…the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power or memory is never heard, never described or passed on.
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
In 2014 whilst artist-in-residence at Manchester Central Library, I purchased a collection of 1920s glass negatives on a whim, from a seller on ebay in Brighton, that had no provenance. There are 230+ in total, dating from c.1914 – c.1950s. Through a few clues offered up in the images and the original boxes they came in, I have begun to piece together the beginnings of a substantial family history around the images. The photographers were Simeon J Gearing, was not a professional photographer but was a manager for the Mersey-based tug boat company Rea, and lived in Wallasey and his son Sydney J Gearing, who inherited the camera.
Simeon was born in London, worked in the East Ham docks as a lightnage operative (barge-man), married a girl from Wortwell, Norfolk, and moved to the Wirral to be a manager at a shipping company. Sydney was also born in London but grew up on the Wirral, and worked for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.
I was also born in London, moved to the North-West and my father is a Norfolk boy, I spent many of my early childhood summer holidays on the family farm in Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth. Acquiring this collection appears to have been pre-destined, the parallels are uncanny.
Through a forensic research process and an almost voyeuristic obsesssion with this collection, I have made new photographic work in response to the locations and subjects in the collection, fascinated by the moment these pictures were taken.
I’m intrigued by the odd, and easily overlooked elements and repeating motifs of the collection. My photographic works are a poetic and personal reflection on the very essence of what it is to be human, exploring family, loss, transience and memory – the forgotten, the ordinary, yet extraordinary figures on the periphery, the distant voices and still lives of both Gearings’ surroundings and his geography.
I have developing and re-imagined narratives between the two sets of work in the form of a gallery-based installation, a dérive on my part, with text, notes, archive material, video and ‘rediscovered’ artefacts from the Gearing family archive, supporting the photographic work.
A book chronicling the project, published by Axis Projects in collaboartion with Dewi Lewis Publishing, also features a literary essay on Gearing by George Szirtes, the Faber and TS Eliot prize-winning author.
Parallel to this exhibition ‘Place’, a series of local engagements with contemporary groups touched by aspects of the archive and rediscovered stories will also be presented. Through sharing the stories and images and using Sydney’s original camera in the process, I’ve encountered and uncovered further connections to the archive.
The exhibition opens at the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum on the Wirral, a place Sydney visited in the 20s and 30s on 7 December 2019 and continues until 2 February 2020, after which it will travel to Norwich Cathedral at the end of the year.
The exhibition and local engagement has received funding from an Arts Council National Lottery Project Grant, with additional financial assistance from The Elephant Trust and Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.