Twenty five images based on letters written from the trenches of The Great War
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“No pen or drawing can convey this country—the normal setting of the battles taking place day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, there are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes evilly yellow, the shell-holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps...annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast upon it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.”
12 QUESTIONS ABOUT THE PROJECT (2005)
Q: How did Death Sentence originate?
In 1999 a collector showed me some letters written by British soldiers during World War One. I was immediately obsessed by the letters and began reading more until I had read hundreds. The letters that interested me the most were those written to women –- to wives, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, sisters. Each letter was more sad, more distressing, more desperate. Many were the last letters these men ever wrote, written with full knowledge that they were going to die. The letters were full of misery and despair, but written in a spirit of bravery and of love and above all hope.These letters often had the tone of a last will and testament.
I was so moved by the letters that I started to research all aspects of World War One. I was not interested in the tactical aspect of the war, but in the daily lives of the soldiers, The overwhelming misery .
I grew up, like most Europeans, surrounded by war memorials in most towns and villages. But despite the constant reminders of the war, to me it was history, something to read about in books, nothing personal. That sense of the war was something from the past, something not quite real, something very black and white. I had not realized the dreadful human condition and the suffering in the trenches.The letters described in detail the anguish and horror these men endured in every detail, some in a very plain but poetic way.
At the same time, I was captivated by the letters as physical objects. I was attracted by the fragile nature of the paper, the tears, the stains, the sheer preciousness of each letter. I have always been interested in old, worn objects. These letters, drenched with sadness and love and hope, fascinated me. I wanted to create something that would honor the letters, I wanted to create images that were inspired by these words.
My challenge, during the five years I worked on Death Sentence, was to take all of this information that was overwhelming both emotionally and factually, and make it art.
2.How did you arrive at the title Death Sentence?
I needed a title for this project that would describe in a poetic sense what the series is about, I didn’t want anything trite or melodramatic. Death Sentence seemed right. Usually i don’t title my work but in this case i feel it needed and explanation (a title) ‘Death’ because of the massive loss of lives and ‘Sentence’ because of the the letters written. I was a little weary that it may sound a little to dramatic or a little hollywood .The letters that fascinated me the most were the last letters some of the soldiers sent to there loved ones.Often arriving after they had died, making the tragedy even more unbearable.
3 How did you approach this project.
For me as an artist the problem I had to solve was how was I going to make images from these written words. I read a lot of books looked at hundreds of images, all were historic documents, real letters real photographs, I decided that I wanted to keep it all in a consistent style, loyal to the original documents, in other words painting these images would seem to removed, besides a lot of war artists as well as soldiers had recorded the war at first hand. I needed to bring something fresh to this project, something contemporary, I didn’t want it to look like a history project, I had to be loyal to the documents and add my own vision to this project without being heavy handed. This was a black and white war, the only sense of colour from the war were the paintings executed from the front by official war artists.
The problems I had to face was how to bring the horror and sadness of the letters and images together,How to produce images that didn’t seem disrespectful and how to bring my own vision combined with the historic.
4 Why did you choose to incorporate naked woman and why are they wearing gas masks?
After gathering all the information, were letters and photographs, visually dated and obviously old.I need somehow to bring new life into the project. I was most interested in the desperate love letters written to the soldiers wives. I had somehow to connect the letters to the photographs(the landscapes of the war) I decided to link the two by adding a woman in the photograph, I needed that woman to bring life into the overall image.
I needed her to be naked for 3 reasons .Firstly: because I didn’t want to re-create a period costume piece, it would have defeated the purpose of bringing in a modern element , a visual breath of fresh air if you want, I needed her to be modern as if to observe rather than blend into, I needed contrast...Secondly: I needed her to be emotionally raw with no distractions. Thirdly: in contrast to the old images, I needed live flesh.I needed the woman to be very much alive in every aspect. I wanted the contrast of old and dead with alive and vibrant.. The models were selected based on being just regular woman, I didn’t want model types.This was about everyday people being cast into an extraordinary situation..As for the gas masks, it serves two purposes, the first reason was a poetic one, I felt the woman should be safe as if they were just observing, I wanted the woman to have protection as if they were also slightly removed from harm.I didn’t want any recognizable faces, I didn’t want the focus to be on the face but I did need the face to have an expression. I wanted the woman to look out from behind the mask with a look of sadness mixed with fear and desperation..It was very important to make the viewer feel like he or she were being included in a very personal sad moment.The viewer of the images will realize that all the photos are staring out at the public, therefore engaging the spectator in a very haunting and uneasy way.
5.How did you decide on what scenes to depict?
After collecting all the images that excited me I then to start creating scenes with a different aspect in mind, not unlike a series of paintings.I really had too much visual information and had to narrow it down. In fact my approach to this project was not unlike how I approach a series of paintings.I sketched each image with different letters in mind, my original idea was to have a letter in each image, this soon changed, I decided maybe I would exhibit a letter besides each of the works thus creating a relationship between the letter and the image.
