Masterly images point to the metaphysical
Christmas day (now a distant memory) brought a small square photobook that I’ve come to love for the depth of its themes, cinematic qualities and sequencing. “Still here’ by Lydia Goldblatt (pub Hatje Cantz) is an intimate elegiac portrait of the photographer’s elderly parents shot over several years. In lesser hands the work could be a well intentioned student portfolio, but these masterly 45 images delve into the realms of memory and time and allude to the cycle of life.
The use of light is key to the work. The book opens with a shot of a tiny figure in a distant lighted window set in darkness. The next image moves close to the figure – an elderly man seemingly sleeping over supper tray, warm light shining on his bald head. We then move in to a fragment of his skin and hair. Turn the page and it’s an echoing image of a bee its wings translucent in the light. Throughout the book, light is used beautifully to frame images and as a pointer to the deeper concerns of the work. Out of focus close-ups of the father’s face, or parts of his face, emerge from dimness, suffused with a reddish glow. The effect is one of the physical dissolving into darkness, the final shape of a loved person’s face a pinpoint of memory fading. At the other end of the scale, the photographer’s mother stands in front of gauzy curtains dissolving into a patch of light from a window. Her hands are up as if to part the curtains for the day – the metaphor seems to be one of stepping out from a known world into an unearthly brightness.
The other features of this work that stand out for me are the use of contrasting images to underlie and extend the meanings of the work, and the overall sequencing. In between the glimpses, portraits and close-ups of the photographer’s mother and father are images of rain on wet ground, wet leaves, smashed objects on a pavement, a gold watch delicately placed on a white shelf. Without forcing the point, each brings an awareness of the outside world and a sense of equivalence to the process happening indoors. Most radical of the alternative images are circular abstract images of stained white pads photographed under the light of the sun. To quote the artist in the accompanying essay by Christina Pratch, ‘they become metaphorical landscapes that represent the primal cycle and preservation of life and explore the transformative possibilities inherent in letting go.’ The use of contrasting images needs to be done skilfully, both in making or selecting the right image and in the placement in the narrative. ‘Still here’, like other poetically successful books such as ‘Elementary Calculus’ by J Carrier or ‘Grays the mountain sends’ by Bryan Schutmaat, gets it right and increases the work’s emotional resonance. It’s not often that images in photographic books can make a successful claim to metaphysical significance.
Less successful, I thought, was the artist’s writing which tries to convey the mood and ideas of the work in an impressionistic way. Lesser writing, however deeply felt, isn’t needed beside images which do the work by themselves. The essay by Christina Pratch covers the relationship of the work to ideas of time.
Here’s a review of ‘Still Here’ from The Independent.
View images or purchase the book on PhotoEye.