Photography is a kind of language that has its own vocabulary. It might be black and white or colour. A modest holiday snap or a snatched press photo. By its nature black and white photography is an abstraction of reality that allows for the dramatic modification of tonal contrasts and densities, a distilling of the world. In today’s culture it announces itself as serious, in contrast to the gaudy razmataz of coloured imagery that shouts out from every advertising hoarding, every video game.
Born in 1956 Hannah Collins came to prominence in 1993 with a Turner prize nomination. Collective memory and the spaces that mark our social and cultural history are the hallmarks of her work, as is history, transformation and loss. Her photographs have a rare authenticity in a world dominated by indifference or irony. Ten years ago she discovered that she had cancer. Lying in hospital, hooked up to machines, she longed for the healing properties of nature. A year later she found herself in the Columbian Amazon where she worked with a small group from the Cofan tribe, learning about the plants used to sustain their lives. During the dark days of lockdown, she revisited the images of the forest that had offered healing and transformation.
One evening, whilst walking through the jungle with a local shaman, he’d cut a groove in a copal tree and lit a small, flickering flame that gave light but didn’t burn the tree. As they walked he continued to cut and light trees to illuminate a path back after their night-time excursion. In Collin’s silver gelatine print, Small Flame Copal Tree 1, 2001, the flickering flame stands as a beacon in the psychic dark of illness. Whilst Flaming Forest 2001, a large pigment print on paper suggests, with its heightened black and white contrasts, the uncanny, the chthonic and the dark forest of the Freudian unconscious. What the viewer experiences is a world of heightened senses where the mysteries of existence might be revealed.
To take photographs is to name what we don’t always understand and cannot articulate. As Susan Sontag suggested. “Photography [is] one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” Fire, for Hannah Collins, is a metaphor for transformation that emphasises the fleeting fragility and interdependence of all life and stands for the flame that burns within the human imagination, even in our darkest of times.
Ash, charcoal and salt. It’s as if Hannah Collins is creating her own alchemical lexicon of base elements. A cone of salt, Salt (5) 1996, stands like Lot’s wife, white against a deep black ground. Made in Barcelona, when she lived 30 years ago, ‘ before globalization when trade and commerce were visible through accumulation rather than packaging’, the naturally dried salt from the Mediterranean took many months to crystalise before being photographed. After the shot it was returned to the sea from whence it came, thus emphasising our cycles of interdependence with the natural world.
Displayed throughout the exhibition is a series of wax candles in vitrines, each carved with leaves and exotic Amazonian flowers. All have charred wicks. Not listed as art works, they sit like votive offerings protecting what feels to have been turned into a sacred space. Throughout, ashes and fissures suggest entry points into other dimensions, other realms. In the Mexican State of Michoacan, a farmer experienced the eruption of a volcano that was initially gushing smoke and flames from a small fissure in the earth. In her silver gelatine print Paricutin 2021, Collin’s shows the classical tower that emerged to stand like an altar piece or a sacrificial table.
The alchemical properties of fire are further explored in a very different geographical location. In the Course of time (12) Small Fire 1966, documents a redundant industrial setting in Silesia, Poland, created during the old Soviet regime. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, coal dependent factories fell into disrepair. Many were abandoned, left to a lone caretaker to oversee, who’d burn bits of these huge ghost buildings to stay warm. Bricks were stolen and used for other purposes. Once the power houses of the Soviet regime, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, these buildings decay so eventually nothing will remain. Kings, political regimes, and industrial might, all fall away to become so much ash in a constant cycle of metamorphosis.
In the silver gelatine print, 120 Years Ago Today, 2019-20, extra-terrestrial bodies flash across the heavens over the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. These pathways of starlight connect us to time past and time future, to eternity and nothingness. As Roland Barthes noted in his seminal Camera Lucida, all photography is an agent of death. ‘Death’, he observes ‘must be somewhere in a society, if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere, perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymoblic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’
Hannah Collin’s photographs function like dreams, like shamanic devises with which to explore other states of consciousness. To use Barthes description, they are similar to haikus, for the haiku, is ‘undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of rhetorical expansion.’ The photograph is trapped in the past, without a future, it is a sort of embalming, a sort of death. It’s this mournful poetry that Hannah Collins illustrates in these sparks and flames, the shooting stars and pillar of salt.
Published in Doris