MANY YEARS AGO when I was studying for a BTEC in General Art and Design (and it was very general) we had to do a module in photography. To me black and white photography seemed mystical and strange, involving cameras I had never used or even heard of, evil-smelling chemicals for processing and a large amount of patience. Students would appear mysteriously out of a dark room into the canteen, blinking in the bright light and then peering at test prints which held the promise of something great. Up to this point, my photography expertise had involved a Kodak Instamatic and a Halina point and shoot. I took many artless pictures of my friends and family some of which are still buried in their paper envelopes stacked in boxes under the bed. I had no knowledge of f-stops or apertures, which film or which camera. I remember sitting in the first lesson being handed a Pentax k1000 and looking at it with a vague sense of despair. Dials, calculations, focusing. It was all a long way from my rough-and-ready domestic approach to taking pictures. But I absorbed something about the mechanics and shot a series of reasonable photographs involving my friend running into and away from the sea while I slowed the shutter speed with each exposure until in the final frame she disappeared completely.
Our humble art school was in Great Yarmouth, a seaside town on the North Norfolk (UK) coast where the slot machines ruled within the rows of arcades along the seafront and Rosie’s nightclub was a quid to get in on a Monday night. At least I think that’s right. It’s 30 years ago now and time does funny things to memories.
Some of my friends began to use slide film for their projects. A carousel was the way that most presented their transparent images. I loved to watch the dust dancing in the projector beam as one by one, each slide clicked into place and the projected image silently slid into place on the wall. Presentations by visiting artists would often be shown in this way in a room gently heated by the breath of students and the warmth emanating from the projector itself. I loved, and still, do, the way slides look when you hold them up to a window. Like thin small jewels, they glow with colour as the light filters through the film. Once projected the image seems to spread across the wall becoming something different; something to watch rather than something to examine.
Fast forward 20 years to 2007 and I have two children, one a toddler and the youngest, a baby. I and my husband are attempting to watch Mad Men while they sleep upstairs. TV viewing never went particularly well when our girls were young. We were hard pushed to watch anything that lasted beyond ten minutes, anything more we were trying our luck. But once the girls were asleep, after something resembling a bedtime routine, we would attempt to watch some telly. Mad Men was the new one-to-watch series so we tried. After a few episodes, we stopped watching. I found it impossible to connect to. It’s high style, misogyny and cool manner contrasted sharply with my own messy, chaotic life of nappies, baby groups and all the other joys of parenting.
An itch and a scratch
Fast forward again to 2017. I find Mad Men on Amazon and start again from the beginning. I find much more to engage with the second time around. I’m in a different place now. My children are older, I am older, we live in a different house with two cats and a fish tank. The thirteenth episode of Season One, Mad Men fans will know well. It features, towards the end of the episode, a presentation by Don Draper to Kodak, pitching for the advertising of their latest piece of equipment, something called the Wheel. The pitch is disarming. I wasn’t expecting something so sentimental. He opens by answering a question: ‘Technology is a glittering lure but there’s a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product.’
Don then goes on to explain: ‘My first job. I was in-house at a fur company with this old pro, a copywriter, Greek, named Teddy. Now Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new – creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. He also talked about a deeper bond with the product – nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent.’
At this point, I’m thinking about itches, insect bites, spots and scratching. I’d forgotten about calamine lotion. When I was at school we would sometimes dab it on the pimples that erupted unkindly on our pubescent faces. It would dry and flake and made no difference at all, but we kept on trying. I ponder the idea of memories being an itch and photographs being calamine. Itching and scratching. Drying and flaking. Delicate but potent. Memories are slippery things. Sometimes I can recall them with absolute clarity and sometimes they can sink into a subconscious soup mixing merrily with the stories other people have told me.
Photography is so often associated with nostalgia, a longing for something remembered or a yearning for a place of comfort. Don utilises this knowledge with the skill of an Ad Man and the sentiment of someone whose personal life is increasingly defined by tragedy, infidelity and distrust. He knows the photos in our family albums become a vessel for our memories, a way of making a connection with our lived experience and remembering. In his presentation to Kodak, he shows a heavily edited version of his own family life; children playing, Christmas, a wedding, a pregnancy, a kiss with his wife. Brief, joyful, tender moments that hide the bitter truth of his own complex personal narrative.
He continues: ‘Teddy told me that in Greek ‘nostalgia’ literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.’
A time machine. I love this notion. The carousel allowing us to move around and around our album of pictures. And yet there’s something melancholic too, no resolution, no end, only an endless cycle of repetition. I think of this and remember a talk I gave at an event a few years ago. All the participants had to present their work and talk for three minutes Pecha Kucha style. Three minutes is not very long so I decided to tell a story. My children were still very young at the time and bedtime always involved reading them one of their favourite books. For my talk, I was interested in mixing up my own words and pictures, muddling experiences, an attempt to reveal how vulnerable photographs are to a telling and re-telling of our own stories. I used my own memories from my childhood with photographs I was making of my daughters’ lives at the time. I looked for links between one and the other, shamelessly manipulating thought and feeling. I’ve made a video of it and share it here. It goes forwards and backwards in words and pictures, round and around to where I know and maybe you know too.