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Conversations with my mother, by Jessa Fairbrother

1 October 2016

After a degree in English, studying at drama school and then working as a journalist and lecturer in photography, Jessa Fairbrother completed an MA in Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster in 2010. She used this as a springboard to concentrate on yearning and performance meeting each other in photography.

These varied experiences informed her move towards an increasingly interdisciplinary approach to making work. She has gradually shifted from appearing within the image as its main subject to additionally embellishing the photograph’s surface after the event. The familiar and personal are her starting points, while recurring behaviours shaped by memory, role-play and visual consumption make repeated appearances in long term projects.

Publications include Spot magazine, Telephoto, Eyemazing, .Cent magazine and Blown. Awards include a travel bursary from a-n The Artist Information Company, UK (2016), the Genesis Imaging Award, Format Festival, UK (2013) and honourable mentions from PX3, Paris (2014) and Flash Forward, Canada (2009).

In 2004 her long term project on memorial benches in Pembrokeshire was supported by a grant from the Arts Council of Wales. Her work is held in the libraries of both the V&A Museum, London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the permanent collection of the NHS, and numerous private collections. Jessa’s work is currently on show in Handmade III at Anzenberger Gallery, Vienna. Conversations with my mother is a limited edition artist book available to view online here. The dummy was recently on display as part of the First/Dummy Books table from Photobook Bristol at Gazebook Festival, Sicily. In 2016 she was awarded a bursary by a-n The Artist Information Company to enable her to travel to New York where she has been invited to speak about Conversations with my mother this month.

Untitled (with funeral flowers)

A few years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I dropped everything to go and look after her. My instinct was to try to photograph her “more than normal” - but I felt really mean asking. I didn’t want to make it seem like I was trying to record images of her just because she was about to die. Her illness coincided with my own fertility unravelling and I sought ways of connecting myself to a maternal narrative which was being abruptly severed in two directions; both our bodies failing in different ways. I struggled with the process of losing such a significant figurehead - the source of all I had learned about how to be a woman - and how I had little possibility of it going ahead for me as a mother myself.

A few times we photographed each other, taking it in turns to point the camera. This picture was from one such occasion. She had just washed her hair - such a poignant thing because she was having chemotherapy and it very quickly fell out: photographs are toxic reminders as well as nostalgic ones. I don’t remember what possessed me to start intervening with the prints themselves. Not long before she died I began soaking photographs I had made of her by leaving them outside in the wheelbarrow for several days, peeling off the emulsion before burning or sewing into them. There was something very urgent and necessary about picking up this object and destroying it in some way. I started to embroider them, or cut into them. The image here is a C-type print incorporating the funeral flowers which I kept, using the dried seed-heads inserted straight into the surface. It’s a three dimensional and very delicate object - as are many of the pieces in the series as a whole. Her face is obscured because I felt I didn’t want to show too much of how the illness affected her.

Eventually all of this work developed into Conversations with my mother which I have produced as a limited edition artist book. The purpose of thread, mark-making and stitch became central to my practice about this time, as I physically started to pierce and extend the image-object beyond a single time and space. There is something very important about that for me - a photograph that can be stretched beyond one moment.

A few months after my mother died I took what I had made so far to Format Festival in Derby, early in 2013. I shouldn’t have done it really - I was still in a terrible state of shock. I just had this feeling I needed to get on with something and maybe I would get useful feedback - which I did. I had taken all these fragments in boxes, packed up in a huge bulky portfolio… And then Mark Foxwell awarded me a prize from Genesis based on what I had taken to the festival. That support made me realise it must be of interest and I kept going. Eventually several trusted friends nudged me to make the artist book, copies of which are now in the Hirsch Library at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the National Art Library at the V&A Museum, London.

See more work by Jessa Fairbrother

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