The Penny Clare Method

This section is a little longer than the others, but I think it’s worth it. Listen to the audio if it’s too much.

Penny Clare is a writer and photographer who is mostly confined to her bed by CFS-­ME, enduring a continuous and isolated existence. Her art practice is directly informed and intrinsically related to an unarguably dire and unbroken experience as a bed-­bound sufferer during the last two decades. All her work emerges from living incapacitated in a darkened room.

Penny Clare and I communicated frequently and I eventually went to visit her.

She was surprisingly composed in her small bed and able to talk for a few minutes at a time. After the visit, years passed and our communication became less frequent until I lost contact with her. One day, I heard from her, she had started to take photographs. I had a look. I’d never seen anything like them.

Clare’s art developed firstly by writing poetry, then articles, and then eventually, an autobiography -­‐ all accomplished by torchlight or by working in near absolute dark. The artist’s photographs were also all taken in this darkened bedroom, without much preparation. In such a dark place an automatic exposure on a small digital camera can easily take up to ten seconds. Although this wasn’t the artist’s intention in the first instance, Clare grew to find a sense of kinship in both this working method and the aesthetics of the finished images, which were/are very delicate and foggy.

Upon seeing the results, she continued to take photographs in this way, using her strongest but unsteady arm as a kind of monopod, her wobbling weak arms causing much blurring of her auto‐portraits during the exposure. As a consequence a kind of authentic movement, or physicality of her illness is traced on the camera’s sensor. This ‘wobble’ literally becomes a signature. When I saw the images for the first time, which were mainly the self-­‐portraits I describe, taken with this shaky limb over several seconds, I said to Penny “these are like life-­studies, but of your ‘half-­life’” – I asked her if she agreed that these images might be termed ‘half-­‐life studies’. She didn’t, she saw the imagery as emergent and promising, of light arising from the darkness and preferred half-­light studies.

The vast majority of the photos are shot with little artificial or natural daylight, although daylight is occasionally gleaned from a small opening or a crack between the curtains. The artist’s illness has made her eyes very sensitive to light, directly impacting and informing both her process and outcome. Over time, Clare has started to perceive different nuances and subtleties of light depending on the time of day, the season, local weather and so on. Despite having endured such a long incarceration in the room, she told me that this awareness of life, through her work creates a paradox, that despite being physically contained by the condition she feels as if she is still integrated with the world.

I spoke to Clare about memorable or significant experiences during these last 20 years. She spoke about one day in particular.

Fortuitous circumstances came together so that on that particular day the light shone in her bedroom as usual, from the tiny gap in the curtains. But without realising it, she noticed that the room had become a camera-­‐obscura. Images of the outside world were suddenly projected on her wall, upside down and back to front; cars, people, trees, children playing and so on. To me, it seems conceptually fitting that the outside world appears upside down and back to front. This was her view of the world, scrambled and fractured, with shifting perspectives and surreal views of reality. The people outside were like ghosts to her now, the traffic moved across the wall and the whole scene was projected around her, like a thought bubble, with people arriving and departing as phantasms. She said she was never able to recreate it again.

I think of her being ‘inside’ a camera when she tells me this and because of the long, wobbly exposures, the images themselves feel viscerally fused with her.