“The photographic image in art practice has never been so diverse or contested and, with the acceleration of new digital technologies, the material presence of the image is now more than ever at stake.” — Helen Sear (BBC News, 2014)
Helen Sear has a background in fine art, and a history of working, not just with printed photographs, but with video and projection installations as well (Alexander, 2012). Her work is highly varied but typically explores ideas of nature, landscape, touch and vision (Sear, 2014). She has been described as “one of photography’s foremost innovators. For her the medium is one of magic as much as realism. It is never pure, fixed or entirely knowable. Each new series presents a new set of challenges that offer up her fascination with craft and our habits of looking.” (Company, 2006).
Sear’s website (www.helensear.com) shows a collection of her projects. My personal favourites include, Display, Gone to Earth, Beyond the view and Inside the view, all of which use digital layering techniques to remarkable effect. Display and Gone to Earth have animals as their central subjects, whilst Beyond the view and Inside the view show women gazing out across rural landscapes. Interestingly, none of Sear’s subjects seem to show their faces, which appears to be true for most of her projects (e.g., Sightlines, or in the case of Spot, where it is the eyes that are missing). Why is it that the face/eye (whether animal or human) is rarely seen? According to one gallery review by “digitally masking over the eyes of the birds, she intervenes in the process of looking, forcing the viewer to question the relationship between themselves and the viewed” (Ffotogallery, 2004).
I think that what strikes me most about Sear’s photographs, is the detail and complexity of the final layered images. This is particularly true of Beyond the view and Inside the view, which use the detail in the topmost layer to create texture, and an almost tactile quality to the final image, making it seem more than just a photograph. Indeed, these images have something of a painterly quality, and it is in these images, that you can see her fine art background at work.
When I first looked at these series, my assumption was that Sear layered two photographs (a portrait and a landscape) together in Photoshop and then added a textured layer on top (with another layer of flowers added in the case of her Beyond the view series). However, it appears that I was only half right. If my current understanding is correct, for each of the images in these series, Sear layers two photographs, the first a portrait, and the second a landscape, together in Photoshop. She then, ‘draws’ (by means of an electronic drawing tablet) a lace-like pattern onto the landscape, effectively removing tiny holes, in order to create an intricate design that acts as a textured surface layer through which the portrait can be viewed (Alexander, 2012 & Company, 2006). The results are certainly striking. They have an ethereal quality that really speaks to me as a viewer and I find myself wondering just what it is these women are contemplating.
Alexander, J. (2012) Inside the View [online]. Available at: http://www.photomonitor.co.uk/2012/10/inside-the-view/. Accessed on 22/03/2016.
BBC News (2014) Venice Biennale art show: Helen Sear to represent Wales [online]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-27818027. Accessed on: 22/03/2016.
Company, D. (2006) Helen Sear: Inside the View [online]. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/helen-sear-inside-the-view/. Accessed on: 22/03/2016.
Ffotogallery (2004) Helen Sear – Hide [online]. Available at: http://www.ffotogallery.org/helen-sear-%E2%80%93-hide. Accessed on 23/03/2016.
Sear, H. (2014) Helen Sear [online]. Available at: http://www.helensear.com/. Accessed on 22/03/2016.