/ On ‘Beloved Curve’ by Sarah Amy Fishlock
Scottish photographer Sarah Amy Fishlock is in a quiet ascendancy. In December 2016 she joined the acclaimed collective Document Scotland. In January 2017, curator Ben Harman at Edinburgh’s Stills Centre for Photography nominated her latest work, Beloved Curve, for the MACK First Book Award. Right now, she is showing as part of Autobiography as Memory at one of India’s most prestigious photography events, Focus Festival Mumbai. The future, for Fishlock, is bright.
It is easy to see why Document Scotland invited her to join them. Sensitive and on-point, she makes photographs that are equal to her subjects, as in Middlemen, a project that explores the lives of Iraqi translators engaged by the British military in the second Iraq war, who fled persecution as ‘collaborators’ for safety in the UK and now live in Scotland. Middlemen shows us only their parts – turned backs, bodies knelt in prayer, trinkets, a child’s blurred face – pressing home the anonymity that is now and will always be a prerequisite of life for these translators and their families. Without sermonising, Middlemen is a poetic lesson in our extended responsibilities, collective and personal, to those we touch in conflict of our own making and in what follows after it.
Fishlock thinks. She never preaches. She has the art of quiet morality worn lightly. For a photographer so adept at looking outward to frame the stories of others, Beloved Curve is a departure, a journey inward to address the death of her father Michael when she was 18 and to face his absence from her life. This change in direction, driven by personal need, has, as Harman’s support for her book indicates, yielded some of Fishlock’s most resonant work yet.
When we last met, Fishlock was preparing a book dummy for Beloved Curve. The project was first shown in 2016 at Peripheral Histories, a two-venue show at Glasgow’s Lighthouse and Platform Visual Arts; at this point, the concept was simple: Fishlock had photographed her father’s old snapshots (and old snapshots of her father) then made double exposures, overlaying pictures he took and pictures taken of him with new images of places that were significant to him. York, where he was born. Edinburgh, where he met Sarah’s mother while studying for a naval qualification after entering the Merchant Navy, a job that took him to South Africa, the Far East, the USA. Italy, where Fishlock’s mother has family.
The composites that result are a kind of poetry. But Fishlock had only a rough idea when shooting of the order in which she had taken her old family photographs on any given spool. Over her father and mother as a young couple in Sunderland, a rush of birds fly like a chance burst of hope, off the roof of York Art Gallery, a place he proudly showed her before they married. Her father, with his football team in Kenya, is overtaken by a rush of Atlantic water in Brooklyn, where Fishlock travelled in 2015. Fishlock, as a child on a Berwick beach in 1991, is dotted with white flowers (perhaps magnolia) taken in Italy only last summer; a cluster of blooms appears in the hands of a bystander on the beach.
The book will look substantially different, I think, to any exhibition I’ve yet seen of the work, in that it includes ID photographs of Fishlock’s father, a way for her to approach the idea that our image lives on after death in the formal systems – as well as the private spaces – that we inhabit. When Fishlock googled her father’s name she found nothing. The ID photographs point to his absent digital image, which, as she says, marks him out as part of a generation that had little or no digital life. By including them in her book, Fishlock enters new territory: the role of digital images in the cycle – or parallel curves in time – of mortality and mourning.
Photography’s special relation to time, death and memory is in perpetual dispute among theorists. Barthes and Bazin assume that photographs hold time still; for Bazin, a photograph ‘embalms’ time[i]; for Barthes, ‘In the Photograph, Time’s immobilisation assumes…an excessive, monstrous mode.’[ii] For Sontag, memory freezes frames; ‘its basic unit is the single image.’[iii] And for Kracauer, writing before them, ‘Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only in so far as it has significance…from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.’
Kracauer’s powerful critique relies largely on negative contrasts with positivist ideas about nature and memory that – in modernity – lost their social footing, if not their theoretical currency. Kracauer himself, Walter Benjamin, and later Barthes and Sontag, saw this, and grappled, in their commentaries, with photography’s profound existential force as a contemporary practice, which, as Barthes put it, comes from ‘the unheard-of identification of reality (‘that-has-been’) with truth (‘there-she-is!’)…that crazy point where affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is a guarantee of Being.’[iv]
It is at this ‘crazy point’ that Fishlock’s project begins, exploring how she might affirm (or not), with photographs, the unique being (past and present) of a loved one who is, once dead, subject to the slippage of time. Her father’s life, she says, is now a finite set of moments, all of them almost infinitely inaccessible, except a few, caught in photographs that, being so small in number relative to the fabric of the life they attest to, become private icons of that life. So does Fishlock, with Beloved Curve, set out to ‘defeat time,’ as Barthes puts it, or to access, through photographs, the inaccessible?
