Issue 40 / January 2012

Shapes in the Dark: Ossian Brown is captivated by found images of Hallowe'ens past

Haunted Air Jacket.jpg

Part of the thrill of collecting is that you don't know where it will lead. I didn't immediately realise I was creating a book. Haunted Air happened in secret, when I wasn't looking. By the time the book became a possible idea to play with, I'd already been collecting the pictures for many years. In subject matter and implications, too, the route has taken me through unexpected terrain. It's thrilling, and also disturbing, not knowing where you're going, following shades and their outstretched gauze-clad hands. Hallowe'en cannot always be so easily corralled into the cute and the spooky. The shapes the dark can take are sometimes uncomfortably up-to-date.

There's one particularly terrifying picture in my book, a photograph that came very late to me. When I saw it, the implications of the image felt like a fist in my chest. I could hardly breathe. I still freeze when I look at it. The figure, displayed before us with its tall conical hat and blacked-up face, arms held wide apart, the body enveloped in a plastic sack dress, conjours up memories of the horrific pictures of torture and humiliation from Abu Ghraib. The power of this ghostly pre-echo is unsettling, like a black angel of death in front of us, haunting America. It provokes other memories too, of an ugliness in America's past, further and deeper back: lynchings and slavery, the Ku Klux Klan. There's a real clawing darkness here which devastates me every time I look, rooted there in the solemn expression, the sorrowful eyes.

Haunted Air 2

The picture was taken in a studio, professionally composed, which is unusual because the majority of the photographs in my collection are snapshots taken by amateurs. But the power of this particular image meant I couldn't possibly exclude it from Haunted Air.

Another photograph that I find evocative and disturbing, in a similar premonitory way, is of a group of figures lined up on their knees in front of a huge American flag. It's hard to see this today without thinking of terrorist videos, as if those who are kneeling, each of them masked, veiled or hooded, are about to be beheaded. It's as though some terrible atrocity is about to occur in front of us.

Haunted Air 3

There are a number of pictures in the book that have this effect, where a darkness shakes you, clings to you, sets a lunar chill on your heart.

For almost ten years I've been collecting these extraordinary photographs, and as each new picture has appeared I've wondered just how many more there could be. One after another they came, cold on each other's tails, like an endless phantom carriage of skeletons and spectres, all of them shaking their death rattles at me.

And in their monstrous and demented number, there's a melancholy, with each photograph ripped from a family album, sometimes with no care at all. Torn and crumpled, perhaps sold in a long-forgotten house clearance, after the owner had died. Others sold in markets, let go of by unsentimental family members, sold on by dealers, ending up thousands of miles away. All of them lost and stranded, severed from anything that could connect them to home, to the faces behind the masks. Only the locations, or the odd small notes written on the back, the occasional names or dates, offer clues. Sometimes even these notes are opaque and enigmatic. One haunting example that springs to mind reads, "Oh you kids with the heavy eyes".

There's one special photograph that I find incredible, not just in composition and lighting but in how charged and alive it feels. It has a terrifying comedic horror. The madness and cartoon terror this picture evokes completely absorb me. There's nothing to break the spell. In its completeness and perfection it feels claustrophobic, there's no window of escape. When I look, I'm in awe of the beauty of it, but I also find myself engulfed by this awful nightmare spectacle: a hulking monstrous figure, his huge lidless eyes like empty moons, seemingly 'caught in the act' abducting a little girl. Dragged from the safety of her home, away from her family, stolen away into the blackness. The scene is illuminated as if by a passing car's headlights, or a spotlight, the figures frozen as though caught in a criminal act. It's deeply unsettling but absolutely magical. No matter how many times I look at the pictures, this one in particular never ceases to astound me.

Haunted Air 1

Each picture has its own private magic, but taken in sequence, gathered together as they are, they become a phantom community, an immersive haunted universe filled with family grotesques, nightmarish with their melting cartoon heads. Bone chimeras, diabolical phantoms, mutant children posing with the shrouded dead, delinquent boys in corpse and bat drag, dwarf crones holding black balloons, lonely wraiths and strays...

You can never anticipate exactly how each new arrival is going to illuminate and empower the others. You know they'll speak to each other, in some way, but the picture that builds up is bigger and more complex than you could anticipate. Watching it take shape, I know that it could probably go on forever.

Haunted Air by Ossian Brown, with an introduction by David Lynch, is published by Jonathan Cape

Thursday, 28 October, 2010

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