“It was, I think, the first time that I realised I was “trying on” different lives and states of being.”
For many photographers, performance is not something that comes naturally. In front of the camera, we wilt and stutter and wish we were back on the other side. But, the truth is that we are performing in our everyday lives: confidence, happiness, strength… We sometimes entertain the thought of becoming someone else — just for a moment. Perhaps, for a moment, we do become someone else.
We’re pleased and excited to share our latest feature, an interview with internationally acclaimed artist Trish Morrissey. Morrissey speaks with us about her latest project a certain slant of light, currently on show at Francesca Maffeo gallery as part of their season of female photographers.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am from Dublin but have lived in London since my early twenties. I moved to Somerset a few years ago for all the usual reasons artists leave the city — space, light, air, cheaper living — though I really miss London and am back and forth often. When you leave, you only remember the good bits.
I am currently working on several different bodies of work: a long-term project with my daughter which I started a few years ago and won’t be finished until she turns eighteen in six years time, and a film project which is quite funny in a wry sort of way.
I have a major solo show at the Serlachius Fine Art Foundation in Finland in 2022 for which I will be making new work, as well as showing some of my more recent pieces.
I started out as a darkroom technician at the Irish Independent which is published in Dublin. This was pre-digital and, in fact, even printing colour in newspapers was novel at that time. My job was to develop and make contact sheets of the journalists’ work, and then to file the material. I got the job purely by chance and had never thought of photography as something that I could do —at the time, I had wanted to be a writer.
I was completely smitten with the alchemy, the chemical process, the physicality of working with an enlarger and developing trays. I really miss that. While there I discovered the photography of Diane Arbus. A lot of my early black and white portraiture and street photography is largely influenced by her.
You’ve made a lot of work around the subject of identity, especially self-identity. What is it about these themes that attract you over and over again?
Because I am in my work it often leads the viewer to think that the work is all about me; however, it is more about what it means to be human — albeit from a woman’s perspective — rather than self-identity.
I am interested in how outside pressures impact on the psyche, which in turn affects the body. Gesture and role play are key. I like to try things on, to be in disguise or maybe just camouflaged. Even when I am playing male characters, I am imagining how this person might be under certain circumstances, within certain physical or social constraints. One of the things that attracts me to photographs of people is that they deal less with fact and more with “suggestion’”— with what things “seem” to be.
Let’s talk about ‘a certain slant of light’.
I am always interested in stories of women. Their histories are often overlooked. Hestercombe House and Gardens has a fascinating story, dating back over six hundred years. My interest was specifically in the last two female residents — Elizabeth Maria Tyndale Warre b1790-d1872 and Right Honourable Constance Portman b1854-d1951.
Both of them had run the estate independent of men. Both women, though from different eras, were eccentric — but in different ways. Miss Warre, who never married, had a very personal take on the fashions of the time and would cause a stir whenever she went out in her nineteenth century home-made clothes and bonnets, with her hair casually tossed up and fastened with a comb.
She was a great beauty in her youth but rebuffed all suitors and was a recluse from middle age, never leaving the estate.
Mrs Portman became widowed early in her marriage and was devoutly religious. She forbade the house servants from looking her in they eye, looking out of the window, or going into the garden. She liked her lady’s maid to stroke her feet with a feather to help induce sleep.
What really interested me about the two women was how this outside force of society would impact on the physical and psychological aspects of the two women. I was interested in Mrs Portman’s rigidity, and Miss Warre’s fluidity. I worked with an acting coach to find ways for me to embody the characters.
Were there any moments you experienced during the making of the work which stick out for you?
There are many, but if I was to take one it would be the moment when my assistant and film editor Beccy Strong said, ‘I think I can work out how to do that’.
While we were working on the story boards for Six Scenes, I flippantly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could play all the parts?’.
Obviously with Hollywood budgets and computer-generated imagery, anything is possible. But it was just us two, some costumes, a couple of cameras, one light and no budget — and it worked!
What do you enjoy most about performance?
I never planned to perform in my work but it just developed that way with the project Seven Years.
It came out of pragmatism really; I knew the characteristics I wanted to portray, the emotions, and it just seemed easier if I did it rather than have someone else mediate that for me.
From there I made the series Front, in which I take over the role of the mother figure in family groups that I encounter on the beach. It was, I think, the first time that I realised I was “trying on” different lives and states of being. In that case, it was motherhood (and I became one in real life during the project!).
Since then, that is the motivation for me — to perform as someone else in a different state of mind. In a certain slant of light, I think I am trying on widowhood and old age with the Mrs Portman character, and the eccentric down-at-heel, flamboyant carefree character of Miss Warre.
I like the work to sit on the line between psychologically disturbing and a little bit funny, which means that it can all fall apart if all the elements do not align.
What’s next for you?
I don’t think I will be leaving photography behind, for now anyway! When each new idea starts developing, its form is part of that process. Before now, the way I have used film was as an extension of photography; a reaction against photography’s limitations, a moving photograph, if you like, often made in a single take.
For the films in this show, Eliza and Six Scenes, I used the language of theatre and film rather than photography. It has been a departure in my work that I have thoroughly enjoyed pursuing. The main problem with making films is the cost, which means that unless I can secure a generous benefactor then I won’t be making a feature film any time soon.
What are you recommending?
I often find myself dipping into one of David Sedaris’ many books of memoirs and social observations. I find his writing laugh-out-loud funny. I do most of my reading for pleasure just before I turn out the light these days, and a full novel can be a bit of a commitment.
Having said that though, while on holiday I recently read Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety about the French revolution, which was a whacking 880 pages!
The first series of Top of the Lake written and directed by Jane Campion is an absolutely wonderful, dark critique of what motherhood is — or might be — shot in the hour after dusk in incredible New Zealand landscape bathed in beautiful, soft, barely-there blue light.
As for music, Underworld’s album Everything, Everything. I think Rez would be my desert island disc, as long as I had a great set of headphones too!
Finally, can you pinpoint a piece of art that has strongly influenced you?
The photographs that make up Ralph Meatyard’s collection The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater gave me the structure for the series Seven Years. The idea of repetition, camouflage, and storytelling through gesture and the placement of figures within a photograph, the realisation that what the picture is of is not necessarily what it is about was a breakthrough moment for me.
a certain slant of light is currently on show at Francesca Maffeo gallery — open until the end of the month. Get your tickets for ‘Can these bones live?’, where Morrissey will be in conversation with Kate Best, 28th July in Leigh-on-Sea.