What is our relationship to the past, and what is the value we ascribe to it? A key question asked by Nicky Bird throughout her artistic work and her academic research and writing. She investigates the contemporary relevance of found photographs, their archives and specific sites often through the creation of new photography, new media and bookworks.
Two such bookworks are exhibited within the Tall Tales exhibition; the first Red Herrings (1998) and the second Tracing Echoes (2001). For visitors who put on the white gloves to handle these books in the Tall Tales exhibition, they make visible Nicky’s interest in the process of collaboration with people who have significant connections to a hidden history. They present a way of looking at artefacts and photographs through an art process, which as Nicky writes involves some detective work.
Often Nicky begins a new body of work with the discovery of a found piece of photography. In the case of Red Herrings it was a picture taken in 1955 in New York by the photojournalist Ed Feingersh who was given the job of shadowing Marilyn Monroe. The image interests Nicky not just because of the intimate capture of the celebrated starlet in the process of a corset fitting but because of the unidentified women gathered in the photograph staring admiringly at Marilyn. Who are they and what kind of lives did they lead? Will they ever know that in 1996, in a northern city in England an artist would stumble across their image and question their histories? Red Herrings seeks to recreate the scene captured in the photograph whilst also tracing these unidentified women pictured within.
The famed 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is the inspiration behind the second bookwork in Tall Tales, Tracing Echoes. Created as a result of a residency in Dimbola Lodge, the home of Cameron in 2010, Nicky’s bookwork brings together modern photographs taken by herself and original portraits by Cameron. As Nicky describes ‘the living genealogy’ is explored by including in the bookwork portraits of descendants of local women and children that appear in Cameron’s world. Again there is a blurring of time and place, repeating and recreating histories in an attempt to make discoverable the missing histories in the photographs. As much as this is a book about Cameron and her female sitters it is about the home she made on the Isle of Wight. Contemporary coloured photographs of the Dimbola Lodge feature heavily in the book. In my personal opinion although beautiful they are haunting as they are absent of human presence – driving home the fact Cameron is a significant figure of history, reduced to name in a history book or a museum and long since gone.
The third of Nick Bird’s bookworks on tour with Tall Tales, is Gay Interest Beefcake (2008). Unlike the two other bookworks, Gay Interest Beefcake will be shown, for the first time, in digital form. Gay Interest Beefcake was a unique bookwork produced for ALT-W: New Directions in Scottish Digital Culture exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. The work was displayed alongside other works, which were inspired and created from images for sale on eBay. 3 lots of photographs were bought on eBay in 2007, purchased over a three-day period from the same seller. At the point of sale, three keywords were used to describe each lot, ‘gay interest beefcake’.
The hardcopy of Gay Interest Beefcake resides in the collection of the International Centre of Photography in New York. Upon discussing the work with Nicky, the Tall Tales curators and artist concluded it would be fitting to return the work and images back to the digital form. Gay Interest Beefcake, for Tall Tales in Rochdale will therefore once again be possible to view online, and as a digital album. Presenting the work on a digital platform allows the work to further question our relationship to imagery past, and our preoccupation with its relevance to the now. Our desire to capture a moment in time, has not changed – it is simply our method of archiving the image which has evolved.
Susan Sontag quoted poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé from his book Collected Poems (1859) ‘everything in the world exists in order to end in a book’. Sontag in her text Towards a Photography of Love: The Tain of the Photograph in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red (2007) suggests, ‘today everything exists to end in a photograph’. Nicky Bird creates unique and charming moments, which bring the two together and invite us to consider our own relationship to immortalising and editing our own lives through photographic imagery.
Nicky is currently a Phd Co-ordinator at the Glasgow School of Art and a member of The Family Ties Network, a group of writers and artists who explore memory, space, place, and the family in photography and moving image. For Tall Tales the Family Ties Network will lead a one day event at Touchstones Rochdale on Saturday 3rd September. To find out more about this event and other Tall Tales events, see our events page here.`