These days you can buy advent calendars in all shapes and sizes. When I was small they consisted of little perforated doors that you carefully peeled back to reveal a tiny little illustration. The joy was in wondering what image you'd find next; it could be a camel, or a shepherd, a donkey or a Christmas tree - maybe a twinkling star or a crown. I remember loving the colours and the anticipation of what was to come next. I would get that same feeling when I was taken into town for Christmas shopping expeditions - all the lights, the people in their brightly coloured coats, the smell of market stalls, Christmas music tinkling away in the background and best of all...the shop window displays. The magic of a department store window has never gone away for me and while we don't have a huge department store here in Helensburgh, we do have a wonderful range of independent retailers working hard every day to bring us an incredible range of goods, so I wanted to celebrate the creative efforts of our own local shops with this year's advent calendar.
Saturday 1st December 2018
It is a cold and misty day out there on this first day of Advent so I thought I'd kick off with this wonderfully warm and welcoming festive window from Shooftie and MYO Home They're down on the front on the corner of James Street and the shop is full of wonderful original items from Scottish crafters and makers. It's a treasure trove for sure!
Sunday 2nd December 2018
For this second day of my Window Shopping Advent Calendar, I want to take you back in time a little bit. This time of year really makes me seek things that are comforting and so I was drawn to the window at The Cat's Pyjamas and their display of cosy socks, slippers, sumptuous dressing gowns and of course, warm pyjamas. The window has a nostalgic feel to it, reminding me of our Christmas Eve tradition of opening one present each on the 24th. Even though everyone soon realised this present was ALWAYS new pyjamas, it was still hotly anticipated because really, what's better than new pyjamas? Particularly if there's still a mug of mulled wine left to savour while wearing them! The Cat's Pyjamas are on West Clyde Street, Helensburgh.
Monday 3rd December 2018
When I was a child, it is fair to say that being dragged out to buy clothes was a chore. Mind you, I think 'way back then' we didn't have shops like Eden Helensburgh where there are not only children's clothes but toys and games and books and all sorts of other exciting things to keep the little ones amused while the grown ups go about choosing from their lovely range of organic childrens' clothing. Eden are on the seafront, on the corner of James Street and Clyde Street.
Tuesday 4th December 2018
As a photographer, plants and flowers are an endless source of fascination - who could fail to be mesmerised by the endless variety of shapes, colours and scents? Today's window, the fourth in the Window Shopping Advent Calendar, comes from The Flower Shop, Helensburghon West Princes Street. I fell in love with their 'party dress' in the window and also remembered an occasion when, with no obligation to do so, they helped me out with a photoshoot by providing me with some flowers for free. I know that the stems had become a little crushed so they would have possibly not sold anyway, but I didn't need strong stems for my purposes and I went away with such a lovely warm feeling at such a kind gesture. It's this kind of thing that makes you realise how important it is to shop local and support independent retailers.
Wednesday 5th December 2018
You may have noticed that I've taken most of these photographs at night. That's because my most magical Christmas memories involve the warmth or sparkle of light against the dark: lying in bed, with just a crack of light from the landing making its way to my bedroom as I lay in bed awaiting the arrival of Father Christmas; the glow of a fire at my aunt's house while somewhere my uncle played us Christmas Carols on the piano; shop windows and municipal light displays. And then, the joy in the wee small hours of discovering a lumpy sock full of brightly wrapped packages which had to be felt and squished before opening to prolong the sense of anticipation. And that's what Advent is for me: a sense of savouring this time when it feels like anything might be possible. Imagine being a child again and standing in front of this marvellous mix of possibilities to be found in The Toy Shop on West Clyde Street. I can feel a bubble of excitement even though I am fifty and really don't need a Magic Hat. Actually scrap that. Everyone needs a magic hat.
Thursay 6th December 2018
When I was about 11 or 12, I first understood the phrase 'good things come in small packages'. Father Christmas gave me a ring. Now, I'm sure it was not valuable in a monetary sense, but my tinsel-and-glittering loving eleven year old self could not get enough of the way the light caught the glass 'stone' and danced and sparkled. I probably wandered around like a newly engaged WAG showing off my ring to all and sundry. The love of enticing sparkles has never dimmed and so I take great joy in Anne of Loudounville Jewellers and their window which looks like a grown up version of the toy shop window - endless delights to be had here! Anne of Loudounville can be found on Princes Street on the top eastern side of Colqhoun Square.
