When you’re scrambling about in an old dark house trying to produce phantasmagorical effects on film using various Heath Robinson-style contraptions comprising light-sources and black elastic, not everything goes according to plan. My various hard drives are somewhat littered with ‘failures to launch’ – underwhelming photographs featuring unmagical moments. Some of these ‘off-cuts’ are not without interest and I return to them from time-to-time to see if the passing of time and a fresh pair of eyes can see what was missed the first time around. Usually, the answer is no, but occasionally I’m minded to dig one out, like today’s offering – a curious shower of electrical confetti manifesting in one of the large abandoned rooms of No. 351.
This was another of the empty rooms at No 351, the grand, sprawling house in which I locked myself for an overnight vigil in late July, 2016. I recall I was getting pretty tired by now, subsisting on packets of almonds, and the sudden surges of nervous energy bequeathed me by every unexpected noise, every ruffle of startled pigeon feathers, every creak of the building’s timbers. Still, I was quick-witted enough to go on capturing the various glowing manifestations that followed me about No 351’s chambers – including these three, standing by the hearth as if in conference, their backs to the memory of the fire.
Inspired, as ever, by all those dubious photographs of ectoplasmic excretions, I locked myself away in the empty salon of the old French house, and waited for the spirits to show themselves…
This week’s Throwback Friday leap back in time is very sleight. These photographs were taken as recently as Sunday, as we left the house in the late afternoon to walk around in the subdued Tier 4 environs of Whitstable, a few hours after the UK government had ‘cancelled Christmas’. Like many I suspect, all I really felt was a sense of relief, having long since concluded the ‘5 days of Christmas’ relaxation was a remarkably stupid idea.
It was wet and windy on our walk about the town, where even the snoozing fishing boats were bedecked with fairy lights. Up at Whitstable Castle (not really a castle at all), its facade painted in red and green light, one very tall tree was dressed in lights to impressive effect. Funny, how persistent ‘festiveness’ can be, little squizzes of finer feelings igniting spontaneously, unprompted by television adverts or the syrup of Mariah Carey, but produced instead by each and every plucky wreath hanging on the front doors of Whitstable’s narrow quiet houses.
Another spectral entity photographed in the empty room of an old French house, observed while the owls hooted in the black canopy of trees outside and a curious polecat, snug under the roof tiles, feasted very noisily on bugs.
I was drinking Red Bull and eating handfuls of almonds to sustain me through my long night alone in the sprawling impressive house in which this image was taken. At this point, I’d made it as far as the top of the house, finding myself in a richly wall-papered room blossomed with damp, the ceiling sagging above me and the floor chalky with dust. When I look at this image today, I like to think about the people in the other buildings you can see through this room’s windows. I imagine them standing by their own windows, their attention riveted to the strange other-worldly light manifesting in one of the old abandoned rooms of the old abandoned house across the way. I hope they’re still talking about it now.
There’s a lot of it about at Red’s Kingdom this week, ethereal beings and diaphanous figures that may or may not be tricks of the light or just a photographer’s sleight of hand.
This photograph from the Summer of 2011 is what play looks like when you’re otherwise supposed to be too old for nighttime pranks, and again, in common with these other images, the phantasmagorical goings-on captured here belie more prosaic activities. I guess all magic is the same, transformations produced through the bringing together of largely unpromising things; eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing…
With the exception of some digitally post-produced blurring at the periphery of these photographs, and a hint of sepia, you’re looking at ‘what happened’ late one night in the dark in rural France.
Equipped with my old 35mm camera, some 1600 black and white film, and a cheap battery-operated camping light, I produced a series of long-exposure photographs with myself as the subject. At risk of demystifying the resulting images still further, you have to imagine me running from one position to the next in the dark, switching on the camping light between my bare feet, and posing – or moving through different poses – for short intervals of seconds.
