Half plate Ambrotype
I enthusiastically signed up for the mask project and looked forward to mask coming my way. But I wasn’t prepared for what an emotive object the mask would be. I initially thought of taking a self-portrait and strapped the mask on. There was another mask in the studio and I put that on a toddler-sized doll and looked in the mirror. It was a disturbing sight…
Being inside the mask was stifling, haunting. I imagined gas attacks, nuclear explosions, air raid sirens. I couldn’t help but think of my Dad and Gran who lived in Grimsby during World War II. After my Grandad was killed by a naval mine, my Gran was left alone with my Dad, a toddler. She worked in a pub all day and was knackered at night, so she hated leaving the house to go to the shelter when the air raid sirens went. She used to take my Dad out of his cot and they would hide from falling bombs under the dining room table. One night they stayed with relatives and when my Gran came back, wheeling my Dad in his pram, her council house had been reduced to rubble.
During World War 2 everyone in the United Kingdom was issued with a gas mask in case of a gas attack. Children were given red and blue masks known as ‘Mickey Mouse’ masks, so that they would be less scared. The Government advised parents:
“Toddlers soon learn to put on their own masks. Let them make a game of it and they will wear their gas masks happily.”
Like the adult masks, the junior versions contained asbestos in their tin can nozzles for filtering out deadly gasses. Babies had cradle-like respirators (made in Manchester by P. Frankenstein & sons) that were only issued in an emergency. You put the baby inside the case. Once the covering flaps were folded and the straps done up, the baby was completely enclosed so that parents could pump in fresh air by hand, which sounds even more surreal and claustrophobic. Children, well used to strapping their masks on, annoyed their parents by making a ‘raspberry’ noise every time they breathed out.
I imagined my 3 year old Dad in his pram, wearing his mask and annoying my Gran by blowing raspberries. That’s how the idea of the masked baby came about. I know the mask from the series is different to the ‘Mickey Mouse’ mask, but I think its large size relative to the baby doll gives the picture a more ominous feel, as if the baby is weighted down with adult problems. The sins of the father. I took a couple of test shots to establish exposure. The ambrotype I submitted to Shane was also a test shot and in fact, I was getting so frustrated with my images, I was about to throw the towel in after I took it. But when I saw it lying in the cyanide solution, I quite liked its eerie feel.
I can’t ask my Dad or Gran if my Dad ever sat in a pram like this with his gas mask on because they both died a few years ago. I’m not really sure if I would show it to them even if they were alive as it’s a little bit weird!
I’m a writer and artist living in Manchester. I teach Creative Writing at the University of Chester, where I’m also a Writing Fellow. My first novel, The Monster’s Wife, is due out in paperback and eBook with Barbican Press in June 2014. My poems and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies and I’m represented by Allan Guthrie at Jenny Brown Associates. I’m a member of Hot Bed Press in Salford, where I make screenprints, lino cuts and artists’ books. I also make cyanotype and gum bichromate prints and create multi-media pieces by merging hand-tinted tintypes with altered books and wooden peep-boxes to create secret tableaux. These last have recently been exhibited in London at Double Negative Gallery. My new hand-tinted wetplate work, themed around Freud’s idea of the uncanny, will be featured in an exhibition in London next year along with the work of two other wetplate artists.
My website is: http://www.katehorsley.co.uk