Visualising the Unspeakable: Exploring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with wet plate photography

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Even when the camera is focused on a single subject, photographic portraiture rarely, if ever, speaks with just one voice. It is this multifaceted layering, be it intentional or otherwise, that generates intrigue and keeps us coming back for another look, drawn to some inexplicable detail that refuses to sit quietly on the page.

Historical portraits are an obvious example, that despite the subjects of those images having long since departed the mortal realm, present themselves to us with an odd sense of familiarity and foreboding. Writing in his last book, Camera Lucida (1980), the famed French literary theorist Roland Bathes suggests that in capturing these fluttering moments of human existence photography “produces death while trying to preserve life.” [1] It is a provocative statement, with Barthes offering Alexander Gardner’s evocative portrait of Lewis Powell as a memorable example.


In 1865 Powell was awaiting trial aboard the USS Saugus for his attempted murder of Secretary of State William H. Seward, and for his part in the wider plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. The image sees a handsome twenty one year old Powell staring down the brass barrel of Gardner’s lens, his hair swept roguishly to one side, handcuffed hands resting awkwardly in his lap, his back pressed against the unyielding steel hull of the Saugus, neatly underlining the harsh severity of his predicament. Barthes claims that part of the mesmeric allure of the image is the knowledge that Powell is both alive at the time the picture was taken but also dead, since he will later be hanged for his crimes, creating a duality that resonates with the viewer since we are all us, in a very literal sense, beings towards death as Heidegger would say. We see something of our own unavoidable mortality here, with Barthes noting that ‘the photograph tells me death in the future,’ before adding that ‘this will be and this has been [2].

Lewis Powell, also known as Lewis Payne, photographed by Alexander Gardner onboard USS Saugus 1865 - Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org
Lewis Powell, also known as Lewis Payne, photographed by Alexander Gardner onboard USS Saugus 1865
Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org

In allowing our eyes to meet those of a condemned man it’s difficult not to share Barthes’ conclusion that the mysterious forces of time and mortality are at play here, and that this curious living-death is somehow rendered tangible through the lens of the camera. When taken together, these different elements make for a hauntingly timeless shot, and for the want of a splash of colour might have been taken only yesterday. Powell’s unadorned generic prison fatigues, the casual styling of his hair and resigned expression are markedly contemporary, further enhancing his status as a being adrift in time. An unwilling traveller perhaps, but one whose silent presence continues to reverberate despite the multiple lifetimes that stand between us. His disembodied skull would later turn up amongst the Native American collection at the Smithsonian, which seems a strange yet appropriate end for a man whose iconic portrait appears untouched by the turning of the tides.

Gardner’s photograph was foremost a practical one, a form of reportage that would be copied and distributed for public consumption. How much time was spent posing the subject, and what thoughts may have informed his process remain a mystery, although we do know that this was shot on glass using the collodion process, and that the power of the image owes much to the intense yet ethereal quality of wet plate. When first approached, Powell is said to have refused to be photographed, shaking his head violently from side to side to thwart the slow exposure times demanded of collodion, an act of defiance that presumably yielded a number of plates featuring the wild, distorted image of Powell that are now lost or were more likely scrubbed for reuse.

Despite the challenges of this process, recent years have witnessed a welcome renaissance in historic analogue methods, with wet plate collodion commanding a growing following amongst photographers seeking something fresh from something old. My friend, the photographer Simon Riddell, is one such devotee, whose photographic journey has taken him from shooting 35mm on his father’s beloved SLR, through to medium and then large format, before graduating to wet plate with the same restless enthusiasm that seems to characterise the collodion aficionado.

Dad's Canon AE1
Keith Riddell’s Canon AE1

His latest project, Visualising the Unspeakable, turns to the unique qualities of this historical technique to explore his experiences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following the loss of his father, and which Simon covered in the December 2018 EMULSIVE article, “Loss, PTSD and Finding my Father in the Searchlights”.

Central to this project is the notion of duality, in this instance the tension that exists between that aspect of ourselves that we present to the world, and the inner scars and unresolved traumas that roil and burn behind closed doors. The first plate in Simon’s latest sequence recalls that iconic image of Powell awaiting trial, the palpable sense of resignation magnified by the presence of existential foreshadowing, or what Barthes describes as what has been and what will be. Simon’s use of double exposure makes this taut inner conflict visible, rendering it as something blurred and indistinct, an ominous autobiographical figure perhaps, riven by conflict and straining for a clarity that remains painfully out of reach. It is a sequence that works brilliantly with wet plate, which by virtue of its lineage and the patience required to create such images, possesses a uniquely historical sense of gravitas that invites a closer, deeper inspection, as if the images produced of it are travelling forwards and backwards through time rather than being constrained to a single moment or event.


Visualising the Unspeakable: Exploring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with wet plate photography

Speaking to Simon about his work, he says that he is interested in the subject of inner demons, and how what other people see on the outside is rarely what we experience within ourselves, especially during times of personal anguish. It is an act of making manifest those unspeakable, often contradictory and enraging thoughts that finds expression in his work. This facet of the sequence also brings to mind another anachronism lifted from the pages of photographic history, namely spirit photography.

