Truth, Beauty and Death: Photography, the Artist and Mourning
In a single instance, a transformative and indelible impression may be etched onto the mind via vision, a happening that occurs in “the blink of an eye”. There was seemingly one such moment for the author of this novel. Ali Bacon was working in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she found a cache of famous Victorian photographs. The overwhelming surge of emotions aroused by that encounter with the first wave of photographic images sparked a life-long interest in early photographers. This, Bacon’s second novel, is the fruit of those powerful feelings and interest. It follows the life of the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill, one of those early pioneers of nineteenth century photography, as he brings to completion the first painting based on photographs, an endeavour that spanned decades. Hill brought a refined sensibility to his photographic partnership with the more technically minded Robert Adamson to establish photography as a recognised art form and the novel is very much a song of praise to this innovator.
The novel is also more than that, of course. It is both history and biography, imagination and reality, fact and fancy. The writing playfully and self-consciously alludes to its status as both truth and fiction, as prominent characters in the establishment of photography as a serious pursuit debate in its pages whether the photographic form of representation is art or artifice, the representation of things as they are or a reimagining of the world. That the issue is relevant to an understanding of the novel itself is indicated by the headings that the chapters fall under: the names of early photographic processes. Thus the novel is seemingly constructed as a photograph and presented as a photograph, one that invites philosophical reflection on its capacity to represent the world and to bear truth beyond surface appearance.
There are a number of themes which develop in the novel besides its focus on truth and
artifice. Bacon makes much of imbuing her photograph of a novel with the sensibility of
women. She draws on Hill’s relationships with women and often writes from the perspective of these women to understand the man. The novel is therefore interesting in being a “her-story”, rather than a “his-story”, and a self-consciously feminine biography. However, the great theme of the novel which struck me the most was the relationship that it constructed between truth, beauty and mourning. Death is one of the most significant characters in the novel and touches all those involved. From the first, Hill is shown as a widower and then his partner in photography dies. There are further tragedies. All the art and photography that takes place in the novel, described constantly in terms of truth and beauty, can therefore be situated in ideas of death, bereavement and mourning. As Hill’s wife remarks to him towards the close of the novel in a terse summary of the perspective of the novel, Hill’s art can be understood thus: “‘[t]he sadness gives it beauty, the beauty gives you comfort” (204-5).
Inevitably, one wonders why, in Bacon’s view, sadness gives beauty. Is it the sense of
mortality that gives what is beautiful its value and meaning, the sense of an impending
ending? Is it the fleetingness of the moment that gives both art and photography, and this
novel constructed like a photograph, their ultimate raison d’être? Or can we only understand the true artist in the Western tradition as one that suffers? That is, can Hill only be given recognition as a “proper” artist since he suffers and his suffering bears fruit? After all, one popular image of the artistic genius is “the tortured soul” who is besieged on all sides by harsh happenings, experiences which appear to give his or her art greater depth, value and meaning to the public. One thinks of how their biographical details add to the status of figures like Vincent Van Gogh and the feminist icon Frida Kahlo, who is in fact called “La Heroina del Dolor”, or “The Heroine of Pain”.
Bacon’s novel is certainly a substantial and well-wrought affair which invites the larger
questions on the part of readers. The individual chapters have been nominated for and won several awards and the novel is an engrossing read which also has a feminist dimension. It is a good second novel. It is also a good introduction to the early history of photography and the key debates that the medium first aroused, debates which follow us to the contemporary moment. In the Blink of an Eye is therefore, in my view, a richly rewarding read.
About the Publisher:
Linen Press is “a small, independent publisher run by women, for
women”. It published its first book in 2006 to much acclaim and strong sales. The Press
describes itself as the only indie women’s press in the UK. Its policy is “to encourage and
promote women writers and to give voice to a wide range of perspectives and themes that are relevant to women”. Linen Press, in its own words, aims to “publish books that are diverse, challenging, and surprising”. The collective background of the writers in the publishing house is described as “a multi-coloured patchwork of cultures, countries, ages and writing styles”.
Review by Suneel Mehmi
Suneel is currently researching the relationship between photography and law in fiction from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. He is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, singer/songwriter, musician and artist. Suneel is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster.