Too close to home?


‘Too close to home?’

Tracing a familiar place

Rosy Martin

Published in   'n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal' vol.3. 'Body, space and memory'  Jan 1999 - -copyright Rosy Martin

I am making this work because I must. I am compelled to do it. No, wait. This is no lazy ‘artist as hero’ position, this is not work as an expression of myself, not a closed circle that I am refusing to unpick. It does however have a lot to do with the psychic processes that photography necessarily inhabits. The ‘absent presence’ of which Barthes spoke. I photograph in order to hold onto the moment, the place, the trace which I cannot stop, cannot keep, cannot hold. I know this, and yet however partial, incomplete and vain the attempt, I return and photograph again. Its a pre-bereavement project,  born out of my responses to the death of my father and the desperate searching that goes with that first recognition of profound loss. It is a melancholic project, the view-finder misted with soft tears and an ache that no image can assuage. Yet filled too with contradictions, remorse tinged with a longing to escape.

Because I chose to make this a public project, it must speak beyond the particular. Yet I do risk starting from this personal punctum, to evoke an emotional response in the viewer who will not share the precise details of the story.

Photographs do have a way of telling stories, or rather people who view photos will project stories upon them. This capacity to narrativise, to play, to construct our own before and after versions of the possible, is a way people have of making some sense of the world. ‘Tell me a story’ the child cries, and we go on doing it, telling ourselves stories all our lives, watching the soap operas, listening to our friends’ anecdotes. Of the 1,000s of photographs I have seen, the ones I most easily recall are those which have touched that potential for stories within me. It is this aspect of photography which I work within.

So, how can a photograph touch me? A piece of paper, I may touch it, but yes it may haunt me.

Looking back over all the work I have done, over the last fifteen years, it is the relationship between photography and memory that has preoccupied me. “Make the most of your memories” extols the text on the folder in which the bulk processors, Fotorama, return my prints and negatives. But as I begin to examine my collection of personal photographs in light of Fotorama’s slogan, I am immediately struck by how photography and memory relate in a poignant and perverse way, through a sense of loss, predicated upon the unconscious wish to somehow arrest the passage of time by holding it in fragments of a second. How much are the images from the past that I visualize in my mind’s eye constructed and mediated through the few photographs that have survived in my family album? How else might I aim to re-connect with my memories? Can I speak to a collective memory through photographs that express my location in history and culture?

In his posthumously published book entitled Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes explores what is unique to photography as a medium: “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens. . . . in photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.’ (1) But what has haunted me even more is his contemplation on the affective dimension of photographs. In part one of Camera Lucida, Barthes explains that “A photograph’s punctum is that accident, that ‘detail’ which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).(2) ‘The punctum “is an addition; it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.’ (3) However in part two, following a series of poignant comments on various photographs from his family album as he searches for a likeness that can begin to represent his feelings for and memory of his mother, who had recently died, Barthes concludes “that there exists another punctum. . . . which is no longer of form but of intensity, Time.’ (4)

In her curatorial essay for the exhibition ‘On space, memory and metaphor: the landscape in photographic reprise’  Martha Langford explores the relationship between photography, memory and location. She cites the rhetorician’s trick of speaking without a text to pairing each element of the recitation to features of a known or imagined site, allowing a system of associations to come into play. ‘The art of memory excites spatial imagery with the protagonist’s sense ( real, suggested or imagined) of having been there... Our autobiographical memories also reside in a spatial framework, everyday experience reminds us of that fact. We remember the face, but we cannot “place” it. Remembering is returning to that amorphous place and restoring weakened connections through sensorial and emotional prompts that re-present the past in sufficient detail... The translation of memory to visual form is a quixotic act for memories blend , intertwine and resurge in inexplicable ways that frustrate direct representation...(and yet) direct translation to photography may be more effective still, (than the use of archetypes of the unconscious) especially if the artist desires not merely to show, but to share deeply internalised experience. The transparentness of a photographic image cultivates spectorial absorption into another’s field of memory’. (5)

‘Too close to home?’  is an inquiry into the texture of place and memory through the notions of absent presence. The work includes metaphors for the process of aging. As my starting points I drew upon family myths and a detailed exploration of memories of a specific place. I am using photography and video to explore and isolate tiny details and fragments, so the audience only builds up a sense of the space over time. By pushing at the edge of legibility I enable the audience to project their own meanings upon the images, which symbolise and stand in for the continuity and discontinuity of change over time. Through macro close-up and by taking a child's point of view I represent the common-place as strange.

