There is a picture hanging in my house – actually it’s a photograph that’s been enlarged to about 18 inches – and it’s dreadful. Not for what it depicts, because what it depicts is so uninteresting, but for just about everything else.
It’s a landscape. In the foreground a small tree, skinny and almost leafless and in the background a wending tributary. The sky is almost colourless, there is no relief, no shadows and it is, as I said, dreadful. My wife found it in a thrift shop a few months ago and insisted it hang in our living room. I can’t imagine why.
Someone had long ago taken the time to put it into a frame, which incidentally has more character than the thing it holds. They have also scribbled, in a somewhat shaky hand, the words ‘A view of the Add from Bellanoch, 1988’ on the back of it. I know the place because I live nearby. The river Add runs for some miles from a loch in the hills then empties out into the sea near the Scottish island of Jura. The area surrounding the river is a raised bog, accumulations of organic matter piled upon one another for over 5,500 years but still close enough to sea level in that it never dries out. Its name is the Moine Mhor – The Great Moss and is home to a unique biodiversity, all of which are completely absent in the ‘photo.
There are no birds visible in its’ monotone sepia – no sign of life, no clouds, not a shred of character. It does, however, feature a small structure just behind the nutrient deficient branches of the tree – a shed of some sort, small and with a corrugated metal roof. In fact, it’s the only thing to stand out as the low-lying vestiges of sunlight kick off the tin. A rime of frost and snow lurks on the browned grass nearby, adding to its’ bleakness. I feel cold just looking at it.
So, I ask myself, what could have driven someone to not only capture such a grim place but to go to the trouble of sourcing the frame to display it?
Perhaps it wasn’t meant as a landscape at all. Maybe it was someone’s memory of a place and they wanted to capture that memory, preserved in time. It got me thinking. Maybe not a memory at all but something more sinister.
A message. A spot where a terrible secret lay – perhaps beneath the spindly arms of that tree that begins to acquire a hand-like quality in the fading light. Beckoning.
And there’s something else down there by the crook of the shed, something lighter than its’ surroundings. I discern what I think is a nose and the dark hole of an eye, the whole facing to the right, looking at – nothing. Or something out of view. It could just as easily be a rock, like those fuzzy pictures of ‘faces’ on Mars that come up from time-to-time.
What is the significance of the shed? And why there, in the middle of a bog? Who goes out in winter to a bog to take a photo of a dying tree and a decaying piece of metal and then frames it?
I decide to take it out of the frame. Not easily done because it is sealed up with old tape, then nails (18 of them!) before I can release it from its’ thirty year- old prison. A waft of age like an ancient piece of clothing comes with it as I lift it free of the mount. It is even more stark, made more so by the many tiny scratches, evidence of dust in the photographer’s equipment. The tree branches seem longer now, reaching up to and beyond the edge of the photographic paper and in their multitude weavings I can see other shapes too, a face, mouth agape and an owl, wings spread.
But that’s it; there’s nothing else to see. Whatever story was trying to be told, I don’t understand it. And maybe I am not required to. As I place it carefully back into its’ glass-fronted cell, it occurs to me that I was never intended as the recipient of this frozen piece of time. It wasn’t mine to question and probe or discover. It felt the same as trying to put my soul into a stranger’s head then understand their life. Alien. What does it matter that they found beauty in something that I did not? I did not have the right to be contemptuous of another’s personal vision, private and not meant for my eyes.
Finally, I hang the photo back on the wall and step back from the Frost-weathered tree and its’ accompanied frozen landscape of ochre.
For someone in some place in time, this was a thing of beauty.