The collection of statues at Anglesey Abbey provides the starting point for this project. The figures photographed will be those where the named subject is represented in both collections, Apollo and Nero for example. So, Vertumnus and Orpheus, who are at the Abbey, but not in the Museum, are excluded. Non-classical, biblical, subjects at Anglesey, such as David and Samson, are similarly left out.
A bit of licence is sometimes needed, as befits mythological subjects. In a few cases the names of the figures in the Abbey grounds do not find a direct correspondence in the cast collection. For the purposes of this work: Hermes equals Hermes Propylaios; Dionysus is the same as Bacchus; Tyr/Tir, the Norse god of war, is equated with Mars/Ares; and the Genius of Eternal Repose represents Pasithea of the Three Graces.
I’ve long been fascinated by the statues in the garden at Anglesey Abbey and a few of these have featured in posts since January 2017. The casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge similarly intrigue me. I’m now working on a project to celebrate the classical figures in these two very different settings: a garden open to the weather and the layering of nature’s patina; and a well-lit, clean, temperature controlled gallery.
Twelve participants contributed 32 images in response to Tim Ewbank’s challenge to take photographs in two categories, close-up and book titles. The 18 close ups included 12 diverse subjects, from seeds to a camera and spiders to calligraphy, with some pictures including more than one subject – flowers (8) and insects (7) dominated. The photographers of the 14 book title pictures all chose something different, from Catcher in the Rye to The Godfather and The Screwtape Letters to A Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Fiction was more popular than non-fiction.
We Zoomed to look at and discuss the images on the 20th July. Most of the close ups were fairly straight pictures, but they still required a combination of skill and the right equipment to get good images. Nine of the book titles were illustrated with straight pictures and five were artful manipulations using props. People enjoyed sharing tales of how and where the pictures were made, including how effects were achieved using manipulation software. Some people felt free to include images not made during lockdown, which seemed a bit unfair. All images are available at https://www.zimbushboy.org/lockdown-2020.
I chose to submit book titles – I have no real interest in close up and have neither the equipment nor the skill to do it properly. I took the pictures to meet Tim’s brief, so an analysis of why they were taken, what they are of and what they are about is not appropriate. All are from a trip to St Davids in early July.
I’ve posted pictures and text from my Take a Seat project frequently since March 2019. Enforced lockdown leisure has given me time to bring them together in a book. An introduction outlines of what I was trying to achieve and gives an overview of the pictures (both reproduced in full here). I have included some historical context showing how the seated figure has been treated in painting and photography (summarised here).
When I get home after a long drive the first thing I want to do is sit down. I have often thought that if I were to be cast away on Roy Plomley’s mythical desert island my luxury would be a comfortable armchair (with built-in espresso machine). Being bipedal animals confers many advantages on us, but we still invite guests to, ‘Take the weight off your feet’. Sitting comfortably is a pleasure. Passively, it encourages, relaxation, contemplation and may allow us to be in the moment. Often it lulls us into recumbent sleep. Actively, we can forget about the weight on our feet and concentrate on reading, writing, work and more. Sitting is the posture for sharing food, laughter and confidences.
We sit at home – on a luxury recliner, a stool, a mat. And we sit outside in public and semi-public spaces – on benches, on walls, in trains, on the ground, at café tables. We relax, and abandon the hither and thither of busy lives to take a seat, take a moment, to retreat into our own world or share in the pleasure of others.
My photographs explore the diverse experiences of being still outside. Take a Seat complements my earlier book, Ruckenfigur Revisited (2013). Photo books that focus on small areas of human activity are an engaging way of using the medium, for example Elliott Erwitt’s Handbook (2003), Andre Kertesz’s On Reading (2008), People Kissing by Levine and Ramey (2019) and Screen Time by Dafydd Jones (2019).
I have tried to provide a context for my pictures by looking at how painting and photography have depicted the natural seated or recumbent figure historically. Across all media, the figure may be active or passive; it may be solitary or in groups of two or more. It may be part of a scene reflecting or taken from real life; or it may be pure imagination.
