Invisible Threads: An Illuminating Photography Show at the St Albans Museum+Gallery

The St Albans Museum + Gallery presents Invisible Threads in which time, memory, personal and public histories are explored by twelve photographers.

Rosemary Cooper’s hand printed black and white prints focus on the hearth and family. A man’s coat hanging on the back of a chair conveys absence whereas hope comes in the form of a woman’s stomach pictured in late pregnancy. Was Cooper facing her own mortality and reflecting on the cycle of life? The photographer sadly passed away before the show.

Death and separation pervade the exhibition, but the works are surprisingly vibrant, celebratory even. Rashida Mangera charts her family’s history in three diaphanous pink banners suspended from gold hangers. On an adjacent wall, Bunshri Chandaria pictures her mother-in-law’s gradual retreat into Alzheimer. An array of objects, a passport, a letter from her husband, are displayed under glass, and folding out, accordion-like, is a beautiful art book of words, water colour and dream-like, indistinct images. On the final page of the book, Chandaria shows us a peep hole, through which, we perceive a land of mists.

Jim Paterson’s loss is subtly revealed in a series of photographs taken in a workshop. A craftsman stands at his worn, wooden counter in his work apron. With his glasses resting on top of his head, he seems to be addressing us. He is working on a gold or bronze ring that could have been fashioned in Ancient Rome. (The Roman theme runs right through the exhibition – we are in St Albans after all). There is a wonderful sense of harmony and balance in this photograph conveyed through Paterson’s choice of warm hues and careful lighting which brings out the sheen of the wooden counter. You wonder why Paterson has photographed this jeweller.

On another wall I notice four photographs of folded textiles with the jeweller’s rings. Who do they belong to? We never see Paterson’s wife, but we now read the story of her passing. She was a regular visitor to the workshop. She evidently took pleasure in beautiful things and made an effort with her appearance. This is a moving, cohesive project of grief and remembrance.

Anne Crabbe’s black and white photographs transport us to childhood with all its emotional pulls and hurts. I zoom in on a girl in tight pigtails and school uniform, who is visibly distressed. Staring up at us, her arm waves around in a blur. Across the print Crabbe writes: ’She knew he regretted threatening the ruler for talking in class’.  This is an enigmatic statement which plants confusion in our minds. Are we supposed to feel sorry for the adult now? Thankfully, corporate punishment is a thing of the past but for the photographer it is as if it happened yesterday – for surely the little girl is her. This is a stunning, thought-provoking photograph -one which has strong echoes of Diane Arbus’s photographic work with children on the streets of New York.

Duncan Unsworth’s meditative photographs provide a break from strong emotion. Tracks in mud, cows in a field, the light passing through trees – water – mist. We very quickly fall under his lyrical spell. The search for peace and order can also be felt in Hady Bayoumi’s work who draws on his life as a dermatological surgeon. Now retired, he uses his surgical instruments to configure flowers and other arrangements in his very precisely printed images. Mary Davis too, seems to be searching for balance in her elegant still-lifes composed of vases and geometrical objects. A hand-blown, vivid red vase hints at the Ancient Rome theme.

Romans and Christians, and St Alban’s ancient history, form the core of Sabes Sugunasabesan’s work at the show.  I look up at a wall of ancient streets on paper. They are enlarged to emphasise their importance in St Alban’s Roman history: Watling Street, Fishpool Street, Hollywell Hill. Across them, strange white shrouded figures are fleeing.

At the exhibition, Sugunasabesan spoke of the evolution of his St Alban’s idea, which started off as a straight history project and became, little by little, interconnected with his own personal history. The shrouded figures, who he initially thought of as representing Christian martyrs in Roman Britain, came to symbolise him and all those who have had to flee and to forge a new identity in a new land.

Invisible Threads is an engaging, cohesive show. Go soon – and of course there is the Henry Moore exhibition in the basement!

Invisible Threads continues until Sunday 12th March 2023 at the St Albans Museum + Gallery. Entrance is free.

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