In the Shadow of Things is the result of a familial deal, which allowed two processes – a photographic documentation and a radical decluttering exercise – to take place symbiotically. There is a sense in this strange book, which unfolds like a compendium of fairy tales, that both acts were psychically essential for the protagonists, photographer Leonie Hampton and her mother, Bron.
The ‘things’ of the title are easily imagined as the boxes that populate the family home, hoarded by Bron over a lifetime, which sometimes seem on the verge of taking over; the shadows emanate from the compulsive nature of this hoarding. Hampton has created a richly personal photographic language to tell the happysad story of her family, which, though it focuses most acutely on Bron, also studies her stepfather David (and the eventual amputation of his leg), her younger brother Jake, a child still during the making of this work, and, intermittently, her sister Domino, and her (Leonie’s) husband, Martin.
It is the triangular relationship of Bron, David and Jake that gives rise to the emotional heart of this book, though the three of them are only pictured together twice. In the first picture, early on in the book, David is seated, hand to his throat, deep in contemplation, Jake has his arms folded across his naked torso, his shirt pulled up over his face in an unfinished act of disrobing, and Bron is a blurred figure to the near right of the frame, one hand across her face. Through the window, the natural world seems to want to burst in, to imbue these struggling humans with its abundance, its light and its joy. The later picture is set outside, the small nuclear family standing with due solemnity at a funeral pyre. Inbetween, we witness Jake and David, David and Bron, Bron and Jake. The latter possess such physical similarity that often it is only the brief caption at the back of the book that ascertains the name for the body.
The character of Bron is naturally the most intriguing. She appears in the book’s first picture, wearing quite masculine clothing, and while she is wearing sturdy lace-up shoes, a pair of court shoes are positioned between her legs, as though she may at any moment have a change of heart – or identity. Bron’s sense of self, we learn through not only pictures, but pages of transcribed conversations, is quite a fluid concept. She is captured looking girlish and motherly by turns, anguished, passionate, clownlike. The camera seems like an unwelcome presence at times, most especially in the image Bron has chosen to edit. Hampton’s lenience towards her mother (and reluctant obedience) for breaking their ‘contract’ shows the humility of her documentary endeavour. It is never more important than its subject; a methodology, an ethic, even, which has infused her photographic style with subtlety and dignity.
Interspersed with Hampton’s images are montages of family album pictures, arranged with a nod to those hallmarks of domestic life, repetition and fragmentation. These pictures – the flowers, the cakes, the Christmases – mostly serve to flesh out the character of Bron, for all along, it is her vicissitudes that shape the rhythm of the book and the life of her family. They add an interesting, though not essential, layer to the publication. The transcribed conversations, mentioned earlier, offer a uneven narrative as intimate and ultimately impenetrable as any family dynamic, and are as such essential to the book, which for all its uncannniness and ethereal beauty is not an actually a fairy tale, but rather as intensely personal a document as it is possible to make. This is Hampton’s gift, to her family, to her reader, and, most of all, to herself.
In the Shadow of Things (2011) is published by Contrasto Books.