Seated Figures in Painting and Photography
The depiction of seated figures dates back to pre-historic cave paintings. Portraiture, developed during the Middle Ages to honour the rich and powerful; and in Romanesque art human figures were depicted mainly as sanctified subjects. Everyday figures began to appear from 1350. In Renaissance art religious subjects were dominated by seated Madonnas, while classical subjects showed the gods reclining in idyllic settings. There was a demand for secular subjects in the late 16th century. This included a growth in genre painting which featured people going about their business, including sitting as they worked, rested or socialised. Throughout the periods of Neoclassicism and Romanticism in art non-portrait seated figures appear incidentally. Nineteenth century Realist art showed people of all social classes, putting them in real situations. The birth of Modern art is often dated to 1863, when Édouard Manet showed Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, the archetypal ‘take a seat’ painting, in the Salon des Refusés in Paris. Edgar Degas was inspired by the beauty of the transient moments of repose found in everyday life in the streets. Figures sitting outside occur in the work of many other Impressionists. New art movements, such as Social Realism drew attention to working class living conditions; in the United States it depicted quiet moments in semi-public and public spaces.
The informal seated figure appears in many guises throughout western painting, from praying to giving blessings, smoking to cooking, bathing to writing and seducing to playing cards. There are groups of people interacting; individuals resting, relaxing, thinking; people reading; individuals or groups eating; musicians performing; people contemplating a view; and artists painting. The mix changed over time, change that was reinforced by the advent of photography, which freed painting from the demands for formal portraiture.
The View of the Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, is generally accepted as the earliest photograph to include people. Echoing the painter’s fascination with the human form portraits soon followed – Robert Cornelius created a self-portrait in 1839. Charles Nègre was the first photographer with the technical skills to register people in movement on the street, his work included seated figures, such as The Little Ragpicker, 1851. In the 19th Century the documentary work of John Thomson and Paul Martin included seated figures. At the end of the century the Linked Ring and the Photo Secession promoted salon photography as a fine art and the practitioners used seated figures in their careful compositions At the same time Kodak’s democratisation of the medium meant people sitting, sleeping, eating, reading and sunbathing were now captured for the family album.
The introduction of lighter cameras, high quality lenses and faster film revolutionised photojournalism and documentary photography in the 1920 and 30s, allowing photographers like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Humphrey Spender, to capture fleeting moments in public as part of their witness to the world. In the United States the Farm Security Administration recorded farming life to help in the battle against rural poverty during the Great Depression. All revealed sitting outside as part of the human condition. Post war humanist photographers, such as the founders of Magnum, sought their subjects in public realms. Robert Frank’s The Americans (1968), captured a cold eyed, subjective, view of society – he shows people physically at rest, but they do not look at ease. Seated figures are occasional islands of calm in the restlessness that pervades the photography of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz. In the UK Tony Ray-Jones turned an ironic eye on people at leisure unaware of their surreal absurdity. Martin Parr’s eye is more acerbic, casting seated figures as a part of the litter and clutter of public spaces.
With a few 19th century exceptions, photography ignores iconic religious, historical and academic constructions. Yet photography owes a debt to painting: its concerns were a logical development of the earlier genre schools and for a while it proceeded in parallel with those artist who were painting modern life.
The 110 photographs included here show seated figures in streets, cafes, parks and galleries, by the sea and in a dozen other places. Taking advantage of chairs, benches, walls, bicycles and the ground, they squat, perch, sit, lounge and sleep. They talk, they read, they eat and drink, they stare at their phones, they simply sit and relax, and they do a score of other things. Sometimes they just watch and wait, but are rarely merely loitering.
There are groups of sitters, centres of togetherness, of sharing. What are their relationships with each other? Some people sit alone, holding the world at bay with books, phones or laptops and headphones. Detached from people and place, are they lonely or enjoying quiet concentration? Some sitters share the moment with a dog.
And many share their emotions, their mental state, with the world. Happiness, elation, concentration, detachment, tiredness, ennui and boredom are written on the faces and in the body language. Relaxation and concentration alike lower the natural defences and the subjects share their emotions involuntarily. And being caught unawares they seldom look their best when eating or sleeping.
Seated individuals and groups are the subjects of these pictures, yet they tell us more. We see the environment in which they sit, from café to seaside, train to gallery and we know the weather they are enjoying. There are contrasts and unexpected juxtapositions within and between pictures that suggest hidden stories. The seated figure may set the context for something else, a child playing or a passing parade perhaps.
