Despite their differing scales and methods of display, Hannah Collins’ photographs at Camden Arts Centre are exquisitely intimate. As an investigation of place, the exhibition documents variations on the human occupation of landscape, spanning a period of over thirty years of Collins’ making and travelling.
The photographs journey across complex, sometimes haunting and often politicised landscapes. From her former studio in what was then a run-down part of East London, to Auschwitz and an overgrown Jewish cemetery, a Roma community in Barcelona, California’s Mojave Desert, Nelson Mandela’s teenage home in Mvezo, South Africa, to remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, Collins’ works are imbued with intense emotional connections to significant places. The works are frequently the result of embedding herself within cultures for a period of time, and offer unique and sensitive perspectives while avoiding exoticism. As Iwona Blazwik notes, Collins ‘pictures the architecture of survival, documenting places created by those who have been displaced’.
The first gallery contains seven large black and white photographs of constructed and neglected landscapes hand-printed on to cotton paper, canvas and linen. These are tacked directly on to the walls, allowing for ripples and shadows to form and for the smoothness of the photographic surface to be interrupted by the imperfections of their making. Such formal aspects are well-suited to the almost child-like, makeshift environments depicted: flattened cardboard boxes in Thin Protective Coverings, mattresses laid out in The Violin Player, a series of stacked speakers in Family.
In the second space are a series on the work of African-American artist Noah Purifoy made in the Joshua Tree National Park on the edge of Mojave Desert. These photographs are far smaller and neatly framed, though Purifoy’s sculptures, ramshackle monuments formed from discarded objects found in the desert, come from a place of anger. Some depict black/white water fountains, others gallows. There is a sense of making a mark within and of the reclamation of place. The series are Collins’ monuments to Purifoy and the subject of racial tensions is most timely. Very little of the desert itself is visible in Collins’ frames; the remainder is left to the imagination.
One-hundred small photographs titled The Fertile Forest are displayed in the third gallery in vitrines. These depict full-colour close-ups of medicinal plants from the Amazon and are arranged horizontally, almost as if the viewer were exploring, foraging, locating themselves within this place. Several texts written by Collins further bring to life her experiences with the Cofán tribe and its elderly shaman, with whom she stayed.
Collins’ photographs contain that strange melancholic beauty found in ruins and in abandoned places but they are not romanticised. While a large image taken in Barcelona and one of the two Auschwitz photographs feel somewhat incongruous in the rooms in which they are located, the majority of the photographs are almost cinematic in their ability to envelop the viewer entirely and transport them elsewhere. At lengths absorbing, silencing, denying and inviting, Collins’ works are an extraordinary collection of emotional experiences and connections to place that extend far beyond the boundaries of their individual fields.
Camden Arts Centre
4 July – 13 September 2015
Published by Photomonitor, 4 September 2015