There’s No Place like Home
A Review of Shelley Rae’s Photobook Perseveration
I imagine Shelley Rae’s photobook Perseveration to be found in a newspaper rack, tucked up between books on a shelf or buried under women’s gossip magazines on the coffee table. Its size mirrors that of a magazine, its glossy pages and double-page spreads infiltrating the space of the home. This format amplifies the cinematic quality of the book, the night time images revealing dramatic contrasts of light and dark, spotlight and shadows.
Rae started the book after her son appeared in one of the photographs she was appropriating, a film still from the movie Barbarella, explaining the cinematic qualities of the narrative. Interested in the cross over of her two lives as mother and artist, she began to take photographs of herself and her son in their domestic space. Perseveration becomes a performance of Rae’s life, a visual script of the props, setting and characters that inhabit and play in her home, her theatre. It is now down to us, her readers, to interpret the narrative she has staged.
The Family Portrait
A photobook of family images, such as Perseveration, made me consider its relation to a tradition of family albums. Unlike the staged, formal family portrait, Rae’s images are unexpected, fragmented and often the people that inhabit their frames are not the sole focus of the narrative. In a society dominated by the visual, and that has constant access to the photographic image, Rae has made us consider those aspects of the family portrait that would perhaps be seen as insignificant or strange. Moments of interaction with toys, doors, windows and between people show a less static version of the family image. She has moved away from the dominance of the modernist, ideal family picture to one constantly in flux. Both mother and son wear masks, dress-up and don wigs in an element of play and escapism. The text found at the centre of the book asserts that the domestic space becomes a stage, to escape ‘the repetitive stereotypes of single mum, autistic child and special needs labels’. This fantasising shows a reclaiming of the domestic space, utilising the book’s and the home’s self-containment to safely play with the roles of mother, artist and son, and challenge the stereotypical family portrait.
Combining her photography with her home life, the images in Perseveration give a sense of surveillance. Turning the pages, I have a sense of being guided through the spaces, following the camera, which points to the ceiling to capture the lamp shade, then tracks her son at height level through the back door, or looks down at her body as she lies on the floor. This use of different heights gives the impression that we are seeing from the viewpoint of the mother, the son or sometimes an onlooker, a voyeur of the private space.
This cold, clinical act of surveillance is subverted through Rae’s use of close-up shots, rather than images encompassing the entire space of the rooms. This not only creates a sense of intimacy with the reader, but emphasises the fleeting nature of photography and the inability to reflect completely on a situation, a memory or an experience. It also results in a fragmentation of Rae’s own body, asserting a feeling of claustrophobia. The space of the house appears too small, crowded and limiting on movement. Rae is too close to the camera, at once bound to her work, but also enclosed in the pressures of motherhood. It highlights the term ‘perseveration’, which is the repetition of a particular gesture or thought, which inhibits an ability to change or adapt the rhythms of life. Rae remains in limbo, one image of her appearing outside but touching the window pane, connected and disconnected, torn between responsibilities. The book itself becomes metaphorical of the self-containment of the house. As the title is placed on the back page, it indicates that the book has neither a beginning nor an end, but only various interpretations and performances within the self-contained space of the household and its demand for repetition in reading.
Freedom in Performance
Rae’s son appears to act in opposition to her own constraints. He shows a more viable freedom, as he runs outside to escape the constraints of the house or plays in different identities. The boy is surrounded by gendered ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ toys including dollhouses, slides and footballs. Rae explained ‘I think that other people find the gendering of spaces problematic - for example, girls and boys try on their mother’s clothes, wigs, shoes - but there’s a huge outcry if you capture that play or photograph or video boys in anything but typical masculine clothing, society somehow expects parents to keep those things a secret and also insist that when boys get older, they won’t want to participate in make-believe play that crosses gender roles.’ By allowing this freedom, Rae is challenging stereotypes and through the secretive book form, revealing aspects of parenting that are disclosed in society.
It is also perhaps a challenge to her own upbringing and recognition of her own gender influence as a single mum. Rae suggests the dollhouses within Perseveration are related to her own experience of growing up, their interiors representing another layer of reality and relational past. It reminds me of Helen Douglas’s photobook Queene & Belle, where doors, windows and frames further the space of the page and represent another threshold. Rae imitates the dolls in one image, perhaps as an example of the need to convey a certain role that is demanded of her, an expectation of her as woman and mother.
This stage that Rae has established in her photobook suggests that the home can act as a place of frustration and freedom, particularly when juggling the roles of mother and artist. The familiar domestic items that don its pages, remind me of my own childhood, and the freedom that play and fantasising provided. The book’s creation breaks free of repetition of life as new readers bring new interpretations, as they make the characters don new roles and form new stories. In this way it breaks the repetition of life and gives control back to Rae as mother and artist. I am left with the image of Rae’s legs in red, glitter shoes, buried under a mountain of costume, paperwork and boxes, which appears as the character Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. It makes me consider that ‘there’s no place like home’.
University of Manchester
Postgraduate in Art History