The Submerged, Michelle Sank
The Submerged Michelle Sank
Potent Portraits: Michelle Sank’s Photographs of People and Place
Michelle Sank portrays people in specific places. The resulting pictures are simultaneously ordinary, yet compulsive. As a visual storyteller she is interested in what she terms ‘sociological landscapes’. Wondering about the world propels her to explore situations new to her. Previous series have represented women dockside workers in Liverpool (Open Eye Gallery residency, 2006), or explored sensuality and aging in relation to older women. However, most work prior to The Submerged concerns adolescents, teenage parents or young carers, working out who they are and where they might belong – often caught in circumstances wherein economic options are limited. Sank was born in South Africa, and, having left there in her early twenties, lived in Greece before moving to Britain in 1987. Brought up during the Apartheid era, she and her two sisters have all emigrated, although others in the family remain. She now lives in South West England, her siblings in the USA. Her own experience of family dispersal and of the necessity of re-orienting herself in new situations surely contributes to her interest in people not simply as portraitees but as agents of their own lives, however constrained their circumstances. This may also account for her concern with social diversity. As she notes she is ‘interested in the way that individuals are shaped by social structures, how gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity “enter into” us as subjects’ (www. michellesank.com/crossingx.htm, March 2011). She never
photographs the sensational; for her ordinary gestures, body language, facial expression and also the effects of colour and light are extraordinary in themselves. Since 2004 Sank has completed one or two residencies a year nationally and internationally, including places such as Belfast (Northern Ireland), San Francisco, and Mannheim (Germany). The Submerged is the result of a three-month residency at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (Wales) in 2009 where she was struck by the extent to which the community seems to have accommodated to the natural landscape. Her title references an ancient forest, now submerged below the sea, remnants of which surface at low tide. For her this stands as a metaphor for moments when individuals or phenomena emerge for her attention. In The Submerged traditional landscape aesthetics and direct colour documentary together construct potent tableaux of people caught by the camera in a habitat more familiar to them than it is to the photographer (although some, like Sank, are visitors). The photographer moves in, explores, and leaves. Her method is very spontaneous; she works alone, intensely and intuitively, in what she describes as a sort of meditation, one in which she feels totally connected to the world through an intensity of looking, travelling or waiting until something or someone catches her eye. The approach echoes French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the ‘decisive moment’ when subject matter and composition come together. She describes spontaneously leaping off a bus, having noticed the body language of a particular pedestrian, and chasing after in order to arrest a picture. She notes a sort of ‘electric current’ when the pursuit of the image takes over, a momentary obsession as she spots strangers whom she wants to photograph. It is as if the ‘punctum’ that Barthes defines in Camera Lucida in terms of the viewer’s experience of an element within a photograph seizing attention exists equally in the making
of imagery as particular phenomena capture the eye of the photographer. Her approach is journalistic, like a sharpshooter selecting a target, although she is intensely interested in how people respond to the opportunity to be photographed. Sank sometimes talks with her subjects before photographing them, but more often she just asks them to pose, deferring chat until later; occasionally there is more extensive negotiation. Perhaps, akin to the American photographer Garry Winogrand (who claimed to make pictures in order to see what the world looks like photographed) Sank’s curiosity is as much about the world as pictured as about the world in itself. ‘Submerged’ also references the potency of portraits that reveal more than surface appearance. The harmonious geometry of her imagery belies more complex social tensions or fascinations. A mother and daughter in Fifties-style matching pink dresses pose in a bleak car park, a woman lies as if sunbathing on an otherwise deserted and overcast beach and a man in bridal dress pauses to look over a hedge before, we assume, returning to the carnival that has occasioned the cross-dressing. Sometimes people seem ‘pasted’ onto their background like figures within an otherwise muted animation. For Sank light, colour and space - very much linked to the physical elements of South Africa where she first studied photography as part of her fine art degree - always inform her way of seeing. This may account for the occasional unexpected, even exotic, element that for her ‘pops up’ within this environment, for instance, the stone horse rearing about a bush, the intense red of the rope with which a cow is being tethered, ‘ELVIS’ emblazoned across an otherwise unspecific hillside, or the brightness of the row of red painted garages in an otherwise muted setting. As a temporary resident in Aberystwyth Sank unearthed numerous local stories, but these are not re-told. Rather, we are drawn in by image content that is often quirky, then question and reflect on implications. What brought the middle-aged woman in the yellow shalwar
kameez with the large black handbag to this part of the country? Is she a resident or a visitor? Why is one boy leaping over tufts of grass, or others running up the crest of a slope? That meaning is fluid and particular events left unspecified contribute to the pleasures of deciphering the imagery. Sank observes ways in which the social and the natural interrelate. For example, the shape of a fairground ride echoes the contours of the hills beyond. Images of the railway and roads are composed conventionally in order that our eyes are led towards a hillside in the middle distance acting as horizon and vanishing point. For her Wales was grey, the granite shades of the coastal geological formations echoed in the greyness of monuments and architecture. In the photographs Aberystwyth is sometimes sunny, but more often cloudy and overcast; light is soft and colours are muted. The community has fitted itself into a pre-existing environment that can be bleak, windy and wet. This is not a romanticized landscape but one that poses challenges for those living there. The clouds are symbolically important, lending an emotional or psychological dimension to scenarios depicted. One image stands out emblematically. A fire on a stone beach is burning down, the amber of the flames licking into the air drawing attention to the greyness of its surroundings and the fragility of wood as heat reduces it to flimsy embers. In the context of this series it seems transcendent, metaphysical. Someone must have been there, but nobody is present. Rather, the smouldering references the recent past whilst the setting points to the elemental. Air, fire, water, earth, and human absence! As such, a sense of deeper time emerges. Liz Wells
Acknowledgements With thanks to Arts Council England, University College Falmouth and Schilt Publishing for their support in realising this publication. Special thanks to Maarten Schilt, Teun van der Heijden, Mike Crawford, Eve Ropek, Liz Wells, Vera Dubin and Nick Parker .