We have had to call time on the storage unit where until now we have been keeping all those things we couldn't bear to get rid of when we moved house. It's down to money, as usual. It's simply not practical to continue paying to store things that actually we haven't looked at in the 18 months we've lived here. The flat looks like something out of one of those hoarding programmes I sometimes watch in fascination. There are boxes of books, lots of boxes of books actually, baby clothes, plastic dinosaurs, a dolls house, train sets, camping gear, old financial records. There is all my work from four years of art school, my darkroom kit, studio backdrops, crockery, tools, more books. The contents of our old attic essentially. I don't want to think about how much it has cost us to keep this stuff only now to throw most of it away.
Yesterday I casually opened a box of books and there at the top was the prayer book that I had in my possession on the day when my adoptive parents brought me home. I came in a yellow dress, with a small bundle of clothes, feeding instructions and a prayer book. I had thought it lost. I opened it and recalled the letter that decades after my adoption, my birth father had sent me, in which he told me that he was the one who had provided the prayer book and that it was his writing on the front leaf. There was no writing on the front leaf. Closer inspection revealed that someone had ripped the paper out to ensure I never read it. I had carried this prayer book with me on my wedding day, attached to my bouquet, completely oblivious to this act of vandalism.
I had long reconciled myself to the fact that this item was gone and was surprised at the relief I felt on rediscovering it. I felt an urge to photograph it. I recognised the urge. It was the same one which had driven me to photograph our old house on the day that we left it, and to photograph the stuffed animals belonging to my daughters before they went to the charity shop. In some way the photograph came to represent a kind of retention of ownership. Diminished ownership, but enough to allow letting go of the physical object in a way that was less painful than it would have been without the photograph. None of the children have ever asked to see the photographs. I find I can't delete them.
So now I find myself thinking about the photograph acting as a kind of surrogate to ownership. I know I've considered the idea of the photograph as memorial before - an aide to memory, a souvenir, but this feels more like 'if I have the photograph it's almost like I have the thing'. I am recalling the words of Walter Benjamin in his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and where the 'aura' lies. Which prompts me to consider value. The value of the object. The value of the reproduction. The value of the means of reproduction. If I take a photograph of a precious object I'm about to part wtih, using a large format camera, is the resulting image of the thing I won't have any more, more precious than if I'd taken the picture on my phone? If I keep the prayer book, because it has value to me beyond what it would ever be worth to anyone else, why do I still feel an urge to photograph it? Is it because somehow I trust the photograph more than the object? Do I value the photograph more?
I recall a visit to Tate Modern a few years back. I had been looking forward to seeing the The EY Exhibition: Paul Klee - Making Visible. I enjoyed it, but a tutor pointed me in the direction of of work by Mira Schendel and this absolutely blew me away. I was mesmerised and quite emotional by the time I was done. Exiting by the gift shop caused quite a conundrum. I wanted the exhibition catalogues for both. I could only justify buying one. I spent a good half hour wandering around the shop mulling it over before plumping for Schendel. The book sits on a shelf in my hall and I can't remember the last time I opened it. I know that I spent some time on the internet trying to find a reduced price Klee catalogue. There were none to be had which is probably just as well because I doubt I'd look at that any more than the one I have. But I felt the need to take a little bit of that exhibition home with me, to make it real. I think that's why people are so compelled to record concerts on their phone instead of sitting/standing/moshing in the moment and watching the performance. They're afraid that if they don't have a reproduction of the real thing, perhaps the real thing didn't happen/wasn't there. I have more to investigate on this theme clearly but for now I simply realise that I need to re-examine my relationship with photography and the motivations for making work. Just what is going on here?
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