Sara Davidmann / Ken. To Be Destroyed – Sara Davidmann’s work at Belfast Exposed
November 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Belfast Exposed’s current group exhibition Catharsis brings together three projects by contemporary photographers who use portraiture in innovative ways to explore and come to terms with complex family or personal histories. Through her project, Ken. To Be Destroyed, Sara Davidmann explores the tensions between an ‘acceptable’ public-facing image and a private personal identity.
Davidmann and her siblings inherited an archive of letters and photographs belonging to her uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston, stored in a drawer by their mother Audrey Davidmann. The letters chronicled struggles in the relationship between Ken and Hazel, as it had emerged soon after they were married that Ken was transgender. In the context of a British marriage in the 1950s, this inevitably profoundly affected both their own relationship and their relationships with the people around them. In an eventual agreement between the couple, Ken lived publicly as a man but in the privacy of their home he lived as a woman. In response to the letters and family photographs, Sara Davidmann has produced a new set of photographs using analogue, alternative and digital processes. By working upon and reworking these found images, Davidmann seeks to release Ken publicly as the woman that he wished to be in his lifetime.
Christiane Monarchi recently asked Davidmann more about the background to this compelling photographic series and book.
Christiane Monarchi: Thinking back to the beginning of this project, the description of your finding this archive of family photographs, letters and memorabilia is overwhelming in considering your uncle Ken balancing his public image and the identity he enacted in private within this – your own – loving family, for several decades. How did you first approach working with something so personal to your family, in making your own art in reference to Ken? In particular the phrase written on an envelope which you made into the title ‘Ken. To Be Destroyed’, could you tell us how you worked through and around what must be very intense personal feelings about the archive itself?
Sara Davidmann: It’s a difficult decision to take something that’s been framed as ‘a family secret’ into the public domain. But since 1999 I’d taken collaborative photographs with people from UK trans communities. Many of these people had encountered transphobia and discrimination, and they’d had to make difficult decisions in order to be able to be themselves. For me to be silent would have felt like a betrayal of these people I had come to know and care about.
The project began when I read a collection of letters, written by my aunt Hazel to my mother Audrey, when Hazel first discovered that Ken was transgender. I found the letters very moving. I felt as if I came to know Hazel through these letters in a way that I had never known her in life.
It took me a while to realise that, despite writing ‘Ken. To be destroyed’ on one of the envelopes containing the letters, Audrey had brought the letters and papers together and kept them. Hazel and Audrey wrote to each other many times from 1958 – when Hazel discovered Ken was transgender – to 1963 – when Hazel seems to have become reconciled to the fact that Ken was transgender. In the 1950s and 60s Audrey had kept carbon copies of the letters she wrote to Hazel. Then, when Hazel died in 2003, Audrey had gone to Edinburgh to sort out Hazel’s things. She found a collection of letters and cards that Ken had written to Hazel – which Hazel had kept. She also found Ken’s papers from the 1950s and 60s when he was investigating what it meant to be transgender. She had then brought all these from Edinburgh to London and put them together with her own collection of copies of letters that she had written to Hazel.
So I think that Audrey must have been ambivalent about this material. On the one hand she kept it – some of the material for over 50 years – and yet on the other hand she wrote on the envelopes that the contents were ‘to be destroyed’. Interestingly, Audrey had kept diaries and notebooks throughout her life and she had always intended to write these up for publication – so perhaps she thought she might use some of the material. But by the time I began to explore the archive in depth – it was unfortunately too late to ask her about it.
CM: When you have been working on the new images for this project, some seen in Belfast Exposed this month, could you talk a bit about the different processes you used for these? At your London exhibition there were some contemplative, hand-coloured images, while others seem to be joining two disparate subjects, certainly mark making features quite evidently in several images, sometimes obscuring the subject with active strokes of the brush or light. Could one infer emotional states about the subject matter at hand?
SD: At the same time as discovering the archive, I found Audrey’s albums of family photographs. Looking at the photographs I was acutely aware of their surfaces. The marks of time and damage had become part of the images. This led me to work on the surfaces of the photographs I produced.
I was particularly drawn to a set of pictures Ken had taken of Hazel. In response to these pictures, and thinking about the surfaces of the vintage prints, I produced a new set of photographs from the originals. I then began by working on the surfaces of the prints using inks, paint, magic markers and correction fluid to isolate the clothing. I experimented with different ways of working. Some of the surfaces became thick with layers of ink and paint, and scratching and rubbing back through to earlier layers. These pictures became the series ‘The Dress’. My beginnings as a painter, I think, come to the fore here.
I also worked digitally to create fictional photographs of Ken, trying to imagine how Ken might have looked as a woman. The studio that had taken Ken and Hazel’s wedding photographs offered a hand colouring service. Because of this I decided to use hand colouring on black and white prints. I have always loved the look of hand coloured photographs – the way that this process often seems to make the pictures appear other-worldly or hyper-real.
For another series I had digital negatives made so that I could work with chemigram processes in the darkroom – painting with developer, fix and photographic bleach. This allowed me to explore bringing the image out of the surface of the paper itself through the marks I made rather than applying marks to the surface of a previously printed picture.
CM: Sometimes words are highlighted within your images made from source letters, ‘secret’, and ‘desperate emotional condition’, ‘for pity’s sake don’t tell anybody’ some examples – are there some words or images that were perhaps too private to share?
SD: I had to make decisions about what should be included in the project and what should be left out. I decided that some things should be kept private – at least for the time being.
CM: In your previous work with trans* and queer communities, I imagine you have built up a huge level of trust with your collaborating subjects. Have people approached you with their own buried stories now, from within their own families and personal experience, since making ‘Ken. To Be Destroyed’?
SD: An unexpected and very interesting outcome of this project is that every time I have an exhibition of this work or give a talk about it I am approached by people who share with me their buried family stories. It’s wonderful that the project connects with other people’s personal experiences in this way.
CM: I’m also very interested in Hazel, how she evolved within this loving and committed marriage to Ken. Could there be a next chapter?
SD: There could be more developments in the project – but I’m currently very immersed in a new project looking at a different aspect of my family history.
For further viewing:
CATHARSIS group exhibition with work by Amak Mahmoodian, Sara Davidmann and Mariela Sancari will continue at Belfast Exposed until 23 December 2017.
Ken. To Be Destroyed publication by Sara Davidmann (Schilt Publishing: 2016) reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies