A final beckoning

November 30, 2012 § 5 Comments

‘I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand…’ (Disorder).

The first line of the first song on Joy Division’s first album. Ian Curtis is looking for someone to escort him on his existential journey to the dark heart of the human soul (any volunteers?). It is a theme that is echoed throughout Unknown Pleasures.

That album is characterised by the stark minimalism of Martin Hannett’s production, occasionally fractured, as at the end of Disorder, by Curtis’s screams. In contrast, the whole of Closer, remarkably recorded less than a year later, is permeated by a suffocating, ice-cold resignation. All traces of defiance have disappeared, vanishing like vapours into the desolate urban night.

On the first track here, it is apparent that Curtis himself is now the guide: ‘Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be’ – his exhibition of atrocities.

Intriguingly, the opening line – ‘This is the way, step inside’ – is etched into the vinyl grooves, not of Closer, but of Unknown Pleasures. On the inside sleeve of that record is a black-and-white photograph of a ghost-like hand disappearing behind a half-opened door.

The picture (above), taken in 1970, was part of the Somnambulist series by American photographer Ralph Gibson. It is uncredited on the album.

The same motif appears at the beginning and end of the video for Love Will Tear Us Apart, filmed in a Manchester warehouse in April 1980. A wooden door with ‘Ian C’ scratched into it is swung open from the inside by a hand that then vanishes. At the end of the video, the hand swings the door open again but the band have gone. It is an eerie portent for what was to follow just a month later and it is difficult to separate the symbolism of ‘the beckoning hand’ from the funereal artwork for the subsequent single and album releases, chosen before Curtis’s death on May 18.

On a rainy Saturday in January 1998, I found myself in the town of Macclesfield with an afternoon to kill. Without anything better to do, rather than out of any sense of morbid curiosity, I visited Ian Curtis’s memorial stone at the local cemetery. It has a simple epitaph poignantly bearing the title of the band’s final single.

A few feet away there was another stone for someone called ‘Cornelia F’. The inscription read: ‘Take my hand and I’ll show you’.

My head was alive with questions – why would someone with a Joy Division lyric as their epitaph be commemorated so close to the band’s singer? And who chooses to be remembered without a surname? (The link to Christiane F seemed more than a coincidence given Curtis’s fascination with David Bowie).

The mystery remained unsolved for a further 12 years until I pointed the inscription out to some people visiting the town for a Joy Division anniversary event. One of them later discovered that Cornelia had been a German fan of the band who had requested that in the event of her death her memorial be placed as close as possible to Ian’s. She had never even visited Macclesfield.

I thought about her family respecting her wishes and coming to this odd little town in northern England for the funeral. I thought about the respective tragedies, one short life celebrated, the other only of interest because of the most tenuous of connections to the first. I thought that perhaps one had somehow precipitated the other. Like Curtis, Cornelia had died  – on May 18, 1993 – by her own hand.

The girl in the picture

November 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

Another London at the Tate showcased photographs of the city taken between 1930 and 1980 by outsiders, often on journalistic assignments. Arguably the most striking image in the exhibition was one taken by American photographer Bruce Davidson in 1960. It shows an apparently homeless teenage girl holding a kitten.

Davidson had already achieved fame for his pictures of Brooklyn gangs and had been invited over by Queen magazine to take photographs depicting British life. Buying a Hillman Minx convertible with red leather seats, he toured the country while living off bananas and fudge. The results were published by Magnum in a book called England/Scotland.

One night in London, he encountered a group of teenagers who took him to ‘a cave’ and then to a concert in a ‘huge dancehall, possibly on an island’ (anyone any idea where these places may have been?). At the end of the evening he accompanied the girl outside. She was carrying a bedroll and picked up the stray cat. In Davidson’s own words: “There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name, but there was something about that face – the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life – it was the new face of Britain.”

Davidson later became well-known for his photographs of the American civil rights movement and of passengers on the New York subway. Describing his work as that ‘of an outsider on the inside’, he has said that his mission in life is “to make visible what appears to be invisible [as] someone who is blind and suddenly begins to see.”

Fifty years on from that night in London, he is still haunted by what may have become of the ‘invisible’ girl with the kitten, searching for her whenever he visits the city.

Photographs trick us by making the ephemeral seem permanent, and never more so than when the subject of the picture is as transient as a homeless teenager. It is possible that she is no longer alive – but it is equally likely that she leads an ordinary life and has simply never encountered her own iconic image.

The man who created it hopes she has become a writer or an artist, or has at least led a full life and not spent it on the street: “She was Joan of Arc, she was any and every woman that had a spirit and a strength.”

She may still be out there. And hopefully no longer carrying her bed for the night.

Bruce Davidson’s best shot
Audio: Photographer seeks girl holding kitten
Bruce Davidson’s ‘encounters with the invisible’
Another London at Tate Britain

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