Embroidering Photographs of the Dead

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Embroidering Photographs of the Dead

There are a number of artists working with embroidery and appropriated imagery at the moment. Many of these artists make use of old (‘vintage’) photographs.

Following on from some new work I’ve been creating it’s interesting to note how these images are received. They are frequently regarded as aesthetically pleasing, commentators and bloggers draw our attention to the way in which the brightly coloured threads, and often geometric forms and straight lines, bring vibrancy to these black and white or sepia images.

Artists and commentators also comment on the way in which these photographs are transformed into something new; giving them a new lease of life even.

It’s not only the color of the thread that stands out against these old monochromatic images, but it’s form as well. Thread is tactile. It punctures and protrudes from the surface of flat photographic image.

Vintage embroidered photographs by Maurizio AnzeriMaurizio Anzeri – Leopold

Julie Cockburn is one such artist who is described by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian as an artist who “obliterates the faces with embroidery – and injects them with new life”.

According to Nandita Raghuram the artist herself says that she is “perhaps adding what seems to be hidden there or missing, unspoken”. By stitching over parts of these photographs the artist is creating her own narratives. She takes away a piece of the original image, hiding it beneath, and replacing it with her own stitches.

While Cockburn embroiders geometric cages around the heads of the people pictured in the photographs that she finds, Maurizio Anzeri (pictured above) creates more organic looking mask-like forms with thread. O’Hagan says of these images that “here, the poignancy that attends all discarded photographs – remnants of another time, another life of which we know nothing – is literally covered over”.

Mana Morimoto embroidered photographs Embroidered photograph of Frida Khalo by Mana Morimoto

It’s interesting to note that the commentary on these works is wholly positive; the photographs are “given a new lease of life” by the embroidery, they are “brought to life”, “given a new sense of vibrancy”.

Yet these photographs have all been defaced, and in many instances the identity of the subjects has been erased by these artists’ interventions. Cockburn admits that she gets a rush of adrenalin when starting a new piece –

it’s an exciting moment when the intervention starts and I commit to the defacement.

Perhaps it’s the transgressive nature of the act of defacement that causes this adrenalin rush? After all, knowing that one is breaking the rules can be exhilarating!

Embroidered fashion magazine pageEmbroidered photograph by Jose Romussi

Somehow, the knowledge that these photographs were created outside of our current time allows us to detach ourselves from them.

Photographs are ubiquitous today. We are constantly bombarded with new images through media, and social media channels. As soon as images are posted up on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook accounts they’re outdated already, lost to the constant stream of new updates. So how long do we spend looking at these images? Do we ever really consider them fully, if at all, beyond the initial aesthetic impact?

So if we have learned to treat photographs so fleetingly is it a surprise that these ‘vintage’ images are regarded as little more than a vehicle for artists to create something new? After all these photographs have been forgotten about, lost to the stream of time have they not? Living memories of the subjects of these photographs will be few and far between and so there is no one to offend by defacing these images of the dead. The photographs are treated as objects rather than memorials.

How far back then do we have to travel in order to detach ourselves from these images, to de-personalise them in order to consider them aesthetically or artistically?