I’m giving a lecture on Friday 23rd February 2018, from 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. It’s open to the public & free. (You don’t need a ticket, turn up ten minutes early). The title of my paper is:
Nita Harvey’s Archive: the role of clothes in the life and career of an English actress (c.1930)
I will be showing unpublished images from Nita Harvey’s archive, see two examples below (Nita, top right & bottom left).
Q & A afterwards, then..pub! All my guests will be brought a half pint. (Hope there’s not too many of you.)
I think these are ‘self portraits’ by Nita orchestrated with the help of her mother, taken at home in London with domestic tungsten lighting (standing lamps). It looks like Nita has emulated the Hollywood 1930’s style of under-lighting the face to create drama. The image of her holding a cigarette below is very reminiscent of a well known Garbo photo- I will try and find the image of Garbo- it feels like a subliminal 30’s Hollywood image. Can you see the chemical marks running from her forehead to her chin? These are on the tiny passport sized print (I don’t have a negative for this). I love the documented decay of the process here.
I also need to start to collect images of Nita’s hands- they are quite extraordinary- and carry on being so later in life, circa 1960. See below:
The dirt, chemical traces & colour on the print surface below feels tangible and gritty. A reminder of the analogue process and time itself.
Above: Striking domestic ‘self portraits’, circa 1935.
Below: Hollywood, Paramount film set photograph, “Search for Beauty”, 1933
I took this photo of one of the Claude Cahun self portraits shown at the NPG, London. (Before I got told off and asked to put my phone away!) Its not a good picture of the work but it shows the way in which the photographs were printed & exhibited- I think exquisitely.
The photographs by CC were small, like miniatures- quietly powerful. They stay with you. There is another show of her work in the Sydney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury- I’m going next week. Can’t wait!
The performative element, the self-portraiture and the playful questioning of gender and identity through masquerade..I find her so contemporary. How did she manage that almost a century ago? Maybe some artists are timeless or just way ahead of they’re time. She was part of the Surrealist movement who have arguably transcended time with many of their ideas and works. And it seems now is Claude Cahun’s time to shine, posthumously.
More images of hers below that I found inspiring:
(Notes: make 3-D model in 360 degrees & place in dome.
Collage butterfly tree of Nita faces in dome.
Remake, ‘After Claude Cahun’ in garden)
Reference ideas for Nita gloves photograph: lit as below:
Collage (50p) of gloved hands/black velvet/ filed nails.
(found photo, old 50p)
Reference ideas for interior/ Collage & studio: I like the spooky unnerving quality of the images below..they raise more questions than they answer.
Nita s Archive
This is a six-page artist piece on the Nita project, with some of my writing as introduction.
I think as is, this piece is a little clunky and not ready yet..so a sketch at the moment.
It is an analogue print made from two 35mm Nitrate film strips that were separated from the casting film in the archive. I printed them in a glass plate with a Devere 504. This is a reminder that back in the 30’s, Hollywood (here Paramount Studios) openly attached a price to their “property”, the actor signed to them. In 1933 Nita’s value was a weekly 75 Dollars (one of the lowest). After a few months of this in Hollywood, Nita “walked out” of her contract with Paramount because she felt she wasn’t being paid enough. Considering she had already had major roles in two Elstree pictures, she was right. She moved across to Columbia Pictures, where she was signed. Both Nita’s documentation (in letters) and English newspaper articles suggest that she was not allowed to convey the real reason for her departure, instead it was publicized that she looked too similar to another actress (I will post the newspaper piece) and so it was agreed that it best for all involved that she was moved across to another studio. It is telling that Paramount not only refused her a rise but also refused her her integrity. In the documentation Nita explains that she could not be released from her contract unless she agreed to go along with the invented story. It must have been a big deal back then to “walk out” on a major studio and I suppose in not publicizing this fact (and her reason) Paramount escaped the need to address the issue, thus saving an awful lot of money. Which, nearly a century later, is still an issue in Hollywood (and in most industries): the gender pay gap.
I re-edited the Previous Personality series that I took of my mother and me from 2006-2009. I shot it all on large format (5 x 4) at her old peoples home in Blackheath, London. My mum tried to escape from this beautiful Edwardian Arts & Crafts building at least twice. Once, she managed to scale an 8ft fence and outrun two of the care workers. Apparently they were chasing her in the evening dark, down the middle of the road and mum out ran them at at 76. She was by this time very Elfin and she was, as such, very spritely but also robust. One of the majestic Caribbean ladies who dressed her daily and put her to bed every night, said of her, “She’s a tough old bird.” I liked that because that’s me too, I may look weak but I’m not. In fact “I’m strong as an Ox”. (As my friend Beth used to say of herself). Its O.k, you can be fragile and tough. You can confound people, sometimes you might even be able to confound yourself.
