Painted light / malt lys

It is no accident that the most beautiful photograph so far achieved is possibly the first image Nicephore Niepce fixed in 1822, on the glass of the camera obscura – a fragile, threatened image, so close in its organization, its granular texture, and its emergent aspect, to certain Seurats – an incomparable image which makes one dream of a photographic substance distinct from subject matter, and of an art in which light creates its own metaphor.

In researching this essay I discovered the above quote while trying to go to sleep one night (it worked). Written in 1978, it describes the beauty of discovery and the loss of photographic innocence. It struck me as particularly relevant in regards to the work of Deb Mansfield and Camilla Birkeland. I would never make such a grandiose statement as above (that was the 70’s) but to view their work through childhood experience opposed to physical reminders of past lives provided some fascinating realisations.

The photographic image today is consumed and expelled like a light snack before dinner that won’t ruin your appetite, designed for reproducibility. It’s continued production is not reliant on ritual. However Birkeland and Mansfield adopt a ritualistic approach to the production of their images initialing them as unique and distinct from subject matter. By introducing materials that relate to the location of the memory the images become a signifier of childhood experience opposed to a description or portrayal.

Using a technique called liquid light; photographic emulsion is applied to a surface, exposed to light and processed. The application of the liquid emulsion causes gestural streaks, areas of density and lightness, liquid drippings and an inconsistent image field, making each image distinct. The emulsional skin that produces and protects the image plays an important role in the creation and presentation of the final image with the artists being an active participant in a performance reminiscent of the experiments of Nicephore Niepce.

Mansfield and Birkeland use photography as a means of connecting to their childhoods. Mansfield grew up in the sub-tropical suburbs of Moreton Bay, with its cultural isolation and sprawling suburban landscape, while Birkeland speaks of the icy, arctic Norway, a land of rich and varied culture and condensed concrete structures built for purpose.

Birkeland responds to the Nordic life of her homeland by printing directly onto a renowned substance of Northern European architecture – concrete. The unearthed abandoned environments created from the debris of life evoke that time of quiet introspection spent waiting for the mind to sleep, the ‘4 o’clock iggys’. Unsure of scale, material or place, we wander silently down the corridors of Birkeland’s imagined space only recognizing the voice of our own internal dialogue, trying to find familiarity. After becoming conscious of the deliberate use of construction materials of her homeland, the strength of concrete and the familiarity of concrete provides the viewer with an insight into the unique cultural comfort zone of Scandinavia.

Mansfield’s images of adventure and discovery speak of times spent at Nana’s. The hours of thoughtful play spent with a relative whose experiences irrevocably shape the person you are, but whose being is an ongoing, unravelling mystery. Indeed Mansfield’s grandmother lived amongst the tangled wreckage of mangroves and infinite tidal pools of Coochiemudlo Island. Mansfield’s representations of imperial shipping, haunted horses and houseplants suspended in liquid unleash a child-like curiosity in the world around us. Printed on embossed wallpaper and water-colour paper her imagination is located in the home, a space where we are, ideally, free to explore, discover and replay the moments which provide an insight into unravelling the mystery of our own being.

Martin Smith
2004

Damisch, Hubert. ‘Five notes for a phenomenology of the photographic image’. In October 5, Photography: a Special Issue Summer; reprinted in ‘The Photographic Reader’ ed. Wells Liz, London 2003.

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