Programme Manager Steve Mepsted sends a report from the depths of Lockdown on how he is tackling life in a creative manner, reflecting on happiness and the simple everyday objects that surround him to create his ‘Isolation Still Life’ series
“Thus happiness depends, as nature shows, less on exterior things than most suppose.”
I am taking the opportunity to make some still lives while isolating at home during the Covid-19 outbreak. A form of photographic diary; this work attempts to reflect our shared sense of uncertainty and alienation. Representing a fresh familiarity with the domestic, and the revelatory appearance of objects we live with daily; which have taken on a metaphorical weight they seemed to lack before. The images were shot on 4×5 sheet film and 6×4.5 Medium Format film and processed at home.
As I write the UK and the majority of the world is in restricted movement and lockdown due to the Covid – 19 outbreak, the outside environment has become a complex arena of anxiety and mistrust. Time passes differently: punctuated by the news and mealtimes, working, sleeping, rising, exercising. Without the option to go out to work, do the commute in the mornings, have face-to-face meetings and fulfil the human instinct for social engagement, one finds oneself simultaneously turning inward and looking outward – life has become far simpler and far more complicated at the same time. I am lucky however, I have always enjoyed my own company, I am reasonably healthy, but I am concerned for my daughters, my grandchildren, and my son-in-law who is working as an anaesthetist in a busy hospital, intubating Covid-19 patients and lacking the daily fresh PPE equipment needed for him to stay safe.
To help combat my own fears and worries, I find more than ever the need to feel attached to aesthetics and beauty, through exposure to creative acts and the production of images that reflect my mental state – listening to the internal voice, not trying to pin it down and interrogate it; but to simply listen. As the choice of venturing outside for any extended period of time is rescinded, the arrangements of still lives in an interior are for me an act of acceptance and meditation, a connection with the beauty of simple things that can be found immediately around me; inside my own four walls. Ultimately one’s vision might not be realised but what matters most is the process of doing it.
In this new isolation-state, functional, boring, mundane and common objects take on a metaphorical weight and even a ‘pure’ nature. I have noticed that my still life arrangements are part calculation, part accident. Symbolic content and meaning is added by the viewer who projects upon the image their own experiences and attributions. For example, the images of sheets in this gallery were conceived as the formation of a landscape – a projection of the outside world where I long to be – walking in the hills. My friend read the image as the manifestation of a night spent tossing and turning, tangled up in fevered dreams and worries, another friend saw a gang of ghosts rising spookily from a field.
The manner in which I am producing these images reflects my new mental state. I am using black and white 4×5 sheet film or 120 roll film and shooting with large and medium format cameras. I process the resulting negatives at home in developing tanks – washing the film in the bath and scanning the negatives digitally. This process is sublimely satisfying to me. The inherent slowness suits my mood, and allows me to punctuate periods of my day with stepped mechanical acts – loading the film in a changing bag, arranging and re-arranging objects, measuring the light, focussing the lens, winding the film or swapping the sheet holder, back to the changing bag to take out the film and into the developing tank.
Then the chemicals: developer, stop solution, fix solution, washing, hanging the negs to dry and scanning on the computer for post-production. I can happily spend all day producing just six photographs in this manner.
To paraphrase William Cowper, I shall for now focus on the internal stimuli that compels me to make these images in the hope that they may transport me to other, happier places while isolated in this current space.