SPENCERROWELL

ARTISTS' STATEMENT (PATHOGRAPHY)

Any creative practice is a search for self-knowledge and one’s way of being in the world. My practice as an artist is no different, including my attempts to write about my work. All the series of artwork featured on this site are in some way autobiographical, formed from a narrative of my past. My interest in bringing the visual into language was made manifest in my doctoral research where having created the images that you can see under ‘Ibid’, and in collaboration with other psychoanalytic psychotherapists, language evolved into text which acts as a ‘Preface’ to the artist’s practice, leading in turn to the introduction to the artist in the form of ‘Foreword’.

Download doctoral thesis (PDF): An Exploration of Pathography within Phototherapy, An Analysis of the Photographic Self-Portrait

AN EXPLORATION OF PATHOGRAPHY WITHIN PHOTOTHERAPY,
AN ANALYSIS OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC SELF-PORTRAIT

PREFACE

I offer a background context to the reader before embarking on the documentation of my research. By way of attempting to define the subjects of interest, voice and photography and my relationship with them. As much the relationship with photography and language, are the tools of communication and their use – the camera and the voice – that has occupied an important place in this enquiry. An initial inquisitiveness that I remember had been silenced. I was a quiet child. I had retreated into myself. I had learnt to be invisible. I felt both unseen and unheard. Lost. This changed however, at around the age of twelve when, in the loft I discovered a Box Brownie camera. It had been purchased by my parents in 1956 to take on their honeymoon. When I began making prints from the negatives it produced, developed and contacted in the large walk-in wardrobe I had in my bedroom, the potential for photography to take an important place in my life was immediate. My time was occupied, I had an obsession and it gratified my inquisitive nature. At least a visual inquisitiveness that didn’t require asking questions. Ever since that moment photography became a way in which I would engage with my surroundings, record not only what I saw but how I saw. It is also a way of interacting and communicating with the family and world I inhabited. What I saw through the viewfinder, how I was to frame, edit and represent these encounters in the form of the printed photograph – a process I found magical – offered me a voice, importantly one with which I had a certain amount of control. Photography offered me an opportunity to communicate where before the spoken or written word had failed me. By offering a means by which I might visualise my experience, it became part of who I was. I could also deny, that is, hide behind the camera, frame what I wanted to record and in doing so choose what not to look at.

Photographs had of course already been in my life long before I was to make my own. The very box camera that I speak of captured most of these moments of my early life. They had been carefully placed and sequenced in the family album. There was also the accompanying narrative, the stories that were presented with these photographs. Together, these words and pictures served as a document of what I was to believe was a truthful account and authentic story (for pictures never lie!). There was a consistency to this narrative. (For the voice wouldn’t make up this stuff!). This important script – for it was placed within easy access for all to see – was made of photographs and a story that could be returned to as a source of comforting memories, always happier times. The family album served to reassuringly secure me to a past and ultimately a future. It provided a sense of my place in both my family and the world. It was compelling and convincing as archives are. I had, it seemed a major role in this script, however this narrative was of course directed and edited by an other.

It was to be thirty years after the making of this family album that I began to question aspects of it. It wasn’t as if the pictures lied, they showed a certain truth and the accompanying story – well, this still had a certain convincing nature – but there was something important that just didn’t stack up. It wasn’t what this document showed or how it was spoken of, but what it seem to conceal and silence of my experience. The words, the language that filled these spaces between these selected pictures – that connected these pictures together – also seem to deny a certain truth. Something just out-of-crop, beyond the border seemed to beckon me. I was blessed as a child, for I had been told this. The family album and accompanied script confirmed this, however there was a dramatic change in the associated felt experience and that of there associated memories. After all, the smiles still stare back from the album and confirm a happy time, but the plausibility of this document’s truth was thrown increasingly into doubt. It would be many years later when I might get the opportunity to confront these inconsistencies; that what this album presented to the world was seemingly untrustworthy through in comparison with my experience. The content of the photograph, a smile to camera, the story that narrates the photograph become parts of memory. There is an inconsistency. The photograph alongside the narration together and in relation with the felt experience, I shall call the memory-myth.

