Monday, 9 November 2020

INNER SOUND : Alastair MacKay


When I first became aware of the photographs of Iain Stewart, the humanity bled through. Working on editorial jobs, he was quite unlike a news photographer. He was patient, unobtrusive, polite. Doing portraits, he didn’t impose. He illuminated. Iain created a series called Self Portrait, in which celebrities were asked to sketch their own likeness, and were then photographed with the cartoon. This was long before the smartphone selfie. It wasn’t about posing. It was an act of disarmament, and the results were startling. It didn’t matter whether the subject could draw. They were forced to make a decision about how they wanted to be seen. Mostly, the portraits acted as a two-way mirror. It was a playful interrogation, an act of consent. It was fun, not therapy. Though, on at least one occasion, the subject decided that not being seen at all was better than submitting to this casual confession. 
Years later, on a visit to the Photographers’ Gallery in London, I was shown a quite different side to Iain’s work. There, in an imposing folder, were some of his large format landscape photos. Actually, landscape isn’t right. These were seascapes. More accurately, they were horizons, photographed with such coolness and distance that the Earth became abstract; colour scarred by a line. But where were the people?
The lines are messier on Iain’s recent work, the focus less razored, but the photographer’s intentions remain. It may seem like a logical absurdity, but the storm-lashed landscapes of Innersound are as meditative and self-reflective as any self-portrait. There’s a painterly condensation in the images, a mizzle of Turner, a fret of Rothko, and maybe a musical echo or two. You might detect an element of masochism in the deteriorating conditions, as the photographer ventures through inhospitable landscapes to far flung coasts; or you might just accept the metaphorical logic and concede that life gets messy, and that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes. The writer Robert Macfarlane observes: “There’s something original and ambitious at work here; a shard-like hard-cutting between image and place and text. Sometimes it’s bewildering - but then that’s true of the places Stewart is fascinated by as well. There’s a winter-chill to the mountain photographs, and a storm-ferocity to the seascapes, that’s born of somewhere between muteness and confusion.”
If biography helps, the pictures were the result of a painful reflection on the death of Stewart’s father, after a slow retreat into Alzheimer’s disease. As with any act of poetry, the purity of the artist’s intent points to something more universal. Death is the starkest part of that equation, and while there is no diluting its finality, there are comforts to be found in the swells and eddies of the tide, in the life cycles of rain and renewal, and the optimistic sense that a storm endured is a storm defeated. That experience can be savoured and passed on so that the journeys of others may feel less perilous. 
These pictures are storm warnings. But they also follow filmmaker Agnes Varda’s famous formulation. “The tool of every self-portrait is the mirror,” Varda said. “You see yourself in it. Turn it the other way, and you see the world.”

Alastair MacKay
Spring 2020

reproduced by kind permission of Studies In Photography

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