In the Shadow of Things with Photographer Leonie Purchas

September 14, 2009

As one of our favorite and oft-used photographers, Leonie Purchas has graced the FADER with her probing, visceral portraits of Bat For Lashes, Little Boots and Tough Alliance, among others, and we've admired her personal work documenting families across the world and the ties that bind them. For her latest gallery show, though, she's taken on a more intimate subject: her own family. For In the Shadow of Things, she documented her mother's struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as she unpacked moving boxes that had been shelved and unopened for 12 years. In what must have been a difficult process for Purchas, she ended up truncating the distance between photographer and subject, in the process turning the camera into a sort of magic vessel for coping. It won her the KLM Paul Huf Award out of 81 nominees, and will exhibit through October 25 at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam as a result. After the jump, check out a few more images and read her artist's statement.

Leonie Purchas, In the Shadow of Things

Since graduating from LCC, I have been photographing the inner workings of families from different parts of the world. I began looking at the different ways people relate to each other within the formal structure of the family. My photography aims to celebrate the intimate moments of tenderness and private scenes of confrontation that take place constantly behind closed doors.

As my work progressed, I began to feel that despite the intimate access I was gaining to other people's lives, I was denying the importance of my own presence in the creation of the photographs. Last year I decided to turn the camera on myself. The work to date represents the first chapter in a project to photograph my own family.

In the Shadow of Things explores the life of my mother, Bron, whose first marriage began to fall apart when I was ten. When the divorce finally came through fourteen years ago, Bron and her new partner David moved to a new life. They live with their son Jake, in an isolated house at the end of a long dirt track, surrounded by fields and woodland in the south of England. For several years, Bron has suffered from depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which in her case manifests itself as a fear of dirt and contamination. OCD dominates Bron’s daily life to the extent that she finds it extremely difficult to deal with the demands of seemingly mundane household objects. My family moved house twelve years ago yet most of the boxes remain packed and sealed, on top of which piles of clothes, bags and ornaments have accumulated making many rooms unusable.

I offered to help my mother attempt to break through this overwhelming mountain of things with the tacit understanding that I would photograph the process. The work is a result of that bargain. For me it is a highly personal record of an intensely emotional journey. My family have shown great faith and courage by allowing me to plunge into this precious environment and open themselves so completely. By photographing from this vulnerable place, I am trying to close the distance that often separates photographer and subject. It is as though the camera acts as a key and a shield, granting access to a paradoxical world that is both terrifying and full of love at the same time, a world I thought I already knew but which continues to reveal itself.

Looking at my photographs from the last few months, I am able to see that in this short period of time, progress has been made — my mother is much better. There is less denial in our family about the extent and possible causes of the problems. Together we are finding a way through, which, I believe, would not have been possible without the photography. The discovery of its therapeutic potential has come as a revelation and is something I intend to push as far as possible in this project. I hope that, over time, the photographs, film and sound will effect, as well as document, a discovery of more space for people and life and less space for things.

In the Shadow of Things with Photographer Leonie Purchas