'Staging Uncertainty' by Martin Barnes
Compared with the history of painting, photography is a relatively new art. Since its invention in 1839, however, it has rapidly become the most ubiquitous means of visual communication. In its recent shift from its analogue beginnings, using chemistry and paper, to a predominantly digital realm, it permeates all aspects of our lives. We have had just over 170 years to get used to reading its visual codes, to untangling and understanding its potent mixture of fact and emotion. Photography, as used by artists such as Frances Kearney, can appear like painting’s unconventional younger sister. She shares painting’s scale, ideas of composition, narrative and traditional subjects: still life, landscape and portraiture, for example. But she brings her own character into the equation: notably, the specific trace of a particular moment of time, light, places and individuals. It is in the blending of the specific and the imaginary, the creative hinterland of knowing ambiguity, that such photography gains its intriguing power.
Photography can be put to use, of course, for many other purposes than making art works. Like language, it can advertise, report, categorise and communicate personal opinion. Given its force and pervasiveness, it is surprising that we do not generally teach an appreciation of photography to children at the same time we teach them how to appreciate literature and poetry. It is perhaps because of its apparent simplicity as a mechanical process that photography is often assumed to be merely factual. Yet it is clear that certain photo- graphs can be a compelling art form of personal, creative expression.
Understanding how and why a photograph is constructed – as well as knowing a little of photography’s history – allows us to see that, in the right hands, it can convey poetic thought and metaphor. Rather than simply accepting our physical and psychological relationship to the world, photographs can provoke us to explore, question and wonder. These same qualities extend to the children who are the absorbed subjects of the images in this book, and to Frances Kearney’s own approach as an artist.
For much of the twentieth century, photographers were appreciated for being at the right place at the right time, skilfully capturing a ‘decisive moment’ that serendipitously unfolded in front of the lens. It was a kind of visual Zen archery in which the eye, mind and heart worked in unison. This approach to photography was born in the 1930s out of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (1908–2004) enlightened form of photojournalism. It was facilitated on a practical level by the introduction of fast film and hand-held, 35mm cameras. However, an alternative kind of constructed or staged photography bookends photography’s history. And Kearney’s work is part of that older but also more recent lineage.
During the first decades of photography, from the 1840s until the 1860s, cameras were much larger and heavier and usually mounted on a tripod. Early photographic negatives required exposure times that ranged from around half a minute to up to half an hour. Controlling lighting in a studio, as well as the arrangement of figures in a scene, was a practical necessity. It also made photography more akin to theater production. The Victorians were fond of staging in their own homes scenes based on paintings, or found in plays, novels or poems. The fashion for such tableaux vivants translated naturally into photography. British photographers – such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–75), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822–65), Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901) and Lewis Carroll (1832–98) – excelled at making inventive staged photographs. They used members of their family and friends as informal actors to populate imaginary worlds. Often these fictions dramatized and heightened their personal concerns, or gave a glimpse into a private realm that could not have been captured unless it was created specifically for the camera. Hawarden’s work has particular resonance in connection with Kearney’s. Her daughters pose in costume in untitled scenes of introspective reverie, during their transitional phases of childhood through to adolescence. While Hawarden’s Victorian girls are confined to an interior world, however, Kearney’s modern protagonists run wild in the open air.
After its demise for nearly one hundred years (apart from its use within fashion photography), staged photography resurfaced in the 1970s, with the rise of conceptual art. American artists such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b. 1951), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962) have created elaborate scenes that sometimes conceal or reveal their artifice, but which always produce an atmosphere of
psychological intensity. The influence of both nineteenth-century and late twentieth-century conceptual staged photography made its way into British art schools in the 1990s, particularly the Royal College of Art, London. Kearney and her contemporaries there – such as Tom Hunter (b. 1965), Sophy Rickett (b. 1970), Hannah Starkey (b. 1971), Bettina von Zwehl (b. 1971) and Clare Strand (b. 1973) – have brought their own distinct vision to constructed photography. They are now established as an important, if informal, group within the contemporary British scene.
Rather than hoping to seek out and capture a ‘decisive moment’ of absorbed reverie, Kearney carefully plans each staged scene more as a constructed and immersive moment. Hers are photographs that are ‘made’ rather than ‘taken’. Today, when photographs appear in many different forms – as prints of varying sizes, published on a page or viewed on a screen – it can be difficult to appreciate a photograph as a physical object. Kearney’s photographs have their optimum impact at large scale (4 × 5 feet) on the gallery wall. The figures that occupy small but important portions of the picture remain crucially just short of being overwhelmed by the expanse of landscape. The images also gain subtly in meaning when seen as a carefully paced and edited sequence in the pages of a book.
The narrative explored in these images is of an unfettered, almost defiant girlhood, one that in particular ventures into the open spaces
of a post-industrial landscape. In these scenes captured under broad, overcast skies, a remnant chill of Cold War surveillance lingers in the air. It is as if having created ruin, the adults have vanished, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Significantly, these girls are free from the virtual world, and the dislocated, skewed sense of time and location that being online can bring. Some of them display a natural resourcefulness, apparently struggling against the odds: one gathers useful-looking containers in an abandoned greenhouse; another untangles a net at the seashore; two prepare to carry a washed-up seal on a stretcher; and a solitary figure in a snow-covered field pulls with a rope, attempting to haul an unseen burden that lies outside of the picture frame.
These are like moments of time stuck between the parts of a novel or a film that move the plot forwards. What has happened before, or what will happen next, is down to our imagination as viewers. Kearney’s skill lies in her ability to pose a credible question but not to give, only im- ply, its answer. She crafts this physical and psychological space for us to inhabit, calling forth our own experiences of childhood alongside our expectations created by the conventions of photography, painting and film. In this way, she conjures a world suspended between reality and fantasy. Appearing unresolved, it entices us inwards. Lingering there, we are provided with a space in which to hold and to fathom our hopes, fears and uncertainties.