I have been looking at the work of Chloe Dewe Mathews, particularly Shot at Dawn (Mathews et al 2014) but also Thames Log (Mathews 2021), although I do not feel that Thames Log, good though it is, is particularly relevant to my current project.
Shot at Dawn is a sombre, poignant body of work that I greatly admire. What makes it stand out to me is the amount of preparation and care that has gone into each image. The camera position has been chosen to match the likely location of each firing squad. The time each image was taken matches as closely as possible the time of each execution. Even the weather, or at least the season, seems to have been chosen to match. There is care over the colour palette employed, the half-light of a misty dawn or a recessive and muddy dusk. The result is a unified aesthetic that, allied to good sequencing, carries the whole book.
By contrast, Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site (Sternfeld 2012) also shows images of places where bad things happened. But they are not always of a killing and there is no unified aesthetic. Although these too are images that disturb us and change the moment we read the captions, there is a mixture of times of day (thus affecting the light), seasons and camera angles. The places themselves can be markedly different one from another. To my eye the result is not so effective because it lacks a unified aesthetic and a really focused intent.
A second body of work that has been compared to Shot at Dawn is Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder (Seawright 1988), a short sequence originally made in 1972-3. This suffers from similar problems to Sternfeld’s work though perhaps for different reasons. In some images, Seawright seems to have chosen to show a place where something dreadful happened, a murder, much as the rest of the world might see it – a still jaunty playground, perhaps, or the lush grass of a dog-walking site. To the viewer, those innocent scenes suddenly acquire a sinister meaning because unlike the image and perhaps the people in the image, we know from the caption what happened there, knowledge that changes our perception forever. So while Seawright’s work lacks Mathews’s unified aesthetic, it is making slightly different and still powerful points. And in his later work Hidden (Seawright 2003), Seawright went on to produce a nuanced body of work that does have a unified aesthetic and which shows the traces and suggestions of unpleasant things in a highly effective way.
The elements that emerge from Shot at Dawn in relation to my own current project are these:
First, a unified aesthetic is clearly powerful and important. It is not easy to manage this in a short time because one is often relying on weather and season but the idea is there. In my case, the comparison might be that Bartholomew Steer tried but failed to incite the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. He was expecting a new dawn to arrive and instead he found himself confronted by sunset and the end of his young life. Given that many of the events of 1596 are shrouded in mystery, this makes the half-light of dawn and dusk the natural times to choose for my own images. The result adds some atmosphere but also makes the point that what actually happened in 1596 is in part obscure and after four hundred years we will never know the full truth. All one can do is show the traces of something.
The second element is a point well made by Mathews in an interview about Shot at Dawn (Cloughton 2014): ‘By photographing the empty landscapes, I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.’
This is uncannily similar to what I am trying to do, but with a difference. Whereas Mathews was photographing the traces of a ‘lost’ individual, I am photographing the traces of lost communities, lost landscapes like open field strips and vanished (or at least vanishing) ways of life at a moment of sometimes violent social change. This returns me to one of the core intents of my project: in photographing a landscape, I am not photography a pretty pastoral scene at all but cultural, economic and physical landscapes laid one over the other and in which specific things happened to specific people known to history. I too am trying to bring something back from faint traces ‘so that their histories are not forgotten’.
The third element is suggested by Geoff Dyer in his Introduction to Shot at Dawn (reprinted in See/Saw, Dyer 2021: 251-57): ‘Rather than serving simply as memorials, in other words, the photographs may be documentary depictions of remembering. The things we are seeing – flowers, grass, trees, walls – may have a consciousness of which they are oblivious. Strongest in cultivated landscapes, this feeling of mute or dormant sentience is particularly acute at dawn or dusk.’
Dyer’s point takes us to Roland Barthes contemplating Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lewis Payne: ‘He is dead and he is going to die’ (Barthes 2000: 57): an act of remembering, a memento mori and a strange reversal of time all together. I had not before thought of my project as a documentary of remembering but this strikes me as absolutely right and adds another dimension to my work. And Dyer’s suggestion that a mute or dormant sentience is more acute at dawn and dusk is a powerful argument for following the kind of unified aesthetic employed by Mathews. It adds a dimension to my body of work that otherwise might not be there, because I had not realized it.
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage, 57.
CLOUGHTON. RACHAEL. 2014. ‘Interview: Chloe Dewe Mathews’. The List [online]. Available at: https://www.list.co.uk/article/66272-interview-chloe-dewe-mathews-discusses-new-exhibition-shot-at-dawn/ [accessed 25 May 2021].
DYER, Geoff. 2014. ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews: Shot at Dawn’. In Geoff DYER. 2021. See/Saw: Looking at Photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate, 251-57.
MATHEWS, Chloe Dewe, Geoff DYER, Hew STRACHAN and Helen B. MCCARTNEY. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.
MATHEWS, Chloe Dewe. 2021.Thames Log. London: Marseilles: Loose Joints.
SEAWRIGHT, Paul. 1988. ‘Sectarian Murder’. Paul Seawright [online]. Available at: https://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [accessed 25 May 2021].
SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.
STERNFELD, Joel. 2012. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. Göttingen: Steidl.
Figure 1. Chloe Dewe MATHEWS. 2014. Untitled. From: Chloe Dewe Mathews, Geoff Dyer, Hew Strachan and Helen B McCartney. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.
Figure 2. Chloe Dewe MATHEWS. 2014. Untitled. From: Chloe Dewe Mathews, Geoff Dyer, Hew Strachan and Helen B. McCartney. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.
Figure 3. Joel STERNFELD. 2012. Untitled. From: Joel Sternfeld. 2012. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. Göttingen: Steidl.
Figure 4. Paul SEAWRIGHT. 1988. ‘Saturday 9th June 1973’. From: Paul Seawright. 1988. ‘Sectarian Murder’. Paul Seawright [online]. Available at: https://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [accessed 25 May 2021].