Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Revenants

One of my favourite and (I think) most successful completed sequences of work is the one I call The Revenants. It's simple enough: in the usual MO, I found a body of water, and returned to it repeatedly, using the same camera to photograph similar objects in a similar way. In the self-published book of the work, I described it like this:
This series of photographs was made on daily visits to an ornamental pool on the university campus in Southampton, England where I work, over the course of a year. More specifically, the series records some of the objects that found their way into the pool, whether as simple wind-blown litter, or as semi-conscious offerings to tutelary spirits.

A revenant is defined as "one who has returned (from death, exile, etc.), a ghost." As well as the likes of Hamlet's father, the word might describe these spectral bits and pieces which reappear, in different guises, day after day in the pool.
Of course, the main revenant, the one who kept returning, was me. In more senses than one: I don't know about you, but I have spells when I seem to have gone AWOL, when I am no longer answering the metaphorical front door bell, but am slumped in a chair somewhere inside watching daytime TV. This is not just a symptom of advancing age. Even at school, I remember reading in class the poems "Woodspurge" and "Sudden Light" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and immediately recognising the mood and metaphors of a fellow absentee.

Sometimes these spells go on longer than they should, and a project like this one can get me re-engaged. The seed is usually one or two photographs that were taken out of habit for an old reason but point towards a new reason. Hello, you think, And where did you come from?

In the case of The Revenants, it was a goldfish cruising past a shred of bubblewrap floating in an ornamental pond that I passed every day on my way to and fro across the campus. I had been photographing fish, with no particular success, but my attention was grabbed by the bubblewrap, as soon as I saw it printed, adrift against dark space like something discovered by the Hubble Telescope.

The connections and currents started to build. At first mechanically: as the stacks of pictures begin to pile up, you begin to spot similarities and subtle differences, or ways in which the camera sees things you hadn't seen, which you then start consciously to seek out. For example, the dramatic fall-off in illumination and colour of semi-submerged objects. Or you encounter "photographic" problems to solve, like dealing with the extreme reflectiveness of foil sweet wrappers, in even the dullest light. There will be false trails, followed for a week or two then abandoned, but which may someday go on to become the seed of a new sequence.

And then one day, if you're lucky, as I described in the post X Marks The Spot, it's "game on," and the magic kicks in. It's as if the world has suddenly noticed you, and wants to play. I remember when I was deep into my first serious sequence based on the campus stream, called Curriculum, when (for reasons too complicated to explain briefly) I was thinking about the mock-Homeric epic poem The Battle of The Mice and The Frogs. In two days, in the same week, the world presented me with first -- Lo -- a dead frog then -- Behold -- a dead mouse, both artfully arranged on the bed of the stream. If this sounds too like the wishful thinking of a Get Creativity Into Your Life book, what can I say? It happened. In my experience, it usually does.

It's an exhilarating feeling: you push, and push, and then, finally, something pushes back. (Stop giggling at the back there!) If I had to characterise "it", I would think of something elementally old, without language, but a deep sense of fun -- Totoro in Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro, perhaps. But even without the element of the Uncanny, the concentration of purpose such a project gives is re-energising, and has effects all across your life. I'm sure I become a nicer person (not difficult, some might say).

I think that -- for those that respond to it -- a large part of the appeal of The Revenants is that "home-made Hubble" feel of deep space found in what is little more than a deep puddle. If you're the kind of person that gazes rather than glances, then that aspect may speak to you, too. For me, however, there was an extra element of drama which is hard to convey through a sequence of still images.

On that same small stage, certain characters would appear, disappear for a while, then reappear slightly worse for wear, like derelicts in a town square. I had a particular affection for an especially resilient Twix wrapper, sometimes cruising like a light boat in the breeze, sometimes harboured deep in the reeds. There was also an indestructible but protean plastic bag, which showed different aspects -- sometimes a Portuguese Man O' War, sometimes a grotesque face -- as the air trapped within it shifted about.

You know you've engaged properly with your subject when you can't wait to rush over to see whether "your" pool has crusted over with ice in the night, and to see how your acquaintances among the flotsam and jetsam have fared. It's a benevolent form of lunacy.

I have made the book of The Revenants available as a free PDF download via the Issuu website (thanks to Doug P. for pointing me in this direction). You can also view it rather nicely using their software here:


Anonymous said...

A very moving book. It has a deep sense of time captured. You have made each bit of debris a portrait of something with character and life. Some portraits are outright beautiful and mysterious - page 8, I think, a white bag in a gester of embrace, both inviting and ominous. My favourite would be page 29, the koi/goldfish beside a tissue-like bit of flotsam. Interesting contrast, a picture full of longing and melancholy. Finally, the darks of the water are irresistible.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for taking the trouble to leave these comments, Warren, it's much appreciated.

N.B. The book may still be bought at my Blurb bookstore:

(If you're offered the option, I'd recommend the better quality paper, as it really does make a difference.)

Or, if that's too much, keep an eye on this Blog, as I'll be having a "postcard clearance sale" soon!

Best wishes, Mike