In the low, tawny grass at the bottom of a hill is the figure of a woman leaning, her whole body twisted towards a small summer house on the crest. Her bare, frail arms seem tense with the effort of pulling herself along, but her dusty pink summer dress is elegantly cinched at the waist and softly follows the contours of her hips. Frozen in this position, we don’t know if she will ever reach the little home in the distance or remain where she is, just looking.
By recalling these memories, we add to our store of dream – The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard
It seems she has been there so long, loosened strands of rich dark hair float harmoniously free from her chignon with the gently undulating grass. Unable to see her face, we are invited to imagine why she is there and what she is thinking, and our response depends mainly on how we are feeling in the moment of this encounter. Perhaps we see an anguished woman, frustrated by her situation, and wonder why she is positioned so awkwardly in the grass; or maybe we see her poised in wonder, trying to memorise this view so that she can recall it later. As the viewer, she is outside looking in but also seeing something that will forever influence – consciously or not – what she sees in the future.
The woman depicted is named in the painting’s title, Christina’s World (1948), one of the best-known and much-loved images of American painter Andrew Wyeth, a painting that has been absorbed by the national psyche. Wyeth was inspired by Christina, who, crippled from (undiagnosed) Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic polyneuropathy, and unable to walk, spent most of her time at home. This is a painting of her happy place, where Christina continued to return as long as she could pull herself there, but would ultimately only be able to return with her mind. Depicted in the finest details, in the softest of palettes, we cannot help but stare at this work for a long time, trying to unravel its meaning. It is a work that has deeply influenced the practice of countless artists, in particular fine art photographer Jeffery Becton.
“Becton is possibly the only artist I have encountered who intelligently channels Andrew Wyeth in entirely original ways.” Chris Crosman, curator Farnsworth Museum of Art Crystal Bridges Museum of Art.
Jeffery Becton is interested in making pictures rather than taking them. One of the pioneers of the digital revolution, Becton is a visual artist who has lived and maintained a studio in Deer Isle, Maine since 1977. With a background in graphic design, he first digitally tinted his photographic works, and then began to expand his oeuvre when new software introduced the possibility of visual layering. “Since 1990, I have worked in the medium that I call digital montage — a seamless union of diverse visual elements in a composition, the original form of which is a digital file.” Combining primarily elements of photography as well as painting, drawing, and scanned materials, Becton’s work has become increasingly complex and visually beguiling. He digitally integrates images and textures’ sourced from his photographs and scans in a fluid process guided more by intuition than a premeditated plan,’ says Britta Konau. She interviewed Becton for his show A Singularity of Place at the Photographic Museum of Maine.
The resulting digital montages are more painterly than photographic, depicting surreal, liminal spaces that hover between interior and exterior, typically of coastal architecture, softened and bleached by the elements. They captivate with a soft, desaturated palette that keys into our nostalgia for the sea-side and specifically to the aura of Maine. Beautifully faded, they are also charged with a ghostliness that engenders a searching double-take, as if you can sense the presence of someone recently departed from the frame. “The techniques I use foster visual ambiguities, re-examining the boundaries of mixed media and creating altered realities that merge into images rich in symbols both personal and archetypal,” Becton explains.
In these alternative realities, coastlines merge with the built environment, conflating the man-made with the natural and suggesting there is no real barrier between the external and internal. Everything in the image is left open to interpretation; frequently, he builds his composition around open windows and doors, which draw the eye in but confound our expectations. Many of Becton’s images have origins in the interiors of weather-beaten summer cottages along the coast of Maine, to which he has unique access, given his family’s multigenerational history in the area. Suggesting decay and absence, life suspended or fading away, just like Wyeth, his photographs propose an open narrative. The viewer is invited to inhabit the image and complete the story. “It is not my intention to school the viewer or place before them a fully resolved work that is clear in message, but rather to invite or draw them into an emotional connection, a recognition and unfolding of their inner experience and understanding. Something akin to finding a unique feeling or emotion that is truly their own. That is the completion of the work.”
Becton’s starting point is typically the interior of empty, abandoned or private homes in Maine “because an interior space has so many wonderful ways of being particular with any given kind of light.” Once he has framed the bones of the image with architecture, he begins layering these scenes with natural elements: watermarks, painted skies, and the outline of a beach at low tide. Rich with associations, through these compositions, Becton explores a wide range of feelings from existential confusion and loneliness to fear and unease, through to tranquillity, peace and hope. “I try to tease out resonances and amplify them,” he explains, “because life is difficult and unfair and the passing of time mysterious.” These works speak to the disquiet of the modern age in which we all live
with multiple windows open onto other worlds, but also the resilience of nature, which will ultimately envelop all that we leave behind.
