Exploring Deborah Parkin’s photographs in ‘Childhood Narratives’

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives'

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives'

As previously mentioned, I’d ordered Deborah Parkin’s 2007 Childhood Narratives a few weeks ago.  I found some of her images of children online, and her book – a self-published collection from Blurb – of 24 photographs with another two on the dust jacket, is well worth spending time with.

As a bibliophile, the visual and tactile details of a book are important to me: it matters how something like this is put together.  A computer or camera manual, for example, just needs to be functional, but with a collection of pieces of art, either individually or forming a narrative whole, the quality of the book itself is also important – there needs to consonance here.  If the images are meant to be beautiful, the physical form needs to be beautiful, if it’s meant to be arresting, then the shape and texture of the book should ideally also be in some way arresting (with an attitude like this, you won’t be surprised to hear I don’t get very excited by e-readers with their stupid names and uniform shapes!).  I wasn’t very sure what to expect of a one-off self-published book from Blurb.  I had ordered the hardcover version with the dust jacket, and I like being able to say that on the whole it looks and feels pretty good.  The paper used is quite thick and of a good quality; it’s a little glossy, and depending on how the light is reflecting on the page, one can sometimes almost see one’s own reflection on the page – quite an eerie experience the first time it happened to me, even more so given the image with which that happened (more on that in a moment).  So on this front, the book scores fairly well.  I have only two minor gripes: (i) the dust jacket is too loose with the folds in the wrong places (this irritates me with some professionally bound high-volume editions too, so Blurb is not alone in this!), and (ii) the binding is suitably tightly stitched (which is important, as will become clear below), but the connection to the hardcover is a not as neat and clean as it could be.  I suspect this is a result of printing just single copies.

But, more importantly, Parkin’s content: this is a really stimulating book.  I think there is only one adult in these images (Man and Boy p33), and whilst it is not clear to me whose children they are (though I’d guess they are her own), this doesn’t really matter.  In fact, most of the time, the identity, gender, age of the children themselves is hard to discern: there are quite a few silhouettes, sometimes hair obscures the face, in other images the face is out-of-focus (see the cover above, for example) – in general it is perhaps possible to guess approximate ages from relative heights, but most of the time it is not particularly important.  Her aim, after all, is not to depict children, but to depict childhood: on the title page she provides a longer subtitle: ‘Exploring the emotions of childhood, the joys, adventures as well as the fears and vulnerabilities.  Not all is apparent, you will have to look deeper.’  She doesn’t directly offer a story, but leaves that for the viewer: ‘A photograph is not just a record of [a] moment… there is a story that preceeds [sic] and succeeds it – it is the viewers [sic] job to ask themselves what that story is’.  Giving this context is what makes the images rather unsettling, as well as beautiful.

For beautiful they are.  Her ability to frame and process her images is clearly evident throughout the book – technically, these images are pretty much flawless.  She presents monochrome images that show children in various, completely normal settings – sitting on a bench, opening a door, sitting against a wall and so on – but there is always a sense that something more needs to be told, and that is what makes them unsettling as well.

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives' - The Locked Room p41

Deborah Parkin's 'Childhood Narratives' - The Locked Room p41

For example, in my favourite image, ‘The Locked Room’ (p41) a small child of indeterminate gender stands in front of a large wooden door.  This looks like a door in a castle, with massive stone walls and a very small, rather sinister-looking archway to the right that would be just the right height for the child to walk through.  The child, in a light jumper and with blond hair (or lit in such a way as to make her/him look blond), is so small, s/he perhaps couldn’t even reach the door handle.  Like all Parkin’s images, there is a lot of dodging and burning here: the ground immediately behind the lighlty-coloured child is very dark, and the darkness of the image as a whole gives the image an aura of threat, of danger.  If the door is locked, and the darkness is behind, is the small archway the only way for the little child to go?  I want to know… and that puts me into the narrative too.  What made this image even stranger for me is that the first time I looked at it I was sitting by a window and saw an outline of my own face reflected in the door – it looked as if I was stopping the child!  Of course, we can reasonably assume that an adult like me had locked the door, and that is also part of the narrative.  It seems natural to ask about the boundaries between childhood and adulthood here.

Most of the children are in similar kinds of positions to this child – Parkin clearly likes the narrative power of thresholds, doorways, windows, closed off spaces, interruptions.  These are elements that signify things we don’t know about in the immediate past, but also: neither we nor the children know what the immediate future holds.  What will be through the door, around the corner, past this wall?  We don’t know, but these images are trying to capture just that wondering moment in between.  This liminality points to what in other contexts might be ‘third spaces’ of a kind (greetings from Homi Bhabha…).  These are places beyond what we know, where the standard dichotomies of (in this case, say) knowing and emotion, power and defiant curiosity, adulthood and childhood, splinter into broader understandings.

One of the things that is really quite striking about the images is the amount of editing Parkin carries out.  I often try to make my own edits of portraits fairly unobtrusive – I usually want people to look at an image and not immediately notice that there has been much post-processing.  Parkin shows no such restraint, and dodges and burns with wild abandon; also, most of her images use very heavy vignetting to draw attention to what she regards as the key element of the image.  And all of it works, and works really well.  This can also be seen as part of the narrative – after all, it’s a reminder that this is an adult weaving narratives about childhood.  Having looked at quite a few of her images online and having studied this book, I think this kind of thing works better in print than it does on a screen: there is something about looking at these images on a piece of paper using reflected light that makes them more engaging than seeing them in the unpleasant harshness of a screen’s lighting.  And perhaps that is also something to do with the process: I’m sure she has used real film for these images, and it just does look better on paper than on screen.

I mentioned the binding being important: many images are printed right into the binding, so to properly view the left side of some of the photographs requires opening the book quite far and peering into the binding area.  This hardcover version allows that easily, though I’d expect the spine of a softcover to be damaged if this was done too often.  This is an interesting technique, because she always leaves a border on the right side of the image – it’s almost as if she is intending the viewer to look for more in her images, even in the shadows hidden by the binding.

In summary, do buy it (probably better in hard-cover)!  Parkin’s photographs have an elegant style and a narrative to share that is worth returning to and reflecting on repeatedly.  Her current work builds on all this, and she is developing (ha ha!) her skills at old photographic techniques, with a particular fascination for the wetplate collodion process.  As with using real film for the book, the great thing about her engagement with the wetplate process is that she doesn’t seem to be doing it for the sake of the process (though her blog indicates that she does also enjoy the process itself).  Rather, the process is an integral part of enabling her to say something that she wants to say, something that is important to her, that needs to be communicated.  And from looking at her book, she has plenty to say, and it is worth engaging with her about it.