The much-awaited follow up to Looking for Alice, Siân Davey’s second book Martha does not disappoint. A slim, almost-square hardback with a printed linen cover and pink endpapers, it contains a series of photographs of Davey’s stepdaughter, the eponymous Martha, between the ages of 16 and 19. With a foreword by Kate Bush, this collection of observational yet overwhelmingly self-aware images of a teenage girl becoming a young woman is set to become a seminal work of early 21st century photography.
That’s a grand statement, but then Davey has become a major figure in British photography in a very short space of time; her work is immediately recognizable. Her photographs are very beautiful, which is of course a large part of their pull, and they stay with you long after you have turned the page. Her vision of sunny English scenes scented by summer meadows and with the sound of distant splashing in the River Dart has become imprinted on the consciousness of British photoland.
Davey’s images are photographs in the purest sense; moments caught on film, the only interpretation of a scene the choice of moment and a bit of colour work in the printing. These are not staged images, but they’re not strictly objective documentary photographs either; we rarely see Martha unaware. She is free, unguarded, direct with her gaze; poised, but not posed. The image in the very centre of the book, ‘Plymouth ice rink, 6am’ is perhaps my favourite, precisely because Martha is not engaging with the viewer. She’s grinning, half a roll-up in her mouth, hair unkempt, and I imagine, roaring with laughter half a second later. I would like to have seen more of that Martha: the rawer, wilder one, alongside the knowing one. Also, I can’t help but feel perhaps the edit could have been a bit tighter – occasionally the images feel a touch repetitive, as if sometimes Davey couldn’t choose between two, so she put in both for fear of having to let one go.
But Martha is a love-story, which might explain why making a ruthless cut was particularly hard. The book is hardback proof of the bond between Davey and her stepdaughter, and also between the glorious young people of Martha’s tribe, who seem blessed with joy, beauty and laughter, unburdened by A-level revision or the prospect of £60K university fees. They are caught in that blessed time between childhood and adult responsibility, where finding one’s friends, one’s source of happiness, and oneself, is a daily pursuit not a nagging responsibility that gets put off until after the bills have been paid. We are shown a dream, a very beautiful one, which Davey acknowledges; in making this work she has imagined a new version of growing up for herself. Martha shows us a childhood we all wish that we had had, or would wish for our own children.
So, the only real complaint I have is that it is all so perfect. Where are the arguments, the dramas, the slammed bedroom doors? Surely Martha can’t have been so lucky as to have escaped teenage angst? We would be wise to remember that not every day in a teenager’s life is full of sunshine – whereas Alice showed both the idyllic and the dark, Martha only hints at the shadows under the water. With any luck, there will be more to come as Davey stretches her wings further and higher – I can’t wait.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies
Below, images from Martha © Siân Davey, courtesy of Trolley Books