by Sharon Boothroyd
From the series Hermes Baby, 2011 by Veronica Bailey
Veronica Bailey is a photographic artist based in London. The strength of her work is situated in her approach to history and the archive as well as her conceptual use of the binaries image and text and ambiguity and truth.
Bailey was awarded a Jerwood Photography Award in 2003 and has enjoyed solo shows around the world including USA, Korea, Canada, Germany. Press features include Portfolio, Art Forum, Hotshoe International, Eye, Guardian, FT. Postscript is represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum London and other UK and international collections. Her work is currently on display until 14th September at The Showcase in London.
Commissioned for Photomonitor, Veronica talks to me here about her career and specifically the work Hermes Baby. This series takes texts from an auto-biography written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Marguerite Higgins on her experiences of the Korean war. Most of her articles were written on the front of a jeep on a portable Hermes baby typewriter.
By Veronica Bailey from Hermes Baby
Throughout your career you have frequently adopted the methodology of using image and text. What interests you about bringing them together?
Storytelling is what draws me to combine text and image. My time as a volunteer guide (1996-2000) at 2 Willow Road, The National Trust House designed by architect Ernö Goldfinger, made me realise that the line between fact and fiction is easily blurred. There was a wonderful myth retold that the writer Ian Fleming based the villain in his novel Goldfinger on Ernö, because of the surname.
The truth is less dramatic, and only an associated reference. But the public visiting the house wanted to believe that the villain image of Ernö Goldfinger was true despite a written statement from the family that dispelled this myth.
The Goldfinger book I photographed ended up being signed by Fleming for Ernö with an apology for any confusion. My photographic image of ‘Goldfinger’ portrayed the novel with edges splayed to show an additional bookmark that references this myth.
There is an art to selecting words from longer excerpts without it becoming either too obvious or too obscure. What criteria do you use and how do you ascertain what text works best?
I have always been interested in typography, letterforms and printing. Editing text to create titles can create powerful headlines, through both the form and meaning. For example, in an earlier series – Postscript 2005 – I was initially drawn to photographer Lee Miller’s handwritten love letters to her lover Roland Penrose. Whilst I was in the archive I also discovered her typed war reports for Vogue magazine in1942, which were compelling reading. Her articles evoked a stronger sense of emotion, in stark contrast to her striking black and white photography. I observed a very personal style of writing, which resonated when I later read Higgins’ reporting. I feel these colourful descriptions of war reveal ambiguous emotions and feelings. My series Hermes Baby 2011 contrasts black and white letterforms with colourful excerpts of text such as ‘Purple Heart’, ‘Green Soldiers’, and ‘Vanilla-ice-cream’. They create an illusion of youth, playfulness and naivety.
(During WWII, both MH and LM were based at the journalist’s headquarters – Hotel Scribe in Paris. After 1945 Miller headed home, but Higgins continued to other front line conflicts, later winning the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, for reporting the Korean war in 1952.)
By removing words from their full context you use ambiguity to your advantage and can enjoy the fact that associations will be made in each viewer’s mind according to their personal history, education, background etc. How would you describe your role as artist when meanings and histories can be so unfixed?
I think it is about questioning meanings, and exploring possibilities of meaning from different vantage points. Words can have many different implications when isolated from their original context. There is a hierarchy of adjectives and nouns which one can play around with, and so challenge the viewer into a dialogue and conversation. I like using words out of context, but there are clues in the work too. If you know the text is from a war-correspondent then the words could imply a different meaning. As an artist I think that sentences are bound by their context and associations but individual words are open to a new discourse which I like to explore.
In Hermes Baby the words become the image, not just a title or caption. You present the ‘images’ like objects, which you describe as “white handkerchiefs”. What were your hopes and intentions here?
Hermes Baby is a typewriter; a mechanical object forming text through human interaction. The font shape is associated with a physical action and sound. And the ‘white handkerchiefs’ refer to a soldier’s gesture of surrendering. My hopes and intentions were to link the extracted words with an action that would have resonance with war. The additional Slide Writer series takes the transparency text images further as an object – the Hermes Baby words becoming apertures through which light can be projected onto a flat surface, mimicking the darkroom process, but in a daylight environment.
all images copyright Veronica Bailey, 2013
You chose to re-photograph the words rather than simply present them as words typed onto photographic paper. What is the significance of the photograph in this work? Was there something significant in the darkroom process or is it to do with the intrinsic link between the photograph and ‘truth’?
The words were never typed onto photographic paper. They existed as a digital file from a type foundry. As I wanted to print onto vintage bromide paper I had to create a photographic negative or transparency through a Slide Writer camera. Using an iPhone camera I kept a dark-room diary of the whole process, which was a visual journal itself. The interesting point is that the text in Hermes Baby is digital to analogue, and so I created a photograph that was not realistic as the type size in my work is larger than the actual typewriter font. So the process becomes blurred; the text enlarged and the image ambiguous. Of interest to me is at what point do we start questioning what we see in a photograph and is it true to our initial conception?
From what I can gather the thrust of the Marguerite Higgins memoires was to condemn the US leadership on GI’s and their lack of preparation for entering war. Perhaps she was suggesting that the US government needed to do a better job at making a myth out of war or perhaps she was highlighting the failure of doing such a thing.
Marguerite Higgins wrote daily articles for the New York Herald Tribute, that would not have allowed her to directly condemn the US leadership. But, her obvious frustrations are revealed in her autobiography ‘War in Korea: Report of a Woman Combat Correspondence 1951’, from which the Hermes Baby series texts are taken from. The foreword highlights a reflective approach through her writing… “which selects episodes and anecdotes that picture the war most realistically” and “what we have learned about our weaknesses, our strengths, and our future”. Higgins indicates that a future war needs better preparation both physically and psychologically, prophetically suggesting American leadership needs to think about this failure; the indoctrination of future GI’s to fight ‘dirty battles’. There is, as I understand it, an acceptance that historical myths play a part in military ideologies, but they need to be contrasted with related and realistic (but different) issues of utopia.
Surely, like Higgins (and Barthes), you have a point to make about mythologisation, wanting to dispel the myth that what is connoted in the image is a subliminal acceptance of what is true. If the viewer misses this do you feel the work has failed?
Myths and the use of semiotic language interplay on many levels in my work. I don’t think about failure. I prefer to understand that the viewer may take time to discover the detail of my work. Dispelling myths and accepting the truth are subjective. Personally, using photography allows me to discover nuances. Modern Myths 2010 a series that was shown with Hermes Baby in Korea was a turning point for me. I discovered by looking closely again at the image ‘Olympus’, something that I assumed was there, was clearly not. Sometime it is about belief as well as seeing.
all images copyright Veronica Bailey, 2013
Having been practicing photography for a substantial part of your life, can you tell us a few of your highs and lows?
Highs: Visiting archives and re-discovering hidden gems to photograph and stories that can be re-told that were forgotten.
Lows: Finding that items in archives that I would like to photograph are no longer in existence.