The Photomontages, the dilemma of truth

The following is an essay by Lindsay Perth written for the publication ‘ A Sense of Someplace’. It introduces some of the motivating ideas behind the photomontages.

I’m looking at a photograph.  In the photo is a little girl, blond bowl cut and cream dungarees.  That’s you, my mother says, aged four.  Although I don’t recognise the little girl as me, I have no reason to suspect my mother would lie.  Next to me is a boy exactly the same height.  He is puffing his cheeks out, making his freckles more noticeable.  That’s Declan.  He was my best friend until I was four, my Mum tells me.  I don’t remember ever knowing or meeting a Declan in my life.

My mother says while looking at a photo when she was six on a beach, she feels the sand surround her and a strong unsettling feeling returns.  She recalls feeling unsure if the other children in the photo accepted her.

The photographs in our family albums are the archives of our lives and experiences.  They witness events, document holidays, confirm our relationships and authenticate a personal narrative recorded by the photographer.  They reaffirm our memories.

I understand why people will rush into a burning house to save the family albums.  Many years ago, there was a fire next to our home.  In the middle of the night I had to wake my mother and tell her to go downstairs to safety; there were firemen everywhere.  I rushed around waking the others, and found Mum running around the living room, looking for an old photograph of her mother in a small silver frame.  Recently, I asked her about this and why that particular photo.  She said it was because she wanted me to have a photo of her in the same frame, when she was gone.  And for my daughter to have a picture of me, her mother, in it.  A firm memory for my mother as a young girl was looking at the same frame on her mother’s desk with its picture, then, of my mother’s grandmother.

Often I find myself recalling stories loaded with visual details and ‘remember when’s’.  But my family and I argue that my story couldn’t have happened because there was no swing in our garden, or it was my brother that broke his arm not me, or I never went on a holiday there because I wasn’t born yet.  And pretty soon my Mum gets the photos out and there is the evidence.  The proof.  They’re right, it never happened to me.  A photo shows that my memory is a fiction.  I sadly realise a memory I’ve carried around for years isn’t real; I created a whole narrative, an autobiographical feature film with me in the starring role, based around this image.  In fact I’d just remembered the photo and made up the rest to suit myself.

Family photos are, of course, loaded with historical narratives and a sense of continuity.  They can bring meaning to the present by their reference to the past.  But they also testify to an inadequacy of memory and the dilemma of truth.

As artist in residence with NHS Forth Valley I worked collaboratively with mental health service users to produce the images in this book.  Together, we spent hours looking at photography and work by various artists and discussed how different works were made and what they might mean.  We took photos, and asked each other why we chose to look at one object or view rather than another. What does a photograph say about the photographer?

In looking at self-portraiture and personal narrative in the early stages of working together it became clear the idea of photographing each other was too awkward and too loaded.  Interestingly, now, through the process of making this body of work, the group is more confident, even keen to be in front of the camera.  But certainly then I felt a ‘vehicle’ was needed for the collaboration to tell powerful stories and explore creativity and ideas with photography.

So I bought hundreds of anonymous 35mm film slides from varying sources.  This material was specific in that it provided a random archive of personal documents and family photographs taken between the 40s and the late 70s for us to make use of.  Workshops were spent trawling through the boxes of slides in a sort of reverie, in awe of other people’s lives, their holidays, the buildings and gardens they chose to photograph, the clothing, cars or hairstyles.  Often no-one spoke for hours; we were so focused on the small 35mm film squares, searching for something in one that could be paired with another.  Little piles of slides grew, as collections with potential.  Some slides even became a commodity for trading.

Slides where taken apart by hand, cleaned, put with another slide and remounted.  Often the results did not work.  No story or sense of balance emerged.  The search would continue.  Then someone would create an image that seemed to release unlimited possibility in its space, tension and story.  The new image – the montage – would seem to shift between places and time frames, in a visual conundrum.

It was a necessary for the process to be as physical – perhaps analogue is the word – as possible.  It was important that digital intervention should not happen until the very end, and then only to scan for printing.  It was important to us to preserve a sense of linearity in the same way these slides would have been viewed – the bright light of a 35mm slide projector on a screen or living room wall; the clickety-clack as the next slide revealed itself.  Or got stuck.

When determining whether these images were collage or montage, I came across several definitions that certainly gave clarity to the body of work.  Montage, it seems, is a seamless merging of sources where as collage is a ‘cut and paste’ approach to juxtapose various elements.  Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein stated that “montage is conflict”.  Though his creative agenda was a political one I feel he had a point although I would prefer to say montage is more dilemma than conflict.  I believe the montages in A Sense of Someplace are in a kind of tension, the two film slides compete, seeming to vie for our attention.  Perhaps it is this flux that gives the montages a cinematic quality, as they oscillate between the two lives, the two timelines from which they came.

Originally, the text that was to accompany each image for this publication was going to be written from personal experience by the person who created it.  But as the imagery developed, I felt there was a danger that factual information might limit how the images could be read and leave little space for the viewer.  After dismissing the use of personal text or even titles we decided to use short texts from film scripts and literature that were significant for us as fictional stories.  The chosen texts are offered as lingering thoughts for their correlating images.  They lend themselves to interpretation in the same way the images do, without obligation.  There is a gentle reciprocity between the text and the image.  This approach meant the group still had a sense of putting their ‘imprint’ on each image without overly directing the viewer’s interpretation.  The result tries to be respectful of the viewer.  Using the evocative nature of language in this way brought about an unexpected, but important and constructive stage to the collaboration.

This way of working with photography will certainly influence my own practice which is already pre-occupied with blurred edges and uncertainty.  In A Sense of Someplace, the photomontages’ ambiguous and impossible representations move beyond the conventions of a holiday or family snapshot into celestial or disrupting otherness.  The photomontages offer a kind of disorientated reverie, however unsettling or soothing, an experience much like looking at our own family albums.

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