Friday 7th December 2018
A complete change of direction today - but then variety being the spice of life, why not? Helensburgh caters for a huge range of needs and that should be celebrated. Black Sails Tattoo Studio opened up on Clyde Street after the shop unit had been empty for quite some time (It used to be Acorn Art, the place to go to for 'proper' art supplies, picture framing and a wee natter. The acorn though, grew to be an Oak Tree and nowadays the owner can be found at The Oak Tree Gallery on Eask King Street where there is still much picture framing going on but also exhibitions, art classes, photography workshops, yoga, sports massages, gifts and all sorts.)
The first thing I noticed about the Black Sails new studio was the love and attention poured into the window displays. They quite often remind me of a good old fashioned 'Emporium' and are often well worth spending a few minutes exploring - so much attention to detail here. This Christmas window is very much Harry Potter themed. Just perfect!
Saturday 8th December 2018
From Harry Potter to a Nordic Winter Wonderland. The Scandinavian Shop is up on Sinclair Street and has been one of my own favourite shops since I arrived back in Helensburgh as a teenager in the 80s. It will always be 'Scanders' in my head, and then, as now, it was a great destination for a browse to pick out a perfect card or a genius gift for a loved one. I love that there are covetable items for your home as well as trinkets and things that smell heavenly. Their window this year combines iciness and warmth all in one - perhaps reflecting the mix of traditional and contemporary Scandinavian Design to be found once you get in out of the cold for some Christmassy inspiration!
Sunday 9th December 2018
As much as I adore a full on festive window, there's still something utterly charming about a string of coloured fairy lights and I love these gorgous blue ones that the Kings Cafe Helensburgh on Clyde Street have chosen to outline the name in their window. There are a lot of folk in the town with fond memories of the Kings Café back in the day when it had booths where it was possible to hide away from prying eyes and meet your friends after school for coffee or hot chocolate and possibly even illicit cigarettes. I have vivid memories of meeting pals there after a dental appointment and not quite managing keep control of my hot chocolate after a face full of anaesthesia. I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing the new owners every success with this reincarnation of a much loved venue.
Monday 10th December 2018
I might have been about four when I was given my first bicycle for Christmas. The main recollection is the absolute joy of it. Mine was a reddy orange colour with stabilisers and streamers coming from the handles. There is a photograph of me standing astride it in the hallway at my aunt and uncle's house. I look pleased as punch, and no wonder - it was a marvellous Christmas present, then and now! So today's advent calendar window features Helensburgh Cycles. I've photographed this window before, on the day they opened and while someone was performing the somewhat Olympian task of cleaning off all the window 'mask'. I think I like the look of the snowflakes and all the gleaming new bikes better!
Tuesday 11th December 2018
Oh now look at this?! (Did you SEE what I did there?! I'm so funny!) Helensburgh Eyecare is located on the east side of Sinclair Street on the corner with Princes Street. I'm always impressed with their little window which changes regularly throughout the year and reflects the passing seasons. It's a good example of how you can achieve a lot with actually very little in the way of resources.
Wednesday 12th December 2018
It's Day 12 of the Window Shopping Advent Calendar already, which means we're half way to Christmas Eve. With all this festive anticipation building, it seemed appropriate that today's window should feature The Olde Christmas Shoppe Scotland on Clyde Street. One of my favourite photographs of this shop was taken on a glorious summer day when a little girl in a sundress and sunglasses stood in the doorway on her scooter. The sun and summery attire contrasted beautifully with our notion of Christmas and it made me smile. But right now it's absolutely the season for it and this tiny shop (which I was reminded used to be a jeweller - Gordon Hattel) is full of absolutely delightful Christmas decorations of every kind, and as you can see, Santa's helper is very busy getting everything in order for Christmas!
Thursday 13th December 2018
Last week I felt like I had jumped back in time to my teenage years! I secured my first Saturday job in about 1983 and after a full day behind the chemist's counter and after deductions for all the green eyeliner I'd bought, I would save up all my earnings so that I could take the bus into town and decide what to spend it on. Back then we were living in Cambridge and I had Athena posters, Andy's Records, The Body Shop, Culpepers (Herbalist), Heffers (Bookshop), the cinema, and an amazing craft market to choose from. It would take me all day to choose what was the best thing - would it be a SKA single to play on my dad's hifi, or some Dewberry perfume oil, perhaps some pot pourri or most likely, some glorious new earrings. I liked (and still like ;-) )dangly earrings with beautiful coloured stones and semi-precious gems the best - jade, amethyst, agate, quartz, hematite, amber, turquoise. Even writing the names out makes me feel excited and happy. So imagine walking into Dinosaur & Diamond on James Street and realising that they have an amazing collection of jewellery featuring gorgeous gems and stones in just about every colour your heart would wish for, with a side order of angels and windchimes to boot. Wonderful.
