Sunday, 22 November 2009

Beauty of the Decayed

I remember the day I became interested in Photography.

I had always been engrossed by art and film, always finding them rather magical in a way that almost seemed sordid. As if receiving such pleasure from a film screen or canvas was somehow naughty in its frivolity. But it was not until I was visiting MOMA in New York during my year out before University, that a fascination in photography ignited instantly. There was a Cindy Sherman exhibition, her untitled film stills, and it captured my imagination so strongly, that I left New York that snowy January in 2001, dreamily determined to purchase an SLR manual 35mm film camera as soon as I got home. It was like someone had switched on a light in my brain, or rather, pressed a shutter release and captured the split second my life had been opened up to a whole new world of expression. Only this image of myself did not upset me at how fat my brain had gotten around the intrigue zone.

Despite Cindy being one of my early main influences, I became fascinated with a different branch of photography. One of the main themes of photography theory that captured my own interest, like a snapshot, during University, was the theme of death and decay - the strong bond between the medium and the idea of death.

One day I was surfing the Internet for random online photography galleries, and stumbled upon, quite by accident, a series of photographs taken of and actually inside, a derelict former asylum. I felt a strange buzz of excitement in my stomach, a thrill of viewing something that seemed to make my eyes smile and my heart awaken. There just seemed to be something so beautiful in the images of empty buildings, decaying walls, a true athesthetic in the empty and abandoned. You could sense the aspect of danger - was the building out of bounds? Was the building likely to disintegrate and collapse at any moment? It was almost like looking at stills of a horror film. Only it was real.

Aside from the quite magnificent victorian architecture of the photographs, the images of abandoned, random objects - a decaying shoe, a broken chair, a coat-hanger with a former patient's name covered in mold - hit me with such a melancholy and tragic force, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. The sight of a solitary object forgotten about, amidst a decaying building of emptiness, seemed to contain a lost story forever, confined to a past abandoned. It also highlighted the incredible way photography tends to raise more questions that it answers. Who did the object belong to? What was their story? The connotations floating around, simply because it was an asylum, were mammoth. High emotional intensity, tragedy, pain, suffering, and yet maybe also hope things turned out ok.

After I finished looking at the photographs of the derelict asylum, I knew I had found a new love, and I quickly discovered that many photographers felt the same way, dedicating themselves to the exploration of decayed urban buildings, an entire medium on its own. I knew I had to try it.

When I began taking my own images of abandoned buildings and objects, it raised much a bemused face from others. Particularly if I was out with them and spotted a derelict building. I would have to photograph it. I could almost see what people were thinking - why can't you take pictures of nice things? But to me the beauty in the decayed goes beyond what is simply in front of the eye. Nothing excites me more than an abandoned building. It doesn't have to be a hospital, or even big, but any building that has been left to ruin. The images become a record of things about to be demolished or disintegrated.

As Marc Augé wrote, looking at ruins makes you contemplate time itself - periods that seem to transcend record and exist in their own world, absent from our consciousness. It makes you aware of your own existence, your own pointlessness in the grand scheme of things. And it is something that can only possibly be recaptured, or examined through art - and in this case, photographs. The image of a decayed building, a dead moment, symbolising a dead place - beauty in the time that has been lost, the inevitability of life. And death.

My images of urban exploration.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Graphic Growing Up

I grew up with books. They were like little bound and papered siblings. Officially my childhood home was made with bricks, but it may as well have been built with 1960 retro Penguin paperbacks (with terribly convoluted undecipherable titles and communist russia style graphic design covers). I thought all families had their tea alongside shelves of Lenin's biography, all washed down with a sip of Pinter.

But one particular book series I grew up with, both confused and delighted me more than any other. My parents had few graphic novels, but being stalwart Guardian readers, they did have the wonderful work of Posy Simmonds, the Guardian cartoonist, illustrator and writer extraordinaire.

Posy's books captivated me. One on level, they were cartoons, even a child could read and enjoy the drawings. On another, they were highly satirical accounts of the political/social climate in the 1980s. It wasn't until I re-read them as an adult that I really appreciated how ingenious the jokes and observations were. But what fascinated me particularly was that the Wendy Weber books seemed to portray my very own family.

Wendy Weber, the protagonist, the mother of the middle-class family, resembled my mother exactly. The hair, the glasses, the clothes. As if that wasn't enough, Wendy's political leanings and behaviour seemed to echo my mother exactly. Even Wendy's reaction to dog mess fouling the pavement mirrored my own mother's obsessional crusade against dog droppings on the street. Wendy was married to a Polytechnic lecturer, George; my own father was a Polytechnic lecturer. George's intellectual ramblings seemed to portray my Dad's own waffling (I never understood what it was my dad taught. And admittedly, I am not sure I do now). Wendy's mother looked exactly (and behaved) like my mother's own mother. Benji, the youngest Weber child, resembled me in my tom-boy phase - the same hair and rosy cheeks. And fascination with finding the word "bottom" hilarious.

And yet it continued. The Weber's network of friends and family seemed to resemble relatives or other people my family knew. Jocaster, the rather laid-back eldest daughter of the Webers' friends the Wrights, resembled my own eldest sister (although she will possibly not speak to me again if she reads this).

The similarities were so great, even though I knew the book was a cartoon and fiction, I was partly convinced Posy knew our family. The only element missing was the Welshness. So much of what she wrote seemed to be what I was growing up around. A lot of this is due to Posy Simmonds' fantastic way of capturing the essence of real people, of the way people really talk, as apposed to cliches or melodramatics we often see in TV or film.

Posy is the consummate observer of the world, an Alan Bennett of graphic novelists - traveling on buses and sat in cafes observing people around her, picking up characteristics and conversations. Read her latest graphic novels and you can see how much her finger is on the pulse; the teenage characters talk like real contemporary teenagers, just like her 1980s characters spoke so much like the people around me at the time.

We were lucky enough to meet Posy a couple of years ago, at the Winter Hay on Wye festival. She gave a fascinating insight into how she works - observing people, armed with a notepad and pencil. My mother was so excited to meet her, she practically spoke for 10 minutes without breathing, too eager to reveal to Posy how much the Weber book series had captured so many elements of our family's existence. Quite what Posy must have thought of our sheer enthusiasm is anyone's guess, but she chuckled heartily. Posy drew me a George and Wendy doodle, which is still one of my most treasured possessions, for I learnt to draw by drawing my own versions of Posy's cartoons.

Given Posy's penchant for using real people for character templates, I half expect to see my mother appear in one of her new cartoons. But then I guess, in a way, she already has.

Online gallery of selected Posy Simmonds work
Some of my cartoons.