Project Review #4 | Mark Aitken by Miranda Gavin
For this project review Mark Aitken sent me a selection of 12 environmental portraits from his personal project in process, Sanctum Ephemeral. The word sanctum refers to a safe private place, a refuge, and in each of the photographs the subject is positioned in various poses—standing up, sitting on a chair or floor, lounging, lying on and getting out of bed. This creates a dynamic in which the relationship between the subject and the space of the room is highlighted through the different poses to suggest the sitters’ connection to the story of the room. However, the use of the word ephemeral suggests that this relationship is transient and fleeting.
The competent use of natural light, colour and varied perspectives such as shooting from outside looking in, or from one room into another through half-open curtains, gives each portrait and room a sense of individual character as opposed, for example, to deadpan approaches that emphasise a detached neutrality on the part of the photographer – the sense that Mark knows and cares about these people is palpable. His sequence of images opens with a man sitting on a bed and ends with a woman in bed suggesting that he has sequenced the portraits to suggest the flow of a day from morning to night at the same time embedding another dimension in the work. These are also two of my favourite portraits. However, for me, the least strong portraits, in terms of composition and overall feel, are the ones of the woman in a green top standing up and the corner portrait of a man wearing shorts sitting on a sofa with a dog on his lap.
The artist’s statement reveals that the wider social context is the impact on the residents of the impending demolition of Cressingham Gardens housing estate in Lambeth London where Mark has lived for 12 years: “In 2012 a meeting was called on our housing estate. A man from the council told us our homes were to be demolished. He called it regeneration and blushed as he did so. He said we had no choice in the matter. They wanted to make money from the land.”
Mark’s artist statement and overall approach is highly personal bringing together prose with elements of social documentary photography and visual storytelling to raise awareness of the potential loss and impact on the residents as well as wider social injustices. Unlike the previous project review (No #3) there are no captions, no names and no ages. Thus the viewer is left to make connections within and between the portraits, aware that this mode of presentation allows for more fluid readings of the images. It is as if, as far as possible, Mark wants to let the photographs speak for themselves.
In suggesting ways forward, I would point Mark to the projects mentioned in the previous project review (No #3) and would also look at the affinities that some of his portraits have with chiaroscuro painting techniques – the use of light and shade – as well as looking at photographers such as David Chancellor who uses a varied approach to portraiture, especially the latter images in the portrait section on his website.