Old Friends

My visits to my aunt are not about photography; it’s just that I usually happen to have a camera in a bag or a pocket.  There’s no posing, no arranging – not even time to dial in settings.  Images are grabbed in the course of conversation – me on the opposite sofa, or squashed right up against the window, or street-style on a dog walk.  

Oh, you and your camera!  You can photograph Kali.  She’s a good girl.  She always knows when I’m feeling down.

Admittedly, in the back of my mind, there’s a growing awareness that the dog can’t have much longer.  It’s part of the reason I make the images.  I know how much photographs mean after a death.  They’re one of the first things we look for – albums and prints, probably, more than snaps on a phone.  And I know that the dog’s demise, when it comes, will be devastating.  So I travel with my littlest camera, planning ahead, seizing my moments, anticipating reminiscence. 

Townspeople help keep the world a little wider when dementia starts to shrink it.  A short stroll is punctuated by stops and chats and brief exchanges.  Dogs and walkers, friends and neighbours, strangers, shop-keepers, lock-keepers, the recognised and the forgotten – nobody minds repetition, and everybody seems to care. “What a beautiful dog!” is enough to make a day: the pride and the joy brighten an afternoon’s mood long after the words have been forgotten.

Inside, we drink tea, sing old songs, look at photographs, mementos, newspaper clippings; she asks for news of the kids, talks to the dog.  The two of them watch the world from her first-floor window.  As unobtrusively as I can, I snap some shots. There’s often a slipper or a squeaky toy in the frame. I find I’ve cut the top off the racehorse painting on the wall above the sofa; that seems apt, says my father.  It’s all about the dog now. 

I’m beginning to build up a collection.  Christmas brings my aunt a cheery framed photograph of dog, owner, tennis ball.  It’s a bit blurry because I was taken by surprise when the moment unfolded.   But nobody cares about that.  Early spring blossom gives me a birthday photo for her too.  

Later in the year, I get to tell her that a portrait of the two of them – Watching the World Go By – is to be exhibited at a new photography gallery in Glasgow. She is surprised and delighted and proud.  Five minutes later, she’s forgotten all about it, and when I mention it for a second time, she’s surprised and delighted and proud all over again.  

Dementia makes the world shrink in time as well as space: the past pin-sharp even as the present starts to blur.  Reminiscence is good but memories are double-edged.  What happened in Wales during the war?  How old was Granny Williams when she put herself in the river?  And Ruby, when she ended up under the train?  A rediscovered photo prompts tales of my grandmother’s dottier exploits and a rendition of her favourite old tunes.  Maizy Doats and Dozy Doats.  My Meatless Day.  John, John, John, Won’t You Go and Put Your Trousers On.

A bored dog brings us back to the here and now, the necessity of a walk in the drizzle.  Facts fade, but a mood lingers.  Leave on a happy note.

March 2020, and in the space of two short weeks the following happens.  My father, fourteen days after routine surgery, drops dead in the street with a pulmonary embolism and a DVT.  A week later, my mother’s beloved, creaky old cat joins him.  And, not a week after that, the dog goes too.  Vet’s best efforts, but time was up.

My brother buries the dog in my mother’s garden.  He digs a grave in the dark behind a yew hedge, rigs up lights and music, we make an occasion of it. We drink my mother’s sherry and for some reason end up singing My Way along with the Alexa in the kitchen.  My aunt moves in with my mother, and the country settles in to lockdown.  It’s not easy.  But they are brilliant, resilient.

Not much opportunity for photography, though the rules permit me to visit.  As the weeks pass, we venture the occasional snap in the garden, and Dog-Time is filled instead with Pigeon-watch and I-Spy-Tadpoles.  ‘Pat and Kali’, in hardback, lives by the bedside.  She was a lovely, lovely dog.  A good friend.

Dementia is the red thread that runs through the family fabric.  My stories, my photographs, are shot through with reminiscence, remembrance, memory.  It strikes me that this is what my work is about.  From Pat and Kali, to the memorial on the hill at Runnymede, to the people who sit at my kitchen table telling me their stories as I train my lens on their faces. 

It’s about the shadows that are cast down the generations.  But maybe, also, it’s about the light that shines from the past.

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The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede

Like Quiet Ghosts

I love the way this memorial is drenched in light whenever I visit; I love the stone and the windows and the curves and the geometry of the place; l love the views over Runnymede all the way to London.  

I often stop to read some of the notes and tributes left here too.  They are fragments of family histories from all over the world:  letters to brothers and sisters, daughters and sons lost over seven decades ago; to lovers, husbands, fathers whose planes went down in the night; letters from great grandchildren who never knew their relatives; pale facsimiles of dreaded telegrams; fresh flowers, fake flowers, and expressions of gratitude.  An unsettling mixture of grief and peace.

With the permission of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who maintain the memorial so beautifully, I’m working on a photographic project about this place.  I photograph it often, in different lights and different seasons.  The building always gives me something new to look at.  But I’d like to depict people too.  

If you have a connection to this building, and would be happy to talk to me and perhaps have your picture taken there, I would love to hear from you.

January 2021 update: I’ve been so touched by all the people who’ve written, from all over the world, to say these pictures have moved them. In particular, my thoughts are with those who’ve always wanted to visit, but whose circumstances have always prevented it. It’s been my pleasure to visit on their behalf, to find their relative’s name inscribed on its panel, and to photograph it for them with a bunch of rosemary, for remembrance, from my garden.

To get in touch, click here or:

Email: kate@katecarpenter.com

Telephone: 07818 407772

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The Mirror and the Mind

Lately, I’ve been talking to people about what they think and feel when they look in the mirror.  It’s fascinating.  Sometimes it’s about a cursory check of your appearance on the way to work.  Sometimes it goes deeper, and is about your very identity, your sense of who you are and who you want to be.

Some people are comfortable with it; others find it unsettling, defamiliarising.   Poet John Ashbery writes, “This otherness, this ‘not-being us’ is all there is to look at in the mirror.”

There’s a wealth of psychological research on this topic, most of which I have still to discover.  Art, film, poetry – all of these have explored the relationship between the mirror and the self.

Rachel has been kind enough to go along with me in exploring some of these ideas.  We’ve swapped poems, articles, photographs – anything from fairy tales to poetry, from academic texts to exhibitions about superheroes.  This latest was our third mirror shoot together.   Her acting skills are considerable and she brings all these ideas to bear as we shoot.

I imagine and hope there’s more of this project to come.  I may well be looking for some more volunteers in the autumn, once I’ve dusted down some physics textbooks and worked out some fiddly issues to do with optics and the like.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with the words of artist Nathan Sawaya, in his Art of the Brick exhibition on Lego Superheroes and Super Villains. On Bizarro, the mirror-image ‘negative Superman’, he writes:

“I think you have to be careful of mirrors. You don’t want to look in them for too long.  The longer you look, the less reality you see.”

 

 

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