Picturing Aftermath - A Visual Response to the Broken Faces of WW1

Abstract: This illustrated artist paper sought to provide insight into contemporary creative practice-based research, exploring themes of human ruin, (re)membering and remembrance. In doing so, the research specifically examined and contextualised the photographic series Aftermath (Shepherdson, 2014) which was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’s start. Aftermath in reappropriating the found images of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 Krieg dem Kriege examined ‘ruination’ relating to the human form, a form all too vulnerable to mechanical warfare. In addition the paper discussed how physical vulnerabilities might be translated forcefully, yet simultaneously tenderly, through images of the damaged human face.

The presentation demonstrated Aftermath’s use of the esoteric photographic technique of emulsion lifting, whereby the photographic emulsion - similar to that of a fine layer of skin - is lifted away, re-echoing the fragility of the face and the utter devastation at its loss. As Sally Minogue comments “The damaged face was one of the most difficult disfigurements for a surviving combatant to bear because of the public response of disgust and rejection, as well as the sufferer’s own deep loss of confidence and sense of identity. In facing Shepherdson’s photographs we take on a responsibility to face up to what modern warfare means” (2014:23).

A characteristic of emulsion lifts are tears and creases which subsequently require slow, gentle teasing and stroking out by hand using soft natural bristle brushes. This act of stroking and easing the face back into shape is of course in sharp distinction to the moment of facial destruction. The specificity of this process also limits scale and thus distils each work into a unique artefact with consequent ‘flaws’ accepted and welcomed. In considering photography’s potential to connote human fragility and ruin, the paper will draw upon the salient writings of Derrida, Sontag and Berger.

Remembrance and (Re)membering: contrasting perspectives on the Sunbeam Photographic Collection

(An illustrated paper presented at Archives 2.0 Conference, at the National Media Museum, Bradford, 25-26 November 2014)

Abstract: Aleida Assman stated that ‘the archive…can be described as a space that is located on the border between forgetting and remembering’ (2008:103). Both are selective processes that forge meaningful terrains and bring order to isolated artefacts. ‘(Re)membering’ is a slightly ironic concept that attempts to encapsulate the archival processes of collection and collation, synthesising disparate parts into a meaningful whole. The Sunbeam Photographic Collection is an example of this - consisting of more than 40,000 commercially taken British seaside photographs from 1917–1976. Their origins are private individuals and uncollated municipal holdings and it is the role ofthe South East Archive of Seaside (SEAS) Photography to construct an ordered collection from such disordered parts. 

The archivist’s meaningful terrain represents a perspective which can be at odds with users and contributors. ‘Remembrance’ refers, in this context, to the emotional meaning that such ‘holiday snap’ images have for the non-archivist, interpreted through the lens of selected memory. For the archivist, such nostalgia gives way to categorical synthesis and academic analysis, in which technical, historical and cultural contexts predominate. Thus, far from a neutral interpretational landscape, this Collection can be regarded as a locus of contrasting and perhaps conflicting perspectives. For some contributors, key Sunbeam' images represent a canon, with overt sanctification. Accordingly, the archivist can be seen as hijacking the demotic, taking the ‘people’s pictures’ and over-intellectualising them. A central problem to be discussed is, therefore, how this nexus of conflicting perspectives is navigated/negotiated, without alienating the very people whose contributions are so vital to the archive’s formation.