Friday 14th December 2018
When I was quite small, I remember my granny in Sheffield taking me into town by bus and we visited a department store. This wasn't something that happened often and I don't remember much, but there was a cup of orange squash (this was the 70s) and a scone in what felt like a gloriously posh tearoom (it probably wasn't - again, this was the 70s!) and I also remember that each section of the store smelled different. My least favourite was the perfume section which I found cloying and sickly, but the best was the handbag department. It was a heady mix of leather, silk, wood and metal - things I can still get gloriously happy about even now. I'm not sure I realised what it was that I found so exciting all those years ago but perhaps there was a sense of the skill involved in turning raw materials into something fabulous. I did come away with a lifelong love of well dressed shop windows and of course that is what has prompted this advent calendar. Tweedie on Clyde Street is yet another lovely boutique shop in Helensburgh with a wonderful window - a Christmas Tree made of purses in a shop that sells leather and tweed gifts and accessories. Honestly, look at all the windows I've shared so far. This town is like having department store right on our doorstep!
Saturday 15th December 2018
As much as I love a fabulous boutique, it's important to emphasise that Helensburgh has even more than that on offer! When I was out exploring our town for this advent calendar, I couldn't help but be impressed by the efforts of The Lomond Clinic (https://www.facebook.com/The-Lomond-Clinic-184684785004125/.) There is something quite surreal about this set up that just appealed to my sense of humour, and I love that the tree coordinates so well with the all the anatomical models. Bravo!
Sunday 16th December 2018
Helensburgh is blessed with a really good variety of eateries, and it was on a cold, wet and rainy night that I caught sight of the chef at Padrone Pizzagetting ready to open the doors to that evening's hungry customers. There was something magical about the contrast of icy fairy lights and warm tables bathed in yellow light. The single figure reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting and lovely feeling of anticipation I felt at what might coming next meant this had to make it into the #HelensburghAdventCalendar.
Monday 17th December 2018
I was delighted when I realised that The Ginger-Bread Man/Bakehousewere opening on West Princes Street - deliciousness right in town! And their window, which is not easy to dress given its size and shape and the steam from coffee machine, nonetheless delighted my inner child. I was reminded of Christmas films from childhood - mine and my childrens'.
Tuesday 18th December 2018
I have been trying to photograph the window of Plantation Florist at the bottom of James Street for some time now but there are so often cars or delivery vans parked outside that it hasn't been possible. During the day there is a magnificent wreath on the front door and I know that they have been busy creating some incredible Christmas wreaths, swags and garlands this busy festive period. This is the florist that did my wedding flowers a good few moons ago now and I always love their window at any time of year because it's feels like Aladdin's cave somehow - an invitation to come in and explore for sure. They also have a couple of very cute dogs who are up for a bit of an ear rub which is always a bonus in my book.
Wednesday 19th December 2018
I took the photograph of yesterday's window very early in the morning. It was absolutely hoolin, and the rain was coming in sideways meaning that I had to deal with water pouring off the front of my lens and could barely stand still to take the shot. Most sensible people would have gone back home for a hot shower and a warming cup of tea but I figured 'in for a penny....' and headed west along Clyde Street. There are a few businesses there that I hadn't managed to photograph because there were always cars parked in front of them and there's only so much a polarising filter can deal with and I was hoping that at that ungodly hour there would be fewer cars to get in shot. I also thought that perhaps the rain might be coming in at my back rather than sideways on to the camera. Well I hoped. I actually think the rain enhanced some of the windows yesterday - gave them some extra sparkle. Today's window belongs to the Rowan Gallery on Clyde Street who have given us this wonderfully wintery display while still retaining a hint of warmth. Helensburgh is blessed with many things and as a photographer I'm always pleased to see that we have space for art and for artists to exhibit.
Thursday 20th December 2018
I've said it before, but Helensburgh really is blessed with some wonderfully unique shopping experiences. Over the last two years I've seen quite a few changes to the town, and perhaps nowhere more than the area at the bottom of James Street where it meets Clyde Street. It currently offers a wonderfully vibrant mix of shops and businesses, each with a unique slant, and as well as selling lovely childrens' and babies' clothes, Buttercup Moonalso caters for all those dancing needs as well as supplying uniforms for Rainbows, Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Brownies, and Guides. I took this the other day in the pouring rain and although I was initially frustrated by the rain on my lens, in the end I decided that it simply added to the magic in the window. Dancing christmas trees and fairy lights all glistened even more!
