Photographer Nicky Bird’s engagement with memory, community, place and legacy is put in artistic and intellectual context by Eszter Biró in a review of Bird’s new show at Streetlevel Gallery (until 6th June).
I first met Nicky Bird during my Masters’ studies, where she introduced me to archival research practice. I was astonished how she transformed the archival, visual material trace of the photograph into a living object, an active aide-memoire that nominates loss. I particularly remember how she provided an elaborate analysis of John Yeoman’s photograph. She identified the space of man and industry on the left and the domestic, female regions on the right side of the image. At that time, I was investigating my family’s lost history through found family photographs and struggled with the visual and photographic execution. I am forever indebted to Nicky; she helped me understand that there are several possible paths. The practice lies within how I walk through it, with what methods and techniques I use, and only then will I be able to conjure these into visual work. In the past decade, I had the privilege to be in discussion with Nicky both as a Masters and PhD supervisee. As I chronologically viewed fifteen years of her work at the Legacy exhibition, recollections of our conversations emerged, which subsequently mapped out the paths she walked through. To locate her artist practice, I intend to bring to the surface essential elements of her strategy and process from beyond and between the layers of the photographic record.
The medium of photography has a contested relationship with the working class. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was promoted as a tool, which through a material and visual means of memory-making, can trace everyday life and give a voice that lasts beyond a lifetime. But as the Legacy exhibition highlights, this is not necessarily the case; personal and small local histories often fade and fall out of remembrance. What is published and accessible to the public is governed by the same higher institutional and ideological interests as the lands, industry and communal and living spaces. The numerous historical societies and Nicky’s collaborators confirm a need and urgency to tend to the injuries of erased past and acknowledge loss, to begin a belated grief-work. If possible, this can excavate these lost legacies, evidence and reinsert them into contemporary discourse.
While photography as a medium failed to deliver its promise to the working class, photographic archival material has the potential to be used as a counter-memory and counter-archive. Canadian art historian Martha Langford whose research focuses on family albums, argues that they are open-ended orally structured material records, which a storyteller can unlock and reactivate even generations later.[i] Such a process relies on conversation; consequently, a storyteller needs an audience. This conditional relationship is the premise where Nicky’s collaborative research path unfolds. A trusting coexistence where neither parties – storyteller and audience – are able to produce content without the other. Nicky reflects in Beneath the Surface / Hidden Place how she relied on Jan McTaggart’s direction in setting up the camera. The derelict site for the collaborating researcher-photographer-audience was empty until the storyteller filled it with meanings and pointed out traces within, which functioned as references between present and past. Then it is the storyteller who relies on the artist to transform the mental memory image to tangible, visual evidence.[ii]
The above, however, only describes the surface of Nicky’s practice; how she enables her collaborators is also crucial. Storytelling doesn’t come naturally, especially when it involves recalling loss or memory, fragments of a life that once was abandoned and erased. Such requires highly attentive active emotional listening. Nicky developed a particular method, memory walks, which has two specific attributes. Memory-work for the collaborators becomes an embodied activity. Nicky noted how from initial embodied disorientation – looking for the reference points no longer present from a vantage point they no longer have – a heightened sense develops through which they identify new, still existing reference points. The mental memory image eventually reveals itself.[iii] Through such a strategy, the site of recall happens at the location of the original ‘remembrance environment’.
Israeli sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel coined the term ‘remembrance environment’ to refer to the domain where the domestic, private and autobiographical memory becomes embedded with content that relates to the immediate family and further expands to extended social circles and communities. It is a specific site of memory that can aid the contextualisation of oral history and autoethnographic research.
