by Declan Long
At the end of the summer this year, I travelled to the village of Caledon in Co. Tyrone to meet David Hobson, the brother of the late photographer Maurice Hobson: an extraordinarily talented, daringly experimental artist who passed away, far too early, in 1987. The family home, where both Maurice and David had grown up (along with other brothers and sisters) was on a pretty remote patch of farmland, a significant drive from Caledon itself. During the Troubles years, the relative isolation of such places – particularly in these contested, close-to-theborder areas – could potentially make one vulnerable. But the dispersed communities of these expanded rural townlands have always remained close-knit too. People know who’s who. Every face has a name.
David told me that his elder brother had been distinctly himself from quite an early age. An independentminded child, he once startled the family by declaring that he could no longer commit to the manual labour of farm life. Different necessities, intellectual and artistic, would take priority. It’s hard to know what the source for such a wayward streak could have been, but it seems important to recall such early signs of a distinctive, defiant force in his character: a singular, sui generis spirit of striving to do things differently. Maurice Hobson’s remarkable photographic art – which would eventually have his own anguished, ardent self at its troubled centre – was surely, to a significant extent, a product of his uniquely restive and resistant personality. And to some degree too, as with any artist anywhere, his childhood landscape, his formative world, must have shaped his artistic outlook. The style and intensity of Hobson’s self-scrutinising photographs could have been informed, at a certain level, by the dual supports and stresses of rural life. And equally, like almost everyone born and brought up in the North of Ireland back then, the contending repressions and resources of a religious background may have factored in the development of his distinctive vision. But, in addition to the foundational impact of personality and place, there are also, unavoidably, the multiple, unsteadying specifics of individual experience: the pivotal events and influences that lead, sometimes, to new possibilities, or that send lives spinning in unexpected, occasionally devastating directions.
22nd September is the anniversary of the bomb. On that day in 1975, eighteen-year-old Maurice Hobson was on his way to the Royal School in Dungannon when an IRA device was detonated in Scotch Street at the bottom of the town’s square. On that day, in that terrible year, there were no fatalities. But Hobson was exceptionally unlucky: standing less than one hundred yards away, he was caught by the undiscriminating force of the blast. His injuries were severe. In particular, the damage to his face was deep and transformative. Jaw and facial bones were broken. Eighty stitches and extensive surgery were required to repair and remake his features. His recognisable face – that distinguishing part of us, understood by Emmanual Levinas as a fundamental ‘living presence’ – was permanently altered. The physical suffering was immediate and excruciating. Imagine each one of these savage wounds; then imagine them all together. But the pain was also drawn-out: an enduring, entirely unearned punishment. Hobson’s face was badly slashed by the smashed lenses of his own glasses, shattered pieces of which were thrust deep inside his skin by the power of the explosion. For years, he had skin problems triggered by tiny fragments of this embedded glass slowly emerging through the surface of his healed face – causing new damage, again and again tearing the skin. In time, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic epilepsy – a condition that, little more than a decade later, would be the cause of his early death. Maurice Hobson died on 29th September, 1987, at the age of twenty-nine. The anniversary of his tragic passing is a week away from the anniversary of the event that, twelve years before, had begun the slow, brutal process of cutting short his life.
At the centre of Maurice Hobson’s photographic practice – initially pursued and supported at art school in Belfast and Newport, Wales – was himself: his own body, his own face. In his photographs he both faced and effaced his own distressed subjectivity. We could call the images self-portraits, if anything like a stable, coherent self was in fact portrayed. Hobson both appears and disappears in his work: performing for the camera, while also refusing – or struggling and failing, fighting and resisting – to let himself be recognisably, reliably there. There were quite a few early efforts to produce unconventional and challenging self-representations; but his main bodies of work – in which photography re-works his body – were made between 1981 and 1983 and involve Hobson posing for the camera, pictured from the chest up, shirtless, in variously expressive contortions. Look closely and we might see an image of someone who is anguished or exhausted, dejected or alarmed. The figure sometimes seems frightened, or not entirely with us, lost in another world. We might sense anger or acceptance, hostility or horror. But crucially, he is never just one thing; there is never a single dominant, definitive mood. There is always much more – too much – to take in.
The two series that are central to Hobson’s artistic achievement are comprised of composite images. They are experiments in photographic layering – made by inserting two 35 mm slides into one holder and then enlarging the combined image as one unruly and uncanny joint photograph. Each picture stages an internal contest between warring, warping versions of the pictured figure. But in the two related, overlapping sets of photographs other techniques and tests are applied to further intensify this self-dividing drama. One group is based on an especially unsettling, performative approach. To ready himself for the camera Hobson wrapped twine around his skull, so that his face became freakishly split into pinched areas of taut or bulging skin – like raw meat tied up for roasting. In one photograph, Hobson’s hands are constrained by the twine too: clasped to his face with the restricting string keeping them tight to his cheeks, as if he is in a state of perpetually frozen, bewildered astonishment. The painfully wound-around lines almost cut into the skin – they would surely have left nasty marks afterwards – and even run over his open eyes and mouth. With the doubling of the depicted body in the photograph, however, there is an additional, uncommonly demanding degree of visual disturbance. The layering of transparencies produces an image of bodily incoherence: a simultaneous portrait of two, traumatically inconsistent faces. One string-slicing mouth sits above another. Two stretched eyes stare despairingly upwards; two more eyes, one barely open, drift in another direction. An extending, spreading nose looks crushed, out of place. In another of the photographs the strung face is even more oppressively bound and bloated: cheeks puff above pursed lips and multiple chins; a second mouth opens like a deep wound on the right cheek; above it sits an open eye, lost within the cut-up chaos of the duplicated, tethered face. The light in these images is bright and pinkish. There could, perhaps, be something sweetly comforting and human in this palette. But what humanity there is seems of a cold and candid kind; the roseate light is tender in the way that damaged skin is tender, accentuating the raw, exposed fleshiness of the posing figure. These photographs are uncomfortably compelling: hard to look at; hard to stop looking at.
The other main set of photographs within Hobson’s modest but impactful oeuvre are deliberately darker: committed to exploring chiaroscuro effects as they continue to pursue the problem of the traumatised and disfigured self. In these, the photographic layering is both more concentrated and partial, focusing principally on the creation of slight but shocking shifts in the shape of a face set against a background of comprehensive, Baroque darkness. In some of these works, Hobson is half-hidden in shadow. He is barely there. Where his features do appear, they are photographically modified; his appearance appears to be morphing, phase-shifting. A notable and ambiguous element of the darker pictures is, however, the cross that Hobson wears on a chain around his neck. This is no incidental adornment, but neither is its import clear. The images are, still, frightening. The face is visually unresting, photographically mutilated. Any hope implied by the religious icon around the neck of the tormented man is countered by the turbulent horror of the adapted imagery. In one of the composite photographs, the religious symbol – like Hobson’s facial features – is doubled up. Different versions of the crucifix occupy the same space, but neither, of course, can be the right one, the ‘real’ one. Given the autobiographical and political context for these photographs’ emergence, this non-partisan implication offers, maybe, a suggestion of prejudicecancelling optimism – a hint of hard-won openness and generosity beyond the ongoing, overwhelming pain.
In her book The Art of Cruelty Maggie Nelson writes about the provocations presented by the human face to artists and philosophers. Citing thinkers such as Emmanual Levinas and Judith Butler, she notes how the face is a site and sign of ethical struggle and challenge: the face, in all its uniqueness and radical alterity poses a powerful, paradoxical demand. As Levinas writes: "the face of the other in its precariousness and defencelessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace". The face of the Other is the core, the beginning, of ethical possibility. But by apparent contrast, Nelson also looks to the ways that artists have put aesthetic pressure on the face in ways that might seem, at first, unethical. She notes that Francis Bacon used the word ‘injuries’ to describe the painterly distortions he created in his representations of human figures. Bacon often chose ‘beautiful’ friends as subjects: "If they were not my friends", he said, "I could not do such violence to them". And as Nelson writes, .
In the context of looking at, and learning about Maurice Hobson’s photographs, and the particular tragic plight which, in part, sparked their distinctive form, these ideas could seem deeply jarring and alarming. Bacon’s attitudes might feel disturbingly indulgent, even dangerous. But maybe, as Nelson says elsewhere in the book, art cannot be "neutralized into benevolence" Or, perhaps, the extremity of such artistic acts heightens our capacity to understand the ‘precarious’ and ‘defenceless’ condition of another human face. Nelson also invites us to consider the poetry of Sylvia Plath, in whose work "no one and nothing... escapes effacement". Few writers are so radical in their task of exposing and re-arranging the known and unknown self; in her poetry faces are taken apart, dispersed, de-faced. (From The Detective "The mouth first, its absence reported / in the second year. It had been insatiable / and in punishment was hung out like brown fruit / to wrinkle and dry.") Plath’s work is ruthless in its investigations, relentless in its transformations – qualities echoed in the agonized intensity of Maurice Hobson’s photographs. It’s not clear what effect Hobson’s harsh, disruptive forms will have, or ought to have, on us today. But we surely need their bravery, their frank and forceful brilliance, more than ever.