Friday 21st December 2018
For many people, 'Christmas' means 'parties' and the thrill of finding a new outfit, or the perfect accessory to make an old outfit look like something more amazing. I'm not really much of a party animal myself these days but I still enjoy looking at gorgeous sparkly things with feathers and flounces and sumptuous fabrics. Elegance Boutique of Helensburgh is just the place to go then and their windows are packed full of perfect party glamour for this time of year. Their windows are small and reminded me of exactly the kind you'd see on a Victorian themed advent calendar - what could be more perfect?!
Saturday 22nd December 2018
Last night I was cuddling up with my youngest on the sofa as we watched a cheesy made-for-tv Christmas movie and she turned to me and said 'This is great - the film is terrible but it has Christmas in it AND a wedding!' and she was right. I love a wedding! Especially a winter themed wedding! The window at The Wedding Planner is a magical wintery wonderland that reminds me of some of my favourite film musicals - I half expected these mannequins to burst into life, song and dance!
Sunday 23rd December 2018
We have very nearly reached the end of this year's #Helensburghadventcalendar. It's almost Christmas Eve, and all over the country families and friends are gathering to be with each other and share their Christmas traditions. It does mean that this is the penultimate window I have to share with you though - there were simply too many independent retailers and other businesses to fit into one advent calendar which is actually a fantastic cause for celebration all on its own.
Today's charming window comes from the Grasshopper Toy Shop on West Princes Street. It's another treasure trove of fun packed ideas for smalls. I'm not small, but if anyone's stuck for ideas, I don't think being grown up means you can't still want sun print paper! (Hint! Hint!)
Monday 24th December 2018
Well, this is it - Christmas Eve is upon us and we've reached the last window in the #HelensburghAdventCalendar, which belongs to The Coffee Club. Technically I suppose this isn't a window display, but you can see it through the window and it always makes me smile. The shot was taken first thing in the morning in the pouring rain. The wind was battering me and my camera left, right and centre and it was hovering around freezing point outside. But who could be cold with that roaring log fire and the reflection of the town's Christmas tree in the window? The scene reminded me of all those people who may still be travelling to visit loved ones at this time of year. It's misty out there again today so if you're travelling, or even still shopping, stay safe and I hope you, and yours, have a very Merry Christmas. xxxx
The ‘Family Album’ will be familiar to most people as a collection, an archive of images, put together, usually by parents, for the benefit of the family as a whole. It serves to strengthen the bonds between family members, reinforcing the idea of the family unit by promoting a sense of belonging and recognition. While families themselves may vary in their make-up, the family album provides a constant in that they are often compiled to reflect our desires and expectations: high-days, holidays, celebrations, achievements and acquisitions feature in almost every family’s album, eliminating the mundane.
Often, the family photographer is also responsible for the final edit, determining which prints make the hallowed leaves of the album and which should languish in a shoebox under the bed. The archive exists in two formats; one treasured and sometimes shared with friends and family, and one which generally remains unexamined. Formally posed graduation photographs, birthday parties, foreign holidays, new cars, first days at school - these images are given pride of place. But like the painting in Dorian Gray’s attic, there is also often a box containing those shots we don’t wish to reveal; where heads are cut in half, someone refused to smile, the flash didn’t work or the mess in your kitchen is too obvious. These ‘duds’ are rarely thrown out. They are still precious because they still have something of ourselves in them, they’re just not for public consumption. The Family Album is reserved for those images which preserve our sense of pride and promulgate our own idealised sense of who we are.
What happens then when you’re no longer sure who you are? What should you share when your family struggles under the weight of multiple physical and mental health concerns? How do you record pleasures and successes while enduring years of unemployment? What is left to celebrate when circumstances dictate that you walk away from everything you ever worked for, and from everything that you believed represented who you are? What does your family album look like then?
When I was very small it was explained to me that I had been adopted. I was too young to fully understand the ramifications of this announcement so I accepted it without too many questions. In recent years I have come to understand how being adopted has left its mark.
Having a family of my own became of paramount importance to me. I do not wish to take away anything from my adoptive family, but our relationship was necessarily framed by overt differences and I longed for a sense of connection and recognition that simply did not, and could not exist. Growing up, the family album which in so many other families serves to highlight familiar genetic traits, only reminded me that I did not quite fit in.
