BEST OF SOURCE
archive selections by
I have been part of the Source editorial team in the capacity of Audience Development Officer for just over a year. Outside of Source I am a writer of poems and an editor of literary and interdisciplinary publications and projects, and have been part of Abridged magazine for ten years. No doubt some of what I have recommended here will chime with certain preoccupations of the Abridged project, such as a strong interest in the operations of ambiguity, myth and the uncanny in the contemporary world, as well as a curatorial interest in how visual and linguistic mediums intersect and affect each other. With a background in literature, it will come as no surprise that I have been particularly drawn to features that look beyond photography into its relationship with other mediums and wider cultural questions, introductions with a particular poetic angle or quality, portfolios wherein a sense of storytelling or the mythopoetic might be strongly felt. Another use of this selection, then, might be to offer a complement to Issue 75 ‘Photography and Literature’ (an issue that doesn’t actually feature on my list). I should also confess to having been inevitably led by other personal fascinations, with the domestic space for example. But more than anything (and I presume I share this with many of the others tasked with making a selection from such a vast back-issue archive) I have been guided by what images and ideas have clinged to my mind’s eye long after putting the magazines away.
As someone who can’t resist starting nearly every project by taking a dive down the rabbit hole of etymology to see what forgotten meanings are buried in the pockets of any key term, I couldn’t not include this in my recommendations. Moon offers an alternative tour through the history of photography via its terminology, its ‘language’, and in doing so, of course, throws light on some of the connotations thereby built (fused) into how we talk about the medium - from the worlds of science, art, writing, weaponry - that we can easily forget to pay attention to now.
I have tried to select only one feature from any given issue, but I’ve made an exception for Issue 22. Mathews’ essay-in-pieces takes a fragmentary form rooted in the autobiographical - a structure that’s become pretty popular recently and one that I’ve always been drawn to - so I was intrigued to find it in an issue from 20 years ago. Circling and pondering the topic of literature and photography, Mathews explores points of intersection and diversion between image and text, from his parents’ censorship of his reading materials to the difference between Greek and Judeo-Christian ideologies, mostly raising questions. He opens doors in a number of different directions for a reader to continue pondering.
McCoy’s Album is a collection of found vernacular photographs and documents, variously damaged: scored, burnt, torn, fragmented. Amongst these is the torn-away bottom right-hand corner of a note of some sort, missing a name, signed off only with the universal ‘Lots of love xoxoxoxo’. Poet Carson (perhaps unsurprisingly) takes this textual fragment as a point of entry into the Album. His introduction hosts a dialogue between Barthes’ (ever-returned-to) Camera Lucida and a dive into the semiotic depths off ‘x’ and ‘o’ as letters and signs in the world beyond the alphabetical. Anonymity is important here: quotidian specificities and their vulnerability are made general, potentially ours. Carson’s repeated use of the word ‘we’ speaks to the inevitable operations of empathy.
When I first joined the Source team and started digging through the archive, this unassuming set of images revisiting the inside of a childhood doll’s house was one of the first things that took my eye. A personal research interest in picture books (the world of which there is certainly an echo here) and domestic space no doubt helped draw me in. But a pervading ‘uncertainty’ (something Tearne alludes to in her introduction) keeps my interest: a subtle lingering uncanniness. This comes, in part, from the uncertain blending of cultures at this level of the miniature, Sri-Lankan dolls on English carpets, but also from the strange emptiness of the spaces that leaves the figures within exposed, the shadows with more of a role to play.
I share an increasingly widespread interest in the affective and embodied dimensions of engaging with the materiality of personal objects, like books and letters, and - of course - vernacular photographs (increasing, of course, as these tactile experiences become rare in our digital everyday). So it was great to discover this essay looking at the growing concern in this area in an issue from 2005, and to see Edwards take this to the level of the oral, the ‘sound’ of photography (even beyond the linguistic), in her ‘re-corpolisation’: to how we vocalise, speak and make sounds around photographs, and to the ‘further continuum of touch and gesture’ in which photographs are ‘enmeshed’ as people gather together around them to do so
I struggle a bit with portraits, but there is something about this series that kept me thinking about them. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the project and its format: a series of older priests photographed seated in domestic spaces (presumably their homes), by and large in their clerical collar, accompanied by first person statements about how they first got into the priesthood. But the tensions at work within the straightforwardness and documentary restraint of this project I find interesting: between the individual and the symbol, human and institution, youth and age, vocation and uncertainty, the religious and the secular, mundane. We’re given some insight into human motivations driving the backend of an epic institution.