My focus is the home in which I grew up, a thirties semi-detached house in Morden, on the outskirts of London, where my eighty-eight year old widowed mother still lives. I am fortunate at the moment in having access to this piece of 'working-class social history in aspic', since my parents moved into the newly built house in 1930, when the area was first developed for mass housing as an escape from the overcrowding of London, turning what had been country-side into a suburb. Like a palimpsest, layers of small changes subtly represent adaptations over time. By mapping the wear and tear on the fabric of the house, the objects within it and my mother's body, represented through traces, the camera stands in for the searching eye, which averts from the gaze of the other, yet seeks evidence of presence. By concentrating on the materiality of things, I offer the possibility of a second glance at that which might otherwise be overlooked. It is about the act of looking, in which the viewer’s eyes wander around a room, seeking out clues, as associations arise. It is a gaze which is tender as an old wound or as a comforting embrace cut with impending loss. In contrast to old family album images, a poignant unpicking of family mythologies is made visible.

The installation transforms the gallery into this domestic environment, as if stepping into the ‘other’ space. The video plays on a domestic TV set. Both are contextualised by sound, using my mother’s messages and truisms from my telephone answer machine as the narrative voice, to create a sense of the weight of understated expectations and responsibility, where the potent meanings lie in the sub-text.. I aim to create a sense of recognition in the audience, through association with the ordinary, everyday and also the timelessness of certain words and the images. Whilst the camera searches from the position of the adult child, the words of the mother are fragments from another story, leaving space for the audience to make their own narrative connections.

Initially I had intended to document the house in a flat, harsh light which isolated the objects and emphasised the stains, marks, scratches and worn surfaces. As the project has been carried out over eight years my gaze has softened to enjoy the play of natural light and to seek the ‘present’ within this space, which to me speaks so strongly of the past. I have allowed the images to become subtle, hints rather than overstatements. I have used a very shallow depth of field and layering by photographing reflections in mirrors and off glass. But this glass holds and frames other images - my father’s paintings of idyllic landscapes which represent a romantic ideal, a dream of the country and a country-side visited, enjoyed, remembered: Box Hill, sea-scapes, a boy fishing by a bridge, woodlands and paths. On moving out to Morden as a young married man, did he think he had escaped to this inner-city child’s idea of the country-side? The fields quickly retreated from in front of his newly-made front-gate, under bricks and mortar,  but this did not stop his dreaming from the position of a child who had longed for the beauty, freedom and open-space that the country represented to him, imagined from a city of mean back-streets. No matter that his ancestors had been forced to leave rural poverty and even famine in Ireland to seek a better life in the metropolis. His painter’s eye was self-taught, I thought he overworked the canvas or paper, but now I realise he took his pleasure in the act of observation and in the use of colour. The themes of his paintings were mostly picturesque, although at times they touched the sublime. Once framed and hung they sat less comfortably above the roast beef on Sundays. Lush autumnal woods and iridescent seas were more suitable for the parlour. In his compositions was he taking command of  the scene, as a metaphor for a form of control he could never exercise in the world? Was that the joy in his picturesque? In my photographs I have re-composed these images, to allow the net curtains, ornaments and standard lamp-shade to intrude and to speak of the suburban containment of these images of the country viewed from within the out-skirts of the city. I am also letting go of the controlled central viewing point, in this overlay of referents, as a way of speaking of my sense of ‘going to pieces’ in response to his death.

‘It is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious... Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.’ (6)

Working on the personal, the marginal, the ordinary, everyday touches both private and public memories. Photography offers this opportunity, to confront in isolation elements of lived experience, made strange by their sudden removal from the continuum of  day-to-day living. This re-encounter with the image allows transient and ephemeral elements to be reconsidered. A strangeness emerges, as that which lies below the surface of what is shown begins to surface, in a parallel way to that in which as a therapist I search for the meaning that lie behind the meanings of that which is spoken to be revealed. Photography allows the secrets that the moment contains to be revealed, in contemplation. As objects can stand in for recalled events, so can experience be recollected through a return to a place, which becomes a point of entry into a labyrinth of reminiscences.

As a small child, it was just, unquestionably home. As the only young child in the family, I played alone a lot. The garden was my treasure of earthly delights, in which my imagination created stories of  heroines, adventures and explorations, I even projected a fantasy life upon flowers and small animals.

