The literary force of the book’s title ‘The Death of a Beautiful Subject’ takes the reader from its cover to the first image, which – uncaptioned – shows an elided butterfly (a white absence on a background of silvery fern). Such an immediate narrative foreshortening suggests we identify the death of the title with the fragility of the lepidopterist’s specimen. And, indeed, this does name one type of death. But a number of other innocences seem to shift under the title’s charge – not least, our understanding of any intent within the photographic gaze and the image’s future projection into significance. This book has an unusual distribution of narratorial and emotional labour – working between text, titling and image. Such an opening positions an emotional intensity that we might expect the rest of the book to explain or dissipate. But instead, multiple other subjects come obliquely into view through the motif of the butterfly and its absence. Both our encounter and the narrator seem stunned. By the conclusion, the death the book announces, is perhaps an act in itself.
Each of the book’s images show at least one butterfly. They are named (‘Brown Hairstreak’, ‘Pearl-bordered Fritillery’) together with a few lines detailing the conditions of butterfly collecting in Devon (where the artist’s father lives) and some clarifications about the digital transfer of his images to the artist. Through the text we experience a generational uncertainty and vulnerability about technology, but also about expectation too, with the father asking at one point ‘Let me know what you want.’ We don’t know the artist’s reply except through the imposing pitch of the accompanying imagery – images cropped and heightened into a new aesthetic order. The butterflies become more camouflaged through their re-purposed artistic version and slightly lost in a silvery textural spectrum. They are now less an amateur’s specimen, and more of an episode in a visual continuum of metallic light. Such differentiated presencing is a significant strategy here: from the elision and disappearance of the butterflies that open and close the visual plates, to the camouflaged indistinction of the book’s middle phase, and then in the penultimate image, the refracted appearance of the father himself in the act of photographing a ‘Jersey Tiger’. Collectively there is a visual play on doubling here, together with the relation of the type to its tokens and therefore the logic of substitution and replacement.
This book might be understood as an act of restitution (a returning to the father). Perhaps, a realizing of the aesthetic potential within a familial and amateur photographic source. And, a homage to one of the origins of the artist’s own photographic practice. The Death of a Beautiful Subject is an elaboration and extension on Rickett’s earlier photo-work Objects in the Field where the images of a professional astronomer are re-worked through colour, scale and sequencing into the artist’s own visual signature. In both works there is a generational, gendered, and genre transfer. From a form of photographic work (premised on the male empirical gaze) a new auratic possibility easefully emerges through an imposed stylistic and conceptual framing. Where Rickett brought lightness to the work of the astronomer a different weight is freighted on the butterfly images. This is certainly a complex exchange – uncapturable by the notion of collaboration – where original photographic intent and its purported subject are significantly liberated. In Objects in the Field, a scientist’s career (with its successes and regrets) is brought into an unexpected late visibility: a presence despite his image’s immediate scientific obsolescence. In this book, the father’s imagery is re-worked to reveal logics beyond the visual that seem to extend into the family itself. Who is being seen? And who is not? And who is being substituted? While being personal, understanding this work should resist an easy subsumption of it into the contemporary prevalence of photography and personal archive, since there is genuine agency here, a working of understanding without seeming resolution or settling, where the politics of photography and gender representation are also foregrounded.
The final pages of The Death of the Beautiful Subject link a series of encounters and conversations that relate to the father’s decision to leave the family. Rickett concentrates on the feel of materials (the density of tree wood, the heat of a kitchen, the stain on a bedstead) through which these encounters continue to find shape and resonance. The text closes with the artist running on the beach and touching the residual warmth from the cast of a disturbed female seal.
– text by Paul Tebbs
The Death of a Beautiful Subject by Sophy Rickett was published by GOST Books.