There was also a desire for a home of my own. We moved house frequently while I was growing up, and I was conscious that I only ever had time to make quite superficial relationships, and never felt as if I belonged anywhere at all. What I wanted was a home, and a family to fill it with; an opportunity to make connections on a deeper level than had ever previously been possible, to have roots.
To an outsider, it would seem that this craving for family and stability had been satisfied. I married my husband in 1995 and over the next few years we added three children, several pets and what we believed would be our ‘forever home’ to our lives. Superficially, we must have appeared to be floating along in an idyllic state of domestic bliss. But of course, life, and families, are not really like that and so, along with every other family, we had our challenges to face. Sometimes it has seemed we had more than our fair share, if such a thing were to exist.
Early on, we knew that something was different about our son. Behaviours that we found cute and clever at home couldn’t quite so easily be brushed off as idiosyncratic once he entered the official school system. By the age of six he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, adding to his existing diagnosis of asthma. It sounds quite simple when you write it down like that, glib even; but it wasn’t. Anyone with a child on the autistic spectrum will recognise the worry, frustration, sleeplessness and helplessness that accompanies such a diagnosis. They will know what it is to come under the scrutiny of other parents with non-autistic children, whose stares run through a spectrum varying from pity at one end, to disgust or outrage at the other, with condescension somewhere in the middle. In addition to this, I have had to learn to live with the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ongoing depressive episodes. Our middle child developed Scoliosis (a curvature of the spine) which wasn’t noticed until she had already stopped growing. It was too late for corrective surgery and so she continues to live with constant pain. We took our youngest daughter from specialist to specialist trying to work out why a bright child with 20/20 vision could not see to read. She has a processing issue which results in visual crowding, making reading far more of a challenge than for other children, and thus making it difficult for her to keep up with her peers at school. This list skims over the worry, exhaustion, frustration, confusion, embarrassment, tension and pain that we all live with on a daily basis, but perhaps that goes some way towards illustrating how all these strains were just our version of normal. We didn’t know anything else and so in spite of the difficulties, we simply got on with things. To compound matters, my husband lost his job and for three years we lived in a constant state of uncertainty. We hung on nervously, hoping that our situation would change and improve. Things did eventually change, but not for the better.
In August 2016, the five of us swapped what had been our family home on the edge of a village - the physical manifestation of the roots I had so sorely desired - for a two bedroomed flat above a Chinese takeaway in town. It involved shedding belongings, and tokens of memories via eBay and carboot sales, and added to the emotional burden that long-term unemployment had already dealt us. From five bedrooms, to two. From three bathrooms to one. From a comfortable middle class existence to … well I’m still working that out. I am aware that so very many people have it much worse than us and yet the shock of the change was profound, particularly once the initial flurry of house-moving subsided. We had to begin a process of acclimatising to this small space as we negotiated new territories and developed new routines.
It has always been my habit to map out my surroundings with the use of a camera, using the act of photography to help render the strange, familiar. It helps me feel a connection to a place, and exploring light, textures, and perspectives over a prolonged period of time allows me to show that I have history there; that I belong. Our new home was no different and I decided that the way forward was with a healthy dose of pragmatism. There was no point in mourning the past, or regretting what had been lost. This was our reality now. We had to learn to accept a new kind of life, and make something of it. In this, we are hardly alone. Countless families know and love someone on the autistic spectrum. Scoliosis is far more common than I had ever previously realised and the school that my youngest attends provides support for plenty of other children with visual problems. Families up and down the country are dealing with the emotional and financial devastation that unemployment brings. I recognised that I had an opportunity to use my camera in a therapeutic manner, to work through some of the difficulties that we were experiencing during this rather dramatic adjustment to our lives. I accepted early on that for it to resonate with anyone outside of the immediate family it would have to focus on more than the superficial celebratory shots we might normally expect to find in a family album, and it would have to be honest. That is not to say it needed to be grim. There are positives to our new situation; I love living so near to the Clyde river and make a point of pausing each day to take in the view from our new living room window. And I feel a great sense of gratitude and pride in the way our children have, largely, managed to adapt to sharing a room when previously they all had their own private space. It has not been an easy task and I feel they have accepted the changes better than I could have hoped for, especially when only very shortly after we moved in, I started to document their every move for this work. I have had to ask a great deal of my husband and children, who have not only put up with the constant intrusion but also accepted my use of their images.
