In her beautifully poetic book ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag describes a so-called ‘involuntary memory’ that Marcel Proust applied in his remembrance-fuelled writing. Bleak footprints of the past mix with the meshes of reality so powerfully sealed within us that they cannot be erased. Photography and the archive carry an elusive notion of depicting reality, yet they can also take us on an uncanny journey into worlds that are barely tangible and only just visible. The latest exhibition at the Library of Birmingham ‘Album 31’ epitomises the idea of a photograph that is a trace of reality and, most importantly, an encounter with the unreal.
When wandering around the exhibition I caught myself in a subconscious (or rather ‘involuntary’ according to Mr Proust) attempt to categorise and to find a common denominator between the images, sitting next to each other in the sterile white-grey-black exhibition space. But as the title of the exhibition states, it is an album. Nothing more, nothing less. Portraits of children follow images of butterflies, tree tops, a dark chocolate Leibniz biscuit, an X-ray of Bettina von Zwehl’s hands and other seemingly unrelated objects. Or perhaps unrelated only for us. What we know is that the exhibition was inspired by the Library of Birmingham’s photographic archives, particularly an archive of images created by Sir Benjamin Stone, a Victorian photographer who managed to neatly label almost all of his prints under sensible categories, except one labelled ‘Album 31: MISCELLANOUS’. Stone’s album encompasses everything that is fascinating about archives: exceptions, misfits, curiosities and photographic orphans. The idea of a what-not collection was very much in vogue among Victorians, who liked to surround themselves with memories of people, places and events that even though unrelated to each other, formed a private cabinet of curiosities; a visual diary with no theme and no date but endless possibilities. And just as the Borgesian idea of a library, these collections encapsulated the indefinite, the invariable and the infinite. Labyrinths of memory among the labyrinths of library.
The exhibition poses an interesting challenge by combining the sensitivities and practices of two different artists, presenting both separately made photographs and a series of newer collaborative works. While Rickett examines relationships between humans and nature, von Zwehl is known for her sombre portraits and Georgian-style profiles, particularly of children. Even though the two artists are interested in different subjects, one can sense that there is something that unifies their work and these ‘accidental’ images: memory and intimacy. In the collaborative works, row by row, dream-like images remind us of visions interrupted just before wakefulness. Accompanying them, poetic diary entries are presented almost as a stream of consciousness than any other traditional linear narrative. Rickett’s series of black and white photographs of butterflies titled ‘The Death of a Beautiful Subject’ are close-ups revealing something of the relationship with her father, a personal engagement with the subject, as well as a preoccupation with their fragility. Similarly, von Zwehl’s child sitters can appear vulnerable and delicate, on the border of fairy-like appearances. We are here meandering between fleeting reminiscences, un/fathomable images and random thoughts, all wrapped up in a conversation between two artists and two sensibilities that take all shapes and forms.
Take, for example, ‘Page 4, Album 31’ which consists of the medallion shaped centrepiece depicting a baby with eyes gently shut, surrounded by three black and white images of a ship and the word ‘CURTAIN’ typed on grey card. The exhibition guide states that this word derives from a misunderstanding between Rickett and von Zwehl. Suddenly, out of the unexpected juxtaposition of the pictures and words, emerges a vague meaning. Or rather an impression of a very thin string that binds the contents of the album together: half-closed eyes, a curtain, a ship finishing its journey … the end of the day. A photographic haiku.