I had to wait until my return to England to process the images, and when I saw the resulting images, I was delighted and spooked in equal measure. What the camera had seen that night out in the dark was not what had been put in front of it. I promise, hand-on-heart, I wasn’t wearing a black Cleopatra-style wig (in truth I wasn’t wearing very much of anything at all!), and so I can’t explain everything caught on camera. I’ve taken lots and lots of photographs in ominous settings in the hope of capturing something otherworldly on film; these snaps, taken with old technology, taken hurriedly (and with so inelegant and earthly a subject!), are proof that cameras are haunted.
One of my favourite moments in Richard Donner’s 1976 horror film, The Omen, is when Jennings, the photographer reveals his photographs are prophecising the deaths of their human subjects – including, chillingly, his own. This scene never fails to raise the hairs on my neck, I think because it has the ring of truth about it. Very few of us would happily scour the eyes of a loved one from their photographic image, because we already intuit some causal link between the image and its subject.
Jennings notices the blemish on his photograph of the priest, who will later be impaled by a church spire, The Omen, 1976.
An impromptu self-portrait reveals Jennings’ own days are numbered, a mark having appeared in the photographic image, severing his head from his body, The Omen, 1976.
I’m sure there’s a story in my own family of haunted photographs, though I might have remembered it wrong, or invented it entirely. I do recall my grandma talking about some ill-fated relative-or-other whose bride died on her wedding night. I remember two details about this story, the first being how the woman was killed, her wedding dress covering the tail-light of her new husband’s motorbike as they rode away together into the sunset, another vehicle ploughing into them and killing her. The second detail is the one about the wedding photographs developed after the bride’s untimely demise, and how in each image taken on her wedding day, the bride’s face is seen to be in someway obscured by a flaw or shadow in the image… and up go the hairs on my neck again.
Venturing out in the pitch-darkness of the rural countryside with a camera, a camping light and the goal of conjuring ghosts can seem like a particularly silly thing to do – especially when you’ve watched as many horror films as I have, but it’s mostly hope I experience in these moments, not fear. When I took these particular photographs, the activities themselves were comedic, ill-suited surely to producing any eldritch results. I was largely nude and waving my arms in the air like an enthusiastic participant in a music and movement class with no way of knowing what the old 35mm camera was seeing, or how the effects of the long exposures would manifest. Upon seeing the developed images, I experienced that same pleasurable horripilation already familiar to me from watching The Omen or listening to my grandmother’s story about the tragic bride. I had the uncanny realisation I hadn’t been alone out there in the dark at all, that my ordinary camera possessed an extraordinary acuity of vision for other realms and their beings. I still feel that way when I look at these images now – a sense of vindication almost. You might even call it hope.
But rather like a seance on a dark and stormy night, you can’t always know who is going to ‘come through’ from the other side – and so it was with these photographs. Just to reiterate, no, I wasn’t wearing wigs or any semblance of costume when these images were taken, so I can’t readily explain what Cher was doing in my ensemble of fae folk, holding her microphone very proudly aloft! (Stealing the show obviously).
It’s tempting to draw the obvious conclusion from the recent choice of prompts offered up by the kick-about artists of late. Last time it was the exoplanet Trappist 1e, with its promise of new beginnings ‘off-world’, and an escape from this one, which seems smaller by the day and rather dimmed. This week it’s fairies – or more accurately, the need to go on believing in them, a yearning for something as-yet-unspoiled and magical. In these different ways, we seem preoccupied with escapism and realms more expansive than those afforded by our current circumstances.
Julien Van Wallendael
“I saw something about the Cottingley Fairies being the theme of the month on your blog, so I put this together last night as a response… I was mainly driven by the need to figure out something that could be done in one sitting! The Cottingley Fairies case exposes all at once our yearning for wonder and penchant for deceptiveness – newly aided by the medium of photography. It seemed therefore appropriate to paint a scene both whimsical and that references modern optical tricks. Having seen Akira at the cinemas last week, I still had its long exposure shots of motorcycles in mind – so I thought for once I could make use of those weird skinny palette knife type brushes and replicate the look of a light streak by letting my pen run across randomly. Phil’s recent impressionistic meadow pictures and older flashlights projects may also have been in my thoughts!”
