There/Then: Here/Now


Photographic Archival Intervention within the Edward Chambré hardman Portraiture Collection (1923-63)

Keith W. Roberts

29 Gemmell John Esq - 28571 - 1935         30 Gemmell John Lieutenant - 88068 - 1947 47 Laird D Esq - 28585 - 1935           48 Laird D Major - 80603 - 1945 73 Thomas H S G Reverend - 41067 - 1940     74 Thomas H S G Captain - 46258 - 1941

Intermission Portraits (1. Gemmell John Esq; 2. Gemmell John Lieutenant; 3. Laird D Esq; 4. Laird D Major; 5. Thomas H S G Reverend; 6. Thomas H S G Captain)

The following text has been written to explain the reasoning and purpose behind the contemporary use, display and presentation of a selection of commercial portraiture created by Edward Chambré Hardman between 1923-63, through research I have conducted within the parameters of a practice-based doctorate. Through the use of a recently created database, patterns have been revealed within this forty-year period of commercial portraiture practice. It has therefore now been possible to identify and extract individual sitters, who have had their portraits taken by Hardman at several different points in time, and to re-present these portraits as pairings, seen for the first time together. Through viewing these portraits together, an emphasis is placed upon the gap that exists in time between the two points at which both portraits were created. This gap can be described as an intermission of time, therefore the portrait pairings are referred to throughout the rest of the text as Intermission Portraits. The portrait pairings will be seen through various exhibitions that have been planned in and around the Liverpool area over the forthcoming year, including The Hornby Room at the Liverpool Central Library from 1st December 2015 to 1st March 2016, The Well and Central Space at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, The Discovery Rooms at Hardman’s House on Rodney Street, the ‘Hidden Upstairs Rooms’ on Bold Street in Liverpool as part of the Bold Street Project. In addition to this, a projection piece has been planned for the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, using the Bold Street facing street windows in Matta’s International Foods shop, which is the actual physical space where the portraits were originally taken. Lastly, an exhibition of forty pairings has been planned for the middle of 2016 at the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead. More recently, a self-published artist’s book has been created to show the pairings together in book format.

Through the public presentation of these paired portraits, their status has been altered in terms of shifting them from being both anonymous and hidden within the archive, to being named and on public display. There is also a shift within the original function of these portraits, which was initially of a commercial nature for Hardman and a personal or private nature for his client, to a non-commercial public display function for the purposes of this project. It is acknowledged that this shift in function may not present an impact upon the majority of the spectators viewing the newly re-presented works, but that there is a possibility some of the spectators might be related to the sitters in some capacity, given that the sitters predominantly came from Liverpool and that the pairings are being shown within this region.

As negatives within an archive, they have the potential to be unseen triggers for personal memory, but they actually remain dormant until found, extracted and activated by me for re-use within a contemporary public context. Their status in the archive, held in the negative form, means they don’t even qualify as being a finished Hardman print, as what might be found on display within the homes of the sitters ancestors. This moving in status, of becoming dormant through being sat in an archive and then suddenly becoming active due to my intervention, is significant as the works are decomposing and, given time, will cease to exist entirely. To this end, I am creating new contemporary images from the dormant archival negatives, which carry a trace back to the existence of the person they represent within the past, for subsequent use in the present. After this intervention, the physical negatives are placed back into the archive and thus become once again dormant historical artifacts, treated as precious objects, never touched directly by human hand. As displayed portraits within a contemporary setting, the images affirm a past existence and represent what no longer exists, which is what Roland Barthes referred to as Ça a été or ‘what has been’.

It is my intention that in viewing these portraits, the spectator becomes the common denominator between the three points in the process of observation. The spectator can either choose to view the first or the second image independently, but the fact that they have been presented together as a pair can never be overlooked. By viewing the images side by side and either traversing between the pair, or even trying to take in both simultaneously, there is an attempt to place the emphasis upon the physical gap in time. Assuming that the spectator holds no personal connection or knowledge of the subjects depicted in the portraits, the gap is simply a period of time, hidden within the studio register records held about the pair of images, which simply indicates when the two images were physically taken. In viewing the portraits pairings, I am suggesting that the spectator inadvertently becomes part of this triangular equation, the angle of which is not defined by the physical distances between the three points of the triangle. Rather, the angle is determined conceptually through the passing of time specified by when the two portraits were actually created by Hardman, which will be highlighted through the dates included in the supporting literature relating to the displayed portraits.

The uncertainty of what happened to the sitters between the two points in time is important to the practice of re-presenting the portraits. The images of the servicemen in particular can act as a ceremonial portrait, signifying the precise moment being recorded by the photograph, making a connection between the personal life of the sitter to the public event of war. Some of the servicemen subjects depicted in the portraits present a melancholy reluctance about them; an apprehension that speaks out to the spectator from beyond the grave. Some of the subject’s eyes often look fear-stricken and preoccupied, as if the subject was aware of the fact this image might become their final parting gift and remain their most accurate and truest likeness for eternity. The sitters look uncomfortable and restricted in their uniforms, conveying a seriousness about their position and predicament. They often show what might be considered a very real fear of their own mortality, with the final click of Hardman’s shutter possibly becoming their last picture they will ever experience, thus signifying its importance. Many of them are young men in their early twenties, thrust into a position of power, saddled with the burden and weight of expectancy of a nation at war. Their obligation is evident and inescapable and their duty is unquestionable. Many of these young adults will not have previously travelled far, but now await their postings to foreign lands torn apart by conflict, with the possibility of never returning.

