Shadow Dialling Studio

Wake; The Happy Gazebo; B&W handprint Collage; May 2019

This blog began as a way to document a body of work I’m developing with Belfast Exposed through an Artists career Enhancement scheme (ACES) grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Strengthening the way I work collaboratively was my reason to apply for the award. In particular I wanted to learn more about participatory practice. How could I weave other  experiences through my work in a meaningful way while maintaining the integrity of my overall visual arts practice?

Increasingly I’ve been combining the ideas in my main area of work ‘Shadow Dial Studies’ with my creative start up ‘Shadow Studio’. Shadow Studio developed from designing a portable DIY shadow kit and since 2012 I’ve been taking my kits around the UK and Ireland to festivals, art centres and schools to run workshops. I love working with a mix of age groups particularly older people and am curious about  how we experience growing older and approach the end of time on a daily basis, in effect exploring the experience of our finitude.

Most of my work takes place within Shadow Dial Studies. A research based practice that uses shadow catching as a photographic method to measure time and the impact it has on identity and memory. I regularly use shadow casting as a way to explore ideas yet never autobiographical aspects of myself or others. I decided to begin doing this with my Dad as my partner and planned to find participants who would work with us by partnering up with a friend or family member of a different age for the project.

I was delighted when Belfast Exposed said they would be happy to be my partner organisation and we got to work developing a proposal for an Arts Council Northern Ireland ACES award that combined Shadow Dial Studies with Shadow Studio.

 Originally the project was about how we establish identity through recording time. I was planning to explore it through looking at how photography reveals presence by capturing absences in stories eg: through negatives, shadows, shutters and the involuntary/sub conscious , and my methodology was based on shadow catching. 

“One’s relationship to one’s own shadow -which is not the same as oneself, which one does not own, but which is an inescapable attribute and accompaniment, was for me a memorable conundrum. A midpoint between between a familiar self and the otherness of the rest of the world. It is both of one and separate from one’. Wiliam Kentridge, In Praise of Shadows, 2009 p20.


Dust to dust

Studio windowsill; April 2018; Digital C type

Little did I know that this project, and in fact my whole practice, was primed to be about grief and mourning and the stupefying shock of absence.

Suddenly and unexpectedly my Dad died while out on his motorbike. Throughout the unforgiving bafflement of his wake I photographed. The closing shutter satisfied the incessant mental searching. The rush of photographic process defined and structured (my) loss. I drew back from my plans for Shadow Dialling Studio as working with him sat firmly in another life.

Within a fortnight of his funeral I installed an exhibition in CCA that had been planned months before. At the opening night as I watched my three key pieces; Cinders, Dust and  Blue Room shadow maps, I could finally feel connected again.

The Shock of Now; Wake; The Happy Gazebo; B&W hand printed collage; May 2019

I was used to (my) photography being swathed in theory underpinned with references to death , but never this way round, (my fathers) death, my state of grief swathed in theories of photography. I wanted proof of ghosts when he died, I got instead,  proof of photography. I have never been so grateful for it, the medium was all I wanted , or needed to work with.

The original project rapidly reformed and refocused to use and understand the process of photography as a tangible form of mourning and a container/ its containment of grief. Through working with the absence of my Dad rather than with ‘him’, I realised the traumatic, rapid and radical shift in my reality had not shifted Shadow Dialling Studio away from its original core concern. The subject matter has changed but the underpinning ideas were the same. As I re worked the project proposal I knew I needed to make work slowly and in a very solitary way while craving to know how others coped with loss, how did they grieve, how did they mourn. When I was able to formulate what was going on into words I wrote a revised project proposal; “The main works in progress are now in three parts to reflect my sense of folded time; Future, present and past i) Foreboding; ii) The shock of Now; iii) Absent History”.

Absent History; Motorbike trip; Scanned snapshot 1990s

Negative Space

Shock of the Now; View from the wake room; contact sheet frame
The Shock of the Now iv
Pareidolia; the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

I’ve always loved working with negative space, the area of absence naturally overlooked, the parts that can get cut out.

Looking through the wake contact sheets he suddenly appeared in full life and gait towards me with a familiar tilt of his head, pleased to see me.  Although he stands smaller, his scale skewed like a noon time shadow will do. I pursued and searched for him nonetheless, comfort, not from a truth this time but finding relief in a disbelief. I printed the image, and still saw him, I traced the shape to isolate it, I enlarged the scans on Photoshop, deriving a satisfying short lived comfort in the chase, choosing , then not choosing to see him, enjoying that I couldn’t unsee it; I cleaved to the words of William Kentridge; “It is not a mistake to see a shadow in the clouds”.