So my first camera offered me a means by which I might be seen and be noticed. Many years later, this could be a way of re-engaging with the family album once again, in an attempt to question its authenticity. Primarily, whose life was it authenticating? The photographer’s or the subjects’? I wanted to explore this uncomfortable relationship with the family album – this documented image verses the felt experience, this confrontation with the memory-myth; memory disrupted as I re-remembered alongside the felt experience.

These feelings alongside the illustrated narrative elicited conflicts and inconsistencies. It was a sense deep down, of something embodied, that things were not quite as they appeared. Inconsistencies as regards the relationship between the image and script. The seemingly positive nature of this document – for it was true I appeared content enough, smiling back to camera – disguises something just out of frame, it conflicts with the script. Something implausible that seemed unnameable were only revealed to me when much older.

The new narrative was to come about through psychotherapy. By questioning and verbalising these discrepancies in memory, a new language came into being along with new considerations that included more of the background knowledge, to challenge the document. Slowly this narrative became more aligned with felt experience. The story took on a different viewpoint. What if the narrative could be rewritten as a new account of the existing script with reference to what was going on, re-archived with additional visual information – would this alternative family album serve as a more truthful story? This new voice would be placed alongside a form of new visual language and an alternative family album would be made. A series of memories might be remade in a new narrative. Through this method an alternative family album might be shown to the world as a more truthful representation of the memory-myths. The camera and its relationship with the language in psychotherapy provided a potential route to a new truth, this alternative family album which I can feel could be a more accurate record of events that I might present to the world. This new script alongside new images would be directed by my myself and became my MA final project Peter’s Dreams (Rowell 2009), which offered a foundation for what follows. Re-archived with this additional information, perhaps a reason for the disruption and change experienced alongside the embodied experience of how I felt at the time. Would this alternative family album serve as a more truthful story?

A bewildered child without language finds photography as a means of communication and purpose to make sense of his feelings, the child seeking some understanding by using photography. Unexplainable and indescribable, then, as there was no language, because there were no words. I would have to wait many years to find a language to even attempt to verbalise a new narrative. This I found in psychotherapy. I returned once again to photography, and with these words, I challenged the memory-myth of certain events. I wanted to find a truth, a more cohesive picture of myself and relationship with these past events to present to the world. Again I was to pick up a camera, now confident that the camera would provide the opportunity to delve deeper and re-represent a more accurate sense of self. Psychotherapy training throughout my MA project became psychoanalysis alongside this doctoral programme which has allowed me to authenticate my practice; to create a more authentic image to project into the world with a true voice. This is what Peter becomes, using the camera to re-record the past. The production of a new portrait of self is a way of conveying and sharing ideas with both myself and with others around me. The visual artefact becomes the interface with my environment, with both internal and external relationships with the world. Analysis complemented this method of gaining self-awareness. Telling my story and using language has become a more fruitful way of dealing with unresolved conflicts. Using oral communication – words and dialogue – in therapy became a new place for communicating and seeking new knowledge. For the second time the camera is picked up as an important tool, a return to photography as a form of self-expression, its pairing with psychoanalysis and the documentation of its potential ‘use’ as a therapeutic tool has allowed my re-engagement with the image of self as a method of self-enquiry. Describing what is seen and what might be meant analysis offered an opportunity to examine words to describe these memories as myths. The visual language that undergoes the process of description or analysis offers up many possibilities of narrative.

I was at a different school for my psychoanalytic training and it became clear to me and actively encouraged that I would be bringing these two areas of interest within sight of each other. Art practice and the art of interpretation grew closer and closer together. In what I describe as the trance, I found a similarity in the state of free association and making in art. In my own psychoanalysis there is an intent to say what is on my mind, to disengage a certain way of thinking. From this safe position of a wanting to reveal and of nowhere to hide, a sense of authenticity or ‘truth’ is found; I might ‘happen across’ something that is familiar. Art practice can be a way of exploring the unknowable or inexpressible, of embodied felt experience. So from this state, can art provide a more accurate image of self? A self-portrait that offers a more accurate representation, not as literal visual recognition, but making a recognition of an embodied experience remembered and revealed within the practice. That if I was convinced by this representation, I could show this authentic self so that it might be analysed and thought about and read and ultimately, seen by others.

FOREWORD

In fact, these images seem so isolated and remote that we might ask “was there ever an adult in this small child’s world?”

