June 1: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ it is said, but have we not found, in COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ that from our intimate, domestic surroundings spring unexpected reveries?
That idea may be approached through works by three photographers spanning the history of our medium, two born in more than a century apart on this date, and one exhibiting today.
Lady Clementina Hawarden, born on this date in 1822, was a prolific and expert amateur of the exacting wet collodion process, and produced more that 800 images that survive from her lifetime. She makes frequent appearances in histories of photography yet little is known of motivations, which are the subject of much theorising; she left little writing, only a few letters. But her pictures, which she did not even title — she called only ‘Studies from Life’ or ‘Photographic Studies’ — are pregnant, alive.
After her 1845 marriage to Cornwallis Maude, 4th Viscount Hawarden, in 1857 they moved from London to the family estate in Tipperary, where she started making landscape photographs, including stereoscopic views, around the Dundrum (Dún Droma) property, including one in which her husband and two daughters play at being peasants on a specially made daïs.
In 1859 the family moved back to London, to South Kensington at 5 Princes Gardens — developed between the mid-1850s and the mid-1870s by successful speculative builder (Sir) Charles James Freake — in a house now demolished and just up the road from the V&A.
The well-to-do couple were acquainted with Henry Cole, the first director of the Museum which had opened in 1857, and to which her granddaughter Lady Clementina Tottenham donated 775 of her photographs in 1939. One of the first families to take up tenancy of the exclusive terrace, their neighbours included Lord Augustus Fitzroy (later 7th Duke of Grafton), four MPs and several judges.
In South Kensington Hawarden began using a Horne & Thornthwaite large-format camera and a Dallmeyer’s No. 1 Triple Achromatic lens. She might rather have continued being outdoors making landscapes (though we shall never know), but motherhood would have made huge demands on her time, so her daughters (of whom she had eight, with one son) were subjects for stereo pairs, and then single-image tableaux and portraits that prompt the viewer to provide a narrative.
Her studio was the second floor drawing room opening through large windows onto a terrace where she also made pictures with others of Freake’s Italianate buildings across Princes Gardens as the background. Both outside features can be made out in the image below, one of my favourites.
Ever inventive, with these restricted means, and some costumes and sparse props including a mirror with which she would cast sunlight into the room, Hawarden constructed a series of novel and varied scenes of female childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, involving some cross-dressing.
Here is a scene — which you may read as a lovers’ tiff, or a child chastised — a domestic drama of the like repeated in Victorian literature of contemporaries Anne Brontë, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, and in Pre-Raphaelite painting, but rarely with such economy of means. The rolled muslin curtain admits wan, partly-clouded light that glows from the lap of the downcast girl and dissolves parts of the man’s tense stance, but the twisted fabric also divides the couple, wrings out still more ennui and unease, and like a balance suspends the pair, weighing the outcome of this drama in its scales.
There is a companion image in which the man, who is Lord Hawarden, stands alone. His pose is little changed between both, but we can determine that considerable time passes between the exposures by the passage of the shadows of the south-facing window, that the solo portrait was made earliest.
Yet another from the series, made later still, shows the daughter (possibly Isabella), oddly cramped between fireplace and a cabinet, watching as her father writes something (though they may be timing the exposure with a pocket-watch). This reveals her working method and the kindling of Hawarden’s visual stories.
It is worth comparing her imagery with other atmospheres in Bill Brandt‘s portraits and nudes made before just such windows in the same area of London, in days when many such homes had become run down and turned into smaller flats (almost all the houses in Princes Gardens were vacated during the Second World War, when requisitioning for wartime use as hostels and offices, and neglect, left them generally dilapidated. By the early 1950s only two or three of them remained single dwellings, but now restored, are valued in the millions).
Many of Hawarden’s pictures in the V&A collection have been torn (for unknown reasons) from an album, and tears at their corners have in many cases been clumsily trimmed off, though this print still bears such disfiguration at lower left. At exhibitions of the Photographic Society of London she was awarded the silver medal in both 1863 and 1864 and was memorialised the following year, on her premature death of pneumonia at 43, by Oscar Rejlander in the British Journal of Photography of 27 January 1865.