Tracing the negative space from contact sheet; 3rd attempt
Tracing the negative space from contact sheet; 4th attempt
Tracing the negative space from contact sheet; 5th attempt

Death Mask

Shock of Now iii; Trace

’The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent.  From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant’. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida p80.

Shock of Now; Death Mask; Light box tracing; graphite on tracing paper

The lines on his face, distinctive, deep lines for such a youthful looking man, around his eye brow, more fitting the more years went on, hard to describe without cliché, lines on a face. Indelible presence of past. But these were so material/physical, they looked drawn on. And the eyebrows bushy, unruly at times, I loved his commitment to them (in relation to the barber always keen to tidy them).

Speed combined with a surreal slow urge to record his face, the aperture opened slowly as the shutter closed, theories of indexicality piping up through the roaring rows of grief, lined up and waiting their turn for my attention. An exhausted drive, necessary and definite focus. All the official wake and funereal actions at that time were futile, rituals, processes, to let him go, to help us let him go. Three days (left) of intense importance. I futilely wanted to keep him. I collected all I could. My mum surprised me, she said do what I needed to do before the wakers arrived. Stories of death masks were already settled in my head from my first reading of Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, the idea made sense and that was what I was making. I knew my trace would be the etch of quiet spring light reflecting from his face onto film, and I wanted to keep the lines filled with it. I used to sit opposite him at the table, I’d consciously admired and wondered at those distinctive lines. I wanted to trace them then, an itchy unaddressed  wish.

Afterwards the image was the most terrible, the most true and the most calming. Again theories, photographic theory rose to the surface as the questioned truth of photography startled me with its innocence. I gave thanks for my belief that its indexical aspect could indeed render the photograph faithful to its referent.

“It is the indexical aspect of the photographic sign, located as it is in a preserved moment of time, that allows these movements to take place across the boundaries between the material and the spiritual, reality and magic and between life and death.” – Laura Mulvey

Dark tributaries filled to the brim with light from those days of waking. Tracing these lines was like tracing a shadow map. In my original work plan, I had intended to trace his shadow map, instead I found tracing those lines were the shadow lines and my process, tracing a live line moving away from me, pulled by the light of the sun,(cruel resonance again), much like death, evasive always under the threat of fading lines, strong resonance working, following a line, feeling foolish, futile. Always under threat of fading.

The image I took still brings comfort, stemming from the comfort and relief of having his body returned. The same day after the relief of going to where his soul had left it on the mountain. This need for the material, the physical… I always thought I would rely more on the spiritual (not the material) remains, there was more than the body to pursue. No, having him dead and his body remote instilled a surge of initial panic , then the importance, validity of the body thrived, and in this surge of realisation I planned to photograph the light from his face. I wanted the air from this room, where he had been so present resting in this absent state, captured. (I still shudder and question my depth of character at this material need, to gather, to have, to keep…). The reality of, the presence of, the unbelievable absence so evident in his corpse. The horrible comfort, the desire to go to the room when it was empty of wakers; early in the morning, late in the evening.

Did it speak at some level to my rage…Unacceptance? Rage. This was truth and the truth was terrible, calming. Below my grief. Before being buried, this place still contained him. Speaking to my denial? The meeting of two truths. Unwillingly moving in a new world. In this layered path the two truths met and reconciled something. I knew it would happen, it had happened. It will be. Calm. I had known all along. About finitude. Why then, so shocked like this? Stupefying grief.

Ref. CS lewis quote re: truth and terrible thoughts, ‘Don’t speak to me of consolation, or faith or worse, both together’.

It began here, this certainty of photography, in the way many find certainty of faith through a death, photographic theory, the role a photograph can play settled me. The corpse settled me. A distant security. Commitment to this medium. Medium, how tempted I was for a medium to contact him to correspond, I gathered air and light, as much as I could, 24 120mm frames, 36 35mm frames. Still a modest amount, each morsel was heavy-weighted and valuable.

The Shock of Now i-ii

Testaments i; The garden during his wake; the mountain where he died
Testaments i; Funeral; test strip collage; 2020

In the first full bloom of spring. Both beautiful, dear and familiar places I rushed to. Really rushed to by slow flight as slow shock descended. I was searching and recording as the wake settled into the house.  Building up a cache of films and files, but I wasn’t present when he parted and I couldn’t find him beyond his waked body. I kept gathering evidence to hoard and scrutinise, too afraid to develop the footage.