As I grew, so did my horizons. Then I realized I lived in suburbia, neither city nor country, a place of endless repetition, of semi-detached houses and the council estate. Yet with the locatedness of a child I created the ‘special’, the street I played in, the corner shop where I was bought ice-cream, the grocers where I needed to remember Mum’s Co-op number (15205), my big trees where I clambered over their roots, found hiding places and built dens on my route to school.

But, like many of my generation and working class background, I grew restless. I learnt to despise this space in between, with neither the bustle and excitement of the city, nor the open space of the country. Encouraged to aspire, I longed to escape both the confinement of place, and of what I perceived as the small minded values. Tired of the retort to keep up with the Jones’s, I needed to leave. My father’s overburdened sense of the ‘mill-stone round his neck’ that the repayments on the mortgage represented offered another good reason to go.

Now, I return to a place that is laden with loss. It is too familiar, I hold on tight to my return ticket out. And yet I am curious. This place that to me (as a child) seemed always to exist was itself at one time, and, not so long ago,  a place of pioneers and escape. I research the development of this corner of sub-urban London with a relish of surprise. I visit the local history library to find photographs. Was this field, with this gaggle of geese really the site of Morden station? True, my parents had often spoken of when  ‘It was country then, when Jim and I went to visit my aunt in Arras Avenue, when we were courting’. Fields, I could not imagine country where I had only seen ranks of houses. Fields, indeed, there they were, to be seen from the windows of their proudly purchased house (in an aerial photograph from 1934). At the ages of 19 and 23, with one small baby and a second on the way, they had embarked upon a truly big adventure, leaving behind the inner city they knew, to set up home amongst mud, builders rubble and a dream.

My relationship to this suburbia is indeed uneasy. I find myself  feeling torn. Bleak, repetitive and monotonous, how can I feel a loyalty to vacuous boredom?  The message lodged in my head is ‘we did it for you, we did it all for you’.

A house with three bedrooms and a garden, well two bedrooms and a box-room, and a tip of clay and builders’ rubble was indeed better than living above a shop on a busy, polluted High Street, in two rooms, where the landlord did not want children, and was threatening eviction. So, when one day a customer at the tailor’s shop in Tooting where my father worked spoke of a pair of semi-detached houses that were nearing completion and could be got at ‘a good price’, my father’s ears pricked up. He took the proposal to his sister and brother-in-law, they all took the brand new Underground railway to Morden, walked across fields and wadded through mud to admire the foundations - of a new life. A generation of aspirant working class young marrieds were making a similar treck, drawn by promises:-

An advertising brochure for “The Land of Open Spaces” Cannon Hill Estates, Raynes Park offers a typical example. Illustrated by photographs of the rooms it reads: ‘DINING ROOM 14’x11’ fitted Figured Oak Combination Mantel, Serving Hatch, Casement Doors’. ‘BEST BEDROOM 16’x11’ showing Oriel Bay on the flank of an end house. Fitted Combination Overmantel with Tiled Surround.’  All these rooms are shown furnished in mock Jacobean-style, a stray label shows they are from Arding and Hobbs, the premier department store at Clapham Junction. Another page shows a pastoral scene, complete with old trees and a swan and states ‘In open parkland. 15 minutes from Waterloo.’(7)

Similiar adverts for the London suburbs from this period off the same rhetoric (8)

‘Open your window to the tonic air of Kent’s healthiest estates!...On a Morrel estate the joy of healthy, drudge-less living can be yours for as little as 11/2 per week’(9)

As one commentator points out:

‘Standing amidst builder’s debris in their serried rows, newly constructed houses were unpromising material for the photographer. Most advertisements and brochures were accordingly illustrated with idealised sketches or heavily retouched photographs which skillfully suggested that the house stood quite alone in matured surroundings of judiciously placed trees and shrubs, against a background of windblown clouds and gently rolling hills’ (10)

