Mancunian John Maher – ex drummer with the Buzzcocks turned photographer, discovered abandoned croft houses when taking outdoor night-time photographs on the remote Isle of Harris where he now lives. Blue Chair was one of many hauntingly emotive images displayed in his 2015-2016 exhibition ‘Nobody’s Home’. On visiting the exhibition this image stood out for me and evoked sadness and a sense of curiosity. I couldn’t stop looking at it, though it doesn’t resonate with me in any way. In my mind I pictured an elderly couple sat contentedly by the fire. Perhaps that sense of nostalgia is the reason I chose to analyse this image for my essay.
The image is of a room, denoting one of disruption and chaos. One is immediately drawn to the object of the title, the blue chair. The chair appears to be in fine condition compared to the worn, dust covered sofa with its scattering of cushions and blankets. Other signifiers include, the dated coffee table upon which is a bunch of plastic (or silk) flowers still attached to its foam oasis, but the vase is missing. The focal point, the fireplace holds a collection of objects, including a shiny goblet. Above it hangs an intact mirror. Hanging from an electric cable is a calendar dated 1997. The image is framed with walls of peeling paper and a collapsing ceiling. Rubble and wreckage lie strewn across the floor. The entire scene denotes one of dilapidation and abandonment.
The photograph – in this instance taken with a large format 1960s Sinar Norma plate camera – has been taken from eye level and ‘in close’ to transport the viewer into the heart of the scene. It is a powerful image, the photographer has focused the camera to create the strongest impact incorporating depth, diagonals. light and shadow. Artificial lighting was necessary to illuminate the scene, enhancing natural colours and highlighting shape and form.
The contents of the room hold the viewer’s gaze. This is a found scene, not staged or constructed, although one may question the newly polished blue chair. David Campany in his essay about ‘Late Photography’ states; “One might easily surmise that photography has of late inherited a major role as an undertaker, summariser or accountant. It turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity.” (1) The scene is emotive and poignant. It could easily be compared with Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room 1978, in which his constructed scene displays similar disarray. However the fact that Wall’s image is staged dissociates it from documentary photography. Maher’s image is very real, real in the sense that this is (was) somebody’s home, a remote crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Harris. It cannot be easy for the viewer to glance quickly and then move on, it captures the gaze, forces the viewer to become involved, to deconstruct the scene and weave in their own experiences.
In his book, Camera Lucida, (2) Roland Barthes notes that ‘the Photograph is never, in essence, a memory’, that it ‘actually blocks memory’ and ‘quickly becomes a counter-memory’. This was after discovering a photograph of his mother shortly after her death. He wanted to ‘find’ the woman he had known, not just a fragment of her. Barthes would not reproduce it, claiming the photograph only existed for him. For others, ‘it would be nothing but an indifferent picture”. Barthes, then, argues that for those unconnected to the photograph, it would merely be a visual record. In the case of Blue Chair, does this mean we should not be drawn to the image so strongly, with so much emotion? The room arouses and recalls memories, but of what and who is down to the individual.
As the eye moves around the image, questions linger. The image taker says, ” It felt like the Mary Celeste. Where did they go? Why did they leave everything?” (3). It’s about what is left behind. It connotes a rush of sympathy and compassion, there is a sadness that prevails. The image is alive in a sense – decay, mildew, damp, this is an organic event. Colour and texture bring life to the discarded belongings, no doubt once of great importance, but now lie abandoned. The punctum is the sheer fragility and vulnerability of this ruptured room, now a shrine to those who once called it home. The ornate mirror hangs intact, serene as it reflects upon the destruction, ready to capture the uneasy expressions of onlookers. A shiny goblet (a winning cup maybe?) stands upright and proud on the mantle piece.
We know nothing of the history of the dwelling, we don’t approach the image with any prior knowledge. Robert Polidori asks this question of his ‘After the Flood” images “Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic…if they were similarly violated and exposed?” (4). This statement causes us to take another look, we scan the debris with a forensic eye, seeking familiarity, momentarily becoming detached from this busy frame. The frame – what lies outside of this we cannot say. If only the camera was angled more to the right, would we see through the window to the wild landscape beyond? There is a glimmer of daylight on the fading drapes. If we were to wander further in, stepping cautiously over once valued possessions, carefully squeezing through the bright pink painted fairy tale door, would a similar scene confront us? “Curiouser and curiouser! Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)” (5). Now we are attempting to pluck beauty from despair, romanticise. We are also trespassing.
This place of remembrance, to the family who lived here and most likely worked the surrounding land, remains untouched. Perhaps relatives (if there are any) of this crofting community cannot bear to sell and wish to cling to the past. There are many emotions and memories tied up in this room. The remote location of the crofters’ cottages – many of which were built before the roads and are even now only accessible on foot – mean they lay undisturbed and isolated. This room, this cottage, is slowly returning to the land as nature reclaims it and the wild Scottish weather will no doubt lend a hand. Under scrutiny one can read the words on the 1997 ‘Coalite’ calendar; “Win! Win! Win! A Caribbean Cruise plus Cash Prizes”. Maybe they did win and never returned home…….
1. http://www.davidcampany.com/Safety in Numbness. [Accessed 28th October 2016]
2. Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Vintage Classics, Penguin. London.
3. http://www.scottishfield.co.uk/leaving-home-former-buzzcocks-drummer-john-maher-on-the-isle-of-harris (January 20165). [Accessed 4th November 2016].
4. Polidori, R. After the Flood. Available from: https://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/composing-catastrophe-robert-polidoris-photographs. [Accessed 28th October 2016].
5. Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Reprinted ed. 1961. The Children’s Press. London & Glasgow.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
As this is the first essay I have written since leaving college (40 years ago), I have been grateful for the advice and guidance from my tutor on how to present and structure an essay. I also referred to Stella Cottrell’s book “Critical Thinking Skills”. I have applied my skills of observational and the knowledge I have gleaned from reading other essays on specific photographs.
Quality of Outcome
I read the brief carefully and highlighted key points (e.g. “rigorous and critical analysis”). I had several attempts at setting out the structure for my essay and followed this format: I offered a brief background on the photographer and introduced the image. Next, in the main body of the essay I was keen to include my learning from Part five exercises and research, so I incorporated denotation, connotation, signifiers, stadium and punctum. I concluded with a brief summary. I carried out a lot of research around other photographers whose images were of a similar vein, then compared and noted how they described and critiqued their images.
Demonstration of Creativity
As this is an essay, the only aspects of this criterion are imagination (in my description and analysis) and possibly invention (quoting from a children’s book (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). I thoroughly enjoyed writing about what I saw in the image and thinking about what it may convey to others.
I enjoyed researching the detail my chosen image and comparing it with other photographer’s images. The image is a busy one and therefore the narrative is rich. I have learned about the subject of the image and its photographer. I now also have an understanding of popularity of ‘late photography’.