18th February 2016
Last night I went to a talk at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, organised by John Umney on behalf of the OCA and UCA. It was terrific and inspiring. I tend to see so much photography either online or in galleries and sadly I am not nearly as conscientious about writing it up as I was for TAOP – I couldn’t possibly write up everything though. But Mathews’ talk and work really struck a chord with me.
Chloe Dewe Mathews studied art at Ruskin University then worked in the film industry on some big name movies as part of the creative machine. She realised it wasn’t for her and started assisting a couple of photographers in London, eventually moving on to shoot her own stories. Her first two were about a Jewish community who holiday in Aberystwyth and another about people who do up cars only to smash them up in races around the country, called Banger Boys (some of which was documented in the Wimbledon Dogs stadium just five minutes from where I live).
She told us how no-one wanted to buy her stories immediately and she and her boyfriend went travelling, hitching from China back to London. She took 120 rolls of medium format film with her and hardly any money, and set off to search for the sort of photography she wanted to do. Whilst away her original stories were printed in the Sunday Times and she came across several new situations to start documenting, namely in China, along the Aral Sea and on the Caspian coast. Eventually she was awarded a Harvard Fellowship which has allowed her to focus on the Caspian work, documenting it for a period of five years before bringing it to a close, shortly to be published in a book alongside a planned exhibition in the States. She was also commissioned by Oxford University to explore war stories which resulted in her Shot at Dawn series, which was included in the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern and elsewhere in a tour. Mathews was again commissioned by Tate Modern to look at Southwark and that resulted in Sunday Service, an exploration of African churches in the South London borough.
Although I found all of her work incredibly intelligent and was so impressed by the intense originality and level of depth in each series, I want to concentrate on Shot at Dawn and relate it to what I have been learning about Benjamin’s ‘aura’.
Mathews was asked to do something in conjunction with research that she had not been part of prior to being commissioned. She had to look at the work being done by the University and try to find something out of which to make a body of work. During her investigations she heard about the numbers of soldiers who were executed by their own side, men from each of the armies involved, and was shocked by the callousness of that behaviour. She decided to investigate further but found it difficult since much of the evidence was hushed up and only made available in the last couple of decades. As such it has not been archived over time and finding facts requires a lot of digging. Mathews worked with several historians from Oxford and elsewhere in her research.
Ultimately the body of work is made up of photographs of the places where the executions took place, at the same time of day and at roughly the same time of year. Finding the locations took various forms of detective work to identify, including laying Google maps over old maps and matching up descriptions of land at the time of WW2 with how it looks now. Each shot had a different method of research behind it.
Several things Mathews said, along with thoughts of my own, struck me as important to think about.
Mathews said the more you pare things back in a photograph the more space there is for the viewers to ‘project’ onto the image. Here she has taken very sparse photographs of trees, fields, buildings and supplied us with a shocking enthographic narrative about our cultural history. We project all we know already from history, films, popular culture with stark facts and the work ends up being incredibly powerful. I have to say, I have thought about this word ‘projection’ and there is something that troubles me about it – but I’m not quite clear with it in my head yet. Suffice to say, there is certainly a two-way process between story teller and viewer; a ‘conversation’, something Berger suggested as a valid aim for photography. In all conversations there is of course projection, but there is also counter-transference and that, I think, is the thing that is troubling me. Perhaps it’s not relevant and I am thinking too much. Nevertheless, there is tremendous aura, as far as I’m concerned, but as much of that has to do with concept as it does with visuals. Perhaps I have succumbed to ‘slippage’ in understanding words, because this idea of aura is not easy to pin down.
The work has been shown in a gallery, has a dedicated website, is published in magazines and there is a book. I was really struck by this and thought about Benjamin, and later, my conversation with John Umney which really helped me to further situate where this idea of aura fits. I am beginning to wonder if grandeur (pomp, authoritativeness, splendour) is what has been pushed aside rather than aura. Because there is little doubt that Shot at Dawn has a definite aura – in fact, I think it has a great deal and its power is intense. But it is not confined to one, limited place. In fact, quite the opposite. There is an extremely democratic means of dissemination. Mechanical and digital reproduction has made that possible. (This is true of Sunday Service too.) You do not need to visit a gallery, something some people simply don’t do often if at all, to see it. The work reaches far and wide and that is something Mathews felt strongly needed to happen, which is why it has its own dedicated website. The work has touched many people, including relatives of the people who were executed, many of whom are still waiting for governments to pardon them for acts of state that we simply wouldn’t conceive of being carried out in the West nowadays.
The other thing she said which struck me was that the body of work was made out of 95% research and 5% actual photography. I thought this was important to take on board. All the work behind the mages seemed to give it enormous depth and gravitas.
One of the most important things I took away from the talk is that Mathews is working differently to many documentary photographers. She doesn’t fly into disaster areas and snap away, making dramatic records. She allows things to unfold slowly, over time. She was also quite clear early on that she edits as she shoots. I actually wanted to ask her about this more. It is different to how Martin Parr works, who has talked about how he makes full use of the fact that digital is so inexpensive and you can shoot as much as you like to get the exact shot you’re after. They are very different photographers after different things, I understand.
When I watched a video of Cig Harvey’s talk, she said one of her most valid early lessons was that interesting photography is about things rather than of things. I really heard that and it has stayed with me since. I think Mathews’ talk and work really encapsulates and drives home that message, which is so crucial to creating photographs that interest me.
Cloe Dewe Mathews website
Shot at Dawn website