring and inhibit their desire for physical challenges and dangerous encounters. Kearney is drawn to models whose appearance is not subject to fashion; they could equally belong in the 1970s when, as a child, the artist was allowed to roam freely over the beaches, creeks, mud flats, dunes and marshes around her home on the north Norfolk coast.
Silhouetted against advancing clouds, in Untitled IV a girl stands on a barrel half submerged in a lake surrounded by featureless grassland. The colours – the greens and browns of tussocky fenland grass and silvery-grey of water under cloud – are soft, limpid and subtle. Her feet caked in mud and hands smothered in butter, the girl is gesticulating towards an unseen point on the horizon. There is no way of knowing why she is there or what she is doing, but she seems to be honouring the emptiness and wild beauty of the landscape. One can almost smell the sea on the gathering breeze and sense her exhilaration as, in glorious isolation, she communes with the elements.
Fishing for Trout may be nostalgic for a time when childhood was less circumscribed by parental anxiety, but these images are not simply romantic idylls. In Untitled III, a girl with a wheel barrow appears to have wandered into a garden paradise; but the wind blowing the feathery tops of the tall reeds and the clouds amassing in the distant sky suggest a world beyond her immediate surroundings that is less benign. And what is it that has caught her eye in the overhead branches? There’s trouble in store ... as the song says.
In Untitled II, a girls makes her way on stilts across the shallow waters of an inlet or lagoon. Only a thin strip of low-lying grassland separates water and sky which, coloured the same pearly grey, look as though they are made from the same substance and belong together. Everything is eerily calm, but the Norfolk coast is famous for the speed and treachery of its incoming tides; it wouldn’t take much to inundate this landscape and unite air and water in an elemental embrace that would engulf this small speck of humanity. The Flood seems imminent, but like the rest of us, the girl is blissfully unaware of her predicament. And no-one has thought to build an ark.
The elements by no means pose the only threat. Kearney’s subjects appear doubly vulnerable because of their innocence. The greatest freedom offered young girls is unselfconsciousness. I can still remember my rage when a man first punctured my private reveries with lascivious remarks. Childhood autonomy had come to an end; I had been propelled into self-awareness and, from then on, was constantly reminded that I was being watched and evaluated. The predatory male gaze required me to be on the alert.
The poignancy of Kearney’s photographs comes from the fact that these girls are on the brink of puberty; the external world will soon flood into consciousness and shatter the bubble of childhood preoccupation. The imminence and inevitability of this event makes the moments we are witnessing seem precious, as well as mysterious. Our fascination with childhood stems from the fact that it remains a mystery; although we have lived through it, we can neither regain nor fully remember those moments of self-containment and sweet introspection.
In a sense, these photographs function as rites of passage. The girls engage in private rituals such as anointing themselves with butter, mud or water, wearing antlers or walking on water. And in tribal societies, rituals are often used at transitional moments, such as puberty, as a means of easing the passage from, say, childhood to adulthood.
One’s journey through life irrevocably unfolds in one direction, but this does not prevent us, individually and collectively, from longing to retrace our steps and revisit an earlier period or state. There is scarcely a culture that does not harbour fantasies of a prelapsarian age when innocence and optimism prevailed and nature had yet to be despoiled.
It is clear that these photographs address universal themes familiar to everyone but, for the artist, they also have personal significance. Kearney left home to go to college – she studied photography at the Royal College of Art in London – yet has always returned to Norfolk to take her photographs. The city did not have the required resonance, it seems, to fire her imagination.
The title of this series was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Big Two Hearted River; returning from war to find his village destroyed, Nick seeks solace in fishing for trout. When Kearney returned in 2006 to live in her childhood home, she realised how important the landscape was to her sense of wellbeing. ‘A few months after returning’, she wrote to me, ‘I realised that it was “the edge” I had longed for: the point where the land meets the water, in this case, the sea. I have realised that living by water is immensely important to me as is the open sky, space and freedom for one’s soul that this region provides.’
The notion of finding sanctuary in nature has echoes in the films of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky whose characters frequently escape the city to find solace in the landscape. Neither Tarkovsky nor Kearney are simply dealing in nostalgia, though; both are asking questions about the role played by the country in relation to the city. On a more fundamental level, they are also exploring the degree to which solace is linked to time and place. Can it be sought, or must one lie in wait for it? As a state of mind, maybe it can be accessed anywhere and, if this is the case, perhaps the children in these complex and mulit-layered photographs provide some sort of key to its attainment. Sarah Kent