Also born on this date, in 1935, and who also died in her 40s, tragically early, is Claude Batho, wife of the better known and longer-lived John, an early Modernist innovator in colour, though both of them succeed where few photographers do; in the restriction of their compositions to a single motif, which John did for formalist reasons and often in a series as ‘typologies’, and Claude, out of quite different motivations. They met at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in the archives where she worked in the document reproduction department.
A keen artist from a young age, she was introduced to photography by her father, who gave her her first camera, and at 15 she enrolled in the École supérieure des arts appliqués Duperré in Paris in 1950. Her picture of a portrait of her father, ill-fitted into an elaborate frame, thus presents a domestic, and autobiographical, enigma; the portrait without identity other than its title, the features blanked by the shimmering spectral reflection of a window. Does it represent her difficulty in recalling his face, or his attitude to her?
Her first book, published in 1975, was a portfolio, Portraits d’enfants, and like Hawarden her subjects were her daughters; Marie-Angèle and Delphine. In 1977, she exhibited at Galerie Agathe Gaillard in Paris, where her imagery was admired by Antoinette Fouque director of publishing house des femmes, who published the photobook with a title that encapsulates the temper of Batho’s work; Le Moment des choses, which in both French and English evokes both the photographic moment, but also that instant when things exert their presence.
Hers is an Existentialist realisation rooted in Sartre’s phrase, ‘être hors de soi-même pour être soi-même’ (to be outside of oneself to be oneself); that an individual cannot at the same time remain a self and also ‘catch themselves’. According to Sartre what characterises the human is subjectivity, of being self-conscious and existing for oneself at the phenomenological level; only possible in the proportion to which one is conscious of the not-self, the world of objects. This relationship to the not-self is existential, characterising the very existence of a human being for whom a hope to ‘catch up with oneself’ is futile, as treating the self as an object, something to be grasped and held, whether materially or mentally, would destroy the pour soi.
Batho invests objects with such intensity, with intimacy. She responds to domestic objects as does painter Jean Siméon Chardin, her admiration for whom is evident in frank representations of a saucepan, or of a child’s swing.
Showing, now that galleries are opening again here in Australia with the easing of our lockdown, are a duo, artists Jomakhan Jafari, calligrapher and Danny Kennedy, the photographer, at Casula Powerhouse. They’ve interviewed Western Sydney residents, 40% of whom were born overseas, about their dreams, interpreting them in lively siyah mashq black script Persian calligraphy and photographs made at sites across Western Sydney. Kennedy’s imagery is as ‘straight’ as Hawarden’s or Batho’s, even ‘deadpan’.
Each dream interpretation is accompanied by excerpts of the interviews:
I used to have this dream for a week at a time, every night.
Me, my sister and my mum would go on an escalator in the shops. I was always behind them. Then my chin would get stuck to the escalator.
It would get sucked into the gap between the stairs, a few stairs above where I was standing. And it would hurt. I could see the light – you know how there’s lights in between the stairs? It was a buzzing feeling, like a light going through my body. My sister and my mum would say “Oh, that’s just a normal thing for you. You’re the only one that this happens to.”
Then we would get upstairs, and we’d always go to the same bathroom.
It was always full of steam, and big women, big Persian women washing themselves. As soon as I went in there, I couldn’t breathe. But I’d have to wait for my mum and sister to come out. So I’d… try to make them pee faster. It wasn’t funny, it was pretty scary. I was 7 or 8. I was in Iran back then, but it was an Australian shopping centre. But it would have a Persian bathroom. A public bath.
For 15 years, I didn’t dream about anything in Australia. I was always going back to Somalia, going back home. The dream I remember the most is going back to our home and looking for a TV and a VCR recorder. I couldn’t get over them. I think we bought them the year the war happened. 1989. I was eleven when I left there. It’s like I was actually there, going back into the room, and I remembered things that I didn’t even remember in waking life. I remember wanting to take that VCR. I even remember the brand, it was a Samsung. I think that was the first time we owned a TV and a VCR, and they were both very small. It’s because of that dream that I know now what the room looked like. I guess because when we left there, we didn’t think we were leaving for good. We left there thinking “This is just a bit of fighting, so just take the little things, we’ll be back.” Then we kept saying that in every suburb we went to.
These make the exhibition A Familiar Place I’ve Never Seen. It’s a title with which we readily associate our own dreams. They say;
“Every night the dreamers of Western Sydney travel to thousands of different places.”
And yet, these dreamers ‘remain in place’; a familiar place re-seen.