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’. The remote location of the crofters’ cottages – many of which were built before the roads and are even now only accessible on foot – means they (mostly) lie undisturbed and untroubled by humans. A memorial to past lives.
The image denotes a scene of disruption and abandonment. We are immediately steered to the blue chair via the title of the photograph. In fine condition it takes precedence over the disintegrating dust covered sofa. The viewer attempts to unpick the scene, but the gaze returns to the vacant blue chair. In the book, Camera Lucida, (1) Roland Barthes comments, “the photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been”. In Maher’s image we know that ‘someone’ has been there, traces remain, but the event has passed. Other signifiers serve to arouse curiosity. On the dated coffee table lies a bunch of plastic (or silk) flowers still attached to its foam oasis, but where is the vase? Hanging from an electric cable is a 1997 calendar. The traditional focal point, the fireplace, has attracted a collection of objects. Shiny winners’ cup stands upright and proud on the mantelpiece. An ornate mirror hangs intact, serene as it reflects upon the destruction, ready to capture the uneasy expressions of any visitors.
In Camera Lucida Barthes contemplates a photograph of his mother as a child (the Winter Garden Photograph); he proclaims that he cannot reproduce the image because it exists only for him “For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture….for you no wound”. 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 remain within the limits, showing only a polite and general interest in the photograph (the studium)? But maybe something in the scene does “shoot out like an arrow and pierce me” (the punctum).
The photograph – in this instance taken with a large format 1960s Sinar Norma plate camera was taken from eye level, using a small depth of field and ‘in close’. It transports the viewer into the heart of the scene. Artificial lighting was necessary to illuminate the scene, enhancing natural colours and highlighting shape and form. The image is framed with walls of peeling paper and a collapsing ceiling.
This is a found scene, not staged or constructed, although one may question the ostensibly polished blue chair. Has it been placed there at a later date? Did the photographer introduce it to the scene? Or is it reality “touched up”? If the truth lies in any of the above, then one must ponder why and what the significance is.
It brings to mind Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room 1978, in which his staged scene displays similar disarray. However, the fact that Wall’s image is constructed dissociates it from Maher’s image. Blue Chair is very real, real in the sense that this was (is) somebody’s home. 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 possibly weave in their own experiences…contemplating their own lives…perhaps confronting their own absences.
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?” (2). It is about what is left behind, but also what is not there. 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 – the darker side of nature at work. Colour and texture bring life to the discarded belongings, no doubt once of great importance, but now lie hopeless. The punctum for me is the sheer fragility and vulnerability of this ruptured room, now a crumbling shrine to those who once called it home. 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?“(3). This prompts us to take another look, we scan the debris with a forensic eye, seeking familiarity. We consider the sense of security and permanence we attach to our own home and surroundings. What lies outside the frame? If only the camera were 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)” (4). Now we are attempting to pluck beauty from despair, romanticise. We are also trespassing.
There are many emotions and memories conveyed in this image – some personal, many are universal. Technically shot to reveal great detail, aesthetically pleasing, yet disturbing. Maher has achieved the paradoxical effect of recording what’s not there, forcing us to contemplate what was there. The absence of presence is strong. The scene is emotive, it provokes poignancy. The image has connotations of the passing of time. David Campany in his essay on ‘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.” (5)
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. Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Vintage Classics, Penguin. London.
2. Maher, J. Available from: http://www.scottishfield.co.uk/leaving-home-former-buzzcocks-drummer-john-maher-on-the-isle-of-harris (January 2016). [Accessed 4th November 2016].
3. Polidori, R. After the Flood. Available from: https://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/composing-catastrophe-robert-polidoris-photographs. [Accessed 28th October 2016].
4.Carroll, L. (1865). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Reprinted ed. 1961. The Children’s Press. London & Glasgow.
5. Campany, D. Safety in Numbness. Available from: http://www.davidcampany.com/Safety in Numbness. [Accessed 28th October 2016]
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