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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Photographers' Fires: Part 2

'the house of my childhood burned down and I went in to take pictures'

That wins photobook title of the year for me. It says everything about the book and tells why and, in an emotional way, how the pictures were taken. You don't need any more words after that.

The book is by Karin Borghouts. It's a slim affair of loose leaf pages folded together; no glue, staples or stitching were involved. It shows the scorched contents of her childhood home, starting with a cover shot of a book shelf, the covers all blackened with charcoal and soot. Go inside and we see the room that looks to be the heart of the fire. There's water (from the fire hoses) on the floor and you can see the cracks in the ceiling. You can almost smell the fire. Actually, I keep on getting a whiff of Melinda Gibson's firebook (Photographers' Fires: Part 1) popping into my head which is worrying.

(here's another book about fire. Thanks Martin Amis of Photobookstore).

Downstairs the house is a wreck. Black melted computer plastic rises above piles of damp wood ash, supporting beams are fractured blocks of solid charcoal, the walls naked, stripped of their paint and wallpaper to become bare faces of worried plaster.

Borghouts is an architectural photographer and it shows. The pictures are beautifully shot and beautifully lit (by natural light). Go upstairs and it becomes even more beautiful. Here the damage is not as intense. The smoke has stuck but the superstructure remained intact. It looks like everything has been sprayed with a fine patina of black spray. It looks like a house that has is part installation, part preserved. But preserved from when. Parts of it seem to be from the 1970s, other parts go earlier. There's a nod to Flemish painting in there which is surely not accidental given that so many of the pictures feature blackened brass and pewter furnishings from the 18th and 19th centuries.

So the house seems haunted and the effect is compounded by the images of blackened mirror and picture frames. These are just shadows, as is the image of the wall where you can see the white outline of the pictures that have been removed. There are ghosts here.

And then we go up a floor and we're back into the present. We're in the attic where the roof did the least damage. Things are just a smudgy grey here but the ghosts are even more apparent. A bed is shown, its covers half undone as though the inmate (this is the attic/top floor remember, the place where the tragedy happens in all its gothic glory) has just got up and left. But again, the decor is dated so it's like they left 80 years ago.

The book is roughly sequenced on the design of the house; it goes from ground floor to top, from the most-damaged to the least damaged. And in so doing it seems to strip the history of the house down to its historical and personal archaeology. And that's where the title kicks in, where that distance between the photographer Borghouts and the Borghouts child becomes apparent. This is just hypothesis but from the book it looks like a house that, in the aftermath of the fire at least, seems doubly cold and distant. There's not really much warmth or affection there. Perhaps that's a reflection of Borghouts' memory of her childhood, or perhaps it's a reflection of her lack of sentimentality and nostalgia regarding her early years. Or neither.

Buy the Book Here.

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