Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Forest by Paul Seawright

Photography is well adept at making the ordinary and mundane seem villainous and threatening. Just one well placed element in a photograph can trump all of the others, turning the meaning of the work on its head. Or it could simply be the way something is lit. In the case of the work of Paul Seawright, he has dealt with the implications of violence in obvious as well as subtle ways.

Much of Seawright’s past work has dealt with sectarianism and Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles.’ His series from 1988 called Sectarian Murder is one of the more obvious ways he has portrayed violence. The obviousness is there in the series title, so it taints all that is to follow. We are prepped for feeling and understanding. In those works Seawright gives us an image of a place that seems rather innocuous and below the image is a caption that describes the crime that was committed on that ground.

“A 17 year old boy was duck shooting on the shores of Belfast Lough. Four men approached him demanding he hand his shotgun over. They shot him in the head before leaving with the weapon.”

The words provide an easy summation of what the work is about. We may meander into thoughts about the ‘history of place’ or the ‘randomness of violence’ but mostly the work has been explained to the point of being tied up into a neat package. It provides a way for us to put it out of our minds. We understand and move on.

In 2001, the Shoreditch Biennale and the Hasselblad Center published a very small book of Seawright’s called The Forest and this work doesn’t provide an easy explanation but lets the viewer’s mind wander over the possibilities. There are no words. Here we are given 17 photographs; shot at night, lit by the amber glow of what we may assume are street lamps. The places that are described are desolate roadside lay-bys, ditches, and car parks bordering the edge of a forest. By day, these spaces might be so ordinary that they are no longer seen, but by night, they take on a sinister tone.

Because there is such a division between what we can see and what we cannot see (the fall off of the light does not allow for much penetration into the forest edge) what belongs there (the trees, underbrush and roadside curbs) and what doesn’t belong there (us), these are photographs that place the viewer into the shoes of the vulnerable.

We may feel safe for a moment being in the illumination of the street lamps but this may also mean that we are well exposed and an easy target for whatever our minds can conjure. Unlike some of his other work, these are not so obviously steeped in political violence but those thoughts do not escape us either (best practice both pronunciations of the letter ‘h’). These are landscapes that unleash our natural fear of the unknown and uncontrollable amplified by our childhood fears well-formed by ghost stories and fables.

Seawright’s photography here is very well done although we will have seen variations of these same images elsewhere by other photographers. What I enjoy the most is how it is all brought together and assembled into this little 50 page book. The trim size is 5.5 by 6.75 inches and the pages are on a heavy weight slightly peach-colored stock. A small essay by Val Williams exploring the use of forest imagery in our collective imaginations through fiction ranging from the Brothers Grimm to C.S Lewis appears after the photos. The whole package is elegant and spare; it makes me wish that more bookmakers would take the risk on doing more small books like this one. I highly recommend tracking down a copy.

Book Available Here (The Forest)