A deliberately ambiguous headline! On Wednesday of this week, I took a trip back to some old haunts from my childhood. Searching out a few of the locations that featured in the Newsbook provided some focus, but it was also intended as an open-ended/open-minded exploration of the place I grew up, with the potential to hit some emotional buttons and lead who knows where. Actually, I don’t feel that it has lead me anywhere – other than back to the conclusion that I don’t do emotional, personal journeys! As briefly as I can, this is the story – starting out with the revisited locations.
The book itself was created, nearly 60 years ago, behind the two tall arched windows to the right of the building shown in the top right image – my old primary & junior school. The location featuring most frequently, with the narrative “I went to church on Sunday”, is a very small country church – St Marks at Eagland Hill. It is still there, little changed, and judging by the drawing & photo (second row down), the weather on Wednesday was similar to October 1955! Another frequent piece of ‘news’ was that I went to my ‘Granny’s’ (or on one, more pretentious, occasion, ‘Grandma’s’!). The third pair of images shows that ‘Clocky Hill Cottage’ has changed significantly. It was always attached to another property on the left, even though my 1955 drawing suggests otherwise; but the smaller, older whitewashed part of the property (known to my mother’s family as “Th’owd end”) has been replaced with a new extension. My mother was born there nearly 100 years ago, and the last of her family only left the cottage in the 1980s. St Marks Church and Clocky Hill are both in the hamlet of Eagland Hill, but my childhood was more associated with the neighbouring village of Pilling, where I lived. The school is there, and so is the graveyard that featured in my Newsbook – between two other village churches shown in the fourth photograph down. I couldn’t seem to locate my grandparents’ grave and the ground was too sodden to tramp around in. But I did go off in search of the cinema at Knott End – a few miles away – where “I went to the pictures” in January 1956. I knew very well that the cinema was no more, but the building remains – as a squash club named ‘The Squash’!!
So, what to make of that aspect of my trip? It’s at least twenty years since I last saw some of these locations – but no surprises, really. And, apart from a recognition that the locations exist in some form or other, and could possibly provide locations for some of the self-portraits, no inspiration either. I could use them, but they don’t have anything distinctive to offer. Which is pretty much my reaction to much of my ‘Personal Journey’. I don’t believe that the ‘place’ that is Pilling – or Wyre Borough, as the district is now known – ever had much impact on me. In fact, as I’ve looked back, I’ve always suspected that it’s greatest effect was probably a stifling one and Wednesday left me with the same idea.
Interesting to note that the institutions – the churches & schools – have barely changed at all in 60 years. I have brothers living a few miles away, but I know no one in the village, and so I wondered whether the people and their lives have changed much. They will have, of course, through technology and communications if in no other way. Then I notice the names of Churchwardens in the Parish Church illustrated above. One of them is called Ben Shepherd and, remarkably, when I attended this church regularly, maybe 45 years ago, one of the Churchwardens was called Ben Shepherd!! And, at St Marks Eagland Hill, I popped into the church porch, where a flower rota was displayed. My late mother’s name was Dorothy. It’s not that common a name these days – but here is the St Marks flower rota for 2013-14! Crikey, Mum, not still doing it, surely!
That’s what I mean by stifling. I was only in the area for a few hours, but I felt the past crowding in on me. I may sound ungrateful – to an area that looked after me well enough; to a loving family & friends; to a harmless and enjoyable childhood – but I’m not. I went off to University in the centre of London when I was eighteen and hated the wrench from this comfortable country village life – understandably. But a few years later, much as I loved to come back and see my family, I would always get that stifling sensation within a day or two – and it’s perhaps the most striking emotion, maybe the only one, that I felt on this visit.
And so, I began making pictures that looked outward. Pilling & Knott End are on the Southern edges of Morecambe Bay; and my eye and my camera began to wander in that direction.
‘Looking upwards and outwards’ is a good principle to work with, I think; looking to the present and the future, not towards the past. I had thought that the self-portrait project should be about ‘now’ – a serious but light-hearted reflection on where one might be now rather than any notions of regret or nostalgia – and I now know that that is correct. There is a slight hint of melancholy in the way those four images above have headed; and part of me does wish I was more emotional, more naturally open about my feelings, but whenever I’ve tried to go that way with my photography, the result has been angst and frustration, so I’m certainly not going to make that mistake again. Mind you, if I believed in Divine Intervention, I might have been moved by what happened just a few moments after the last of those four images …
I left those churches and associated beliefs behind a long, long time ago – but maybe they’re still after me!! It’s just light, of course, like all photographic images! It was the light that was changing, not my mood, honestly!
