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Stillness in Time
"Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself." Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
"Stillness in Time" is a series I have been working on throughout the spring and summer of 2011. I wanted to make a series of child portraits using the Wet Plate Collodion process and I envisaged that these portraits would capture the stillness within each child as they sat or lay for several seconds left alone in their own thoughts.
The reason for the Wet Plate Collodion process is simple. It is beautiful, but more importantly it is because it really slows down the photographic process and in turn it slows down the child sitting before me. Working with the Wet Plate Collodion process feels very personal. It can be an unforgiving process; all mistakes are mine and will be shown. It records every moment, from the flowing of the plate, to how I put the plate into the silver box, the exposure, the composition and the moment in which we (the sitter and the photographer) seems to come together and hold still for several seconds. Then we develop the plate. Every pause, hesitation, slip or drop will be recorded on this plate, every speck of dust or hair floating will be unforgiving. That's the beauty of Wet Plate Collodion – by its very nature it is left to serendipity.
So, why have I returned to photographing children again? We live in a mad, relentless world and this is no different if you are a child. I am not saying it is a bad thing; it is merely an observation. I think what my family life is like. We are on the go from around 6.30am until about 9pm most days. From getting breakfast, going to school, going to their clubs, homework, dinner, playing, talking, and reading together there is no time for stillness. So to capture stillness in a child is a rare and beautiful moment. It was wonderful to witness how despite whatever was going around them, they became totally immersed in their own world.
When photographing the children I wanted it to be a collaborative experience. I wanted each child to suggest how I photographed them; however, due to the long exposure time not all suggestions could be done. The exposure time ranges from 4 to 30 seconds, enough time for someone to become absorbed in the moment - to become still. The very nature of wet plate requires stillness.
My work is ultimately about emotion. It is about capturing a moment or a memory. I have always been interested in the idea of 'memory' – I think this came through my studies, my reading of so many diaries and journals for my MA in Holocaust Studies. Although my work is very personal, the intention is that it is open enough for others to bring their own stories to it.
My passion for photography started in earnest with the birth of my son. I had always enjoyed the photograph as an object but with his arrival came the need to record our lives. After the birth of my daughter I found that I was photographing as a way of exploring my own childhood memories as well as using it to document our lives. Photography was now becoming a means of expressing myself artistically.
In my photography I have always been drawn to the theme of childhood, whether it has been recreating my own personal memories, making images of my children and recording their childhood or working with children using ancient photographic processes.
I work with a variety of photographic mediums, from medium and large format cameras using film, to working with the Victorian Wet Plate Collodion Process. I love to work in a slow and considered way and one in which I collaborate with each child that sits before me.
"The keys to understanding and appreciating the art of Deborah Parkin are beauty and strange-making, that Russian artistic concept called ostranenie (остранение), a way of making perfectly ordinary things, a portrait of a child, for instance, seem quite strange and extraordinary. Of course, her art is about children and particularly her own children, about preserving the past for the future, and about working in a slow and luminous process. But what rises above all these descriptive aspects of it, what we finally are most struck by and respond to, are its beauty and ostranenie. Look, for example, at "Fern" or "The Unseen Eye" or this astounding image "Fleur and the Flower Crown". As a photographic historian and critic, I have looked at a great many photographs in my career, but these, like many others of hers, came with a shock, a jolt to the heart. These are deeply and movingly beautiful images, even though she has many others more "classically" beautiful, more Cameronesque, one could say: "Anti-climax" , "Portrait of a Boy", "Growing Pains" , and "I Dream", for example. But the quality that is so striking about those first three I mentioned is that their beauty is entwined with strange-making.
They are timeless, as real art always is, but they are so clearly not of our time and our place that when I first saw them, I knew them from history. They seemed very much a part of the 19th century but not of the privileged world of Julia Margaret Cameron. These are the children whose faces one sees in Thomas Annan's Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, in John Thomson's Street Life in London, and similar work from the 19th century. I am not suggesting that Parkin was attempting to evoke a darker past or pull at our heart-strings in these photographs. I am only pointing out that her strange-making art has the power to evoke history in its ability to suggest a truthful and honest portrait of the child, that her art can with the greatest subtlety suggest the child as the child actually was for most of the history of the world—and, sadly, as the child still is in most of the world. And this is something that I have never seen in the work of any other photographer.
The world of children in those three portraits is not the sweet, impossible, and perfect idyll that Heinrich Kühn always photographed his children basking in nor is it that tragic world of the children Dr. Bernardo commissioned to be photographed in order to shock the Victorian consciousness into compassion, just as his contemporary humanitarians Charles Dickens, Frederick Engels, and the 7th Earl ofShaftesbury did in their work. Parkin has written that, though not challenging the actual "innocence" of children, she "is challenging the notion of childhood being innocent. We shouldn't sentimentalize childhood, to do this would be a grave disservice to our children. It would be a lie. It would suggest that a child lives in a blissful bubble and doesn't feel things that we do as adults. Children are acutely aware of what is going on around them. . . . Children feel as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable than adults. . . . [C]hildhood is what shapes us into the adults we become."And, as we all know, it can shape us for good or ill.
Deborah Parkin's use of strange-making is not limited to the three photographs I mentioned. There is obvious strange-making in her transformations of children into angels, rabbits, and cats. But that is only strange-making to the eye of an adult, which most of her viewers will be, but not at all to the eye of a child. In his poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" E. E. Cummings chronicled the loss of that innocent eye: "down they forgot as up they grew." In addition to noticing the beauty and strange-making in Deborah Parkin's work, it also helps to see her work as a child would—if we have not forgotten, if we can remember what we grew up and away from. Seen through our youthful eyes, the world of Deborah Parkin's art can be read as an adventure—a serious, lyrical, truthful, and deeply joyful one."
Prof. John Wood