The internet has changed our lives in numerous ways but potentially one of the most far reaching changes has been our ability to share photographs, with multitudes of people almost instantly. In asking my children to participate in this project, I could not tell them with any certainty where the images would go, nor who would see them. In order to offer an honest portrayal of my family, I could not allow the children to only pose for photographs once they were ready. I was not interested in setting up shots of harmony and success. My method was to have the camera almost permanently within reach and to photograph the most mundane moments as well as being there for when tempers flared, or when people were tired, hungry or frustrated. I was involved in an almost constant state of negotiation, reassuring them that I was not out to make them look bad, but equally not interested in flattery. We had several discussions about how I was going to use the work because they needed to understand my intentions if their permissions were to have any validity. Even though there were moments when the children were perhaps less comfortable being photographed, mid-argument, for instance, or in Jonathan’s case when I disrupted his precious routines, overall they were very supportive of the work.
Most days, when I had the camera on me, there would be an initial awareness of its presence which resulted stilted, unusable shots, but after a few minutes everyone would forget about me, and thus I was able to melt into the background and be ignored. As I was doing this, capturing fights, laughs, quiet moments, screaming matches, I had time to consider my own position. As a mother it is my duty to protect my children and yet here I was, giving myself the role of documenter for a project that would not remain hidden in a family album but which would be made public. This work would not exist without all of my family’s co-operation and so while they largely ignored me and let me get on with the business of photographing them, it is still very much a collaborative work for which I am very grateful.
When I started to study at the Glasgow School of Art, I attended a talk during which we were told of all the support that might be available to us as students should we need it. After all, we were told, a lot can happen in four years. I could not have anticipated just how much would happen to me and my family during my period of study. My husband and I almost entirely swapped roles, with him becoming the primary carer of our children, providing taxi service to netball matches, shopping, doing laundry and feeding us all, while I attended art school and commuted into the city each day. If it was difficult for me to give up the domestic side of my role as a mother and I did struggle to accept things not being done the way that I would do them, it was harder still for him to accept what I think he saw as a demotion to house-husband. But as with so many things, we have had to learn to let go and accept that things are different now. Our family is different now. For instance, we no longer have the space to regularly eat at the table together and as the children are growing and their activities become more disparate, we are more often apart than together. Even when we are all at home at the same time, we, like so many others, often find ourselves in a fragmented state of online connectivity. Taking these photographs allowed me to observe my family objectively. There are things I dislike about the way we are living our lives, but I am also reassured. When I look at the images, I see the discreet particularity of my own family but I also see the universality of 'The Family’. Ultimately though, this is my husband. These are my children. This, now, is my home and this is my family. This is our album.
I have known my husband for a long time but in spite of this, have never previously made him the focus of a photographic project. I have never subjected him to the scrutiny of the camera. His body has changed in the time that we've known each other; it has aged, grown softer, collected scars. Like a photographic negative, it bears witness to its own journey. It is a journey that has, until now, remained undocumented and so, while I consider that I know him well, I'm aware that in some sense at least he is uncharted territory.
In making these images, I am conscious that that there will one day come a moment when one or other of us will likely look back on these prints, and remember the time of their making. They took on their role as tokens of remembrance as soon as the shutter was released on the camera.
Contact Prints From Large Format (5x4) Negatives, Vandyke Processed on Fabriano V Cotton Paper.
Little archeologies might otherwise be described as poor histories: small, possibly barely-there stories discerned in found moments, ephemeral things left behind to await their fate or accidental and incidental displays, all in entirely ordinary circumstances but which nonetheless prompted consideration of the whys and wherefores of their presence. Some of these tales are mine and I know intimately the circumstance of their existence. Others were found and wondered about for long enough that it felt important to take a photograph, make a recording and preserve these tiny glimpses someone else’s history. With no plot available, I invite you to make up your own.
These images constitute new work as I begin to explore the small town of Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland, with my camera. I have a conflicted relationship with this place. It is the nearest thing I have to a 'home town' and yet I am not from here. I have repeatedly moved away, only to respond to the town's siren call and return. The streets, shops and parks are the backdrop to a vast well of nostalgia, but the fragmented nature of my history here means I have no sense of belonging. There are few people here that I know well. In spite of having attended two local schools, been married in one of the local churches and having worked for several different local businesses, I still feel as though I have visitor status. I've never been here long enough to lay down roots.
I first came to live in Helensburgh when my adoptive parents brought me here from Sheffield at six weeks of age. Since then I have left and returned five times, most recently in August 2016. I spent much of the time between November of that year, and June of this year working on the project Album familia, photographing my family and the small flat we now occupy as the result of a seismic shift in economic status following four years of unemployment. I have also started to document the town itself. Inspired by both the Bleeding London project, and Ed Ruscha’s work, Every Building On The Sunset Strip, I initially set out to document the shops and other businesses which inhabit Helensburgh’s seafront as that is now where we are also living.
As part of the process, I became aware that I have connections to many of these shops; if not in their current incarnations, then with previous owners. This realisation was comforting during a difficult period of adjustment for me and my family. It is my intention to continue building on this small body of work, expanding my exploration and mapping of my new home, documenting the evolving history of the town and my place in it.
Helensburgh is a fascinating place. Originally built for the pleasure of wealthy Glasgow merchants, and sporting some fine examples of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, including the celebrated Hill House by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it sits on a slope facing towards the river Clyde. There are grand sandstone houses, military accommodations, ex-council houses and areas of real deprivation. There are shops, restaurants and businesses which have been here for years. More than a hundred in one or two cases. There are also empty shops, charity shops, betting shops and vape shops, the classic signals perhaps of a depressed economy. There are possibly more coffee shops and restaurants than seem reasonable, and while the prevalence of opticians and pharmacies might suggest an ageing population, the town feeds a total of seven schools and there are a great number of organisations representing the interests of young people and their families. The nearby naval base is another source of contradiction; few people here can say they have no connection to it. Many have family members in the Royal Navy or who work for contractors supporting the Royal Navy. Others will know people whose livelihood depends on naval personnel and contractors spending their earnings in the town. Yet it is not necessarily a smooth relationship. There are still those who, in spite of the loss of the permanent peace camp, protest the existence of the Trident submarines at the heart of the base's existence. Matelots on a run ashore are a regular feature of the town's night life, and the friction created when drunken sailors rub up against drunken residents, can be explosive.
There is much to love about the town though. On a good day, the Clyde is a sight to behold. Train links make Glasgow an entirely feasible commute. Just a few short miles over the hill and you have Loch and Ben Lomond in your sights. There are stalwarts in local community groups who work incredibly hard to bring us Summer and Winter Festivals, firework displays, Christmas lights, New Year Swims and other regular calendar events which work to bring people together in celebratory moods. Other groups have taken responsibility for our parks, the planting in the town square and tree-lined streets which burst with blossom in the springtime. We have a cinema now, and Argyll College has a new learning centre providing further and higher education here for the first time.
Much of the work I’ve made to date has been that of an outsider, looking in. Almost the antithesis of the work I made for Album familia. I will be interested to see if that changes over time and if I can find a way to use my camera to forge not just familiarity with this place, but a sense of belonging here too.
Neither Here Nor There
"There is no easy way to say this. I have lost my job."
In November 2013, I returned from art school to find my husband on the back step of the home where we'd lived for the previous 13 years. He abruptly announced that he was now unemployed. Such a bombshell was never going to be good news, but it came at a time when I was already aware of the lurking presence of an annual bout of winter depression. The vague sense of dread that I had been carrying around within turned into full-on anxiety as I contemplated our now uncertain future.
The winter blues affect many people, and often the worst time of all is the supposedly jolly-sounding 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. It is a peculiarly difficult time of year when all the anticipation surrounding Christmas dissipates into a heavy feeling that combines ennui, lethargy, loneliness, negativity, fear, uncertainty, dissociation and isolation.
One way I attempt to combat such feelings is to get outside and walk. My usual route takes in a stretch of road that I find hard to explain to visitors, often resorting to calling it 'The bit before the village'. It apparently belongs to neither the village where we live, nor the next town along, being a no-man's land, a non-place, a liminal space sandwiched between river, railway and fields. It is a connection, but not a destination, not a beginning nor an end, neither here nor there.
Even though it forms part of my solution for dealing with depression, its untethered, ill-defined nature also embodies how I feel at this time of year.
At the time of making this work, two years have passed, and there is still no job for my husband. The limbo-like state that we've existed in is coming to an abrupt end; difficult decisions have to be made, especially as it is now evident that we will have to move away from the home we have made with our children. I still don't know what the future holds and the fear and uncertainty are as strong as ever. Yet, knowing that changes have to be made, has brought a sense of purpose to our lives that has been missing for so long. For the first time I'm thinking of this journey as an opportunity for a fresh start rather than merely the loss of what we had before. These last two years have been the 'bit before'. Now it's time to see what comes next.