The portraits only allow the viewers in as temporary spectators, offering the illusion of being a simple transcription of something that was real. We are not completely invited into the familial gaze here, and there is nothing in these family portraits that reveals anything about the complicated histories of the subjects depicted. They say as much about the person whose memory is being triggered as about the person being remembered. It is this potential lack of direct connection between the spectator and subject that is important to the practice of showing the portraits, as the entire process of identification and extraction from the archive relies upon as a series of specific conditions being met (e.g. a returning client and the corresponding located negative).

As present from the beginning of the medium, photographic portraiture quickly became the family’s primary method of self-knowledge and representation. The family portrait is the physical means through which family memory can be triggered through documentation and aided by conversation, and thus perpetuated for future generations. For Barthes, the portrait is the optimal medium through which to consolidate the past and recall it to the present. He argues that it connects all those that look at it in one way or another. This mutual look of a subject looking at an object, who is a subject looking back at an object, helps to explain this direct address to the viewer. This direct address captures the gaze of a person recorded in a portrait, looking out of the frame ‘directly’ at the viewer. The eyes of the subjects specifically within these Hardman portraits have a distinctive clarity and brightness about them, trapping the viewer’s gaze. Hardman clearly controlled the portraiture session, during which normally one of the portraits depicts the subject directly addressing the camera. There is a demonstration of the balance of power evident in these direct address portraits, one which can temporarily be lent to the viewer.

Marianne Hirsch (1999) states that the conventionality of a family portrait provides a space of identification, thus bridging the gap between viewers who might be personally connected to the subjects with those who are not. Affiliative familial looking is available to any viewer of these paired portraits and is the vehicle through which to connect viewers of different backgrounds to one another. In terms of style, these portraits are ubiquitous and most families will have similar images within their family albums. I would therefore argue that there is already a familiarity afforded by them to the spectator, and it is this initial recognition that might trigger individual and personal memory. The timing of WW2 falls into the middle of the period of Hardman’s commercial practice and, as such, creates this central ‘mid-conflict’ period. The types of pairing are not all the same, as some will fall ‘pre-conflict’ and some ‘post-conflict’. What is always consistent within the pairings is that the left-hand portrait will always precede the right-hand one in terms of chronology. I would also argue that the pairings that fall into the pre-conflict / mid-conflict category are the most likely to trigger a shared memory and therefore offer a connection between spectators of different backgrounds.

These portraits are proof of life and continuity and thus themselves become an emblem of survival. By being pulled out from a personal, private and enclosed audience, and into an open and public arena, the meaning of these portraits changes for the viewer. The original purpose of these portraits was to serve as a trigger for memory within the familial setting, but now, through public display, they serve as a ghostly revenant, poised on the edge between memory and postmemory as defined by Hirsch (2012). Postmemory is distinguished from memory by generational distance, and from history by deep personal connection. Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their own birth. Photographs have an umbilical connection to life, they can connect first and second generations’ remembrance. Hirsch has used the construct of postmemory predominantly in relation to a traumatic narrative, but my project intends to widen its meaning in order to include any potential story that might be used in relation to the gap in time being highlighted by the portrait pairings. It is argued that the spectators of the portraits will respond to what they see, as there is a common familial connection evident within the portraits, even without a potential physical or ancestral connection. As client family portraits, these images have historically spent their time located within a contradictory space somewhere between the fiction of an ideal family life and the factual reality of that family, with all its challenges and difficulties. They might depict people from the past, but how they are now being used is very much about the today and the present, in line with how we define the photographs’ ability to trigger a memory from the past in the here and now.

By pairing these portraits of the same individual subject, photography’s ability to ‘freeze’ or ’capture’ a moment in time is also complicated, as two points within an individual’s timeline have been presented simultaneously. Both portraits work together in highlighting a missing block of time present between the two points at which the images were created. Therefore, the motives behind making these portraits are similar for both the subject and the photographer, in that their intentions are essentially to create a vehicle of remembrance. Many of these subjects faced the very real prospect of not returning from war and were actually ‘killed in action’ (KIA), thus these portraits could be described for some as a parting gift. From the photographer’s perspective, there was clearly a desire to ensure the survival of the collection, rather than to simply destroy that which no longer served a commercial function. I believe that the more striking direct-address portraits of pre-war servicemen have a look of real apprehension about them, which cannot be either overlooked or disguised.

In summary, the objective of the project is, first, to raise the profile of this component of Hardman’s archive (as compared to the better known components, such as the landscapes or topographical cityscapes), through extracting selected portraits from the archive and thus altering their original function. Second, it is to show these portraits to the communities from where they first originated, before they have physically decomposed to an extent where they no longer can be viewed or seen. Thirdly, through the use of a database created specifically for the project, it is to allow the identification of patterns to be revealed in the archive and thus to support a contemporary creative response and intervention within the archive. Then finally, it is to explore the difficulties and challenges associated with working in a photographic archive of this nature, while having to deal with the institutions and agencies who are reluctant to allow any access or publication of the materials held therein.

References

Barthes, R (2000) Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. Minneapolis and London: Vintage. First published in 1981.

Duerden, M. & Grant, K. (2013) Doubletake. Liverpool: Liverpool John Moores University Press.

Gibbon, J. (2011) Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance. New York: IB Tauris & Co Ltd.

Hirsch, M. (1999) The Familial Gaze. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Hirsch, M. (2012) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Keith W Roberts has been the Programme Leader for the B.A. (hons) in Photography at St Helens College for the last ten years. He is a photographic practitioner, educator and researcher, having had his images published and exhibited both nationally and internationally since 1990. The Hardman Intermission Portraits project is a component of the creative output from a practice based PhD Roberts has been engaged within at Manchester Metropolitan University since 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *