Ideas Series:Nothing is Normal

From the back of the photograph a small child stares straight at the camera. A quizzical look on its face, this child, surrounded and almost hidden by the women in the foreground, poses for the photographer to mark a family occasion and seems to be saying “I am here, look at me”.

This photograph forms part of Jonny Briggs’ new work Close to Home, a series of photographic montages constructed from his own family albums and is a continuation of Briggs’ exploration of self and the constructed reality of the family.

Briggs has spent his short but highly productive and creative life escaping the constraints of the normality determined by his parents. He was raised in a family of five women, [four sisters and his mother] and a father he found difficult to communicate with. In examining the dynamics of his own family and his position within it Briggs seeks answers to understand the socialising tendencies of the family.

His work has variously been described by writers [including Briggs himself] as a search for parts of his lost childhood; a reawakening of the fantasies and desires vanquished by the protocols of parenting and at the beginning, perhaps, this is what Briggs was doing. On his website he has written:

“In search of lost parts of my childhood I try to think outside the reality I was socialised into and create new ones with my parents and self.”

It is the case that Briggs’ work can be understood as his attempt to discover his own normality by imagining a place of pre-socialisation, absent from parental concerns, where he existed in a raw and intuitive and childlike state.

But importantly, there is more to Briggs than just a desire to return to a state of innocence. His sophisticated understanding of how our experiences within the family inform our adulthood, both positively to carry us forward and negatively to fight and rebel against, give Briggs the continual themes that he works with and develops. As the artist Briggs restages the child/adult relationship; using his parents as protagonists and manipulating family memorabilia in an attempt to preserve his memories and stay in touch with his childhood. But in reality by assuming the role of creator and director he reverses the relationship between child and parent and becomes not the ultimate Peter Pan – but the adult, personified as the artist, manipulating his parents into creating a new reality and a different family history.

Sons will challenge their fathers and seek to usurp their position within the family. By using his father as a character in his alternative family narrative, Briggs successfully undermines the father’s authority and so transfers the power to the new adult, the artist.

However in his latest work Close to Home, the male protagonist is seemingly absent. As a child Briggs looked to his sisters for companionship and as the youngest took their lead in how to behave; often joining in with their more “feminine” activities in his desire to be accepted as a member of their sisterly tribe. Close to Home is a playful celebration of his female centred childhood. By selecting images that feature only women, his mother, maternal grandmother and sisters [and himself], Briggs uses the process of montage, both literally and figuratively, to reimagine his own female history, fusing aspects of his personality with restaged family events and remade as mementoes for a new family album.

His father is not present in the family album photographs and so Briggs’ desire for his family to be in a female only tribe is apparently complete. Yet there is still the camera. The original photographs were orchestrated and taken by the father. The gaze is that of the father and so Briggs never completely escapes the male member of his family. By using photographs taken by his father, Briggs acknowledges the authoritative male figure as part of his own creative makeup.

So the little boy in the family photograph, lost at the back of the image has become the grown up artist, rich with ideas, creative and curious and finally in control of his own gaze.

Published 26 November 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks