Many artworks have seemingly pretentious titles, this is no different, but perhaps artists use titles to try to direct the viewer’s mind to find meaning where the meaning is hard to find. I’d like to think so.
This photograph evolved meaning by having a title before the work was done, then the the work fed back into the title.The gas mask had been hanging in my studio for some time. A sinister, reminding, insistent presence. Reminding me I had to deal with it and it’s implications.
Initially, within days of receiving the mask, I had toyed with a phrase concept; “Face to face”, and had taken a few plates based around this, a couple of hastily put together set-ups, my grandson sitting staring directly into the eyes of the mask. The plates worked out but to me they lacked meaning.I took further plates of the mask as part of some regular lens and chemistry checks, though nothing was triggering inspiration.
The mask remained for most of the time hung up, malevolent, defiant. Weeks, months passed, I incorporated the mask into some more still life tableaux, to no great effect. Results I was unwilling to share.
Then a phrase arrived. Unbidden. I was listening to a piece of music when I looked on the track listing for its title. “The Source of Secrets”. My mind jumped immediately, for no good reason, to the gas mask, and for the next few days I toyed with the phrase and what it meant in the context of a potential photograph. Could the mask fit this concept phrase? Slowly a concept evolved along two tracks.
The first source of secrets was the mind, or its container, the skull. Second was the mask, a means of hiding, covering. If the mask could be hiding or perhaps revealing the skull….But a skull? The stock prop for photographers with no inspiration? I’m always using my papier-mâché skull for lighting and lens tests in the studio, but it is such an overplayed studio prop. Could I really use it for the Mask shot? Perhaps the source of secrets could be partially revealed by the mask, or perhaps unmasked? How could this work? Just questions.
Then I thought of the idea of a body, remains unfound, nothing but bone. A skull, a mask, perhaps a story – a spy killed in strange circumstances, adding another layer of meaning to the “the source of secrets”.I let that side-track occupy me for a little. An attaché case, rotting, documents, a code book, a gun perhaps? I slowly let this angle go. It was adding a layer of complexity that my photography could not begin to convey.
And so my thoughts led me to a group of trees, some rocks, some moss, some ivy, and the unfound remains. The source of secrets was there, placed, moved, arranged, the angles checked. Hidden? Too much? Too little?
Eventually it made sense and I made five plates in a row, changing and altering exposure and angles with each shot.I set up my shots so they had to be deciphered, the skull and mask hidden, the source of secrets. But then I realised – it is more; it is all.
The human mind is the source, the skull is truly “the source of all our secrets”. And with that phrase change, the spy back-story came back, a tiny bit. Just there, in the edited title, enough, for anyone who cared to find a second meaning from the title and the photographed scene. A dead person, a gas mask, unburied, unrecovered. Was there a secret there? Was he the traitor, the double agent, “the source of all our secrets?”