Blog / Texts

Breathing Space

by Anne McNeill

POSTED: 20 May 2021

Curator and writer Anne McNeill considers Joy Gregory's Madam Photo and the importance of creative acts of self-care and seeking respite in a global pandemic.

When lockdown descended across the globe in March 2020, Autograph's curatorial team Mark Sealy, Renée Mussai and Bindi Vora started conversations with our community of artists, about how to respond to the crisis. This dialogue coalesced into our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, with Autograph supporting ten UK-based artists to create new work exploring the wider context of the Covid-19 crisis.

Joy Gregory’s new series Madam Photo (2020) is comprised of diaristic fragments of everyday rituals documenting socially distanced encounters with strangers, experiments with sun prints recording organic objects and excerpted headlines from the news.

Below, Anne McNeill considers how these everyday moments are turned into creative endeavours in Gregory’s practice.

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, … [this] subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings…” ¹

In March 2020 artist Joy Gregory found her everyday life on pause, as she, and the vast majority of the country, heeded the instructions of the British government to ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’.

‘The fear of the virus made us all hold onto things that we felt we could control. The one thing that I could control, which was really important to me, was about getting up every morning and having some form of routine…because it was so light I would get up around 5.30am do a couple of email things, look at what was going on in the news, and then by 6.30 or 7 o’clock I would be in the park.’ Gregory states.

Made over a period of four months, Madam Photo is Gregory’s response to Covid-19 and lockdown through her relationship with Burgess Park and the people she met there. The title of this body of work is borrowed from the nickname bestowed on her by one of the other park regulars. What started as an act of self-care quickly became a creative reaction to her day-to-day situation, and an artistic engagement with her physical environment.

Burgess Park, the green lung of South London, was to become Gregory’s impromptu studio: a space of respite and relaxation to alleviate the anxiety around the coronavirus. Madam Photo presents the early morning rhythms of the park through a set of colour photographs. A range of small pastoral details in the foreground and the capital’s distinctive skyline peaking over the horizon, figures with long shadows, and socially distanced people, a trio of Black Lives Matter posters, and a magnolia tree shedding its leaves are all present in Gregory’s ‘special subset of walking’.

"an inward and outward exploration of those first four cautious months when we all found ourselves indoors and when modern life slowed down"

Collective tension is offered through snippets of headlines cut from newspapers signposting social concerns and political reassurances, set alongside blocks of text that are both retrospective diary notes and descriptions of the strangers, who soon became familiar faces. Gregory uses the park space at her disposal as a frame for storytelling. Miniature, almost childlike, stick drawings are incorporated as film strips. Characters appear and reappear throughout the text, such as ‘the two ladies with poles’, ‘the heavy sweating man’ and ‘Mr Rasta’ – he of the Madam Photo moniker. This certain familiarity becomes reassuring, so much so that I cannot help but wonder what has become of them during these long months of winter lockdown.

In her quest to create, Gregory adopted the habit of picking leaves up off the ground and collecting native flora and fauna – a wispy dandelion, a raven’s feather – which she would take home with her. These simple rituals were, as Gregory states, ‘an essential part of my survival – creating some form of certainty in a world where everything suddenly became uncertain… and for some reason I decided to return to the very basics of photography and began to make lumen prints.’

Deriving from an early photographic process, lumen prints are solar photograms created by placing objects onto photographic paper (normally used for printing black-and-white photographs in the darkroom) and exposing them outdoors to the sun. Other Victorian printing processes, such as calotypes and cyanotypes, have weaved in and out of Gregory’s art practice over the years, from the seminal Object of Beauty (1992–5) through to Invisible Life Force of Plants (2020). Here, Gregory brings her knowledge and understanding of the materiality of photographic paper to produce lumen prints that are delicate, ethereal and hazy. These, for me, symbolise that time in 2020 when the light changed and sound was different.

Madam Photo is at once both an inward and outward exploration of those first four cautious months when we all found ourselves indoors and when modern life slowed down. It records a certain time of optimism, a time when we believed the virus would die of loneliness, and where those fortunate enough to have access could enjoy nature’s ability to soothe. Madam Photo is a timely contemplation of what life is like living under restrictions during a global health pandemic.
¹ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Published in the UK, by Granta Publications, 2014), p.03

about the author

Anne McNeill

Anne McNeill is director of Impressions Gallery, a charity that helps people understand the world through photography. Anne has 30 years’ experience as a curator and writer on photography, including Lost Languages and other voices (2011), the first major survey shows of work by Joy Gregory. Recent writing includes text on the work of Zanele Muholi (2019) published by Granta Art+Photography, the online edition; and We are not in the shadows (2020) essay for Being Inbetween Carolyn Mendelsohn, published by Bluecoat Press.

You can follow McNeill on Twitter and Instagram.


See the full artist commission by Joy Gregory

Read an interview with the artist and Autograph's Director Mark Sealy

Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...

Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project

Visit the Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibition at Autograph's gallery


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Images: 1) From Joy Gregory's commission, Madam Photo, 2020. Mixed media, dimensions variable. © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other. 2) Courtesy Anne McNeill.