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Photographer Works with Battered Negatives to Depict Farm Life

Odette England

Odette England grew up on a dairy stud farm in South Australia. When she was 14, falling milk prices and rising maintenance costs forced her parents to sell the farm. Now 22 years later, England recalls her childhood land in her series, Thrice Upon a Time. Every month for one year, from December 2010, England’s mother and father revisited her former family farm wearing a set of negatives England had made of the farm in 2005 on the soles of their shoes. As her parents walked the land, the negatives became imprinted and worn with dirt and debris, home and memory.

England has participated in numerous exhibitions across Europe, the USA and Australia. She received an MFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2012 and is represented by Klompching Gallery.

Odette England

What inspires you in general as an artist and more specifically what inspired some of your photographs?
“Inspiration comes from my parents and my past. I spend a lot of time looking at family snapshots, which often act as the springboard to new ideas. That, or I’ll be on the phone to Mum and she’ll say: ‘Do you remember when…?’ and, rather than answering or even really listening, I drift into la-la land and think, ‘Wow, how can I capture that?’ And then Mum will say, ‘Um, darling? Hello? Are you still there?’ Everything I brainstorm, ponder, and test about my practice starts with being personal. I can’t make photographs if they don’t have something to do with my own experience.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) has it wrong in You’ve Got Mail when he tells Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): ‘You’re at war. It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal, it’s business. Recite that to yourself every time you feel you’re losing your nerve.’ I’m far from losing my nerve; I’m just warming up to who I am and what I photograph. It feels time to get more personal.”

Odette England

What role does nostalgia play in your work Thrice Upon A Time?
“To me, nostalgia is a mirage, and it occurred to me one day that perhaps the only way I could protect my reveries of home [the farm] was via photography – specifically, by redirecting my parents to revisit our former farm and reconstruct the past. In this series, I wasn’t trying to dodge or escape my past, but to sustain it. I attempted to unpack nostalgia, albeit through rose-colored spectacles. This unpacking was based on a need to visually depict self and home through repetitive process, where memory is a sort of loose subsoil.

To me, nostalgia is a type of imagery that can be simultaneously abstract, minimal, and incomplete. It conditions and protects my family like bubble wrap, or an airbag, or sunblock might. These photographs are states of suspension which provide a brief but much needed break in the weather pattern of reality, where I can immerse myself entirely in the space of the image I have directed. I worked with my parents to reenter and reclaim childhood memories through photography, but by turning them into images, I’ve probably made my memories less accurate. What I really wanted was my past to persist, because it gives me permanence; it tells me who I am and where I belong.

Nostalgia really is a gift, wrapped in the magic and myth of the snapshot. It is of photography, but not in itself photographic. I wanted my camera to shorten the distance between remembering and forgetting. Where photography would throw open a window to my childhood, and a fragrant, balmy breeze would waft in. But the reality is that I’m an adult now, and too big to climb out that window. And I can’t make myself small, because I don’t have super-powers!”

Odette England

Process seems to be very important in this work. Can you describe your process both technically and how it relates to the work conceptually?
“A friend pointed out to me recently that in making this work, I forced the hand of memory for my parents – that in 10 or 20 years’ time, they’ll talk about this process of visiting, revisiting and rephotographing the farm, rather than some of the ‘original’ memories they had. So without realizing it, I was pushing old memories into the subconscious, burying them, encouraging expiration, overriding history. And these images will take over the originals and, at some point, become the originals.

The process of artistic ‘process’ fascinates me, the more complicated, the better. As I was making this work in collaboration with my parents, I was constantly asking myself, ‘What does it mean to remake the remade past? Copy and rewrite memory? Rework memories for purposes other than which they were originally intended?’ Strictly speaking, transcriptions are faithful adaptations; in contrast, arrangements change significant aspects of the original. But I think transcription is the right word for Thrice Upon A Time. I reordered chronologies, transferred information, took a story from one form to another, undid and redid a process.

With each print I made from the damaged negatives, I would lose myself in the glories of acoustic, olfactory, tactile re-exploration. Starting with the negatives themselves, coated in today’s debris. The touch of the land embedded, marks made in the land that rouse and arouse. Light and shadow unevenly, haphazardly distributed in the recognition of solids, curves, and relief. I feel every prickle piercing the emulsion. Cracked grit, the crunch of snails’ shells. An incinerator burning waste at a nearby farm, a misplaced glass bottle exploding. The bruised skins of overripe pumpkins burning in the sun. Cabbage moths discoing in the vegetable patch. I visualize all the fences, furrows, and tracks from times before, and the time before that.

For me, this series grows out of a surface and through it I affirm the surface of my sense of self, who I ‘really’ am. As long as my parents had access to the farm, I could sustain that surface and the process of making. Familial life moved through it, which allowed me to grow something that was otherwise no longer tangible. Through my persistence to revisit, reclaim, re-engage, remake, retake the farm, I made it a living surface for myself. And that was the power of the photographic opportunity.”

Odette England

Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to both, home as an abstract concept and the home you grew up in?
“The magic I feel when I think about home, the farm, where I grew up, comes from the way my senses are roused in remembering it – the smell of the flower beds, tall grasses, and jam-filled sponge cakes Mum made; the way clusters of tiny flies gathered outside the kitchen window just before it rained; the sound of the pump in the dairy shutting down for the evening.

To this day, the farm brings out a special dimension of me. It’s my geographical pacifier, or my emotional crutch, something like that. My turf, my territory. When people say, ‘I’m going home’, I wonder how much thought they put into those few words. Prior to June 2012, I’d been home, Australia, four times in 11 years. I’d been home, the farm, once in 11 years. London was a temporary home for almost 10 years. And now I’m back in Australia, but still trying to ascertain what – or perhaps I should say where – on earth home is.”

Odette England

What is your relationship to your childhood and to your parents?
“Most of my photographic endeavors are only possible thanks to the brilliant relationship I have with my parents, which I think I’ve always appreciated, but no more so than when I became a parent myself [in May 2010]. It was a swift change in role that I’m still coming to terms with. I keep going back to a phrase that a dear friend quoted to me, ‘the mothered becoming the mother’. It wasn’t an impetus for Thrice Upon A Time, but did become so. With the creation of my own family, this project became so much more; a collection of stories that I too will pass on to my daughter.”

Odette England

Can you describe one of your earliest memories of the farm you grew up on? When was the last time you were there? How has it changed?
“We had three cameras at the farm, a Polaroid, which Dad used for recording every calf born, and two Kodak Instamatics, used mostly by Mum. I remember being fascinated by the shape, smell and texture of the empty cartridges from the Polaroid. One of my earliest memories is collecting these cartridges and pretending they were cameras. I’d watch Dad take snapshots of calves, and then pretend to do the same, saying ‘click’ out loud each time I pressed the imaginary shutter. Dad thought it hilarious. The last time I was there was December 2007 and I’m still not brave enough to return. Too much has changed, or worse, I have changed just as much as the farm has gone on without me.”

This post was contributed by Barbara A. Diener, Curatorial Assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.

  • Nancy (Mom)

    what a lot of interesting ideas, and photos! At the end it reminded me of you, pretending a tape was a camera! and your first camera, a bright pink one, from Grammy. By the way, you also have a knack for journalism.