Considering combining historical photograph with drawings and paintings

Is selecting a photograph and imbedding it into a painting ‘too easy’ an option? Do these images become ‘mere’ ‘illustrations’? Does using archival photographic images and historical texts in an artwork convey/suggest narrative that would not otherwise be there? Does it add or amplify an idea or narrative?
Where does it take the viewer? Does it lead to speculation about the relationship between image and artist? Between image and place? Between time – the flow between then and now?
I think that I am trying to imbed my own memories, feelings, experiences of the sea with my growing awareness of the Shetlanders’ own deep relationship with and dependency upon the sea – frailty, courage, stoicism, foolishness – our attempts to understand and control something beyond our control.

How do my paintings/drawings inform the viewer? Some of the images I have been making work better than others. Concentrating upon a single object is perhaps more effective than combining several. The image of the Oskerry an essential bailing tool to a fisherman in the middle of a heaving ocean, is the simplest, and perhaps a more powerful and evocative motif.

The image of a bandaged hand (see last posting), that I discovered in one of the Archive photographs brings questions, suggests narratives, directly referencing the dangers of work on the sea.

Engaged not only in walking the Shetland coastline and making drawings and paintings, working from historical research in the Shetland Archives, museums, and meeting/talking to people living on Shetland, who know the place intimately, fishermen and boat-buliders, story-tellers, artists, historians and so on, impacts upon my work. Reading first-hand accounts by survivors of 19thC fishing community disasters evoke rich imagery. The Norwegian angle - the work of the Oceanographers to understand the sea is another aspect of the project; it has been suggested to me that these are two separate aspects of the project, yet I see them as intertwined – just as Nordic culture and language is in evidence on Shetland, their histories are also linked by a shared stretch of sea.

Collecting these stories, accounts of disasters, images from the 19th century, and placing these within the context of my own work is a form of being ‘polyvocal’ (the telling of the situation from a variety of perspectives; use of multiple voices as a narrative mode within a text/image). Perhaps it acknowledges that there is no single definitive answer or image; the paintings and drawings become environments of social-sharing; participants are not just observers or readers, but become instead co-creators or interpreters of content.


  1. That's all really interesting Janette.
    I was thinking about this: different ways of conveying narrative.....thinking, a painting holds narrative and backstory perhaps in a similar way to a tune, or maybe even a landscape. The polyvocal element comes both from the artist and the observer - both bringing an amount of subjectivity. So there's a synthesis of the place/ subject which inspires, the knowledge of the artist, the context in which it is viewed, and the cultural perspective of the viewer. (well, and a lot more besides!)
    A storyteller has to be wary of handing over too much information. The pictures a story creates have to be in the imagination of the listener. That's the wonder of it.... and the joy ....making it your own by working it out. A circle of listeners each hear a different story. - so different from watching a film, or even seeing a photograph.

  2. I think you're right - the images that work for me are the ones that are more minimal and therefore leave the viewer to make their own sense of it. I must stop dotting all the 'i's' and putting in the fullstops
    And talking to people who live and work here, and know the place, landscape and weather intimately, really helps/broadens my own understanding; and people have been very generous with their time and sharing their stories

  3. Love hearing your narratives of weather,people, sea and place... It's very exciting,reading your blog,following your journeys,seeing the sketches. Come on Janette, it has to be a book, we think.


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