Each picture is a historical record of fashions, trends and preoccupations. We see all that figures at rest offer across classes, ages and genders. Looking back to painting and early photography we see many of the same behaviours recurring. There is one big difference, the impact of information technology: mobile phones are an endless distraction; and tablets and laptops liberate (or ensnare) people to work anywhere when they take a seat. They are a pervasive facet of the 21st Century world. One hundred and sixty years on they are what Charles Baudelaire would see as exemplars of modern life and present-day beauty. They look further back too: in the age of the image the figure cradling a smart phone is a 21st century Madonna and Child.
Arosfa, St Davids, lockdown escape with a Cathedral view. Days end sitting in the garden listening to the rooks. Their rising and falling call and response goes from bird to bird, tree to tree and wood to wood. They fall silent at 8.50 pm. Jackdaws fly noisily over to congregate on the Tabernacle before going to roost. The swifts continue swooping and circling in the late western twilight. Holiday reading: an 1880 edition of White’s Natural History of Selborne discovered on the shelf.
Last November I argued that the Analogue Sea Review should include photographs among the pictures that are such a valuable complement to the thoughtful and thought provoking words it publishes (22nd November 2019). I sent Jonathan Simons, publisher of the Review, a copy and he has very kindly replied. He expresses his personal admiration for some photography, but says that: a publisher need not ‘strive to represent all that’s valuable or trendy within his or her community’; and ‘creative genius is the exclusive domain of the rare artist who manages to peel him or herself away from public opinion and political obligation.’ I’m happy to acknowledge his case without accepting it all.
His reply raises another interesting issue, however. He asks, ‘But why must Analog Sea be political?’ and argues that it is, ‘Unlike the politician, who has a mandate to serve and empower all of society equally.’ I think this is somewhat disingenuous.
My dictionary has several definitions of politics including: ‘the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy’; and ‘the total complex of relations between members of a society’. Other definitions might include explicitly the power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. Note that politics as practiced today is certainly not about serving and empowering ‘all of society equally’.
One of the attractions of Analog Sea to me is that it does not pretend to be neutral. It promotes a sensuous tactile world of pens and paper, smells and tastes; a world of direct physical interactions; and a world where it’s easy to escape the Siren calls of the Internet and its shiny enabling technology. It has an agenda and the editorial tone is gently polemical. Gentle though its polemic is, it clear in its intention to shape the agenda in two areas: how people choose to lead their lives; and the power of the Internet and the technology companies.
The Analog Sea Bulletin for winter 2018-2019 argues for, ‘undistracted time for daydreaming, tea-sipping, and conversation.’ According to Analog See ReviewNumber One, although, ‘we find ourselves in a historical moment of pervasive mediocrity’, we have the opportunity to ‘turn our gaze away from spectacle and back towards raw, unmediated life’ through ‘”the emerging field of offline culture”’. There we may have the ‘strength to dream’. The second edition of the Review reiterates these thoughts, lamenting, ‘There is no time for drifting or wandering, no time for staring up at the stars.’
Jonathan Simons’s timely lockdown essay, ‘Life Beyond the Machine – Leisure as Dissent’, says we are ‘back at that age-old question of how we spend our time.’ And he has answers. ‘Leisure begins only when we cease to be consumers. It comes to life only as we step away from the marketplace and the optimization which defines shopping.’That’s a different agenda from that of Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who pleaded for people ‘Eat out to help out,’ as pubs reopened on 4th July after the corona virus lockdown, echoing George W Bush’s infamous statement after 9/11.
The language is much more loaded, pejorative, and hence overtly political when it comes to the technology.
The Analog Sea Bulletin claims ‘that the Internet is sweeping up more of the real world every day’ and operating through ‘insatiable … behemoths’ (behemoth: a huge or monstrous creature). According to the Analog Sea Review Two the new technologies are ‘making us passive’ after ‘the cable operators snaked their way into our homes’. The tech companies are not friendly service providers according to ‘Life beyond the Machine’, they are ‘digital overlords, triumphant and emboldened.’ This might be brushed of as a bit of mildly radial gesturing, were it not for the fact that there are mainstream political concerns about the power and abuse of the Internet and the lack of corporate accountability and responsibility on the part of the major players.
Analog Sea has a view about the kind of society in which we live and an antipathy towards free market capitalism. It is not party political and it may be political with only a small ‘p’, but political it certainly is. It may be happy to preach to the choir, but change will require political action.