This curious phenomenon enjoyed a certain vogue during the latter half of the nineteenth century when photographers used double exposure to introduce ghostly apparitions into otherwise unremarkable photographs. These otherworldly images commanded an enthusiastic following amongst mediums and other practitioners of the occult arts, ably promoted by one William Hope, photographer and member of the Crewe Circle, whose representatives were reportedly able to reproduce the likeness of the departed merely by holding the photographic plate in their hands [3].

Once again the duality of life and death are played out within the photographic frame, teasing us with a view of something intangible, what has been and what will be. A far departure from Victorian spiritualism, Simon’s plate nevertheless recalls this dynamic interplay between the physical and metaphysical, replacing the spectre with what Simon calls “the man on the inside,” the troublemaking inner demon whose ominous presence communicates some small part of that indecipherable inner turmoil. The disparity in size between the two figures is also telling, one clearly defined, formal, serious, the other exaggerated and overbearing, whose grim theatricality leaves me wondering who or what is in charge here, and where the line of separation between performance and reality can be drawn, if at all. Like much else in the sequence it is a troubling image, but also an intimately courageous one posed as commentary on the often unspoken personal experiences of living with mental health concerns.

Simon’s second image is no less impactful, the self-spectre or inner demon now holding a Beretta to the subject’s head, finger on the trigger, flecks of dark emulsion dotting the collar in a suggestive and unsettling way. That these are self-portraits only adds to the overall weight of the imagery, and again I’m drawn to the eyes, which seem to occupy three positions: one looking directly at the camera, one looking to the right in the direction of the weapon, and a third, slightly glassy unfocused eye that has the look of something primal and less than human.

Visualising the Unspeakable: Exploring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with wet plate photography

With the Office for National Statistics reporting that in 2019 around three quarters of registered suicides were among men, continuing a consistent trend that reaches back to the mid-1990s, the timeliness of Simon’s project couldn’t be more significant.[4] As someone who has also grappled with mental health, these images have a personal resonance that I suspect will find a wider audience, each tracing the outline of their own demons in the silver nitrate. Read in this way it is both an horrific image, but also a beautifully honest and vulnerable one that aids us in visualising the unspeakable, and in making it visible, begin a process of reflection, sharing, and healing. Against this backdrop it is important to recognise how much we rely on art to provide us with the vocabulary, both visual and spoken, we need to give form to these things that are so difficult to express.

Visualising the Unspeakable: Exploring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with wet plate photography

The final two images in the sequence takes this demonic theme further still, with the shadowy figure now occupying more or less the same physical space as the subject. Simon describes this furious presence as something akin to a paradox, functioning simultaneously as both a vice and coping mechanism. Experiencing it is like “flicking a switch” he says, “releasing your inner fucking beast when you’ve hit the limit and it’s fucking go time – totally reckless behaviour with zero fucks given.” The duplicity of that self-destructive impulse is one Simon is keen to emphasise in his work. “I really want to show the fury and the rage side of things” he says, “I think it’s what makes people extraordinary (if they can harness it).”

Despite the personal cost, Simon is quick to acknowledge the demon’s role in the creative process, for better and for worse. Reflecting on these past experiences, he says:

I’ve proven to be absolutely lethal when that switch has been flipped, especially in the early days when I struggled to rein it in. And while I never looked for trouble, when it found me, I could activate that switch and used that demon for a negative outcome. Whenever this happened, I would immediately shut that confrontation down, instantly regretting my actions, but all too often the damage had already been done. These days, with a great deal more understanding, that demon is a driving force for positivity. Looking at my last plate, it seems to me it could symbolise that duality – the demonic switch – and a fragile one at that, capable of producing either a positive or a negative outcome.

Simon draws inspiration from Ant Middleton’s book, First Man In, which also grapples with the idea of taking what was once fuel for reckless, self-destructive behaviour and using it instead to go “full on” in Simon’s words, “in pursuit of something seemingly impossible.” Importantly, channelling this energy in a more positive and nurturing way creates opportunities for “owning” and reconceptualising acts of self-harm as acts of self-love. Central to all of this is the role of ambiguity, and in talking with Simon it is clear that the urge to define any of this in singular, unambiguous terms would be dishonest. Better to think of it as partially controlled chaos, which by its nature is messy and unpredictable, and aptly personified in the final image in the sequence.


Visualising the Unspeakable: Exploring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with wet plate photography

This last plate could represent a symbolic coming-to-terms with this delicate balancing act. The dysmorphia is still there, along with the layering of different versions of self, but it somehow looks more controlled, the gas burner turned down. Finding that balance is the work of a lifetime, and what lingers in this image is the question of which face is the dominant one, or if even asking such a question misses the point.

It doesn’t feel as though an equilibrium has been achieved necessarily, but as countless demonic possession horror films have taught us, the process of healing only begins once the exorcist speaks the demon’s name aloud, lessening its power by ushering it into a world over which we have some small degree of control.

~ Paul


References

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London, 2000, p. 92.

2. Washington Navy Yard, D.C. Lewis Payne [also known as Lewis Powell], in sweater and manacled, photographed by Alexander Gardner 1821-1882, wet plate collodion on glass. Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018667106/

3. Massimo Polidoro, Photos of Ghosts: The Burden of Believing The Unbelievable, Skeptical Inquirer 35:4, pp. 20-22, 2011, https://skepticalinquirer.org/2011/07/photos-of-ghosts-the-burden-of-believing-the-unbelievable/

4. Suicides in England and Wales: 2019 Registrations, Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2019registrations

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