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Happy New Year Chester!

Ok this is the last time - Happy New Year!

It’s January 24th and no longer time to wish folks a Happy New Year. We are in it. 2022. The Wigan exhibition is up, conversations about the Redcar exhibition are underway as are plans for the work in Burnley and Blackpool. The photoshoots have started.

First up is Chester. January 22nd

I’ve only been here once before, when I came to have the initial meeting about the work. How have I never explored this beautiful Roman city?

The centre is bustling, people are out and about, there is live street music and local traders, a foodhall in the market where we get some lunch. We are in a space in The Rows, a shopping area with covered two floor arcade. The students at University of Chester Art and Design are on board, Sarah has come down from Open Eye Gallery as has OEG associate curator Nuria. We are working with the folks at The Hamilton Project who create and manage cultural projects in the region. Diana and her team have found us a space for the day in an empty shop being repurposed for community projects by Storyhouse, a theatre, library and community hub in Chester. It has been transformed into a cardboard forest.

There are magical scenes of nature; cut out owls and woodland animals peer out of the once empty shelves, tree stump seats line the walls. We all have to duck under branches to walk through and into back of the shop where we will work today.

The studios are never the same; there are always specific circumstances to be navigated in each session. I welcome this and the way it plays with and defines the photoshoot. The photos today will be close cropped because of the small space, this woodland clearing in what was a Procook shop. I wonder if they sold the kinds of pots and pans that are used to cook on an open fire. I wonder if they sold those long matches that are so useful for starting a big fire.

DIGRESSION - It’s so strange to enter a cardboard forest this week and build the studio in a theatrical clearing as these spaces are appearing everywhere in my life right now. I have been in the clearings of the woods this January, have been drawn to the stone circles where the the fires were with their Winter soggy charcoal remains. Laura and I built a fire before Christmas and burned our words, burned away 2021 with our whiskey, laughing, talk. Last week we came back to our fire spot and ate ham sandwiches. I made us a fire. It smoked a lot and didn’t get going then abruptly ended in a pile of soggy garage kindling ends. We vowed then to learn about fire making, to start a fire school. This Winter we will become accomplished at building fires.

I want to build big bold fires, hot, wild and powerful. Is this possible; to make a roaring fire, a bonfire, and let it be huge with sparks that fly up into the sky, flames licking the Winter air, to abandon myself in this but also to feel safe?

Burning your bridges is sometimes just so needed, so definitive, so final. Can we be both wild, elemental, abandoned and also safe?

The empty shop theatre forest and the January stone fires remind me that I think of my portrait studio as working inside a sacred circle, a safe space of enchanted trust. I see my work as a photographer as sacred. I have always thought of it like this, scared play, a calling, an invitation into trusted communion. I try to make light work of this; playful, trusting momentary connections. Anyway my digression digresses.

I have spent the New Year weeks with fire and in clearings, real and in metaphor, in visions. Fire in January - I guess that makes sense, we have to make our heat, our light, harness it in the Winter cold. Fire in the belly, this is a thing I’m considering; when the fire heats us, lights us up and when it consumes us, burns our bridges and houses down. I want fire, I want all of it, to burn bright and hot to the very edges of me. I guess there is risk in this, risk of no going back, house on fire.

Delicious life, out of control chance.

Back to the portraits; performance and the theatrical weaves through our day in Chester. The theatre of the empty shop wood clearing, the theatre of the streets, of playful self expression, of identity, it’s all here, imbedded in this work, in this intimate city. What is left after the burning away, of our words, layers of self, expectations, the shedding of what doesn’t serve? What is left when we let go, step into the fire, burn the bridge and follow the animal paths into the woods? This week I am led on a vision, a daily meditation, to sit by a roaring bonfire. My imagination adds a winter night, snow, a pine forest clearing. There are animal people in the shadows outside of the fire’s glow, they wear animal fur, their eyes watch me from the Winter shadows. They hand me messages written on notes, letters in envelopes, folded pieces of paper, scrawled handwriting. I try to read them but I can’t make out the words.

There are people in every place I am photographing, in every community, who I am starting to see as from fire, from ash, from the ruins of these chaotic years, last throes of our broken society. Young and open hearts, new and ancient, are rising from the ashes, leaving what doesn't serve them, fresh as from fire. They are rising.

Thank you to Lizzie Coombes and Jenn Smith for the photos and filming. Thanks you to Patty and Judea for the meditation. Check them out on @spiritspeakerspodcast

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