For Kracauer, photographs, so full as they are of indiscriminate detail, bury a person’s history ‘as if under a layer of snow.’[v] But what Barthes calls the punctum, the single detail that pricks the viewer and makes an image poignant, burns through this snow, making the photograph into a definitive ‘memory image’ which ‘preserves the unforgettable’ elements of a life; this image, Kracauer says, ‘is a person’s actual history.’[vi] It is her father’s ‘actual history,’ in this sense, that Fishlock seeks, and with Beloved Curve she is working out a strategy to sustain her father in time, not exactly as he lived but as he might live on, visually, in her own geographical and emotional terrain.
Sarah speaks and writes evocatively about the images. Aware that her father has, in death, lost agency to her, and to her public representations of him, she never describes him or her work in terms of colourful childhood memory or personal anecdote. A documentarist at heart, her instinct is to universalise, extrapolating from her grief what is common to us all in our experience of time as it relates to loss. Like Alan Knox, a fellow Scot with whom Fishlock exhibited in Peripheral Histories, she sets her loss against the regenerative drive of nature. Flowers blossom again and again over her father’s face. A tide washes over her body, as she – a small girl – sits with him astride a merry-go-round horse. Everything persists but him.
It is acutely painful for her that nature renews and overwrites ad infinitum, as do the images that she photographs, re-photographs and elides. In doing this, she calls attention to the friction between photography’s objective indifference and its capacity to ‘detonate,’ as Kracauer puts it, tiny details; the bystander on the beach for example, who (by total chance) holds a bunch of superimposed blooms, as if offering them to the small girl who will have cause, in the future, to grieve but does not know it yet. Look at Fishlock’s images and there are accidental auguries everywhere. As Barthes puts it: ‘This will be and this has been…an anterior future of which death is the stake.’[vii]
Walter Benjamin, before Barthes, describes more or less the same thing in less melancholy terms, as the ‘irresistible urge to search,’ in photographs, ‘for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now…to find [the spot] where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.’[viii] Barthes addresses the certainty of death, Benjamin the rediscovery of future possibility. Beloved Curve takes in both; Fishlock mourns and celebrates an ‘anterior future’ in which her father’s life is not irrevocably finite, but a thing still to be lived.
Barthes’ focus was the singularity of our experiences with photography; he largely ignored the consequences of the medium’s reproducibility, the fact that negative-based images like Fishlock’s are made to be re-made, with all that this means for their relationship to time. Sontag treats time as a one-way movement: from ‘then’ to ‘now.’ Barthes and Benjamin work, too, with an idea of time as a linear thing that photography turns into a two-way flow: we look back at a moment in a photograph and from that moment we look forward, to death or to rediscovery. In Beloved Curve, Fishlock’s overlaid images give time free movement.
This puts death in its rightful place within the photographic frame, not as an end point as Barthes saw it, but as a qualification of life; now present day, now past or future, Fishlock’s own life and her father’s coalesce and come apart again and again. Once death is shifted, in this way, from the fixed position to which Barthes assigns it, Fishlock can move both to it and from it; in so doing she gains the necessary purchase on death to encompass it in her own life, not as an absolute, but as a falter – or a painful fault-line – in personal time, in the Beloved Curve that links her to her father.
– essay by Dr. Katherine Parhar
[i] Andre Bazin: ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image,’ Film Quarterly, Vol.3, No.4, p.8
[ii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, London: Hill & Wang, 1980, p.42.
[iii] Susan Sontag, ‘Photography’s View of Devastation and Death,’ New Yorker, 2002: December 9th
[iv] Barthes, ibid., p.113.
[v] Siegfried Kracauer: ‘Photography,’ in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Harvard University Press, 1995, p.51
[vii] Barthes, Ibid., p.96.
[viii] Walter Benjamin: ‘A Small History of Photography,’ in One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: New Left Books, 1979 (1931), p. 243.
Sarah Amy Fishlock is currently engaged in a new collaborative project with bereaved young people in Scotland.
Beloved Curve been selected for Focus Photography Festival Mumbai and is showing as part of ‘Autobiography and Memory,’ curated by Dr. Prajna Desai at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum between the 9th and 23rd of March.
It is also is currently showing as part of When the Light Shifts at Glasgow Women’s Library until 1st April 2017. Curated by Dr. Katherine Parhar, When the Light Shifts is the inaugural group exhibition of WildFires, a new network of women in photography in Scotland. www.wild-fires.org Wildfires is supported by Edinburgh Napier University.