Sebastian Mera, Duckspool. 1989
8×10 inches, platinum-palladium print on Fabriano 5
Sebastian Mera, Duckspool. 1989
8×10 inches, platinum-palladium print on Fabriano 5
Allan Jones. 1992
Platinum-palladium print from an 8×10 negative
Allan, a painter and dear friend, wrote me in an email:
“I feel as if painting is becoming part of my body … i get stopped often -now – sometimes and feel what i only thought about feeling all these years … that feeling beyond art, or better, what is truly inside of art …”
I believe that we ache for reassurance. And if it comes from our ancestors, or from several millennia past, the ache begins to become balmy, even sweet. Reassurance; that what I feel is okay, that there is some sense and purpose in the pain of the present, and that my pain-joy-loss-beauty is only here because of what came before me. The Fayum are important to me, and to us I believe for this reason: they communicate, they have a presence, despite the millenia that separate the moment of their making from the present. In this sense, they are beyond art.
Rachel. Black Shirt. Sewanee, TN. November, 2007.
from 11×14″ negative
When being portrayed, and knowing that only the future will look back, what do you look at? I believe there is a particular and intense communication, full of hope and urgency ( this, this, is gone, pay attention, forever to this moment ) that bears down on the making of a portrait, and then emanates from it. I know this is what happened with the faiyumi. Forever, you who look from the future, forever, I give you this moment.
Luca, Rachel and Kiran. Dawn, Paros, Greece. May, 2010.
from and 8×10″ negative
Photographing at dawn, with an 8×10 camera all set up and waiting for the family to awaken to the ancient simmering light of the Aegean; I slept little on these nights, when I could see blazing sunsets turn to a disappearance of sea into sky, and watch the softest softness impossibly turn into the singular harsh light of the Aegean islands.
Only Parian marble can defy that light. And only Parian marble could be made to render that light with acuity and truth. Just like photography. No wonder the Egyptian artists who painted the Fayum portraits, while remaining true to their funerary practices, embraced the representational traditions of the ancient Greeks. It was all about truth in materials, and truth to materials.
And I loved watching the horizon, and watching my family sleep.
Rachel and Kiran, Dawn. Venice, April 2010
from 8×10 negative
From Euphrosyne Doxiadis’ ‘introduction’ in The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Thames and Hudson, 2000:
“The viewer becomes involved in direct communion with the person portrayed, who is as if in limbo, in a twilight zone between life and death. Looking at the most beautifully painted among the Fayum portraits is a unique and enriching experience…An experience I had in Berlin convinced me of the power inherent in the best of the Fayum faces: I was left in a storage room with about twenty portraits, and when the door closed behind me I felt a very strange sensation— that I was not alone.”
Perhaps that is it: we are not alone, we are not alone, we are not alone. Yet with each utterance, with each brush of this kind of sensation, we sense the aching singularity of each moment, each one of us, each loneliness.
Thirstily reading the current issue of Orion, it made me happy to see the work of two friends Masao Yamamoto and Kathleen Jamie, appear in the magazine. Kathleen’s poem, Roses, struck me with particular force. The last verse reads:
I haggle for my little
portion of happiness,
says each flower, equal, in the scented mass.
PS: This issue of Orion also has an excellent piece by David Sobel about the pitfalls of the environmental and place-based education bandwagon, and a touching, powerful short piece by Julia Alvarez (who recently published ‘A Wedding in Haiti’). Again, I find another resonance, along with my work in Haiti, with the Fayum and a particular kind of photographic portraiture. From her short article:
“The ancient Mayans recognized a … truth in the phrase en lak ech, which means “you are the other me.” it’s a way of thinking about ourselves as interconnected. We cannot exist in any meaningful way without each other.
As we look to the future, we need to look back to places like Haiti to learn how to use our resources wisely.”
Well put, and I wholeheartedly agree, as detailed in another section of my web site. And this quote also articulates why I consider my seemingly very personal portraits as being on the same trajectory as my work in Haiti.
Lizzie Motlow, Cheyne Street, Edinburgh. February, 1986.
A few days after the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster.
Platinum-palladium print from 8×10″ negative
My friend and fellow photographer was visiting from the USA, when we saw live footage of the disastrous mis-launch. The accident affected Lizzie deeply, being, like me, of that generation whose visions and wishes for the future grew along with the space programs of the USA and USSR. Even stranger, in this particular case, was the coincidence that the Challenger pilot, Michael J. Smith, shared Lizzie’s birthday. I remember talking about the disturbing tension between the tragedy of the event and the photographs, which were and still are so beautiful. And so with the fayiumi, encapsulating as they do the tragedy of loss and mortality in beauty.
Victoria Rivera, Coyolillo.
Honduras. 1995. platinum-palladium print. 8×10 inches
And then, the Fayum portraits are not distinguished just by the rendering of eyes. The place at which the face looks is, I think, what makes them feel timeless; a place that is somewhere beyond the viewer, and both after and before what is experienced. Victoria Rivera, a remarkable lady bringing up what seemed like a small hoard of grandchildren, lived in a remote village that could only be accessed via a 2 hour hike. Fascinated by the large camera, when I asked her to not move while I focused, she sat, very, very still — and looked into and beyond the lens. I still recall the thrill and chill I felt as she looked into the camera, through the ground glass, (past my eyes that were trying to focus on her eyes,) head and beyond.
The correspondence between the fayiumi and my portraits has a lot to do with the process of photographing with a large format camera.
Kiran. Cortona, Italy. 2010.
scan from 8x10in negative
All the Fayiumi portraits are, of course, defined by the compressed space of the mummy casing. Strange illusions arise from this: despite a slight reduction in size, the ancient portraits seem life-size, and despite the diminished background, the have a tremendous amount of presence. I think the eyes, and the way we are hard-wired to attend to them, have a lot to do with this illusion.
This portrait of Kiran was taken in my studio in Cortona. His eyes are certainly the most captivating part of the image, but the points of focus that they provide also help create an illusion: the rectangular splash of sunlight on the floor seems less behind him than hovering above him. I have the luxury of working on a larger plane than the Fayum painters, as well as the joy of celebrating life rather than packing my images off to the necropolis.
Richard Walker, with Glass Muller. Galsgow, 1984.
pt-pd print from 8×10 negative
A few months after making the portrait of Mike Ware in Orkney, I moved to Glasgow and was kindly nestled in the home of three artists, Annie, Elise and Richard for a few months while I sorted out a suddenly itinerant life. Richard’s paintings and his craft became an anchor for me in ways that I only realized years later. And now, I’ve lost touch with him (helloooo…. if you are out there Richard…)
Here again— the open gaze, surrounded by objects that make up the vessel which carries one through life, and an acknowledged relationship between what is known and certain and all the subterranean stuff that is vague yet very real— I find myself referring to the Fayum-esque.
Today, I filled out an application form to visit and look at some Fayummi at a museum. Fingers crossed.
Luca, Cutlery. July, 2011
I am obsessed by the Egyptian Fayum portraits. It seems a morbid thing, to acknowledge a relationship between these funerary portraits and my work, which has always (duh) been of the living and loved. But I don’t see the Fayum paintings as being about or of death—they are vital, even as reproductions (which is all I have seen thus far), and perpetual. The gaze in these paintings passes through and beyond the renderer, even beyond the viewer. So much of my portrait work has strived to fulfill just this kind of timelessness and fusion of experience individuality, that it now feels impossible to not attend to the Fayum portraits. I’m on the lookout for books, and would welcome any recommendations. I am also hoping to visit collections and see the pieces first-hand.