So I made my personal journey, back to my roots, and I took 80-90 photographs, of which a handful have something to say about where I go with my Body of Work project. I first came up with the idea for the Newsbook project when I was reading BJP. It was an article about a young photographer who was making a series of images that related to a narrative around communication with his mother, who had died when he was a child. Not for the first time, I thought “… no deep emotional trauma has ever happened to me, and maybe that’s a shortcoming when it comes to being creative …”. Then came the idea of creating different narratives, different versions of me – maybe using the Newsbook, the five-year-old’s story as the trigger. If life isn’t interesting, create an interesting life – more than one, maybe!
The journey back to my roots has also taken me back to the beginning with the project. It will be a contemporary, post-modern project in the ‘now’. It is not about me or my personal journey, because the author is dead. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, in the concluding paragraph to her essay ‘Playing in the Fields of the Image‘, in ‘Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices‘ (page 102), says:
“The photographer’s personal vision, sensibility, or capacity for self-expression is assumed to be of interest only to his or her friends, families, lovers, or analysts. While the aesthetics of consumption (photographic or otherwise) requires a heroicised myth of the (male) artist, the exemplary practice of the player-off of codes requires only an operator, a producer, a scriptor, or a pasticheur.”
I am a producer, a scriptor or a pasticheur and, happily, can dispense with the angst!
My mother’s name is Dorothy, though she always eschewed it for her second name Jean, another comment on identity – but not one that I’ll investigate any further I’ve already been down that road in ‘Documentary’!
Interesting post Stan. For a while now (pre-course) I’ve thought that looking back is the first step in looking forward, as any history student will gladly tell us and reflecting on what constitutes our character, our structure as a person will tend to point the way forward I think. What I found most interesting visually, after reading your text, was not necessarily the re-presentation of the past, rather the reflective images from ‘just-outside’ your youthful home. Of the four (if we discount the divine intervention) two have destinations directly on the horizon – structural visions of ‘a future’ (?), whilst two do not; I wonder what that says about you, especially as you determine that they are melancholic. A journey is as much about where you travel through and the destination you arrive at as it does about the place you started from.
Ref the views on the horizon, they are, in truth, just different angles across the bay, but as a ‘reading’ of the images, well, as we know, any reading is valid for any viewer! The melancholy I referred to is, I’d say, mostly to do with the difference of light in the last two, which I read as less positive in mood than the first two – though the ‘looking out from the shade of trees into the bright light’ (first image) could be read with a note of longing, I guess. The structure on the horizon in that first image is worth mentioning, though – from both a personal and a documentary angle. It appeared in several photographs that I took on the day, though only one that I’ve shown in the blog. It is the nuclear power station at Heysham. From that, you’ll be able to tell that it did not exist when I lived here as a child and would cycle across the bridge from which that image is taken. In that respect, one might read its presence more as a vision of the ‘now’ rather than the future.
But then, to your comments re ‘looking back’; I accept that this may be a bit ‘smug’ of me, but I do not, by nature, look back to any great extent. I don’t mean that I haven’t learned from the past or that I don’t use it as a reference point for decision-making; (nor, certainly, that I think I’ve got it right!); but I tend to feel that the past is, largely, absorbed into the who I am and what I think, without needing to specifically focus on it. And I feel even more confident that this is who I am after my day on the Fylde coast – indeed, I had exactly this conversation with Jayne the next day. I went on my ‘journey’ quite willing, maybe even looking, to find something significant; but the most significant thing I brought back was a re-affirmation that my focus is the ‘now’ and the ‘future’ – which is, of course, a useful and valid outcome anyway. So, on the ‘big journey’ I’m looking around for some parallel versions of ‘me’ to see what they might look like!
It’s interesting to see a few of us looking back at our childhood haunts at the moment, and then responding in completely different ways. At first I responded in a similar way to you with an indifference to the place, whereas others might take a more nostalgic view. Our difference seems to be that I am sticking with that indifference to investigate further whereas you seem to be closing the box and moving on. I can see however how these investigations might still influence your thoughts of the now. Interesting.
Yes, Paul, despite what I said in my reply to John, I have taken the time to look back and, even though I then shut the box again (good analogy or metaphor or whatever is the right expression!), I suppose I’ve still got that Notebook with me! Your comment makes clearer to me what you mean by ‘Lost’ in your own project, too. It’s going to be interesting to see where this takes us.