“Trauma is stored in bits and pieces in the brain, it is important to create a  narrative to store it properly, when you put words to it and hear those words you can store it better”. Dr Rachel Gibbons; Good Grief Festival; workshop on traumatic loss 2020 

I wanted to agree but the narrative sank deeper on my bones and it didn’t sit right.

Then finally in the winter printing began in the darkroom, in a steady, stunned relief, finally watching them emerge in welcomed images. It pained, comforted and controlled me in equal measure, a desperate calm tearing and a strong, pointless pull. 

A series of test strips of my family house during the wake, and from the mountain where he died, they hung dutifully from clothes pegs in my darkroom.


I saw them from the corner of my eye and turned to look a long time, the test strips made sense to my fractured mind, partly because of their  own split and  fractured state. But fractured for a purpose, with a direction. It was helpful how they fitted the splintered thin thoughts, images flicking across my mind now. They fitted, nothing else did.  Finding something that fits a fractured situation is a huge relief, gives it a place… legitimising. Legitimising like a theory. Like a process. Test strips, what are they?  Tests, the simplest experiment, to answer questions; How much time do I need to see this picture clearly? How much light will be right? What cut from this scene will each reveal? Which slice of time will my random framing have exposed? As I stared at them hanging by clothes pegs, involuntary coherent  images settled into my vision at last.

Testaments ii; The Happy Gazebo; scattered shadows, baffled house


Fore-bode/beforehand/gathering /make aware/correspondence/casting shadow/

Fore-bode/beforehand/gathering/make aware/correspondence. I lived with a foreboding, not the same as the ingrained familiar dread of losing him since discovering death and finitude as a child,  this was a new strong, deep and distracting  forebode….on and off since early 2018 but steadily gaining pace and momentum until it suddenly subsided 2 weeks before he died. I’d been preoccupied about it, it snapped into my attention in various ways; it fed a PhD proposal,  composed a collage depicting an abstract separation. Reminds me now of a latent image, exposed unseen, waiting to develop and become fixed. It was there, a need to prepare for this loss, his loss, the loss of him, gather stories and collate, analyse memories, I tried to shake it off, but meanwhile these creatures cut for shadow casting appeared from my scissors, designed as shadows for a deep layered 2D forest. They didn’t serve my PhD proposal or any other project so they never moved past being pinned on a sheet of graph paper on my studio wall, they were left waiting, un-cast until a few months ago. Now I recognise them as foreboders, gathering to correspond.

“We owe ourselves to death. What a sentence. Will it be more or less sententious for being fixed or focused on in this way by a lens or an objective, as if one were to let it sink back just as soon, without any celebration, into the anonymity of its origin? <….>The sentence took me by surprise, as I said, but I knew right away that it must have been waiting for me for centuries , lurking in the shadows, knowing in advance where to find me” Jacques Derrida, Athen, Still Remains, The photographs of Jean Francois Bonhomme, Still I p4

I cast them on a screen, looming silently as a set of quasi-prehistoric anthropomorphic forms,  now growing into outlines, in vigilance, in  correspondence with ancestral versions of themselves. Now fading into  layers of shadow, cutting, focal length and perspective. Shadow distance betraying their form as they know they can only be clearly seen fully through a glance or a long angled stare. Watching them made the shock feel less severe, silently showing me that my unease with disjointed time had made sense. Instilling an impossible faith in an irrational ability to know or see things before they happen. Within that huge landscape, I was viewing the projection and placement of my own present in a past and future. 

Absent History i-ii

i) Scanned snapshots photos from 1980’s-90’s 
Found photo; On site; Invisible light beams; 1980s

“….A misunderstanding;  I thought I could describe a ‘state’; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history”. CS Lewis; A Grief Observed, p47

It is a process, I agreed but I needed a history that could serve as a map. Past, present and future fiercely bonded together. Fear of you not being here had always lurked. Anger for allowing it to taint the security of knowing you were there rose up. Frustration that years of dread now served me no protection. There had been no preparation, no understanding, no acceptance.

There was however a continuance, this realised fear was familiar, I could link up episodes from the past and plot future ones orientated from my vantage point of absolute loss. Lost and in need of some history. I did have a solid collection of books and essays centring around death and mourning, it always had been firmly on my radar. I took direction reading what others thought and followed flights of gut feelings about random photographs from the past albumed in my mind as significant.

Absent History i; Tomb

Found tombstone

I rummaged and found one of these photographs, the negative of an old colour snapshot taken in the Glasgow Necropolis. Me, perched on a large tomb. Confident in my place there. I had pointed to it from the entrance of the cemetery and said ‘I want my photograph taken by that one’. We hiked up to discover what I almost expected – the name on the tomb, John Henry Alexander, contained my fathers name. Thrilled, I couldn’t wait to tell him about it, the coincidence delighted us, he even went to visit it himself.

