By Joanna Craddock, Senior Lecturer at Leeds Arts University
As an Artist and photography lecturer, my work is primarily a studio practice concerned with still life. Recently this work has taken a reflective turn. Motivated by having lost a number of significant women in my family, I have been exploring things that are left behind when someone dies. If we are lucky we might be left money or heirlooms, however, the things in which I am interested are those that have value because of the emotional connection to the deceased. I have objects cluttering up boxes and drawers, and yet I can’t let them go because they help me remember. If discarded, bereft of context, their history will disappear and these objects will become detritus, unless found in a charity shop, when another story forged through a new network of relationships, might begin.
Since my mum died in 2016, I have spent a lot of time looking at photographs of her as a young woman in the 1950’s, in the time before I knew her. In Camera Lucida 1980, writer on culture and photography Roland Barthes reflects on photographs of his deceased mother as a child, and discusses the uncanny way in which the photograph can bring the dead into a kind of co-presence with the living, suggesting that there is a kind of time travel backwards for the viewer and even an ‘emanation’ of the past moment into the present. He explores the peculiarity and power of photography to do this. This is perhaps a particular characteristic of the family photograph, and part of the ‘magic’ of photography, where the subject is resurrected in some way in the viewers’ mind, especially where the viewer is closely connected to the subject of the image.
I have also been left what is for me an ‘affective object’, this term used by sociologists Casella & Woodward to describe objects through which emotional relationships are in some way embodied. They discuss the way in which these relationships can ‘fold and unfold’ through the ‘object world’ and by evoking a labyrinthine network of shifting experience, they suggest that objects are in some way act as an extension of ourselves. The object I have is a plaster bust of mum made by a fellow art student when they were both studying at Belfast Art School in the late 1950s. Due to the political and religious situation, they weren’t allowed to marry, and my mother left Ireland for England to study, starting a new life, and the bust came with her. It had been sat on the family mantlepiece all my life, and it wasn’t until the very end of her life that mum told me its story, which in some way brought it alive for me. Since then I have been photographing the bust in various iterations.
Passage (2016) is a photograph made just before I was to send the plaster bust to a foundry to be made into a bronze through what is called the lost wax process. I took the photograph primarily to document the bust, in case there was any damage to it during its transport or in the foundry, as it had never been out of the family home before. The title and the visual language of the photograph were indicative of this deeply emotional time. I saw the bespoke travelling box shown at the back of the image as a coffin, and the care needed in the act of moving, wrapping and unwrapping the bust for the photograph became hugely significant. After the photo shoot, the plaster bust was put in its box, to go on a journey, mum’s image to be materially transformed from plaster, to wax, and then to bronze. Shortly before this, with Lewy Body Dementia, my mother had finally retreated over a number of difficult, painful months and then disappeared entirely from the physical world. This sculpture of her, in becoming bronze, was going to be made permanent.
I then went on to make a series of images of the results of the bronze making process, which involved the mould taken of the original plaster bust, the wax and the final bronze bust in various combinations, and which I entitled Matrices (2018). The word Matrices evokes ideas about origins, in nature it can mean the womb, and in manufacturing processes, it can refer to a mould from which casts are taken. Here I was thinking about my mother as my biological origin, and also about the copying processes involved in sculpture and photography, and the way in which the photographic copy, in particular, can extend the life of its subject. I was fascinated by the likeness of mum as a young woman to the bust, which can be seen in photographs of her from the same period of time, and which I montaged into the images of the sculptures. Both the photographs of mum and the sculpture of her capture a trace, a moment in time that is both memorialised and yet still resonant.
I displayed this photographic work, entitled Objects and Arrangements at St Martins Church in LS7, which opened up its doors to the local arts community this year in a series of art exhibitions that ran from April to August. The Revd. Dr Nicholas lo Polito initiated this, with the aim of creating new dialogues and friendships. LS7 is known for its many communities that live side-by-side, and this reality was aptly reflected in Jonathan Turners’ photography work ‘Street-Studio’, which, through a number of portraits of community, religious groups and individuals, represented the diversity of the area so well, and was the first in the series of exhibitions.
Photography for me is a fascinating medium for many reasons, one of them being its relationship to the past, to memory, evident in local and national archives, or personal collections, whereby seemingly fleeting moments can, over time, become culturally or personally significant. Showing work drawn from my family archive in the reflective space of the church felt very fitting; it enabled the work to be a prompt to talk to others about bereavement and remembrance, and in so doing gave it a social function. As well as this, meeting members of the clergy, congregation and the community, and hearing about the work that they do, in particular, the work of the BHI and the dementia initiatives they are developing has been really valuable in making me more aware about the people, place and city in which I live.