One of my favourite things about Source is the attention it turns to the operations of photography in (disparate dimensions of) everyday life, not just the world of photographers, photobooks and galleries, ‘thinking through photography’ where we are often passive and unquestioning. Williamson’s advertising column is a great manifestation of this. I’ve found this column difficult to promote on our social media platforms (very likely because as a society we are increasingly savvy and resistant to things that look like advertising). All of them are worth reading. I’ve singled this one out of an interest in its dystopian themes and reading of the ad alongside the film Wall-E that was released at the same time.
The sense of the home as a canvas of the imagination is strong here. There is a feeling of being at the threshold of the fairytale without a departure from the minute realities of the domestic space, of the practicalities of childcare and family. Both seem to coexist in negotiation with a particular tactile kind of light that’s at the heart of why I find this work entrancing. It makes me nostalgic for a very specific after-school atmosphere, the afternoon return to the home and that sensory perception to its details intensified by the day away. A projection motif contributes to a feeling of slippage. Child and parental perceptions seem to drift into each other. Wellie boots under the shed flicker a memory of the wizard of Oz as a tiny shark flickers the thrill of a threat but remains a toy. The crayon ladder could be climbed.
There’s something of the ‘set’ (film or stage) about most of the images in Elgar’s portfolio here, a sense of dense, constructed psychological ‘worlds’ manifested in the material, of moments from an underlying story, silent and uncanny, with crumbs of the fairy tale in the props (literal crumbs, in the case of the Companion images). They are gothic and folky, but not cliched in their conjuring of threat, unease, instability. A sense of dubious isolation comes from the play between windows and claustrophobia, and takes on the classic ‘surrounding forest’ trope. The props and traces of childhood are here, but not the innocence, rather the ambiguity, melodrama, fear and desire, the mutability, the fantasy.
More of the uncanny here, and definitely something of the Eco-Gothic. I first took the ‘things’ in Treacy’s Those images to be strange vegetables, looking closer to discover the texture of clothing inside their weird greenishness and organic forms, sharp and ambiguous against the black background that isolates them as individual specimens. It’s an uncertain feeling to learn that these alien things that seem so un-human in their biologicalness are actually constructed from abandoned clothing. Gavin Murphy calls them ‘deviant’. I find his introduction as exciting as the photographs, with its dramatic energy, allusion to ‘our’ shared anxieties and sense of being, and generous smattering of mythological and pop cultural allusions.
With roots in the novel Things Fall Apart, the effectiveness of Ihebom’s ‘Igbo Women’ doesn’t rely on this intertextuality. The emotiveness of the fiction (each image of a woman from a different generation of the same family), the simplicity and (again) uncanniness of the repeated formula, and the emergence of each figure from the same dark background as from the depths of time, full of remaining unknowns and possibilities of identity, all contribute to the series’ lingering impact. These images also appeared in an issue of Abridged - 0-58 ‘Kassandra’ - a few months before they were published here. The two publications do very different things, and provide significantly different but (I think) equally interesting frameworks for engaging with them.
Maxfield’s project instils a potent sense of the invisible body between the voice of the slightly ambiguous but ominous and emotive captions and the fragments of a private seeing. The details (‘imperfections’) that remember the analogue process incorporate a sense of time, of delay and remembering. All of this is at work before the knowledge that what’s manifested here is the ‘processing’ of a period of domestic abuse significantly deepens and sharpens the meaning to be found; the weight of the unsaid remains. Good’s introduction doesn’t intrude or shy away; she situates the series in wider conversations about trauma, abuse, language and photography, making room for Maxfield’s voice and acknowledging her own emotions in engaging with the work.