/ Carole Evans: A Street of Soldiers & At Rest
“All photographs are memento mori…” (Susan Sontag)
This two-part project and exhibition by photographer and curator Carole Evans, A Street of Soldiers & At Rest has been two years in the planning and execution. The starting point for the project was the story of Chapel Street, Altrincham; nicknamed The Bravest Little Street in England. The street was given the accolade by King George V after 161 men from 60 households enlisted to fight in the First World War. Of these men 29 were killed, 20 who returned later died from their injuries.
In the first part of the project, A Street of Soldiers makes reference to Chapel Street, of which now only a single building remains. The street was celebrated and recognised by the king for the sacrifice, not just by the men who served but also the women left behind to look after the families.
It was a working class cul-de-sac and populated by a significant number of migrants from Ireland, at the time part of the British Empire. The transient nature of some of the households, many returning from the war went back to Ireland rather than return to Chapel Street, and the demolition of the street in 1950s meant the story of the street was fragmented and in part lost.
Evans’ work revisits the story of the street and the men who went to war. She has created 29 ambrotype portraits of current local residents with ages that coincide with the men who died in the war. The 1908 Thornton Pickard camera Evans used was originally made locally and so furthers the project’s connection with the history of the area. The loss of the Pickard factory, as with the loss of Chapel Street itself speaks not just of the movement of time but also the economic realities that dictated the fates of so many from the area, as it still does.
The phrase ‘Lest we forget’, stands as a popular reflection on the war and the war dead. It allows at times for a cursory acknowledgement of shared reference and history. The actuality of the loss and largely forgotten existence of Chapel Street demonstrates some limits to this memory; the folding of small lives into the larger national and international narratives and the gap between the ‘we’ of the individual, the ‘we’ of the local and the ‘we’ of the national. The work and persistence of the descendants of some of those lost in the war and local residents ensured the recognition of the street and its place in the national story of the war. The belated revisiting of this story in the public context – the local council having failed in its obligation and promise to maintain the Roll of Honour [i] – evidence a forgetfulness towards the smaller narrative.
The recently released documentary They Will Not Grow Old [ii] offers a colourised version of the war, one that will no doubt enable people to view the footage and those in it in a more recognisable or empathetic way, removed from the black and white veil and sense of pastness that elicits. With Evans’ work we see the use of black and white and older technologies in an obverse but no less affective way. Modern men are rendered in imperfect but compelling images created by a process connecting the area through time. The images are striking, modern yet old, imperfections in the images connoting the past with the cracks and chips we might expect. The fragility of the glass ambrotypes evokes the fragility of the lives of the young men sent off to war, and perhaps too of the memories we commit to hold.
The project which ‘enlisted’ local men necessitated a sitter to remain still for 18 seconds for each exposure. This time was offered as an opportunity to consider the fate of the men for whom the sitter was a contemporary proxy. The sense of these photographs as memento mori is layered; the invitation to the sitter to contemplate the lost men of Chapel Street, the invitation to the viewer to remember these lost men, as well as the existent ‘catastrophe’ present in every photograph of a person [iii]. Each image is a unique object, inviting connections with the idea of singular lives lost. The ambrotype process means the positive image only clearly appears when placed against a dark background and in viewing the photograph one can also see their own reflection in the glass. The celebrated Oliver Wendall Holmes description of a photograph as a ’mirror with a memory’ [iv] seems apt here, not just for the visual reflection but also for the reflection elicited and the broad ideas of memory presented in the exhibition.
The second part of Evans’ project, At Rest, is a series of memory objects created in the Victorian style with pressed flowers and embroidery. Evans has used the nine available photographs of the men from Chapel Street to create these pieces. The creation of the memory objects brings attention to not just the key presence of the deceased in the available pictures but also the absence of the others. The poverty, social circumstances and low military rank meant few had access to photographs as mementos even as the popularity of domestic photography spread.
The performance of creating these memory objects acts as a physical connection between the artist and the men being honoured. There is a sense of penance in the act, a recognition from someone ‘at home’ of the broken commitment to remember and continue the public recognition of the sacrifices made. As photo-historian Geoffrey Batchen says in relation to these Victorian memory objects, “memory cuts both ways; the act of remembering someone is surely also about the positioning of oneself…about establishing oneself within a social and historical network of relationships.” [v] In this work Evans positions herself as a bereft family member in a performance of memorialising her loss and a dutiful act of remembrance. By extension we viewers are invited to position ourselves relative to the relationships evoked by the story of the street; the loss of individuals, households and Chapel Street itself.
At this time of year it can feel as if the act of remembrance is dominated by, and evidenced through, the act of wearing a poppy. These projects demonstrate a different and more affecting mnemonic. They connect Altrincham through time and through portraits, flattening this distance of time and captivatingly engaging the area in its own past through participation, exhibition and these acts of remembrance.
– text by Paul Glavey
Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography, New York: Penguin. p 11
[i] Brady, S. (2017), Chapel Street: The Bravest little street in England, Stroud: The History Press. p12
[ii] They shall not grow old, (2018). [Film] UK. Peter Jackson
[iii] Barthes, R (1981), Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang p96
[iv] Holmes, O. W. (1859) ‘The stereoscope and the stereograph,’ The Atlantic Monthly (June). Online. Available at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1859/06/the-stereoscope-and-the-stereograph/303361/
[V] Batchen, G. (2004), Forget me not: Photography and remembrance, New York: Princeton Architectural Press. p97
For further viewing: Carole Evans: The Bravest Little Street in England at AIR Gallery, Altrincham (14.11.18 – 25.11.18) and more via caroleevans.co.uk