You Don't Want This
When I was a child, beachcombing was something you did in hopes of finding treasures: shells, feathers, sea-smoothed stones and beachwood. Today you're as likely to find what remains of a used tampon, discarded syringes or a million plastic stalks from cotton buds that have been flushed down the toilet. I live close to the River Clyde and there is a small stretch of shore along which I used to walk on a fairly regular basis, always taking my camera with me. Seeking out the beautiful, natural elements, and using focus and framing to eliminate the signs of litter and other pollution washed up with the tide, it eventually dawned on me that this was incredibly dishonest. To pretend that we all live in some kind of idyll when actually the variety and volume of debris that litters the beach is sometimes quite overwhelming didn't sit well with me. I decided to document the area more honestly and determined that for every photograph of something beautiful, there should also be one of something that shouldn't have been there. The intention was to make these photographs with the same approach to aesthetics that I would have done for something natural. This way, perhaps, when people saw the images of rubbish, framed alongside the precious natural things, they might question our acceptance of this state of affairs. After only a short time, it became increasingly difficult to find beautiful, natural scenes of beauty on this particular patch of the river. The council had cut back all the undergrowth and so where before there might have been glistening cobwebs or jewel-like raindrops, leaves or flowers, there was very little to photograph that wasn't rubbish. The 1:1 ratio of natural versus pollutant was no longer working and it occurred to me that in any case, perhaps I should be trying to reflect the true magnitude of the problem. Of course, this was not entirely possible. There was far more rubbish on the beach and the path that ran alongside it than I could photograph in a lifetime, and it never stops coming. Additionally, photography is a selective exercise and not every piece of rubbish will make an aesthetically pleasing image. I had to make choices about what to include, what to photograph in situ and what to move and re-frame. Every item photographed was found on the beach in Cardross near the Bainfield Crossing. I properly disposed of every piece once I was finished with it. The exception being the thousands of little s-shaped polystyrene 'peanuts' which burst out of their casing and made the entire beach look like it was covered in snow. I took what I could but it was too much and the wind spread it all too far. It does mean that there are over five hundred fewer pieces of rubbish on that beach than there might otherwise have been though. But of course, it was simply replaced with more, the very next day, the very next tide, the very next hour, the very next careless flush of a toilet. It was my hope that this work, inadequate as it is, might make us pause to consider the damage we do to our natural environment whenever we fail to properly dispose of the things we no longer want. The sad fact is that we live in a throwaway society. We buy things that we know will eventually fail, and it will be cheaper to replace with new than to mend them. We eat food wrapped in materials that will never decompose. We are lazy. We flush cotton buds down the toilet not caring where they will finish up nor what harm they will do on their travels. We can't be bothered to take our litter home and bin it, much less recycle the things that might have a second life if they were only given the chance. Stuff we no longer like or need or care about gets chucked - not always in a bin. We don't want it, so we ditch it. But do we really want it on our beaches?
Wherever we go, we carry around a kind of aura with us: our backstory if you like. When we travel by car, the metal bubble we're travelling in isolates us from others and we move along without making any meaningful connections. When you travel by train though, the carriage contains everyone's back stories, and for varying amounts of time and with greater or lesser degrees of intensity we share space; our stories, our histories, mingle and connect. Even at the station, we find that we become part of a shared moment, or we seek familiarity with which to connect in a strange and sometimes overwhelming environment. These images were taken from a four month period of documenting train travel and looking for signs of connections - between passengers, staff, environment and indeed with my camera.
Breathing Spaces is a series of works exploring the benefits to mental health of local green spaces in and around the west coast town of Helensburgh in Scotland. It constitutes a postive, therapeutic use of the camera, reflecting on the uplifting and calming effects of finding peace with nature in even the smallest of moments when it’s not possible, for health or financial reasons to ‘get away from it all’.
Stories From The Studio
Crime & Punishment
A story of greed, corruption, entrapment and poetic justice.
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
Canon 5D Mk III
Memories and tales passed on through ownership of objects
Illusions Of Everything Being Just Fine
Canon 5D Mk III
Clinging To A Mask Of Domesticity In Moments Of Crisis
First Response To The Magic Paint by Primo Levi
Second Response to The Magic Paint by Primo Levi
Third Response to The Magic Paint by Primo Levi
Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalks
In 2012, a photographer friend asked if I fancied joining in with that year's Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk. I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded like it might be fun so I said yes. Fun is good. The walk takes place in October and although it is a fundraiser, there's no fee and no obligation to donate. Walks are organised at a local level, all over the world. Each walk consists of up to 50 photographers, spending a couple of hours exploring a pre-determined route and there's invariably a meeting place where food, drink and chat can take up a little more of your day as you wish. I have attended each year since that first expedition, sometimes remembering to enter a photograph into the local competition element of the day and even providing a winning shot once.