Odette England, Keeper of the Hearth

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Schilt Publishing (here). Hardcover (24 x 28.5cm), 320 pages, with approximately 210 photographic reproductions in color and black-and-white. Includes a foreword by Charlotte Cotton, a preface by Odette England, essays by Douglas Nickel, Lucy Gallun, and Phillip Prodger, and texts by various contributors. Edited by Odette England, designed by Cara Buzzell, text correction by Kumar Jamadagni and Claudia Sorsby. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: You used to say tomorrow, and this is my son / and with the silence of a whistle in a squall / your names were gone/ […] / your name, Papà, […] / or the name of those, like you, who used to be children, / who used to say tomorrow.”

These lines belong to Pierluigi Cappello’s poem “I Vostri Nomi” (“Your Names”), written in the mid-aughts. In it, he recalls visiting his father in a nursing home, bringing him news from the cold of their small village in the Friulian mountains. I used to call this poem the “Winter Poem”, partly for its seasonal setting, but more so for its funerary atmosphere. Yet, the more often I read it, there is something about Cappello’s winter, both the season and the metaphor, that is neither definite nor definitive, and instead corrals a promise of hope. For Cappello, this hope seems to reside in imagining his father as a younger self, and in doing so, recognizing the lasting essence of a child flickering in the eyes of an old man. This filial quest to find a parent’s quintessential core also reverberates from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, one of the seminal texts on photography that the French philosopher wrote as he was grieving the death of his mother (its publication shortly preceded his own passing in 1980).

The second part of Barthes’s book is dedicated to an image that has become known as the “Winter Garden Photograph”. It captures his mother as a five-year old, standing with her brother “at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory”, as Barthes describes it. “There I was,” he writes, “alone in the apartment, where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it.”

What Barthes finds is “something like an essence of the Photograph” floating in this particular picture, and  “a sentiment as certain as remembrance.” This particular photograph, however, exists only for him. Unlike other pictures included in Camera Lucida, Barthes purposefully never reproduced the “Winter Garden Photograph”, as to us, “it would be nothing but an ordinary picture.” In fact, it remains unseen to this day. To remember is what makes the ordinary extraordinarily personal – and therefore intimate, likely vulnerable. Both Cappello and Barthes invoke memory in distinctly personal forms and manners. What they share is an essence found through images – real or imagined – that they, in turn, evoke through words. Unlike photographs, the images they create are written.

In 2017 (by coincidence, the year of Cappello’s death), the Australian-British artist Odette England was on a yearlong residency in Providence, Rhode Island, living and working in the former home of the photographer Harry Callahan. On breaks from the darkroom, writing her PhD dissertation, and revisiting Camera Lucida, she watched her six-year old daughter play in (what England calls) her “winter garden”. Within this liminal space, where what we see and read begins to fold into the place we inhabit, into how we feel and perceive, the Winter Garden Project was born – and with it, England’s creatively collaborative, and collectively personal book project Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph. What England knew from the beginning, however, is that her book, unlike Barthes’s, had to be “led by images.” Reaching out to more than two hundred photography-based artists, writers, historians, and curators, she invited them with a request to send her a photograph – any kind of photograph, whether personal or archival, self-made or found, in color or black-and-white – that echoed, suggested, or reflected Barthes’s Winter Garden picture. The range of responses (all of which are included) is just as impressive as the book itself.

Most literal, but nonetheless evocative, is a small circular image by Maggie Taylor, with two children, a boy and a girl, standing on the edge of a painterly, wind-jiggled landscape, as if looking out from a snow globe. There are, of course, many other pictures of children, landscapes, and gardens, often captured as fragments or details, in winter and all other seasons. Among the stillest contributions is Byron Wolfe’s triptych of twigs covered in snow. “1,875.5 miles – ”, reads his delicately penciled note, “the distance travelled / To photograph my father’s fruit trees / And watch them bend / From the weight of the day.”

Equally pertinent are the photographs of mothers, of all ages, reading in bed or cradling their children, pottering around, or on holiday. And then, there are other photographs, either framed or not, that show mothers (and fathers) before they became parents – on wedding days, with friends and family, in school. It is these instances capturing lives that we, as their children, will never know that most seamlessly introduce the book’s premise of picturing the unseen and, therefore, the unknown. Perhaps a more visceral response to this very premise is prompted in set of images that approach invisibility as something tactile. Here, faces or entire figures are obscured by smoke, blurred by movement, or wiped out by glaring white light. More violent are the cut-outs made with hole punchers, scissors, or blades. And sometimes there are no figures at all, just objects or garments yearning in their absence – such as the ghostly nightgown by Tierney Gearon, or the delicate summer dress that Rosalind Fox Solomon photographed on a beach in Brazil, its contours slowly disappearing in the sand.