My intensified pull to find proof in photography brought this thrill of coincidence back. What is the link between a coincidence, a ‘concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection‘ and a death? A correspondence, feeding a draw or a pull for contact? This rush and thrill was the opposite of grief; it was a certainty, there was more to find, keep us connected, if this concurrence could be futuristic…it adhesed to my colliding sense of time and loss.

Proof of the invisible, of intangible links are there for the tracing in photography. If I had a hope of connection it might lie here. Much like my sighting of his negative space, I took the unassuming shadows of a negative and began a chase, driving the content of this poor quality image deep into the darkroom. Using high contrast settings, home made filters to translate the light to desaturated tones, extra sweet wrappers to lift out even more contrast and exaggerated cropping, I waited for the negatives weak proof to break or bloom. It was satisfying process, exploring and interrogating the truth of a photograph, yet resulted in suspended findings, neither proving nor disproving its own evidence.

Absent History ii: Passenger

Absent history ii; Passenger; B&W collage in progress; reprinted from snapshot negatives

Since a child always secure as his pillion passenger, motorbike trips were brimmed with security, and always that insecurity; a security that fed insecurity somehow. As I wrote before, I knew it would happen, it had happened. It will be. Calm. I had known all along. About finitude. Why then, so shocked like this? Stupefying grief riddles me.

I look stupefied in the test strip now, set beside him in a quick collage, tricking myself that we both looked at a phantom photographer, each with our own motorbike telling the photographer we knew, we could see them in their absence. Me baffled, unsure, him relaxed, sure, both merged as photographer and photographed, visibly present and absent at once.

Absent History iii-iv

Absent History iii; Expectancy

Fragments of iPhone film footage during pregnancy 2016

Notes  for film;

14 Jan 2016; “Martha and Tommy’s  ear buds were opening the week that David Bowie died. The first music they heard was one of his tracks I think Ziggy Stardust or Life on Mars.” 12 April 2016; “Hand shake I-III; Sun, sparkles too close to see them ; Wind, Tolling bell and moving curtain ; Wind, swimming suit and line.”

Scenes 1-4 ; Snow, Wind, Believing. Watching

1/Snow hitting my window pane at home; tapping, happy signs. My first sighting of snow that winter. 2/Wind, tolling bell and moving curtain. Energy of a constrained, contained shadow the wind, billowing the speed of the wind, resisting the beat of the bell tolling the hour away. I resisted the wind buffeting my billowing body. 3/Believing in the certainty of the boat crossing the entirety my frame; sun sparkles too close to see, or believe, until the film was shot and replayed. Needing to record the inevitable outcome to prove (or simply see?) the certainty; The boat will sail to the edge of the frame. 4/Watching my pregnant cast shadow the day before due delivery, anxious watch for kicks… watching for them as shadows felt more calming than in my moving skin. A necessary distance. An expected separation?

Absent History iv; Remember

Fragments of stories from before my time {post in progress}

‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. <….> But what particularly frightened him was the sight of the brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.” p1 Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Stories my Dad had told me, all containing elements that intrigued, saddened or amazed us both.  These are the hardest to complete now, with only a framework of fragments, filed as remembered conversations. With no material recordings, checked detail or exact locations, how to process a list of intangible, received memories?

Stories; Greetings, Messengers, Delivery, Burial Jacket

1)His childhood ghost story, shared with three friends, of being greeted by a man along the road home, who they later heard had died earlier that day.  2) The dogs howling at my Granny’s home place in Donegal the night she died in Omagh, so persistently that John her brother knew a soul must be leaving. 3) The same close call of a delivery issue I had with my daughter, my Granny’s namesake, the night she was giving birth to my Dad. My Grandad cycled from Trencha to a doctor in Letterkenny, via the local doctor who didn’t help, we were to re trace the route. 4) His cousin Jimmy, sent from the same home place to a psychiatric hospital. Always close to Martha, Jimmy’s words as they left him in the ward; “Marta – I don’t want to die here”… “He had to be buried wearing my jacket” Dad told me with his voice cracking. Quiet significance rang in my listening ears. The jacket of an alive man buried, there in the ground, a subdued shock held a significance I couldn’t reach and a sorrow I wanted to exorcise somehow.

By tracking these pathways, orientating their line between presence and absence. Following dead ends to what end? Balancing visible against invisible, material against immaterial, an active pursuit of absent clues. With a reluctant reliance on memory and imagination, tall pillars of hope on bereaved foundations.