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Mother's photographs of children show September as her cruellest month


School startings, lots of partings - this can be a hard time for parents. Helen Nugent reports on an exhibition in Keswick which makes the point

"April is the cruellest month," wrote TS Eliot while Edna O'Brien thought that August was the wickedest of them all, a statement many would agree with given the current climate. Now photographer Deborah Parkin wants to challenge both of these assumptions with her first solo exhibition at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.

Parkin's collection of portraits, huddled together under the title September is the Cruellest Month, are about to go on show at one of Cumbria's most stunning locations. With its majestic views across Derwentwater, Borrowdale and the Western Fells, the Theatre by the Lake is the perfect place to display a selection of startling black and white photographs that charm and unsettle in equal measure.

But why September is the Cruellest Month? Parkin explains:

Because it is the time when I have to let my children go back out into the world again without me. The summer holiday is now over. It's a month that, for me, symbolises the passing of time. Back to school, back to their clubs, back to routine, progressing, moving on. Something we all embrace and want for them, but secretly we want to hold back time a little bit longer. We can't stop time but we can freeze it for a split second in our images.

The inspiration for the exhibition came two years ago during the summer of 2010 when Parkin came to the "stark realisation" that her children were growing up and, "to a point", away from her. Using her skills as a photographer and a 4x5 large format camera with instant black and white film, Parkin set out to capture moments and memories.

She says:

I have always been interested in the idea of 'memory', I think this came through my studies, my reading of so many diaries and journals for my MA in Holocaust Studies. Although my work is very personal, the intention is that it is open enough for others to bring their own stories to it.

Personal is an understatement. Like so many of the most challenging works of art, the viewer bristles with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. There is the feeling of intruding on images that, before the advent of social media, were largely confined to the family album. In a world where black and white has been consigned to the past, the two-tone portraits are laced with an eerie intimacy. Yet while they invite familiarity, they also hold onlookers at arm's length - the children rarely look into the lens. Eyes are hidden by the brim of a hat, a mask or sunglasses; the subject gazes into the distance or stands with head bowed. In some pictures, the child is sleeping. Parkin says she wanted to capture "moments of contemplation" and she has done just that, even if the contemplative thoughts do not look like happy ones.

As an accompaniment to the show, which opens on 1 September, the Theatre by the Lake has asked five mainly Cumbrian poets to view the pictures and produce a poem each in response. The verses will be displayed on the walls of the Friends' Gallery and the poets will read them at an informal session on September 22. As a taster, here is one composition by Gill Nicholson:

Wild Fruit

She wants to capture us,
instructs us to be still,
hang our heads and close our eyes.
We think she'd eat us if she could.

We try to hide behind the trees –
this is our secret corner of the wood;
we even wear our masks
but she can see through them.

When we're asleep she traps us,
strokes our cheeks
and wraps us in her arms.
She tries to keep us close.

This happens each September
when the crab apples and elderberries
tell her that the time has come
for us to go away again.

Poem © Gill Nicholson. Further details of the exhibition and the theatre's programme are here. You can also see a gallery of 35 images on Parkin's website here.

Across the fells in Eskdale, another exhibition opens this coming weekend of the 25 winners of a photographic competition to show 'Lives in the Landscape' in Britain. The work of finalists chosen from 150 entrants go on display from Saturday at Dalegarth station, the terminus near Boot of 'Li'l Ratty', the narrow gauge railway which runs up the beautiful valley from Ravenglass.

The show is part of a wider exhibition in the valley for the whole of September with other venues at local hotels and, during the national Heritage Open Weekend, 8 and 9 September, outdoors, whatever the area's name for rain. All details here.

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