May 2 2011: Joy Gregory on Politics, Photography and the Recovery of Obsolete Languages (Metro, 2005)
Joy Gregory on Politics, Photography and the Recovery of Obsolete Languages (Metro, 2005)
Joy Gregory is a member of that increasingly unsung species, a serious and politically minded artist with an eye for the startling presence and auras of everyday things. Her forthcoming exhibition at Nottingham’s Angel Row Gallery is deeply informed by an awareness of issues of race, memory and gender, but it’s first and foremost a collection of strikingly beautiful, and beautifully made, images.
Born in 1959, Gregory initially became interested in photography at school in Oxfordshire, and still recalls with enthusiasm the “magical and enthralling” moment when she first saw an image emerge from nothing on a developing photograph at the age of sixteen. She studied in Manchester in the early 1980s, and has subsequently built an international reputation from her London base, working in South Africa and Sri Lanka and exhibiting widely in Europe and the USA.
Despite using a variety of techniques and approaches, ranging from conventional darkroom photography and digital media to three-dimensional work utilising sound, her most distinctive images have been created using a semi-obsolete 19th century photographic process known as salt printing, which involves capturing the images of objects on light-sensitive paper using sunlight. With no involvement from a camera, objects photographed in this way are given the appearance of X-Rays or haunting, ghostly presences.
It’s an effect that seems wholly in tune with Gregory’s interest in the objects themselves, chosen for the meanings and ambiguities invested in them by their particular contexts. To give one example, the handbags of the series showing at Angel Row were all bought in South Africa during the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which formally ended the apartheid era.
“They were imported into South Africa between the 1930s and the 1970s”, Gregory explains, “and their original function was to help people distract themselves from the political situation. It’s something we all do, occupying ourselves with fashion or decorating our houses rather than the things that bother us in the wider world. I was curious about the lives of those who once owned them”.
While The Handbag Project draws its meanings from the context of Apartheid, the Girl Thing series draws together objects, like black lace silk bras and corsets that seem to define femininity.
“The question I wanted to ask in Girl Thing is ‘what is it to be a girl or a woman?’. The word ‘girl’ seems to mean something slightly derogatory and fun, something not to be taken too seriously or seen as fully adult. Although these accessories are things we’re led to believe we ‘need’ to be girls, actually we don’t need anything. You’re either female or you aren’t. What you happen to be wearing doesn’t affect that fact”.
The subject of concealed meaning and lost history is central to Gregory’s work. Recent work has been delving into extinct languages, such as Cornish Manx, Scottish Norn and the Sami language of the indigenous people of North West Siberia. Just as significant is a recent photographic series exploring the once universally understood, but now obsolete Victorian ‘language of flowers’, which ascribed precise symbolic meaning to each species.
“I’ve deliberately chosen European languages rather than ‘exotic’ ones for these works”, Gregory notes, “because otherwise there’s a tendency to dismiss the questions about what is lost as only affecting people elsewhere, in far-off parts of the world, when these losses of language and history are happening everywhere”.
The work is ultimately concerned with memory, the use of the salt-print process itself an act of recovery from photography’s past. The many political questions raised by these works are also presented in terms that are aware of both craft and aesthetics as means to draw in the viewer.
“People often turn away from issue-based work simply because they disagree with its point of view, and because so much work does nothing more than express a viewpoint, I understand that”, she concludes. “I try to be aware that the viewer doesn’t necessarily share my views, and make work that provokes thought, asks questions, but also visually stimulates and gives pleasure.”