‘The best of all possible worlds’ (11) could become the worst of all possible worlds. The cost was not only the mortgage, it was isolation and loneliness, particularly for my mother. With two young children, just twenty, she had to learn to be a home-maker, house-wife and mother. No longer was her mother ‘round the corner’, she could no longer call upon her help and support, but rather piled the children into the pram to walk the four miles to see her. Distance and mud also separated her from her five brothers and sisters, and it had been a very close-knit family. ‘It was a struggle’ she says. At first they had a lodger, to help pay the bills, whilst the family of four camped out in a couple of  rooms. The ‘good price’, which was anyway more than they could manage, did not include any extras like furnishings or decoration, it was an empty shell. Slowly but surely, as and when they could afford it, they made it homely. Their suburban semi-detached house, and all the work it involved forced them into relying only on themselves, as the nuclear family. But my father was very skilled and determined, so he turned his hand, on his one day off, to creating his own little palace, room by room. He became interior designer, builder, decorator, upholsterer, carpenter, furniture maker and garden designer. ‘Jack of all trades’ he jokingly called himself, down in his shed, which he built from the corrugated iron of the Anderson shelter, as I, when a child, watched him forever designing, making, mending, and fixing.

I had always viewed the dining room at home as something special. With its wooden-paneling, Jacobean-style table and chairs, high shelving surround upon which Willow pattern and Limoges plates were displayed, with its Tudoresque ceiling of rough white plaster with wooden beams and an oak mantelpiece around a coal fire it was the cosy centre of home, to which a television was added in the early fifties. But the wooden paneling was ersatz, wall-papered by my father two years after moving in when the plaster had dried out,  with wooden dividers nailed on, still going strong after over sixty-five years. He was indeed a master-craftsman and staunch perfectionist, he made that room with the best materials he could afford, or find, or re-cycle. He designed and stitched the curtains and pelmets in fine silk velvet, from Uncle Fred’s furnishing business to cover the French windows. Mum maintained it with dusters, brooms, Mansion polish and admonishments ‘Never put anything down straight on the table.’ ‘Don’t slam the door, it will damage the hinges’. She was the house-wife, did the house-work as well as mothering and the double-shift of a part-time job for that extra bit of money.

My research into suburban-style has shown me that my father was trying to emulate what was then high fashion in suburbia, its uniqueness was that it has remained. I question why the National Trust overlooks everyday, working-class endevour and fails to put its resources behind the preservation of these historically important markers, before they are modernised or destroyed.

Willmott and Young  extended their classic study of family and kinship in the East End, to discover what had happened to those re-housed in the suburban hinterland. There is a sad familiarity in their findings for someone who learnt these subtle nuances as a child. Class antagonism was rife, small differences counted, those already settled were alienated from the new-comers. ’We keep ourselves to ourselves’ the recurrent refrain.

‘Although people talk about traveling “up to town”, in this social context (Woodford)  “out” means “up”, up the “ladder”, up “in the social scale”, up “in the world”... To clamber up the slope was success, to remain at the bottom, failure. Once you had clambered up you wanted to be distinguished as clearly as possible from those who had given up, or never tried.’(12)

They examined the tensions of social class, the voices of the interviewees ring out in phrases that formed a background to my childhood.

‘“In Woodford they haven’t got much, but they are what I class as jumped up snobs. They think they’re better than what you are.”...... “They put on airs and graces”...... “Some of the people in this road are a bit rough.” ......“All sorts of people have come into Woodford since the war who ought never to have come into it, if you know what I mean. There’s not such a good class of person here as there used to be.”’ (13 )

For me this undertow is neatly encapsulated in a memory of my mother’s admonishment as I left the local council school for the ‘good’ school, ‘Don’t say your favourite food is fish and chips’ - which of course it was.

Whilst my parents saw themselves as a cut above those who lived on the en-circling council estate, once I got a scholarship to the ‘good’ school, I in turn learnt quickly to be too ashamed to bring those snobbish Sutton High School girls to visit our modest little semi-detached, to meet my mum trying hard to ‘speak proper’. Class pain cuts deep. It made for social isolation, in a place where everyone had had to loosen or cut their kinship ties when they moved in.

Now, I am aware of another irony. Morden has open-spaces, playing fields, fine trees, quiet cul-de-sacs, schools and a hospital now, thanks to the provisions within the planning of the London County Council St Helier cottage estate, the second largest council estate built between the wars, and not the sprawl of the private developers, who took no account whatsoever of the facilities they provided for mortgaged home-owners. (14)

‘We wanted a cottagey stately home kind of feel’.(interviewee in Barker 1992).

The story continues in today’s Britain where market researchers seek to re-define class, because apparent old certainties have come under question, but nevertheless hierarchies most definitely remain, played out through a mythical return to some past era, that any DIY home decorator from the thirties would recognise. ‘Signs of the Times’ a television series and book by Nicholas Barker, with photographs by Martin Parr, in his incisive cut-to-the-bone manner, sought to examine personal taste in the home in Britain in the early nineties.