“I remember those Cottingley fairy photos being discussed seriously on news and current affairs programmes in the ’70s. Presenters would say things like ‘the photos have been examined by experts from the so-and-so lab and they cannot find any evidence that the photos have been tampered with’. I think we all wanted to believe that they were real, even though they were pretty obviously painted cut-outs (what on earth they were doing in the so-and-so lab I can’t imagine).
This week’s prompt came to mind when I had a few days out in the country last week. Having been stuck in the city for most of this year, due, mainly, to Covid, I felt quite giddy when I got out into some wild green spaces. As well as that feeling of escape, the light was sparkling and dreamy and the woods and meadows alive with fungi and rich autumn colours. It certainly looked like a place where fairies could dance and frolic. So, for the kick-about this week I’ve photo-collaged some images from my visit and cranked up the trippy fairy weirdness factor. Maybe those Cottingley girls had taken a few mushrooms before they came up with their jolly wheeze.”
“I found it very difficult to get away from the obvious with this prompt, even though I was the person who originated it! I had a few ideas about painting something such as a puppy dog and setting it in a proper basket to make it look as if it was real. However this didn’t seem to look very convincing when I tried it. At this point I ran into Artists block and looked on the internet for some tips. I realised that there was something in my mind that wanted my pictures to be like those of Arthur Rackman and although this wouldnt be very original I just had to go with it. So saying, I put on some relaxing music and just played around until this is what I came up with. I used an old painting of mine done on Yupo paper which I chopped into leaves and then added watercolour and collage. I was aiming for an ethereal effect and hope it didn’t end up too ‘twee’.”
“I tried adding a fairy storyline over these images but I just didn’t like what they did to the pics. Rather than scrapping the backgrounds I thought they could work labelled ‘looking for fairies’.”
“Hats off to Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths for scoring a hit without the use of PhotoShop. Who needs PhotoShop when you have cardboard cut-outs and a camera? Looking at these photos, I’m reminded again of how seemingly unconvincing the installations were. It was the Powerful Energy of the children’s imaginations that brought them to life. How I love that Powerful Energy! And as an adult, I regularly delve into books I read as a child in an attempt to recapture the Power. I am forever hammering on the back of the wardrobe, so to speak.
I’ve made a couple of new ‘fairies’ for 2020, the stranger-than-fiction year. Possibly due to the poisoning of my mind by doom-scrolling through US election news, my 2020 fairies are a pair of Dickensian style villains, sloping back into the forest after getting up to goodness knows what… (Perhaps he is carrying a sack?) The female figure, superficially posing as a pretty thing, with gossamer wings and a lacy apron, has overly long stick insect arms and carries a thorny crook/trident. The male of the species is wearing a lacy collar that droops down in a hairy way from his neck. But the rest of his torso is naked and a bit bloated.“
“One of the things I appreciate about growing up in rural Ireland are all the stories about curious oddities I was told when I was a young lad. We all heard the stories of the wailing banshee, the sluagh and the fairies. A stone’s throw from my father’s house in Knockatee Dunmore is Fairy Hill. Fairy hill is a steep hill covered in grass and wildflowers. The very top of the hill is speckled with fairy trees, with a swing fashioned from worn rope and driftwood. Fairy Hill was a place of refuge; it looked-over the emerald green of Ireland. You could hear the calming laps of the river Sinking nearby. You could see Dunmore castle slightly peeping out from the tree tops to the east.
The story of Fairy Hill goes that builders tried to build Dunmore castle on Fairy Hill, but the vivacious fairies would awake from their slumber in the dead of night and knock the stones down to the ground, and did so every night to save their homes. The builders decided to build the castle down the road on a less magnificent hill, which is now where Dunmore Castle sits. Ireland is bursting with stories like this. Planning permissions for entire concrete motorways have been scrapped because a pesky fairy tree is in its route and needs to be cherished. Maybe that’s why people view the Irish as a bit mad!? Or maybe we refuse to grow up? I’ll take the latter.