I like the way I am leaning in to mum here (below). Our relationship, in the last five years of her life- even the last ten (the duration of her illness) was very tactile. I touched and hugged her all the time, I made sure of it. She responded to seeing me appearing in the room in front of her with such enormous happiness that it always made it worth the trip to see her- she was so happy to see me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of enthusiasm to see me before..of course you love it- especially if this person is your own mother! I don’t understand people who don’t look after (as much as they can), their parents. You don’t even have to be a parent yourself to appreciate what they have done for you (unless they have been complete Bastards).
Anyway- here is the pic. I look at mum here as a viewer/ photographer/ daughter, and I think- is this image o.k? But that is what it was like. My own mother, a woman who was normally so acutely intelligent, original and profound. There she was, suddenly, pulling these crazy faces. What- do I not photograph it? I am an artist. This work is certainly not for walls, it never was. If anything, these images were just meant for the record. A document of a time. Something to help me decide what exactly it was. So many layers. So complicated. But in many ways, so beautiful. I never experienced love like it as I did with my mother in those final years. She was, like my children are now- soaking up the love. Maybe that happens in the beginning and end of life? Love. Isn’t that the ultimate place?
First two liquid light tests- one on cartridge, the second on Nita’s grid paper from archive (circa 1940)
The top image is o.k for a first try but unfortunately the archive grid paper is too thin, not porous enough. The cartridge paper works better. Both need two coats of emulsion. I brought a new non-metallic brush too as the liquid light was oxidizing from contact with the metal and making parts of the paper brown.
Grade 2: Develop for 2.5 mins, fix for 10 mins, wash for 1 hr. Liquid light must be kept warm in 50 ºC water bath. This image could be printed on a large wooden panel, lent against wall. Like the idea of there being space behind the image.
Will make a wooden dressing screen out of three pieces of 8ft wood hinged together. Paint liquid light on all three door size panels, spray dev, then fix, then wash with water and and when dry join together with hidden hinges. This could also be silk screen prints pulled taught on same size frames, lit from behind..(that will be with the curtain image, see ‘liquid light’ post.)
I went to Goldsmiths because he was teaching as a professor there only to find he had left that year.
This image by Burgin inspired an idea of using stills from Nita’s filmography archive with a photograph also from the archive, as montage #4.
Victor Burgin, Fiction Film (2) (Portfolio of 9), 1991 (see below)
This montage isn’t finished yet but is nearly there in post.
Montage #4 (Playing Domestic).
Text maybe too? I am looking..there is so much text in the archive that is telling of the time and Nita- I will post a menu & receipt soon. Other documents that evidence a way of living in the archive are:
messages on florists greeting cards (from admirers) (Nita kept them all)
Address book with phone numbers (to scan)
letters to her parents
letters from her friends
letters from her lovers
letters from her admirers
This image is one of the reasons I love photography so much- its magical ability to capture something so fleeting, so momentary, so telling, something so uncomfortable yet real and at the same time not. This young woman was a prostitute from a brothel in Storyville, the red light district in New Orleans, circa 1912. Bellocq, who was impotent, frequented these brothels as an artist, managing to persuade many of the women to sit willingly for him. These are glass plate negatives (taken around the time and place where Jazz was invented). They are beautifully printed and thankfully remain unaltered from the surface corrosion, which has become an important part of the images. They came into the possession of Lee Friedlander in 1970, when he had them printed, exhibited and published in The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Bellocq “Storyville Portraits”
I wonder how much owning this incredible archive influenced Friedlanders own series of equally incredible “Nudes” that he started photographing in the 70’s and continued working on for thirteen years. There is something about possessing an archive of incredible images that stays with you and somehow seeps into your own life and art in curious ways. Having an archive is an intensely personal experience as a photographer that can sublimate your own art. I think this is the case with Friedlander, as his nudes are sublime and possess something of an understated genius not unlike Bellocq. I was lucky enough to buy Friedlanders book years ago and I frequently go back to it to remind myself of what photography in all its simple complexity can and should be.
(Part of the series of fifty-two photographs were exhibited at Moma in 1991.) Taken simply with a 35mm film Leica and portable flash.