Extracts from a Not-So-Funny Picture Book 1992

Excerpts from a Book of Songs 1992


“Everything leads one to believe that there exists a certain point in the mind from which life and death, real and imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable, top and bottom, cease to be perceived in contradictory terms. There is no use in looking for any other motive for Surrealist activity than the hope of determining that point.”

-Andre Breton


Anyone who has spent any length of time working in a black and white photographic darkroom has probably found themselves contemplating the polarities inevitably encountered there: black and white, negative and positive, right way up and wrong way up, front and verso, wet and dry, light and dark, safe and unsafe, flawed and flawless.

Over time, the conditions of a such a workplace can insinuate themselves into the content of the images produced there, and likewise, black and white photography can provide an suitable medium for someone investigating dualities that exist outside of a darkroom.

It started with a dream that my teeth were falling out, but numerous large and unlinked experiences informed the images in this series: the death of my mother, the violent murder of a woman in the town I grew up in, being present at the birth of a child. Classic existential questions about the co-existence of good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death, up and down; and the impossibility of reconciling their parallel truths, seemingly manifested themselves in light and dark on photographic film and paper.

The first set of images, Extracts from a Not-So-Funny Picture Book, chart a dark attempt to navigate this territory. Like the paintings of Giuseppe Archimboldo, or the puzzles in a children’s picture book, they can be viewed in more than one orientation, but unlike their antecedents, there is no simple resolution or neat division into visual opposites (such as cook and dish, gardener and vegetables, young maiden and old hag.) Like Archimboldo’s images however, the viewer, who has been tricked into playing a game, is cheated of the respite of a single visual resting place, and instead is given two images of competing unpleasantness.

The second set of images, Excerpts from a Book of Songs, marked a change in intention to a more contemplative and generative response. Placed in opposing orientations in a mirror formation on facing walls, the images quietly echoed themselves, with a faint narrative that suggested cycles of growth and change.

The series were named ‘extracts’ and ‘excerpts’ as they could only ever be fragments of responses to such overwhelming concepts as joy and hope, life and death, good and evil.  I could have continued to make these images ad infinitum, and arguably ad nauseum. The image of The Hermaphrodite, however, allowed me to draw a sense of completion from the work. This picture is one of the more conventionally beautiful of the series, and shows a union of a male and a female figure.  Like all of the images in this body of work it was constructed from multiple negatives, and in this instance via a process that incorporated both deliberate intention and surrender to chance. As a symbol, it evokes much of what I was attempting to reconcile through these photographs. A part male, part female creature might be regarded as a monstrous aberration, but also contains the symbolism of the union and reconciliation of opposites. The image of The Hermaphrodite acknowledges the co-existence of the monstrous and the sublime, in a recognition of dynamic polarities that does not exclude the possibility of hope.