‘Whatever private foibles are expressed by taste, it also functions as an important indicator of public status and class. Recent economic and social changes in Britain have led to a major upheaval of the nation’s tastes. ... Retailers obliged ... inspired by a hotchpotch of historical fantasies: chiefly the Country Cottage, the Farmhouse and the Stately Home. Nostalgia appears to hold a powerful grip on our national culture.’ (15)

In ‘The poetics of space’ Gaston Bachelard examines how we experience intimate place. ‘For our house is our corner of the world. It is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’. He takes the reader back to the house of childhood as the shelter for day-dreaming.

‘Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house ... When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of revery, we participate in this original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise. It is the environment in which the protective beings live ... In the theatre of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles.’ (16)

My mother, after a distressing stay in the geriatric ward of the same hospital in which I was born, in which my father died, is indeed so very pleased to be home. House-bound she bemoans her isolation, no family near, her sons long gone, whilst I now find she has positioned me  in the all too familiar dutiful daughter role. (17). Yet, I have already taken that upon myself. Escape is not as easy as it first may seem.

‘But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us ... The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.’ (18)

‘Too close to home?’ was exhibited in ‘Obsessions’ at Standpoint Gallery,

45 Coronet Street, London N1     14 January to 13 February 1999

References and footnotes

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 76.

2. Barthes, p. 27.

3. Barthes, p. 55.

4. Barthes, p. 96

5 Martha Langford ‘On space, memory and metaphor: the landscape in photographic reprise’ Le mois de la photo a Montreal. Montreal. 1997 p.3-4

6. Walter Benjamin ‘A short history of photography’ in ‘One way street’  Verso London 1978

p. 243

7. An advertising brochure for “The Land of Open Spaces” Cannon Hill Estates, Raynes Park London 1931

8. So many fine examples:-

‘Stake your claim at Edgware. Omar Khay-yam’s recipies for turning the wilderness into paradise hardly fits an English climate, but provision has been made at Edgware of an alternative recipe which will convert pleasant, undulating fields into happy homes. The loaf of bread, the jug of wine and a book of verse may be got there easily. A shelter which comprises all the latest labour-saving devices and sanitary convenience.’

(London Transport  Advertisment 1926 in Oliver, Davis and Bentley ‘Dunroamin: the suburban semi and its enemies’  Barrie & Jenkins  London 1981  p79)

‘Live in Ruislip where the air’s like wine,

It’s less than half an hour on the Piccadilly Line.’

(Alan Jackson ‘Semi-detached London’ George Allen & Unwin  London1973  p204)

9. (Daily Telegraph 1935 in Oliver, Davis and Bentley ‘Dunroamin: the suburban semi and its enemies’  Barrie & Jenkins London 1981 p85)

10 Alan Jackson ‘Semi-detached London’ George Allen & Unwin London 1973  p204

11. Ebenezer Howard ‘Garden Cities of tomorrow’ 1898 (influenced  the thinking behind suburban development, but it was not what he had proposed.)

12. Willmott and Young ‘Family and class in a London suburb’ Routledge and Kegan Paul London 1960 p4-5

13. Willmott and Young ‘Family and class in a London suburb’ Routledge and Kegan Paul  London 1960 p111-122

14. Paul Harper ‘St Helier Estate’ Education, Leisure and Libraries Department Merton 1998 p3-6.

Note The growth in population in the Unitary District Council of Merton and Morden can be traced through census returns. In 1901 - 5,470. In 1911 - 14,140. In 1921 - 35,118.

The greatest gain was between 1921 and 1939 - using the areas as defined in the 1939 Registrar General’s estimate.In 1921 - 17, 532.  In 1931 - 41,227.  In 1939 - 72,150.

Alan Jackson ‘Semi-detached London’ George Allen & Unwin London 1973  p326-7

15. Nicholas Barker Signs of the times Cornerhouse Publications  Manchester 1992 p.4-5

16. Gaston Bachelard ‘The poetics of space’   Beacon Press Boston 1969 (p4, 6, 8.)(1st published as ‘La poetique de l’espace’ 1958 Presses Universitaries de France)

17. Willmott and Young 1960   p36-51.

18. Gaston Bachelard ‘The poetics of space’   Beacon  Press Boston  1969     ( 1st published as ‘La poetique de l’espace’ 1958 Presses Universitaries de France) p14-15