I decided to write a poem and draw a piece of charcoal art that reflects how this story has lasted through the ages, something old and worn but still intact, which invigorates nostalgia.”
“With the exception of some digitally post-produced blurring at the periphery of these photographs, and a hint of sepia, you’re looking at ‘what happened’ late one night in the dark in rural France.
Equipped with my old 35mm camera, some 1600 black and white film, and a cheap battery-operated camping light, I produced a series of long-exposure photographs with myself as the subject. At risk of demystifying the resulting images still further, you have to imagine me running from one position to the next in the dark, switching on the camping light between my bare feet, and posing – or moving through different poses – for short intervals of seconds. I had to wait until my return to England to process the images, and when I saw the resulting images, I was delighted and spooked in equal measure. What the camera had seen that night out in the dark was not what had been put in front of it. I promise, hand-on-heart, I wasn’t wearing a black Cleopatra-style wig (in truth I wasn’t wearing very much of anything at all!), and I can’t explain everything caught on camera. I’ve taken lots and lots of photographs in ominous settings in the hope of capturing something otherworldly on film; these snaps, taken with old technology, taken hurriedly (and with so inelegant and earthly a subject!), are proof cameras are haunted and magic is real.”
“Looking at the photo from the vantage point of digital manipulation in 2020, it’s easy to laugh at the fact that anyone could have actually believed that they were “real”. And yet…”
to say no—but what
does that word
“I don’t understand”?—
“I don’t want
to deal with it”?—what
the sounds hard and long? if you
take away the n
what is left?–
only a surprise,
a sense of
filled with possibility–
the magic of ”o!”
“The Cottingley Fairies are mostly remembered because so many people believed them to be proof of another world, co-existent with our own, whilst another group believed they provided proof of other people’s gullibility. Nowadays, we tend to assume a more sophisticated (or perhaps more cynical) attitude to life – the cry of “Special FX” or even “Fake News” is heard constantly. If fairies do die if someone says they don’t believe in them, they must be at the very top of David Attenborough’s list, if not already passed the way of dodos, Siamese flat barbelled catfish and the golden toad. And yet fairies still continue to populate our stoy-telling, our art, and our culture.”
Sharpie pens and alcohol on ceramic tile
Sharpie pens and alcohol on ceramic tile
I have always loved fairies and other mythical creatures, growing up on diet of Enid Blyton’s books such as The Enchanted Wood series, The Wishing Chair series and the Mr Pink Whistle books. When my younger sister and I were children, we used to dress up as fairies using tinsel for crowns and white nightgowns for dresses.
“This was such an interesting prompt and threw up so many possibilities (fake news being amongst them) but in the end and after many versions, I decided these two were getting there. I had great ambitions but didn’t quite get there with this one….v.v. basic technology in this household! The two main spurs were : The film “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders and the first “Pookie” book by Ivy Wallace (my favourite childhood read)… further down the line drones came into the mix. I might keep working on it from collage to drawing as it’s a theme with so many angles but, for the moment, this is it!”
“Sorry for the super late submission this week… I approached this as if the fairy character had become toughened by years of actually surviving at the bottom of a real garden – yes, still magical and enchanting but a bit ragged and with honed survival instincts. I focused on her dynamism and intensity taking out out an innocent insect.”
Our next prompt comes courtesy of resident gentle giant, Graeme Daly, an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s celebrated novel, Invisible Cities describing Ersilia, the city of strings. If you’re already a regular kick-abouter and think you know someone who’d like to join in for a run-around, then do encourage them to make contact. Likewise, if you’re just happening by and fancy getting involved, then do please get in touch.
Another night in the dark with my camera and my curiosity, wishing for portals, finding them, and opening them.