I’ve written the short essay below for the photographer William Kelly’s section of the forthcoming Ingrained exhibition. It begins tomorrow and runs until the 28th of May in Moxie studios, Dublin. I recommend you go along if you’re in town and for those who can’t, check out Kelly’s work here (that’s one of his photographs below, from the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda). It gave me an opportunity to write about W.H. Auden and one of my favourite painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder but more importantly to write about an exceptional rising talent here and now.
‘Falling out of the sky’
‘About suffering they were never wrong / The old Masters’ W.H. Auden wrote in Musée des Beaux Arts, “How well they understood / Its human position: how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” While the poem is a pessimistic meditation on how the world ignores tragedy, whether deliberately or distractedly, it also contains an acceptance that life has a remarkable resilience for carrying on, in spite of everything. It’s a poem and a sentiment that spring to mind when viewing William Kelly’s photography; photographs that capture not simply the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines but the defiance of those struggling to survive amidst the wreckage.
Kelly has spoken of the capacity of photographers to embrace changes in technology, which challenge the assumption that photography is a strictly two-dimensional medium. In his photographs, you get the sense not just of a snapshot of a scene from a fixed point but also a kind of depth-sounding into the distance. The traditional sense of composition as left/right and up/down is expanded upon. With high resolution and an acute eye for what lies towards the vanishing points, we get the sense of being drawn into the photo, of it almost becoming three dimensional.
It is an illusion, as all photography is, which draws us back to Auden’s poem. The poet had written the verse after viewing Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (circa 1560). Bruegel was a master of the Flemish Renaissance whose myriad-populated town-scapes and phantasmagorias were often dismissed by critics as, at best, an intriguing cul-de-sac. Though he had enthusiastic descendants among the Symbolists and Surrealists, it was not until the advent of cinema and photography that Bruegel’s genius as an artistic pioneer began to be justly recognised in the work of directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Nicholas Roeg. In Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany, Constructivist photographers were rightly heralded as innovators for climbing radio towers or ascending in balloons to depict urban areas from previously unseen and revelatory angles. Their ancestor Breugel had conjured such views up from his imagination, long before the invention of film, camera cranes or wide-angle lens. What he achieved was a recognition and depiction of how plural life really is. The still life and the posed portrait are deceptions. Life occurs in abundance, in motion and in simultaneity. It happens everywhere at the same time. Reportage which fails to acknowledge this gives us only a limited transitory view; like trying to survey the world through a microscope slide.
In William Kelly’s photographs, there is a sense of a panorama of depth as well as width. As acutely and impressively composed as any, they go beyond the lie of the singular and the iconic, preferring a much more interesting and representative multiplicity. It is the view of a world he is attempting to capture, not a portrait or a landscape. Life here is plural. As is death. Survivors search for loved ones, scramble for supplies, begin almost impossibly the rebuilding. Bodies lie in rows with student pathologists attempting to identify the dead through distinguishing features. Each in itself is a world continuing or having been suddenly ended.
When the eye is drawn to the iconic, Kelly does not opt for trite observations or lessons. Here too there is a plurality. A church stands both magnificent and terrible in the midst of carnage around it. Depending on the perspective or perhaps ulterior motives of the viewer, it could be a sign of righteousness and hope. It could more pertinently be a sign of a building constructed by those wealthy enough to afford concrete and deep foundations. If the unimaginable destruction visited upon the people here was an act of god, it would be sufficient to warrant His arrest. God, vengeful, benevolent or otherwise, is however conspicuous by his absence.
With his final shot in the series, Kelly appears to reach beyond the immediate aftermath and suggest something more apocalyptic (if that is possible) and primordial. A vast mist-shrouded plain marks where farms of palm trees once stood. It is a scene of immense destruction that makes clichés of every attempt we might have to understand it (the aftermath of a nuclear bomb or a biblical deluge for example). It is an impossible glimpse of the world long before mankind or long after; an exceptionally beautiful and melancholic reminder of our mortality and perhaps the precarious miracle of survival. This is paradoxically much too comforting a view. It is ‘their’ mortality and ‘their’ struggle for survival. We may add to the causes (the effects of man-made global warming on weather patterns for instance) but we are largely voyeurs to the consequences. It is important not to deny assistance as Auden recognises in his poem, “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” It is equally important however, as Kelly’s photography attests, to avoid seeing what we want to see; the platitudinous, selective and massively outnumbered examples of ‘hope’ that make us feel comfortable watching news reports or reading Sunday supplements. In another poem (September 1, 1939), Auden wrote “We must love one another or die.” A decade later, having lived and learned, he revisited the poem and changed the line to “We must love one another and die.” The lesson may be a true one and one we may be forced, in time, to pay attention to but we’ve yet to even begin to understand what the word ‘We’ really means.