Flicking through my emails recently, I chanced upon the information that Maggie Taylor was currently exhibiting at the Fox Talbot museum in Lacock, and was intrigued enough by the advert to pop over to have a look. Am so glad I did. It was amazing! I hadn’t come across her work before, but it was just the right thing to clarify some ideas I have for my own work just now.
Taylor first came to prominence as a pupil, and subsequently (for a time) wife of Jerry Uelsmann, who was a doyen of the 1960s and 70s surrealist wave in photography. She began in black and white, using collaged groups of objects, but it was the arrival of Photoshop that allowed her to really spread her wings. She has always been interested in the surreal, but Photoshop allowed her to seamlessly integrate her chosen objects into her images in a way that appears painted, but is in fact all a result of Photoshop layering, and she is acknowledged as a pioneer in Photoshopmontage. She and Uelsmann had an artistic partnership which is explained in this long but fascinating documentary and I was particularly interested to see how much overlap there is between them, both in ideas and presentation, even though their methodologies are completely different. He remains firmly wedded to analogue processes, which she has gone the digital route.
The images on show were from a series called Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which follows on from her previous series Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s work is an ideal subject for Taylor’s whimsical, dreamy approach and the works on show were stunning. A selection is shown below, made on my iPad.
Fig. 1 Three iPad images of Maggie Taylor works at Lacock Abbey (2019)
They are built up using a mixture of elements from old daguerrotypes, found photographs and illustrations from antique books and each finished image may contain hundreds of layers to give her characteristic fully integrated look. To a certain extent, there are elements of the ‘creative’ style of camera club offerings, but these are much more complex and historically grounded and it was fascinating to identify background landscapes, carpets, floors and clothes which all came from different origins, but which worked together seamlessly. It was particularly interesting to see them in the context of Lacock Abbey, which has its own history of rooms and pictures which might have been used as elements in the photographs, and at her subsequent artist’s event (sadly all too brief as she was recovering from food poisoning), she acknowledged that parts of Lacock were indeed included in the series. One of the things which fascinates me about her work is the complexity of thought that has gone into each image, including icons and elements of the Lewis Carroll books, Carroll’s enthusiastic early embracing of photography (I am sure he must have known Fox Talbot as they moved in the same circles), the history of photography and subtle themes of suspected paedophilia on his part.
All this wonderfulness made me want to rush home and get back to work on my assignment, as it has become apparent that the experiments I am currently working on for the assignment have a dreamlike basis coming from surrealism/magical realism/hyperrealism, and I now want to make this a formal part of my approach to the assignment. Therefore a short diversion into the history of these movements in photography is required.
The Surrealist movement in art began in the early 1920s, starting with Andre Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ and is exemplified by the work of artists and writers such as Picasso, Magritte, Dali etc. It was a conscious move away from pictorial art to focus on the imagination, the unconscious and the conscious and was a way of depicting dreams and ideas outside of rational control. It was a deliberate reaction against the ideas of the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason, reality and a scientific, fact based approach to life. Surrealism ran alongside Dadaism, although that had a strongly political undertone which was absent from surrealism. However, both movements used the concept of juxtaposition of several disparate elements within a piece to force bizarre connections and absurdities.
Photographers who were in the first wave of surrealism included Atget, Alvarez Bravo, Bellmar, Tabard and Man Ray, but to my surprise I discovered that women photographers also featured strongly in the early days, including Lee Miller, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun and Florence Henrí. More recent names in the movement include Maia Flore, Erik Johansson, Stephen Criscolo and Christopher McKenny (New York Film Academy, 2014).
Magical realism is a sister to surrealism which evolved at very much the same time (1930s) but it came from Latin America. Like Dadaism, it had political undertones, to enable its proponents to comment in a symbolic way about situations which could lead to trouble if they were addressed head on. The essential difference between the two is that magical realism retains some link with potential reality (the events could possibly happen) while surrealism moves definitively into the realm of the impossible. (Tendreams, n.d.) There is a lot of crossover between the two though, and both are very much involved in visualising the confused state of dreaming, with its weird juxtapositions and that internal reality which afterwards make no sense. Photographers who specifically claim to be magical realists include Kate Moser, Susan Kae Grant, Tom Chambers and the mother/daughter duo Emma Powell and Kirsten Hoving, about whom I have written before, here. (Woodward, 2018)
Hyperrealism is another term reflecting how the real and not real can be alternated in art and literature. Hyperrealism is normally thought of as an art movement where pictures are produced which look photographic in their extreme detail, such as the work of Robin Eley and Diego Fazio, but in this instance I am talking about hyperreality as discussed in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, where it is particularly associated with the liminal spaces between reality and simulation/AI. Where does one stop and the other begin and is either a true reflection of reality? (Oberly, 2003)
There is considerable overlap between these three terms when it comes to artwork, and artists frequently skip from one to the other without really differentiating between them. However, for the purposes of this work, the overall points I have taken on board are:
- images don’t have to realistic to have meaning
- dreams and detachment from reality are valid subjects for image making
- the world is your lobster – let your imagination take you where it will, or anything goes as long as there is some overall understanding of what it all means personally.
As it happens, I also went to Harry Potter World this week with my stepdaughter, C. While there, we marveled at the imagination and creativity shown in making all the elements of the films, from the details of the costumes, to the set designs and props. Everything had been meticulously researched, and then the production team were allowed an almost free rein in letting their imagination run wild. The outcome was a joyous explosion of mixed genres, but every tiny detail had a researched and fully integrated background which held them all together.
The overall moral of these disparate thoughts is that within art it is ok to play with our imaginations, despite most photography work being visually realistic. It does not need to be so, and this is where my assignment is going. All three movements seem to be associated with post-modernist ideas of what is real/truth and whether anything can be taken at face value. This area of study fits perfectly into where I am going with my assignment, i.e. the place that the internet has/seems to have in relationship to the individual and how the two interact.
Fig. 1 Woodward, H. (2019) Three iPad images of Maggie Taylor works at Lacock Abbey. [3 photographs] In possession of : the author.
Jerry and Maggie: This is not photography (2013) [Online video] At: https://vimeo.com/69911353 (Accessed 18/06/2020).
New York Film Academy, student resources (2014) Surrealist Photography. At: https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/surrealist-photography/ (Accessed 18/06/2020).
Oberly, N. (2003) ‘reality, hyperreality (1)‘. In: The University of Chicago: Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary At: https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/realityhyperreality.htm (Accessed 18/06/2020).