5. Johanna Ward : Talk on 6th December 2014

This event, in Thatcham,  was organised by the OCA Students Association and would involve Johanna talking about her work and then discussing students’ work with them.

The Talk

I Shall Say Goodbye with my Strengthening Love for You, Forever and Ever

A Handmade artists book in five volumes. Each volume a concertina of unfolding images, conveying a narrative from different places and time periods.

I saw those volumes spreading along a shelf at the Brighton Photography Festival and was fascinated by it. Johanna later said that people either love or hate it – some don’t get it at all. What seduced me? First the linear progression of the pages on the shelf then, drawing closer and seeing those images – not in a straight line but making different patterns of rectangles, squares etc. Even closer and seeing the soft colours first, then what they have captured. The colours and the repetition – like holding a candle in a darkened room and exploring what can be seen. The volumes contain a mix of images (new and old) in different formats with varied placement. A certain softness about them even when portraying a forest fire, death. Muted tones; a subdued palette; the sparseness of high key – something over that once began with words of love in letters; now entwined with a damaged landscape.

Johanna talked about the book as she stood in front of the looping video – pages slowly turning. I’m not sure whether this was a distraction or not. It gave a sense of events going round and round in her memory.

The book was created as part of the Masters Degree that she had decided to study to find out where she was as a photographer. She wanted to weave together many strands. An environmental story about trees and the death of trees with inspiration from the book Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (2012) a re-telling of a Norse myth by the author A.S. Byatt. ( which is entwined with the story of a young girl evacuated to the countryside during World War Two). Memories. A story about people, without showing people, using symbolism and metaphor. Trees dying and the destruction of the world, her own family being a microcosm, as her parents’ marriage had ended. The title is a sentence from a love letter written by her father to her mother before they married, and the spare text at the beginning and end of each volume is also taken from love letters so, in a sense, her dad is narrating the story through letters. All the images are hers – taken by herself (some constructed) or family photographs and her family agreed to the making of the book. I wonder how it made them feel looking at their story and knowing that so many strangers would do the same as they open and close each chapter.

Johanna said she was grateful to do the Talk; to find out more about herself and where she is going. She acknowledged that not everyone will agree the juxtaposition of landscape as metaphor to tell another multi-layered story. The issue of ‘truth’ was raised and her thought was that “Images are opinions not facts”. She also talked about the myth of the family album and how one chooses the juxtaposition of images. This reminded me of our ‘family’ album created many years ago when our children were younger. We (my husband and I) ended up not being able to agree which photographs should be placed within it. Our album has remained incomplete, as has our family in a sense as new configurations are formed as we all grow older.

Colours became important in the construction of the book. The first volume has green hues – Spring, young love, a white horse. Growth follows, then hues become colder as relationships change – the empty bed; animals fighting; the dead deer.  A query was raised about the use of the image of this skinned deer which, to me, comes as a ‘jolt’ in the book. Johanna said she wanted to have animal characters in the book and arranged to visit an abattoir (I think). Her intention was to photograph a dead animal with skin, however she saw the skinned deer and this seemed more apt. She talked about the serendipity of having a plan but then freeing oneself to fall into the moment.

The five ‘volumes’ can be read backwards or forwards and so one can oscillate between past and present. She talked about the difference between quiet and loud music regarding the differing sizing of images. I had a sense that she was working very much from a subconscious intuitive level in terms of sizing and placing images to begin with as a pattern emerged for her.

This left me thinking about what happens between the plan and the execution – evoking for me what happens when ‘something else takes over’ (I’ve written about this before). Some kind of alchemy when the project becomes an entity in itself and you’re in dialogue with it; drawn into its orbit like a planet circling a star; dizzy in its light like a moth to a flame. The ‘obsession’ of being completely immersed and subsumed into it The project (whatever it is) is “all” – it becomes figural. Going to bed thinking about it and waking up thinking about it – waking dreams, thoughts on planning that can get lost and then haunt thinking during the day.

Johanna referred to two other books, The Pond (1985, 2010) by John Gossage which is about the relationship between man and nature and Redheaded Peckerwood (2010, 2011) by Christian Patterson which uses different genres to retell the story of two teenager who went on a three day killing spree. I’ve bought both books and will write about them in a later post.

b : Work Review

Five of us presented work. Johanna’s feedback was direct and honest whilst remaining supportive and constructive and I enjoyed the whole process both as observer and participant. Some points that came up were:

  • You can explore your own history through photographs of other people. One strategy may be to construct the family you wanted but didn’t have.
  • If you rely too much on text then you don’t allow the images to speak, they’ll be illustrating a narrative.
  • Does the effect you use expand the story?
  • If it’s documentary choose the side you feel most passionate about.

I talked about my first Assignment (with my tutor at that point) and showed some further work I’d done in an attempt to create a foldout minibook. Johanna was particularly interested in one photograph of a house on the edge of the woods. It reminded her of a Disney film Watcher in the Woods. One of my ideas for further work was to construct a story about the person who lived there and Johanna encouraged me to do this; use my imagination; look at the house from differing perspectives; even try to get closer by talking with the house owner.

Overall, a very satisfying day, leaving me with much to think about.

4th February 2015