Sophy Rickett / Barry W Hughes

Sophy Rickett: The Death of a Beautiful Subject

originally published in HotShoe magazine, issue 195, 2016
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It is not unusual to come across a photographic project lamenting the loss of a loved one or the absence of a lover. Photography’s inherent, and often overly sanctified relationship to memory and sentiment makes it the perfect medium to explore and explain the all-too-human desire for melancholic reflection: it can detail the work of affection, suffuse a space with the echoes of an argument or invest in deep shadow the remorse of times past. After all, what is Art without the death of Love, and what is Photography without the love of Death?

Coupling materiality with philosophy, but without descending into a dungeon of petrified formalism and desperate pretension Sophy Rickett asks questions of her medium. A natural storyteller, she often employs a poetic juxtaposing of imagery and text, yet if one observation can be made about Rickett’s practice, it is that she has the capacity to uncover common ground between two seemingly disparate elements before transforming that ground into something altogether uncommon. A concrete reality is transubstantiated by her interaction with it; the scientific study as captured between intellectual rationale and mechanical device is reconfigured by the artist’s own interpretive innovation and we are left with pictures that meant something at one point but mean something more at another.

As with her earlier works, Rickett’s latest book, The Death of a Beautiful Subject is as unassumingly charming as it is conscientious, a feat achieved by her remaining equally fascinated by the photographic image as the reason for its respective existence. With 2013’s Objects in the Field, the outcome project from her Artist Fellowship at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, Rickett repurposed retired fellow of the Institute, and inventor of the Three Mirror Telescope Dr. Roderick Willstrop’s original negatives to produce glorious prints of the night sky. Those celestial portholes encapsulated not only a moment of technical genius on Willstrop’s part, but also the momentary alignment of meaning between two individual practitioners. Both Rickett and Willstrop’s will and intention merged and somehow along the way one required the other for the whole to work. There is a telling exchange between the two from Rickett’s accompanying text: “If I print them, will the prints be of scientific interest?” she asks Willstrop, to which he responds: “‘No, these were taken twenty years ago, and not properly calibrated ... These are a record of the skies as they were twenty years ago.’”

So it is that Willstrop’s negatives were of no contemporary scientific value yet, contrarily, they were of value to Rickett who saw in them the surrounding story of the Three Mirror Telescope, the device that produced them, along with her own personal connotations. It would seem Willstrop’s negatives possess a greater artistic value because of their lack of scientific value. There is no respite when it comes to work like this: it challenges the cognitive meaning of what a photograph is and what it can do depending on the time in which it is seen, or indeed who is showing it and who is looking at it. It reconstitutes the technical endeavour with the allure of subject-meaning.

The Death of a Beautiful Subject continues in much the same vein as Objects in the Field, by bringing the pseudo-scientific images of another into the vortex of Rickett’s interpretative whirlpool. A sombrely designed book, published by GOST, the text and images swirl in one direction while what they imply and uncover rotates in the other. It hints at loss as many elegant photobooks have done, by placing personal quotations opposite a picture, in this instance the voice from one side of a conversation electronically typed by John Rickett to Sophy, with a facing page displaying a dignified square print of a humble butterfly precariously perched on a leaf or stem. Gathered over time, from 2011 to 2015, the photographs are finely printed in silvers and blacks, each one shimmering as butterfly wings and silver gelatin prints tend to do. While butterfly collecting was a popular pastime during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, it has since come to be viewed as an antiquated hobby by most. Certain species native to England like the Large Chequered Skipper, Turquoise Blue and The Hermit have long been extinct, while those catalogued by John Rickett like the Brown Argus, Grizzled Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary remain resident. Even this terminology of the “resident, migrant and introduced” butterfly resonates with the personal story attached to the subject of the book.

The email extracts mention technical difficulties with memory sticks and file sharing, broken computers and Dropbox and these problems associated with modern living are set against sometimes awkward and more successful attempts at familial pleasantry comprising an overall narrative that is at once contemporary and historical. In discussing the autobiographical prose accompanying the project, Rickett describes each vignette as “a moment when something that appeared whole or complete fractured in some way, or revealed some aspect of itself that had previously been unnoticed.” Authored while finishing Objects in the Field, Rickett’s mother is present in the text of both projects, but on this occasion we learn of how Rickett’s father, the John whose words we have been following to this point, had not died but left the family to begin a new life with another woman when the artist was in her early thirties. We learn of the complications and emotional fallout between husband and wife – father and daughter. Entwined in all of this is photography, a shared passion between the father and daughter, and key factor in the healing process for the author, and eventually the reconciliation, not just in its ability to frame and reference a memory or feeling once experienced in a world of constantly changing expressions; but also in its ability as a physical activity to literally and metaphorically return perspective to a situation. “Photography,” states Rickett, “despite its slipperiness, makes sense to me as a way of negotiating and understanding the world.”

Butterfly wings are as delicately ephemeral as the fading photographic print, both being limited in the splendour of their creation. Rickett writes about a conversation between herself and her uncle who describes hunting for butterflies with her father; she asks about their collection, to which he replies: “‘Well, those butterflies would decay. Insects would get in and destroy them. They just didn’t last forever.’” It is an appropriate inclusion, as it is that butterfly hunting in the traditional method of catching, and killing them with chloroform before pinning the poor creatures to a setting table was eventually replaced by the act of photographing before setting them free once again.

The key for deciphering the father-daughter relationship is the subject of the photographed butterfly, not the butterfly itself. Both Sophy and John Rickett are photographers and collectors, sharing the compulsion to acquire and ultimately relate a history through those acquisitions. In The Death of a Beautiful Subject the relentless acquisition of a photograph reflects both the father and daughter’s desire to move forward, while accepting one another for their own disparity as well as similarity. This is illustrated quite beautifully by four years of dialogue that involve John Rickett’s photographs being sent to his daughter, who with her own set of rules and values reworks those photographs: altering the aspect ratio, removing the colour, fine tuning the contrast and composition, to create something not entirely new, and not entirely different, but not entirely unlike the process in which a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar.

It may not be unusual to come across a photographic project lamenting the loss of a loved one or the absence of a lover, but it is unusual to come across a project that laments loss in this particular way. When we talk of death we know it as a hardened definition, but if we were to ask each and every individual to describe death there would be a multitude of interpretations. An absolute end seems all the more everlasting, it seems to spur the mind and heart in defiance of the subject’s veracity. Likewise when we talk about a feeling of separation, of dislocation and loss, it is as though the emptiness has form; logic is contradicted by desire. Indeed, it is quite a peculiar thing to grasp, let alone describe. For Rickett she attempts to articulate it through various examples and in various techniques: an elegantly written prose describing the warm indentation left by a seal on a sandy shore and the empty “lop-sided” house following her father’s departure; or the photographs of butterflies that appear and disappear into their environment until they have been eventually removed from the image itself.

With its delicate physicality, luminescent wings and iconic transformation, the butterfly has always been perceived as a subject rather than an insect. Its Greek name being psȳchē, meaning “mind” or “soul”, it has become symbolic of the indefinable yet unavoidable, thus with a subject such as this, for all that is present there is an absence, and for all that is absent there is a space.