His experiences as a baby are buried deep and distant. Although well cared for – happy and even charmed – he is lost in his own little world, remote from reality. Within this isolation, we might see the fragility of him as the child who should be carefree, but there is something missing. He passively sits in this silence and waits. In this bleak place there is an inevitability that emphasises feelings of inaccessibility and an impossibility in making a connection. A place of both being not heard or communicated with. A certain experience of silence, by being left unseen. Or is he just unreachable?

Here he is a person, but doesn’t know how to relate and doesn’t know how to expect people to relate to him. An interdependence between these two parts – that neither would exist without the other – meaning nothing seems certain, clear or straightforward. Two elements which cannot easily co-exist, the “speaking” of an experience where there is a close relationship, yet being in the dynamic where he cannot live and speak at the same time. One is damaging for the other. Isolated in a world between a father and a mother where their intimacy also depends on exclusion, as they do not co-exist. A sort of detached inter-connectedness, stuck in-between and unable to acknowledge the inevitable infinite dependence of them. He is a child fascinated by his mother’s reflection. But the reflection is not quite true and he finds it disturbing, troubling and hard to make sense of. As if he is within a reflection which has lost its real. His features are blurred, a turning away from something that cannot be faced.

It seems important not to see his own face, as perhaps there is no face to be seen. His face distorted over time in many different ways, just a shadow – as the little boy gone. He starts as a boy and ends up with a shadow of the boy unable to leave this place. It’s a hopelessly raw situation. How can he not manage – seemingly struggle but not manage – to see his face in the mirror? What happened? He asks. “I have the mother who cannot hear or see?” He is lost, blurred, unable to see clearly. This blurred picture of him as a little boy, is always distorted, or by a muddling of the exposure, is imperfect, not a clear reflection. He tries to look for something which is long gone, something important, vital to represent and more importantly to speak of. It’s as if his pictures could be the speech lost in the past. By looking again and again at the same thing he hopes something unremembered will be resolved. That with his endless compulsive searching that he could never quite put into words, an answer would be found. However, perhaps it is something too terrible to be uttered. He is there, but covered up, not completely destroyed but screened, blacked out. The pattern of his background is ingrained and carried over – that nursery experience that has become part of him – impossible to wash away. He is taken over, even absorbed by his surroundings in a hostile way. There is a longing to be nourished, but he fears that the “feed” is poisonous or unpalatable. Where are those missing bits that are needed, to know himself, or do their absence say much more?

Whether without a face, or over-interpreted, overseen as a ‘faceless’ face, suggests there was perhaps no identity, a blur between past and present. Or as different aspects of the ‘self’. As if going back in time to some of the echoes of earlier times although he doesn’t actually know what the story is. Does he really want to go back there, to that memory? In that place. In that family of not wanting to be there? Bits that didn’t start out together, being assembled, but I’m not sure this is what I want my audience to see, something nasty is staring back at me. Play and imagination was very important as a way of surviving, but there is a part that feels so much shame in all of this exhibiting. There is a struggle between extreme sides of himself in this stripping back. A struggle with powers beyond his control. It is hard for him to reconcile these aspects of himself and maybe he wants to be left alone. It shames him. Perhaps in the end, to admit that photography is useless.

So is this the end, his death of photography? Is that the point? This search, this conclusion from the beginning? If so, what use is the looking? Perhaps unconsciously in this picture, he is saying that the picture has to speak for itself. Would he exist without the “readers”? There would be no words. If there was a shadow of something else that hasn’t been ‘said’, what would ‘it’ look like? Has he escaped, got out of this nursery/ childhood environment where these experiences, whatever they were, happened? What did happen? Did he have the mother who cannot hear or see? To whom the bringing of something precious to be admired through creativity ultimately was of no interest. Having his speech taken away, castration through silencing by someone that controlled him and took away his identity. His creativity. His fertility. However, his experience of therapy – this spewing out of words and feelings – suggests an empowerment when once he was not allowed to have his own will, make decisions, have an identity. A process that is horrible and painful, yet he is doing something positive and something is coming out as language.

He seems to spit something back, saying to this controlling force that had to be left behind, “Now do you see? Now do you see how it feels?”