Blue Calm is a typical example of the beauty and unease in his altered interiors. We recognise it as a room, but it seems to be shapeshifting into an island that hovers on the horizon, as if it has expanded through the window, dissecting the whole space. The mood is very different to that in Breezing Up, which shows a single chair propped up against a wall in a room that has been completely taken over by nature: the floor is frothy with waves receding and painted clouds plaster the walls. No longer a shelter, this room is completely exposed to the natural elements. Yet, the furniture alludes to the generations of family members who have spent summers in this house, leaving what the artist describes as “layers of patina, real and imagined.” We understand, like the writer Kona, that “the home has evolved from a place of containment and protection to one of openness and precariousness. Yet amongst this sense of foreboding and loss prevails an equally strong feeling of the interconnectedness of all life.”
It is in this openness, rich with possibility, that we find synergy between Becton’s work and the artist Andrea Hamilton’s vast archive of photographic series, which repeatedly considers the ocean as subject. Born in Lima, Peru, Hamilton is a UK-based conceptual artist and photographer best known for her extensive series of photographic images, or typologies, of the ocean, natural phenomena, and the Kelvin scale. Her work encompasses numerous photographic genres, including portraiture, still life, long exposure and landscape. Her systematic collection of subjects within a strict conceptual framework (Chroma, Tidal Resonance and Luminous Icescapes) over extended periods has resulted in comprehensive archives. These are retrospectively organised according
to common visual characteristics (movement, colour, light) into series which highlight specific themes: the nature of time and Memory, our relationship with the environment, colour theory, being, and the representation of truth.
Hamilton’s works frequently examine the durational capacity of photography and the contingency of both past and future, as related to Roland Barthes’ notion of time. For example, in her Water Works series Tidal Resonance, shown at Delahunty in 2014, we see the ocean preserved in the infinite present; time suspended in motion. Like Becton, Hamilton is interested in the transformative power of the camera to turn one representation of nature into another (her Panterfällen series of photographic images, taken in 2008 during a trip to the Biological Museum in Djurgården, shift the static diorama into a landscape portrait).
Frequently, she creates images that highlight the emotional potential of our environment. Since 2000 she has been building a series of seascape photographs, Colour of Time, into a library of more than 16,000 images. Seeking to capture the maximum chromatic variation in one place through rigorous documentation, Hamilton sets constant parameters of location and distance of the tripod from the water’s edge, centring the frame on the horizon line. Hamilton’s works create an emotional connection with the viewer, but like Becton, there is also a strong formalist aspect to her work. For Becton, this came from his graphic design education, “which was very Bauhaus and quite attentive to placement, size, texture— all the things that have to do with what makes a picture have an effect in the end.”
In Between Two Worlds, Hamilton responds instinctively to Becton’s images, travelling through her archive to find images where she feels most connected to the landscape. It could be from a room overlooking the bluff from her family home in Sweden, Alaska, where the sky is full of grey clouds tucked into a dry night, or further south on the Atlantic coast in Florida, where moonlight hovers over water through the fog. Through these pairings, Hamilton points us to the universality of light, air, and tides, that we all experience when looking out to the Sea.
In both artists’ work, there is a sense of hush, like the day before a storm. There is an echo of the stillness of Edward Hopper’s work, notably Rooms by the Sea, where infinite water laps at an open doorway. We are invited to step in and expand with these liminal spaces. They offer us the chance to daydream, just as “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Intimate portraits of a coastline, reflecting natural beauty both inside and out, inspire poetry.
Water holds Memory
In each receding wave is the molecule
of this moment
And when we see the Sea
It restores us to the present
of that time
Our minds silvered like the water
Rising, lifting and crashing into an image
of that shoreline.
Behind the horizon,
Inside the darkroom is a palace
we are making
To house and protect that which we love
The most, even if the bleached texture
of this coastal conversation.
Between ocean and land, between the
Slip of eternity and the dry imprint
of a watermark.
On the smooth surface of a stone,
Or a piece of paper will naturally
Words: Nico Kos Earle – Photos: Top Photo: Andrew Wyeth. Christina’s World, 1948, The Museum of Modern Art, New York by licence Andrea Hamilton from Scala Group S.p.a. All other photos via the artists
Photographic Memory is dedicated to Jeffery Becton and Andrea Hamilton
Between Two Worlds – The Poetics of Coastal Places – Jeffery Becton and Andrea Hamilton 20 June – 31 August, AH Studio, 68 Kinnerton Street, SW1X 8ER