[…] environments lying somewhere between the purely personal and the absolutely universal. These environments (which include, for example, the family, the workplace, the profession, the fan club, the ethnic group, the religious community, and the nation) are all larger than the individual yet at the same time considerably smaller than the entire human race.[iv]
Martha Langford argues that family albums are regarded as objects of collective authorship; as it is not only the compiler who is able to reactivate them.[v] Archives can serve as remembrance environments if they retain their original purpose. She criticises artist practices in which the authorship is overwritten and the family albums and photographs are handled and applied as mere materials for an artifact, subsequently stripping them from their original function and remembrance environment.[vi] Nicky shares Langford’s views and positions herself as a custodian whose role is to protect these material objects.[vii] She shares authorship for the photographs in Beneath the Surface / Hidden Space because it is the living memory of the collaborators that reactivates and maintains such functions of these photographs. There is a similar gesture behind the series Travelling the Archive (2015-2016), where she moved the Joan Wilcock Collection from the archive to its living remembrance environment of Kyleakin. With night projections and printed molinos, she reinstalled the previously displaced local fragments of histories.
In the projects Heritage Site (2014-2016) and Ghosting the Castile (2017), the remembrance environments are inaccessible. The Helmsdale Castle is demolished to give space for the A9; the Westwood House in West Calder was apparently buried under the Five Sisters. Here the family photographs and accompanying stories function as a means to reconstruct and reinstall the remembrance environment. There are only a few people left who have first-hand accounts of these sites. As these disappear from site and of engagements, they also dissipate from discourse and remembrance. The second generation may store these stories, but their connection is loose, as they have not interacted with the buildings. The third generation becomes even more distant; the stories might even transform into legends and not legacies. Holocaust research problematises such loose connections and seeks forms of engagement to maintain remembrance after the first generation survivors are gone.
Through her visual practice, Nicky makes similar gestures to counter forgetting. In Helmsdale, she installed viewfinders with the photographic transparency reproduction of the Castle, re-erecting the ghostly image of a building that once was. With the viewfinders, as with the photographic montages Nicky utilises, the ‘present’ and the ‘past’ are not in contest with each other. Instead, their combination, their in-between, encompasses the moment of located and found history. The visual reconstruction of the site of remembrance extends from the personal to the local community towards the erased legacy of a displaced working class. The retrospective exhibition is not Nicky Bird’s legacy but a dialogical site, making it possible for those in discussion with Nicky to locate their legacies and share them with the public.
Bird, Nicky. Beneath the Surface / Hidden Place. Edinburgh: Stills, 2010.
———. “Wanted – New Custodians for Family Photographs: Vernacular Photographs on EBay and the Album as Artwork.” In Picturing The Family: Media, Narrative, Memory, edited by Silke Arnold-de Simine and Joanne Leal, 171–88. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.
———. “Wither the Roots? Photographing the Erased Home.” In Home/Land: Women, Citizenship, Photographies, edited by Marion Arnold and Mskimmon, Marsha, 325–42, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016).
Langford, Martha. “Speaking the Album: An Application of the Oral-Photographic Framework.” In Locating Memory: Photographic Acts, edited by Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emiko McAllister, 223–46. Oxford: Berghahn, 2006.
———. “Strange Bedfellows: Appropriations of the Vernacular by Photographic Artists.” Photography and Culture 1, no. 1 (July 1, 2008): 73–93. doi:10.2752/175145108784861400.
———. Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.
Zerubavel, Eviatar. “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past.” Qualitative Sociology 19, no. 3 (1996): 283–99.
[i] Martha Langford, Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums, 2nd ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 19.
[ii] Nicky Bird, Beneath the Surface / Hidden Place (Edinburgh: Stills, 2010), 6–7.
[iii] Nicky Bird, “Wither the Roots? Photographing the Erased Home,” in Home/Land: Women, Citizenship, Photographies, ed. Marion Arnold and Mskimmon, Marsha, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016) 338.
[iv] Eviatar Zerubavel, “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past,” Qualitative Sociology 19, no. 3 (1996): 284.
[v] Martha Langford, “Speaking the Album: An Application of the Oral-Photographic Framework,” in Locating Memory: Photographic Acts, ed. Annette Kuhn and Kirsten Emiko McAllister (Oxford: Berghahn, 2006), 223.
[vi] Martha Langford, “Strange Bedfellows: Appropriations of the Vernacular by Photographic Artists,” Photography and Culture 1, no. 1 (July 1, 2008): 73–93.