Angela Kelly: A Fanatic Heart
by Stacey McCarroll
her presentation, Angela Kelly set-up a context for reading her
photography projects. Her introduction outlined some of the broader
issues underlying her more recent work, including ideas about
cultural identity, family, relationships, and social memory. Kelly
explained that she hopes to enact an intervention into the conventions
of family photography, in order to bring history into the present.
She showed images relating to her work on the family, that she
would return to later in her lecture. Her work in this genre is
informed by writings in British cultural studies and feminism,
including the work of British cultural historian Annette Kuhn
as outlined in her book, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and
Imagination (New York: Verso, 1995). By using the digital
mode and digital imagery in these recent projects, Kelly hopes
to further open up questions about the potential for new strategies
beyond the realist versus the idealist
tendencies of much documentary practice.
Kelly described, her photographic practice is rooted in a need
to question the assumptions underlying documentary conventions.
She said that we must examine the motivations of documentary work
and the photographers who create it. She encourages us to ask
whose interest is being served by any documentary project. Kelly
outlined how her own conception of photographic practice developed
out of several key photography debates in Britain in the 1970s
and 1980s including the 1979 Hayward Gallery exhibit Three
Perspectives on Photography. This exhibit was co-curated
by Paul Hill, John Tagg and Kelly herself. Kelly's selection,
Feminism and Photography, which included Beyond
the Family Album a crucial work by the late Jo Spence, addresses
a multiplicity of photographic strategies from realist to deconstructive
as employed by feminist photographic practitioners at that time.
This curatorial project, along with her involvement in feminist
politics, opened up a critical dialogue about the relationship
between language and image that formed the foundation of Kelly's
critical perspective. In her work at this time, Kelly focused
on a critique of identity --especially female identity-- through
a consideration of topics such as family, children, domestic abuse,
and the family album. For Kelly, the dominant practice of formalist
art photography, as well as the gritty realist documentary work
in 70s Britain were limiting. In response, Kelly argues in her
curatorial selection for Three Perspectives on Photography
that documentary work need not be fixed, or tied to binary oppositions,
but may be critically reframed through an engagement with theory.
She believes that critical documentary photography can function
as a radical critique from within.
1980, Kelly, a native of Northern Ireland, left her full-time
teaching position in Manchester, England to accept a teaching
position as a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago. She described how, inspired by Alan Sekula's arguments,
she took his ideas about re-inventing documentary practice as
a challenge in her work. Although extremely influential for her,
Kelly argued that as an artist who takes pleasure in the process
of making work, Sekula's writings on photography created a critical
orthodoxy that elicits a division between thought and process.
The discussions of realism and the political implications of photographic
practice that have been generated by his work, while critical
to her own formative understanding of the politics of representation,
needed further explication. This theoretical simplification, as
she describes it, does not make contradictory ideas more comfortable.
In Kelly's opinion, there is no one single concept of realism.
She wanted to open up a space where visual pleasure and criticality
are not at odds. Her ideas on this subject are informed by the
writings of British cultural studies critic, Stuart Hall. As Kelly
summarized, for writers like Hall and photographers like Jo Spence,
photography is a political tool of intervention and action and
a form of articulation.
of her first moves at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
in 1980 was to teach a theme course that linked feminist theory
and photography practice. Kelly discovered that it was the first
time that such a theory/practice course was offered within a studio
program at the school. She was initially surprised to discover
that the concept of merging feminist theory and photographic practice
at the studio level seemed inconceivable or novel to the students,
even in a department and school highly regarded for experimentation
in the arts. Her own work now took on a more obvious political
dimension, as she turned to community based projects. She told
us that her perspective in these projects developed out of her
experience as a recent immigrant to the United States and her
experience of growing up under siege in Belfast.
showed images from her first major community-based project at
the Chrysalis Alternative School for girls. This large body of
work was generated after two years of photographing the girls
at the school. Kelly used a medium format camera often set up
on a tripod. Although the images may appear somewhat spontaneous,
Kelly wanted to be very present as the photographer. She stated
that she was attempting a collaborative work with this project,
particularly because the girls needed to make themselves available
to be photographed. Kelly had no desire to take the girls' voices
away from them. In many ways, this project developed specifically
as a dialogue with dominant 1980s photo documentary work, at a
time when all realist work in photography was suspect in the art
world. Kelly argued that it is the photographer's responsibility
to anchor and contextualize the work to ensure that the viewer
will not misread it. In her work, Kelly attempts to balance out
power. To do so, text by the girls pictured in the school is interspersed
with texts by contemporary feminist authors.
showed several portraits of the young girls in their environment.
The images depict the girls in the bathroom, in stairwells, and
in other sites at the school. Kelly photographed about seven of
the girls at home. In many of these images, their family members
were peripheral. Kelly wanted the girls themselves to be the focus
of the images. She detailed aspects of their everyday lives. She
said that this project is about young women growing up, seeking
their identities, and it forced her to consider who she was, and
what her role was there.
discussed two other community projects completed at about this
time. For the three-person exhibition, On the Edge of Shelter
held at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, she choose
to focus on homeless women who were victims of domestic abuse.
Kelly photographed at Rainbow House, a shelter in the city that
provides services and a refuge for women and children who were
made homeless through domestic violence. Kelly explained that
she had become acutely aware of each woman's lack of privacy.
