“The portrait of my daughter reproduced on this book’s cover reflects a tradition I both resisted and longed for… This would be one of the final pictures we would make together before she would depart for college… to form her own experiences…”
So writes Raymond Meeks in his afterword to Somersault. It’s a book of remembrance and longing, but also of a shift into a new way of seeing somebody who is so close to you. It’s about breaking through the boundaries of parental nostalgia, of seeing your child move away from home and become an adult, having a distance come between you, and feeling yourself change in the process as that distance becomes a new closeness.
That’s what I see in those words, and that is also what I see in the pictures, a series of images of Meeks’ daughter Abbey, mixed with pictures made as Meeks traverses the routes around his home.
That cover image shows Abbey standing by a rose bush, her right hand in her cardigan pocket, her left hand holding a flower, perhaps one of the roses blossoming on the bush beside her. Her right knee is bent forward. It’s an awkward pose, a halfway pose between just being awkward and adopting a generic teenager’s posing stance. That’s one side of the picture. The other side is her face which has an expression of introspective serenity. There are two people in that picture. There’s expression in there and a stillness as she stares down into her father’s camera. She’s in the picture, but she’s already somewhere else and that ambiguity is perfectly expressed in that pose-expression split.
Abbey appears repeatedly throughout the book in similar non-decisive moments that have a quiet off-kilter edge to them. These aren’t the kind of wilfully awkward poses that are the ultimate accursed legacy of Sultan and Mandel’s wonderful Evidence, but rather images of another world, another consciousness, one in which Meeks is fading away into the background.
The gentle sadness of this sentiment is reprised through grey images of the surrounding landscape, of end-of-year nature flailing limbs of growth hither and thither, of trees outgrowing houses, of smashed down fences. There are river bends, bent tree branches, destroyed environment of wires, pipes, and plastic bags – it’s a harsh world out there.
But in the background there are timber houses raised above the ground, old magnolia trees, and borders where half trimmed lawns transition into untamed undergrowth. Amidst all these, occasional colour images pop up; pictures of oxeye daisies with petals falling back onto the stem, burnt by early frosts, there are walnuts (I think) splitting on the branch, just waiting to fall and for the flesh to peel off.
The final portrait of the book shows Abbey photographed through low growing grass. It spreads blurred across her face as she drops her shoulders, her hands and her neck. Her legs are braced and it’s as though she’s waiting for something.
Perhaps that something she is waiting for is a visit from her older self, the person she is already starting to become. And that’s what she gets as the book ends with a text by Abbey as she looks back at these images. “I see a girl who wants something more for herself, but doesn’t yet know what that might be.” She sees a girl who “…is trying. She is lost, wandering, taking her time. She’s not unlike those trees and grasses. Swaying, existing, growing slowly. Knowing and not knowing. She wants to climb on a train and go where it takes her. I am very much still her, somehow.”
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
Raymond Meeks : Somersault, Mack, 2021, 72 pages, £35.