I’ve long been interested in other people’s stories, be it by word of mouth, in a book, a documentary, in photos, or even through their artwork. The opportunity to enter into this other world, projecting your own sensibility and experience into their history can be so rewarding and revelatory.
Interestingly, I come from a generation for whom photography was rare. It’s obvious to me when I look through old photographs in my archive that many events and years aren’t even captured at all. Photographs, mostly small black and white squares, were taken on a family holiday in Hastings, or in a caravan park in Mudeford, and perhaps at Christmas. An occasional birthday might be caught on film but that’s the extent of it. A folder of 12 or 24 photographs, with negatives neatly tucked into the pouch on the opposite side to the prints, would invariably encapsulate an entire year, if not two.
Compare to that today when the average smart phone probably contains more photos than were ever taken of me in the first twenty years of my life. On the other hand, do we look through all these images? Does an almost ceaseless flow of images tell us more than we remember? Do they hold the same meaning and longevity as printed photos?
Headless young boys on holiday
Even more amusingly my mother wore glasses, so whenever she took photographs of my brother and I, our heads would be chopped out of the image as she could never frame the image properly, so I have a collection of rather unsettling headless shots of young boys on holiday in my collection now!
And, as I write this I can still remember the camera – this small compact black flat level camera, with a big blocky flash cube that you would snap into place on top, and then that smell after you took the photo, and the ghostly white haze across your eyes for a minute as you adjusted to natural light again. We had this tiny portable Halina camera for a while and it felt like the future had truly arrived when we unboxed it!
Where to find inspiration for a new artwork?
Now, recently I was invited to create a new work for the LISTEN festival in Frome Somerset. LISTEN offers a glorious array of art inspired by and made of sound. The festival began back in July and continues until September, and includes exhibitions, sound installations, music concerts, walks, talks and workshops at Black Swan Arts and around Frome. As LISTEN curator, composer and sound artist Helen Ottaway puts it, it’s a chance to ‘open your ears to experience this rich collection of sonic delights!’
So what to make? What reflects the town in terms of sound? What would inspire me? I had absolutely no idea until I made a visit to a local auction house in Frome. Amongst the musty smelling furniture, assortments of used cutlery, colourful porcelain dolls and endless array of cups and saucers, I chanced upon a box of photographs. Suddenly I felt that this would tell me the stories I needed to hear.
Thankfully Helen was kind enough to ensure that I won this at auction by keenly bidding, and when it was delivered I was truly astounded by the vast amount of photographs contained within. Literally hundreds and hundreds of photos. All other people’s stories. Not mine.
The joys of Received Pronunciation
Now, I grew up in London, spending most of my time with my grandparents as my mum was out at work every day earning money to ensure her boys were fed and we could pay the rent. My grandmother was from Somerset and I can still remember how she would retreat to this accent to make me smile. Like many British people after the First and Second World Wars she had adapted her accent to a Received Pronunciation accent. Essentially she sounded like an ancient BBC TV and Radio announcer, relatively plummy and posh, disguising this rather sweet country girl at heart. And to this day I realise there are still certain words I pronounce with a rather quirky Somerset/London accent, all because of Bette, my grandmother.
So I had ideas of accents. And hundreds of photos. Hundreds and hundreds of pictures of people at school, playing tennis, posing in their army uniforms or smoking a cigarette on the beach. The earliest from around 1900 were clearly very stylised and the figures had either dressed up or been forced to dress extra smartly for their photographs. Browsing through them all though left me feeling a little melancholic. How had these all ended up in an auction sale? Why had they been abandoned?
Perhaps someone had moved into a new house and they were found in the attic, and sold them to make a little extra cash. Perhaps a lonely soul in a care home had passed away and these had been left in a drawer. I’ll never know but I created a new work, Other People’s Stories, that presents a new sound work with the original photographs in situ.
Celebrating the world of others
The images are revelatory as they display to us a world so seemingly far away from the one we live in today. In many ways a much simpler world, or at least less global and aware. I found recordings of people speaking with local accents and combined them into this dreamlike ambient work, where the spectator can imagine the stories for a moment that connect the photos. And perhaps someone will visit who recognises the souls in the photos and somehow they can be magically reunited with the family who might indeed treasure these memories.
If not, I thank the strangers who inadvertently inspired me to make this work, and I will continue to follow the lives of others and celebrate the invisible, unknown and frequently beautiful.