Imposing in their scale and uprightness, yet warm and soft in tone and texture, Hannah Collins’ wall-sized, fabric-mounted photographs are as full of detail as they are void of people. While they invite through open interiors of mattress or cardboard floors, spacious, unpeopled desert or verdant forest floor, they are detail-rich representational walls that cannot be passed through. Perhaps this is what Dan Cameron meant when he wrote that Collins’ photographs are ‘charged with an anonymity that keeps the viewer from entering or exiting her pictures with ease’.
Following abandoned, marginal and unidentifiable places throughout her career, Collins collects hollow shells of human habitation that bare traces of the living, with haptic surfaces more alive than their departed ghosts. Time is evident across many layers in this exhibition and spanning her career to date, in the time it takes the photographer to find the right image of a place, the time that the now absent subjects have spent in a place indicated by their traces, the time since they have left, and the time that works through the artist herself as effluent motifs gather momentum in the works.
If anonymous these photographs are yet not without presence. I’m trying to get to know Collins; trying to figure out why she is different from other documentary photographers. But that question already reveals why she is not a typical photographer of anthropological subjects, and why dilemmas of exploitation, exoticism or othering don’t really apply to her work. Her photographs urge me to know her, the one behind the lens, rather than the thing she is pointing at in her images. This is because the photos mainly capture empty spaces, desolation and ruins, and also because she keeps mentioning the incompatibility of image and experience, which denies a transparency between representation and information.
During her introductory talk she says ‘I used to think of photographs as uncommunicative things.’ It’s not about the photograph, but the act of documenting, of being somewhere and trying to understand it. This is why for Collins there is no difference between a found image and one she has made. They are both mere indexes to an experience, something that cannot be fully represented, and something that fails in language.
Of her rainforest photos in ‘The Fertile Forest’ series (2013-15) she confesses that she didn’t always know what plant her guide pointed to among the tangled depths of greenery; but she took the photograph anyway. In the resulting installation of one hundred photographs of Amazonian plant species, the real subject is her search and her act of looking. One of the only photographs to house a human figure, ‘Camp in Columbia’, exposes the photographer’s gaze as a child aims a toy gun at the lens. Earlier works also underscore the photographer’s presence through flood light scenography, which evokes a sensory prosthetic to vision in the dark. At the opening introduction interlocutor John Slyce asks Collins whether she considered herself hunter or gatherer. ‘Forager’, she replies.