Megan Doherty, Stoned in Melanchol

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Setanta Books (here). Rizla-style box, 5.91 x 11.81 inches, containing fifty color-photographs on twenty-five, double-sided and accordion-folded A3 posters. Includes handwritten text-inserts, as well as a foreword by Fiona Rogers. In an edition of 240 copies, with three different covers in an edition of eighty copies each. (Cover 2 and spread shots below).

Comments/Context: Light floats over the photograph, tingeing it red, then green, then cautiously blue. The neon particles drift, so diffusely, they become the hazy room, cocooning the people within. Some are lost in conversation, another one smiles, while others morph into silhouettes. They all turn away, except for one young woman. The center of the scene – a party at somebody’s house – she faces the photographer but looks past the lens, a tear glistening in her eye. We don’t know why, and most likely never will. As if caught in a still from a movie that was never made, the young woman exists within the indeterminate sphere of longing and loneliness. With the first and most intimate photograph of Megan Doherty’s Stoned in Melanchol, you instantly feel that melancholy can turn into an (almost) actual place, a “dreamscape”, as Doherty calls it.

Like most photographs, this title shot of Doherty’s series captures a fragment of the world, or rather, a fragment of what the world felt like in a certain place at a certain time: Derry, Northern Ireland, in 2014.

Doherty – who was born and raised in the town where “days are long [and] there’s not a whole lot to do except hang out, wasting time” – was in her early twenties and disenchanted with the monotonous reality of her daily-life. “I hated how I had tread every street a million times.” Dreaming about escaping into a busy metropolis full of strangers, but unable to do so, she decided to enact the kind of youth-y subculture that Derry was lacking, but had lived in her own mind since she was a teenager.

Inspired by art, music, and films – Doherty cites Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66; Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas; and Ulrich Edel’s Christiane F., among others – her photographs capture young, mostly female subjects in dimly lit bars, empty parking lots, in bathrooms or in unmade beds. An extension of her own vision of “youth, freedom, beauty, and rebellion”, her characters have pink, blue, or platinum-blonde hair; they wear wigs and eccentric outfits, combining big fur coats with oversized shades; plastic boots with and without fishnet stockings; Smurf T-shirts and lumberjack shirts. They wear make-up, or don’t – and take cool pleasure in pushing boundaries of outdated, yet prevailing, gender norms.

The project began with Doherty staging the opening party scene, featuring Charlotte Gordon, her friend and muse, who reappears in many of the images of Stoned in Melanchol. While many of the individuals enlivening her dusky photographs are a cast of friends and people around her, Doherty also approached strangers. Initially, she set out to photograph “with the intention of creating a specific scene that [she] had created in [her] head,” but soon realized that new, more interesting things would emerge when collaborating with and spontaneously reacting to her subjects. In this regard, Doherty’s stories are as much her characters’ as they are her own.

Introduced to photography during her studies at the University of Ulster, Doherty’s photographic role models include William Eggleston, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ryan McGinley, and Olivia Bee – but, perhaps, most significantly Nan Goldin, to whom she relates through a similar color palette and the level of intimacy shared with the people she captures. Aesthetically however, Doherty holds closer ties to a more emotional branch of fashion photography á la Harley Weir, where a keen sensibility for small details and the physical particularities of her sitters allow emotion to transcend mere style, and attitude to become character (think of an expressive nose line, a belly’s fold, or the mannerisms of a bending hand). To some extent, this careful arrangement of a minutely staged and highly suggestive reality also recalls the make-believe mechanisms of Instagram – a comparison that Doherty rebuts.

“A lot of social media photographers focus on technology, but I wanted to escape from that and go back to the 1980s and 1990s. The style really interests me. Shooting on film – the texture, the grain, the way light translates – is so cinematic. Digital is flat. I like things to be gritty, I like scratch marks and dust. I try to keep it real,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. And, in another, she stated: “I particularly focus on a ’90s vibe in my work, going back in time rather than focusing on now. And then again, that’s another kind of escapism, because of the shitty world we live in at the minute.”

It is debatable whether analogue techniques and revisiting the styles of former decades truly suspend the parallels between Doherty’s approach and how people use social media platforms. Her real coup, though, lies in the fact that she openly admits to her mise-en-scènes (the book does so in the foreword by a Firecracker founder Fiona Rogers). In doing so, her images do not deceive, but disclose the conflation of fiction and documentation.

Most images in Stoned in Melanchol create an atmosphere of fragile glamour and defiant indifference. They are well composed and a pleasure to look at. Doherty’s strongest pictures, however, are those where snippets of narrative and allusions to her character’s inner- and outer-lives emerge. These photographs feel like moments from a larger storyline: a woman stares out of an empty restaurant, as if waiting for someone who will never come; another one makes a secret call from a public phone in the middle of the night; or a picture of Charlotte, her eyes closed and her lips slightly opened, as if making a wish after blowing out a candle.

The tender, cinematic language of Stoned in Melanchol is also reflected in the book’s unconventional design of folded A3 posters, which, through the option of continual rearrangement, defy any aspiration of linear storytelling, and instead invite the pictures to be held and experienced individually. An aspect that feels less convincing is Doherty’s insertions of handwritten, fictional vignettes, as they don’t add anything to the images that you could not imagine yourself (although I would be intrigued to see them written as dialogues) – a flaw easy to forgive.

With intelligence and care, Stoned in Melanchol is a promising debut by an ambitious photographer. Blurring the lines of reality and fantasy, Doherty’s book explores the themes of youth and subculture, sexuality and freedom, escapism and belonging – and gains real gravity when considered within the context of Northern Irish photography. In a country still coping – politically, socially, and artistically – with the history and aftermath of The Troubles, Doherty took a chance in lifting a heavy blanket and allowed for something new to emerge. By making women, who are strong and sad, joyous and lonely, its main characters, Stoned in Melanchol intimately portrays the importance of female friendships, of finding ‘family’ outside of family. It is a powerful feeling whether you move to a big city or stay in a small town.

Collector’s POV: Megan Doherty is represented by Open Doors Gallery in London (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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