I'm proud to work with the wonderful Reader Organisation. Available now. Inside is a short essay about this portrait.
MAN IN GARDEN
In the 1990s I was doing a lot of portraits; this one is of my dad. It’s the biggest picture I’d ever done, about eight foot wide. It was part of an exhibition I held called Damage (shown at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Aytoun Gallery). It was a very experimental image; at that point it was quite new to mix media, like photography and paint, on a computer. I was playing around, exploring.
A photo, left untouched, was not enough. I knew what I wanted – a man sitting in an enclosed space, in a suburban setting, almost cage-like, with all the chaos of the world happening around him, beyond the walls.
The camera angle is very low – I’m crouching down looking up at him. Maybe that was part of how I view him – your first memories of your father are almost certainly of looking up at them, aren’t they? I also wanted his upper body and his head to be against the sky. I knew I was going to put imagery in the sky.
My father was a ship’s captain and through the greatest storms imaginable he kept a steady ship. I’m talking about his job, but maybe a bit about his family too – there were eight of us kids. He was a kind of rock, for sure; anyone who knew him would say that.
I crave narratives – that’s what I’m after when I look at a piece of art. Perhaps the picture was also a comment on his retirement: he’d had this incredible life, lived through two world wars, travelled round the world numerous times on the ships, escaping death continuously, and here he is retired, everything narrowed down to four walls. But even though his physical life has changed, life outside still swirls around him: he was very plugged in to the world – he’d often have two radios going at the same time whilst watching Ceefax on the telly. His head was probably awash with some of the new technology that had come in during his lifetime. When he went to sea at 16 he learnt how to navigate by the stars; by the time this photo was taken of him, people were using satnav just to go down the street.
I put the black hole next to him because I wanted to create a darkness; not one that dominated, but something you came across as you looked around the image, and that you might not even see if you didn’t look hard enough. It’s a squiggle of lines but in the middle of it there’s an absolute void that can’t be understood. My dad was in his eighties at the time of the photo, he died when he was 95.
Wherever I live, this picture is always the first thing to go up. It feels like my dad’s presence is there. It hangs on my landing wall and I sometimes touch his foot as I’m going past, like people do with religious idols in a church, wearing the stone away – I might be rubbing the ink off. It’s talismanic for me.