Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Nicky Bird - Tracing Echoes

This is one of the books recommended by my tutor in his feedback to assignment 1. Photographer, Nicky Bird, works with found photographs, researching their origins and forgotten histories, and makes new work in response to what she discovers. The book, Tracing Echoes, looks at the work of photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, taken in and around her home on the Isle of Wight.

The book is fairly slim and begins with an introduction that comments on the often dismissive attitude of Victorian society towards women photographers. They were defined as "amateurs" and the rigid class structure made it difficult for middle and upper class women to operate as professionals in many spheres of life. Cameron appeared to be quite feisty though and needed to earn an income despite what her contemporaries thought. Her self proclaimed title of "artist" neatly circumvented many of the issues and although she still had many detractors her style was popular and was able to sell a lot of her work.

The book is a mixture of reproduced plates of Cameron's portraits and Bird's own work. I really enjoyed the two images of Cameron's home, Dimbola Lodge, as it was and as it now is. There is something very satisfying at being able to compare two images taken so far apart in time and really look at the changes that have taken place. These photographs come under the heading of, "Mapping the House," and other images show the current interior/exterior (a sort of sparsely furnished museum) with the public and private spaces showing their different functions - I particularly like the image of the open plan-press highlighting some of the Cameron prints.

The whole book is an investigation into the past and cleverly shows the timeline of searches that have been done to try and uncover some of the descendants of the original portraits. This is the interesting bit. Cameron took a number of images of her servants and local working class people that happened to appear on her radar. Mostly they are dressed in costumes thought up by Cameron as motifs to represent classical/biblical or moral tales as was popular at that time. Bird has investigated the locations (such as a portrait taken by a front gate) and either re-created or re-interpreted an image in response. The searches sometimes threw up some of the descendants and sometimes they led to a dead end. The portraits are grouped into the headings, "Dialogues" or "Echoes," that show whether she managed to find a living relative or used a stand-in instead. I like that, as an artist, Bird is not hindered by the dead-end searches and used her creativity to continue with her artistic process. The works that link to an original sitter/descendant relationship provide the dialogue with the past in a scientific manner. The sitter/stand-in ones open up the viewer to wider questions - as Bird mentions in a transcript of a Q/A session in the book,

[...the portraits I call the "Echoes" series  are speculative works, suggesting possibilities (that the descendants of the women are out there somewhere.) This runs parallel with my attempt to make contact with the actual descendants, which are represented both in the "Dialogue" diptychs, and the "Genealogy Searches."] (Bird, 2001.)

I think there's an interesting correlation between the artistic processes of the two photographers. Bird's stand-ins remind me that Cameron's original sitters themselves were "dressed up" to represent something other than they actually were (working class-servants that may or may not have been happy to collaborate with their employers wishes.) Bird's stand-ins appear to me to be almost a continuation or response to this process. I'm also reminded of the fact that portraits should never be taken at their face value and are mostly a construct of the photographer's own mind.


Bird, N. (2001) 1st edition. Tracing Echoes. Leeds, UK: Wild Pansy Press.


  1. Looks very interesting and I'd already made a note to read up more on Bird's work.

  2. Hi Catherine,

    Yes, it is an interesting book. I've also just received another by the the same photographer from the library and will be posting about if soon.

    I've corrected my mix up on the use of ancestor/descendant in my post - must have been a bit confusing to read! I seem to have brain fog these days when it comes to not spotting errors!