When I first heard about this book dedicated to Camera Lucida, I was skeptical. Partly for my own ever-changing relationship with Barthes’s thoughts and ideas, but more so for the many (literary and academic) attempts to pin them down, embellish, or dismiss them. There are many aspects that make Keeper of the Hearth a remarkable book in its own right (and not an anthology or overview). One being its astute and sensitive sequencing, which recalls the movement of a wave, surging with the tides, occasionally breaking, leaving eddies. Despite the great volume of images, the book feels neither overwhelming nor redundant. Just as thoughtful are the design and layout, including different types and sizes of paper, an elegant font, and plenty of white space, which allow both texts and images to breath, drift, and co-exist. What I find particularly beautiful is that each contribution appears to be reproduced in the way intended by its author. There are handwritten notes and worn tape, creases and stains, as well as luminous prints. A garden indeed comes to mind, and England (who while editing the book also contributed an image) grounds this photographic flora with intellectually nourishing, at times, tenderly gripping, texts. They include her own preface, and three distinct essays exploring the philosophical depths (Douglas Nickel) and personal resonances of Camera Lucida (Lucy Gallun and Phillip Prodger).

Perhaps, as I’m not a photographer (but writer), I find myself most drawn to those images accompanied by words, especially when the contributor wrote them. Trying to bridge the gap between now and then, between what is there and what is hidden, a diptych by Mark Steinmetz pairs two photographs of his parents. In the upper one, taken before he was born, they walk toward the camera smiling. In the lower one, taken by Steinmetz towards the end of their lives, they walk arm in arm, and away from his lens. “The photos act as bookends for a vast and precious space,” he writes. My personal bookends in this publication are the contributions by Lyle Rexer and Marc Alice Durant. Rexer opens with a photograph of backyards, of “what they used to call lower middle class, fences, frame houses, the whole thing slightly out of focus, the color washed out, a bit overexposed.” What unfolds within the next two pages is a strangely tender glimpse into the lives of a family that I won’t summarize, because it has to be read first hand. Durant’s picture follows his text. Over the course of five paragraphs we get to know Alice, who is old and ageless, body and spirit, a woman but also his mother. And as I turn the page and find this tiny, funnily cropped photograph in the upper-left corner, I feel that I can actually see (and picture) her in that moment, and throughout the lifetime that Durant describes.

In her foreword to the book, Charlotte Cotton writes that most contributors stayed “close to the light cast by Barthes’ ruminations about photography’s layered and granular fixing of a point in time, and the unfixed and changeable meanings that can be made from a photograph by a reader who is intimately bound to an image and its respective subject.”

It is a trusting and generous act to allow strangers to project their own stories and memories into the frame and the space of a photograph. A trust that Barthes didn’t have and that Nicholas Muellner “struggled with for months.” In a letter, ultimately declining England’s offer, he says “I fear I must resolve that I cannot send you any such photograph, for reasons of sentiment, selfhood, and stubborn belief.” His words are printed instead, and are just as meaningful. There are certain images that, for the emotions and experiences we attach to them, are not transferable. Chino Otsuka may have struggled with a similar sentiment. And while she reveals the title of her “Winter Garden Photograph” (“New Year Snow at the Park, 1959”), all we can see is the yellowed, timeworn surface of its rear.

Lingering on its Japanese characters I cannot read, I think of the unknown name of Cappello’s father and the unseen photograph of Barthes’s mother – and return to title of England’s book. Curious about the meaning of names, Keavy Handley-Byrne (a former student of England) began to research “Henriette”, the name of Barthes’s mother. Keeper of the Hearth is what she found. Three words from a different time merged into one, almost impalpably. Perhaps the ache of a longing for a loved one is not a matter of essence, but how much of that essence we are willing to share.

Collector’s POV: Odette England is represented by Klompching Gallery in New York (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    A well thought out review. I read it through twice. I am usually not a fan of these types of books but will definitely give this a look.

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