Mys­te­ri­ous ways

Pho­tog­ra­pher Sonya White­field’s re­sponse to David Park’s writ­ing ex­plores the mys­tery at the heart of our ex­is­tence

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY DAVID PARK

David Park’s stun­ning pho­to­graphic col­lab­o­ra­tion

When I was 10 I grad­u­ally re­alised I couldn’t see what was clear to the other chil­dren in my pri­ma­ryschool class. The teacher would write notes on the black­board and then ask a par­tic­u­lar row of pupils to read them aloud. When light shone on the board I could make out the writ­ing, but on the day she asked my row to read, the sun, as it seemed to me, malev­o­lently ab­sented it­self. In that early phase of my life I was fright­ened of author­ity and had some­how come to think that hav­ing to ad­mit pub­licly that I couldn’t see prop­erly would in­cur some form of dis­ap­proval. I re­mem­ber the trem­ble in my voice when I re­vealed what I had long tried to hide and the faces turn­ing to look at me.

The ad­mis­sion, how­ever, re­sulted only in a visit to the op­ti­cian, but I still cried when he an­nounced that I was short-sighted and would need to wear glasses. The el­derly op­ti­cian, who was a kind man, gave me six­pence in rec­om­pense and told me that eye­sight could mirac­u­lously im­prove. My mother picked a pair of peach-coloured frames that she thought suited me, but I took no part in the se­lec­tion be­cause I had al­ready re­solved that I was never go­ing to wear them. When they were ready, a cou­ple of weeks later, I took them off the sec­ond I left the shop, but my mother, with an un­usual in­ten­sity, in­sisted I put them back on.

In that mo­ment I saw the world as I hadn’t be­fore and prob­a­bly haven’t since, and when I low­ered my eyes it wasn’t out of shame but be­cause I felt blinded by the light of the world. My mother’s shoes, small, brown, pol­ished at the front, the heels scuffed and worn; a splash of sparkling spit; bus tick­ets (non-trans­fer­able); a stamped cig­a­rette bursting like a sheaf of yel­low corn; a dis­carded di­a­mond of sil­ver pa­per. And on the bus ride home through Belfast we stopped at traf­fic lights be­side a church that had a verse on its no­tice board. It said as if in some per­sonal mes­sage di­rectly sent from above, “The eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are clear your whole body will be full of light.”

See­ing and try­ing to find a way to ex­press what is seen are the essence of all art, in what­ever medium it is ex­pressed. How we see is fired in the imag­i­na­tion and shaped by ev­ery sin­gle thing that has ever passed like a shadow across our ex­is­tence. The act of cre­ative see­ing is pro­cessed through what Wordsworth de­scribed as “the in­ner eye” that en­ables us to “see into the life of things”, and all the best ad­vice about writ­ing fo­cuses on sight, from Sea­mus Heaney’s “Keep your eye clear / as the bleb of the ici­cle,” to John McGa­h­ern’s “What a writer needs is a way of look­ing at the world. The most im­por­tant thing the writer needs to find is not a voice alone, not the words alone, but a way of see­ing into lives.”

Away of look­ing at the world

The ti­tle of my novel Trav­el­ling in a Strange Land is inspired by the quo­ta­tion by Bill Brandt that sug­gests the pho­tog­ra­pher must have “some­thing of the re­cep­tive­ness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the trav­eller who en­ters a strange coun­try”. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is a pho­tog­ra­pher, and in­evitably when work­ing on it I of­ten thought about pho­tog­ra­phy, re­flect­ing on its sim­i­lar­i­ties to and dif­fer­ences from writ­ing and won­der­ing what im­pulses and pro­cesses were in­volved in find­ing “a way of look­ing at the world” through the lens of a cam­era. So it came as a great plea­sure when the artist and pho­tog­ra­pher Sonya White­field ex­pressed a will­ing­ness to en­gage in a cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion, where she would pro­duce a per­sonal re­sponse to the novel that com­bined her im­ages with my text.

Al­though we ex­changed ideas about the novel, from the very be­gin­ning we held fast to the be­lief that her re­sponse was to be a per­sonal one, spring­ing from her read­ing of it, and nei­ther of us wanted the pho­to­graphs to be merely a pic­to­rial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the nar­ra­tive. The hope was that each artis­tic form would give to the other, and in the fus­ing of the two some­thing new to each of us might emerge. Of course the blend­ing of text and im­age has a long his­tory, right back to Egyp­tian burial friezes and be­yond, and has also been ex­plored by many con­tem­po­rary artists, such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the world of pho­tog­ra­phy Duane Michals has also ex­ploited this fu­sion, of­ten with star­tling re­sults.

By a cu­ri­ous syn­chronic­ity, Bill Brandt has been an in­flu­ence on Sonya’s cre­ativ­ity. She works mostly in black and white, fol­lows tra­di­tional meth­ods in de­vel­op­ing her own work and took the pho­to­graphs with a Mamiya C220 cam­era with an 80mm lens. In the novel the cen­tral char­ac­ter comes to a be­lief that all that is left for us in this world is mys­tery, and Sonya’s pho­to­graphs seem to me to see into some of the mys­tery at the heart of our ex­is­tence as we travel in a strange coun­try. They both serve to il­lu­mi­nate the text and take it in directions that I hadn’t an­tic­i­pated. It has also taught me that there are more sim­i­lar­i­ties than dif­fer­ences in seem­ingly sep­a­rate art forms.

As I pon­der the re­sult­ing im­ages there is one, how­ever, that I can ac­cess only through the lens of my own mem­ory, and as I fo­cus through the vista of years, it’s of that small boy with peach-coloured glasses rid­ing home, sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly trans­fig­ured by the light of the world. See­ing.

Trav­el­ling in a Strange Land is pub­lished by Blooms bury. Sony a White­field’ s im­ages and David Park’ s text will form part of a pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion that will be shown at the John Hewitt Sum­mer School at the Ar mag hM ark et Place Theatre from July 23 rd to 28 th with the sup­port of the Arts Coun­cil of North­ern Ireland; john­hewittso­ci­ety.org

See­ing and try­ing to find a way to ex­press what is seen are the essence of all art, in what­ever medium it is ex­pressed. How we see is fired in the imag­i­na­tion and shaped by ev­ery sin­gle thing that has ever passed like a shadow across our ex­is­tence

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