In the case of the trench image, I had about 20 great trench photos, somehow I had to merge the photos together without destroying the integrity of the images, I didn’t want it to look like a bad college, I wanted the scene to look like an actual photo, historically correct.My vision was to have the ultimate trench scene without being too visually melodramatic, I had to stay within the visual language of the time. I approached each of the scenes this way. I added a curtain in each of the images because this was a studio photography fashion of the time . I wanted the overall image to look realistic but also to feel like it was a stage, a tragic stage, a real historic moment removed from reality yet having the same impact as the horrific war photos . I kept reading the term ‘Theater of War’ so I thought this was fitting.
6.. Did you approach this project with an english perspective?
This project was never about different countries fighting each other, it was never about who won or lost, each country records its own version of the truth.The project is about all the people involved in the great war, each letters emotion was almost identical regardless of the uniform.
I didn’t want it to be all English letters, although obviously it was easier for me to obtain and read. I wanted the images and letters to reflect all soldiers.
7.What was the technical process of bringing the the model and the scene together?
All of this project was digitally produced.It was necessary to work this way to give me flexibility and add a sense of blending the old with the new technically.....The project was worked on in two different phases (stages) parallel to each other.The background photos of the war and the model in the foreground.
The model was photographed separately in a preconceived pose with a plain background. I had an idea of which image or scene I would place her in. I used very few props to exaggerate the scene, all the woman had never posed before so I had to set the scene not unlike directing a fashion shoot. Two of the woman had little babies (boys) so I liked the idea of the mothers holding there babies, this worked out well in a few of the images.I read some of the letters to the models so they could adopt the mood, I think woman could identify with the letters. Once the photograph was shot (I used a cheap digital camera as so to be in keeping with the quality of the war photos) I then removed the background in Photoshop, leaving just the image of the model.The difficult part was was joining all the photographs together to make one scene. I didn’t want it to look clumsy, alsoI had to give the photographs an even visual look, as if it was taken in one moment in time....While building the scene, I then brought the image of the woman and placed her on another layer. Building the whole image in the computer it gave me the flexibility to move images around and add or take away where i felt it necessary.
Once the composition looked correct I then locked in on the scene and added shadows to tie the 2 elements of the image together.Of course it was far more complicated than this and many times I had to shoot and re-shoot the models. I produced many more images than you see here and finally edited it down to twenty five.
8.Once you had the final images printed why did you choose to distress the surface and add holes etc.?
There were two reasons for this: I wanted to re-create a feeling of a historic document, I needed it to look and feel like something that might have been taken around the period. Also I remembered the look and feel of the old letters, I needed it to have a museum quality feel, something that one might have discovered in the attic, something precious. I set about making the prints look old and distressed.This was not an easy matter, it had to look like it was worn and ripped and rubbed down as if time had aged it that way. I studied old letters and folded maps to see where the folds were and to see where the holes had worn through the surface. Then I applied this information to the prints buy using sandpaper to remove various areas, I also ripped the edges to give a uneven look. I then attached them with painted string........It was rather like the reverse of painting, instead of applying I was taking away. I then set about sewing the images back together not unlike a museum would do in a restoration project. Each section of the print is held together by hand painted black string.
The second reason was that the nature of this art is a print, I didn’t want to have an edition of prints that all looked the same, so by applying this distressed process I in fact made each image an original.....All 25 images are unique.
9.What aspirations do you have for the Death Sentence series?
This project has been five years in the making. It is certainly true that is has been an obsession in my life. I think its time they took on a life of there own. They need to be viewed at first in a non commercial setting , my wish would be to show them in museums, in war museums or displayed where these dreadful battles occurred. I also think that the images with the letters have an educational value, I think somehow people could rediscover the true horror of war through my images and the letters in a contemporary fashion. I’m not a political artist but they do have a very strong anti war feel about them.
10.Why did you make a smaller version of the Death Sentence images without the distressed surface and tears?
The large edition with all it ripped edges and holes and tears were my intention from the start . I never saw them as clean fresh looking prints but as I was making small test prints for myself, I realized there was something valid in a smaller untouched version as if these were what the images looked like before time had distressed them. Plus this is one of the advantages of printmaking over painting.
11. Was this project an emotionally upsetting to you while producing it?
The reason I started this project was because it did upset me. After the reading of the letters I walked around for weeks feeling like someone close to me had died Over the next five years it never got easier, not a day would pass where I didn’t discover another horrific facet of this war.Yes I was very very sad during the making of this art, it still is.
12.Will you revisit the first world war as a subject in the future?
Im still looking at images and letters. This project has had a profound effect on me. I would love to walk the whole western front, I would love to record that trip in some fashion, in fact I have a lot of ideas about that. Maybe its something I might do soon. There is still a vast wealth of inspiration from the great war for me, maybe I’ll revisit it one day.....An interesting point is that my project in a hundred years time will hopefully be regarded as an historic document in its own right.