Homeless children in particular lack the psychological space to
just be children. Kelly also said there was much waiting around
at these shelters. In her photographs, she wanted to capture some
of these elements, as well as make the issues more complex, by
addressing homelessness through the issue of domestic violence.
Kelly was playing with the viewer's expectations. In her opinion,
nowhere in the work is domestic violence or homelessness turned
into a spectacle for easy consumption. Through her choice of color
she attempts to seduce and at the same time distance the viewer,
to create an imaginary refuge from the repertoire of historical
images which portray the homeless and the abused without agency,
as documentary tropes.
also created Grandparents for The Children's Museum in
Chicago. This project consisted of photographs of different families,
donated photographs and various public and private artifacts.
With this work, Kelly explored how children can play an active
role in defining who they are and how their family is constructed.
her most recent projects, like Domestic Discomfort and
Sundays at Sea, Kelly described how her work is circulating
back around the locus of family and politics that she has been
considering over the past two decades. In these groups of images,
she presents the family album as a political site where, as an
Irish immigrant and a feminist, multiple meanings of home emerge.
The series Domestic Discomfort deals with the death of
Kelly's father, mother, and niece in a fire at her family home.
By manipulating, re-photographing, and enlarging family photographs,
Kelly hopes to open up the family album as a space for scrutiny.
She also re-inserts these family photographs and the events they
represent into her current life. The same day as Kelly's personal
tragedy, the Irish media and public were focused on the very public
and political funeral for three members of the IRA, from her neighborhood.
These two events coalesce in the series that reflects on grief,
sorrow, and the preservation of memories.
Sundays at Sea series is built up around images and artifacts
of Kelly's father. In this work in progress, she combines maps,
letters, documents, passports, and photographs--various items
found in a family trunk and in her father's notebooks. For Kelly,
these articles are not just signs, but are the material ephemera
of a life lived. They also document specific aspects and experiences
from her father's life. The maps, for example, represent ideas
about locating, dislocating, and the scientific use of maps. In
some ways, Kelly feels she is mapping the periphery in this project
in its expression of the everyday. For her, the work becomes an
archive of memory that functions on social, political, and autobiographical
her concluding remarks and in response to questions posed by the
audience, Kelly discussed her desire to merge theory and practice.
She stated that she had a particular distrust of photographers
who, in discussing their work, talk only about themselves. She
is generally frustrated with documentary photographers that uncritically
regurgitate cultural stereotypes. Documentary, she argued, is
not about style. It is about having an engaged photographic process.
According to Kelly, this kind of practice can come from developing
an understanding of the politics of representation and one's own
location within it. She wants to open things up, and not allow
the debate about documentary photography to be immovable.
by Joseph Sweeney
Kellys critical documentary work gives a broad vision of
what the word documentary can mean to an artist. In
her Chrysalis series, an image text-installation, she employs
documentary conventions to explore the lives of young women at
an alternative school in Chicago. The images are, as Kelly described
them, visually compelling photographs of the everyday, the
banal. They are quiet environmental portraits of young women
growing up, sometimes battling against harsh circumstances. One
young woman was homeless and suffering from leukemia. From the
slides shown, I did not sense that the girls were extraordinarily
different from those who would attend a more conventional public
school. Maybe the point of the documents is to show that these
women are no different in their complexity than many others in
their peer group, and that the events that brought them to be
at the school do not define them as the other. In
fact, Kelly recalled that memories of her teen years resurfaced
while doing this project. For her, the theme of growing up female
is both personal and political.
next body of work discussed was that of photographing women in
a Chicago shelter who were made homeless through domestic violence
. Serving as a dialog in opposition to familiar timeless black
and white representations of the homeless, domestic violence victim
associated with concerned photography, these large color images
address the specificity of maintaining ones sense of self
whilst living in a temporary shelter .
followed with a discussion of the hands-on installation project,
Grandparents, a permanent display at the Childrens
Museum, Chicago. Here the photographic document is displayed in
the form of the family snapshot along with artifacts from each
culturally diverse family. The audience was invited to contribute
their own pictures of grandparents, which caused the scope of
the show to grow, and allowed the audience a more immediate access
to this artistic and social endeavor.
next work, large scale mural photographs, Domestic Discomfort
examines the relationship between history and memory in the family
album, and serves as precursor to her current work, Sundays
work-in-progress, Sundays at Sea, is again rooted in the
family snapshot. After the tragic fire that claimed the lives
of Kelly's parents and a niece, the only thing found to have survived
the fire were old family photos, personal detritus and work-related
documents locked away in a metal sea trunk that had belonged to
her father. The content of the trunk --snapshots, letters, notebooks,
passports, shipping data-- are combined digitally with geographical
and astronomical charts and maps to create maps of Kellys
life, or perhaps the periphery or fading memories of her life.
Maps, as Kelly explained, have many uses. They are scientific
tools as well as images that can give one a sense of location,
a sense of place in the world. The presentation of the photographs
and maps contain few layers so that each image, the map and the
photo(s) and letters, still maintain much of their original look,
as they are layered upon each other in order to interact with,
but not to interfere with, one another. We are shown memories
of a childhood through the photos, and evidence of a fathers
absence and travels in the maps, which speaks to the desire of
the daughter to connect to the father. In the work, the daughter
and father are reunited spatially, bridging the gaps created by
what were temporary absences, and what is now a more permanent
Will the second half of the Sundays at Sea project continue
in the same fashion as the first part of the project?