Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Eleanor of the dust

Douglas MacEnnis is an almost forgotten Scottish pioneer of photography. The family wealth from trading with Norway and Sweden enabled him to devote considerable time and energy to creating the photographic image of Edinburgh that the city liked to promote – nothing but affluence and refinement.

The family's trading links had given MacEnnis a passionate interest in things Scandinavian (as had his father, who had given Douglas a middle name of Søren). But in 1896 his wife and daughter were tragically killed when masonry crashed through their brougham on the way to see Ibsen's 'The Wild Duck' – MacEnnis suffered head wounds which seem to have left him permanently brain-damaged. To friends he had become “depressed, introspective and highly imaginative”, but the trauma had left him time-locked in that summer of 1896. He was also seeing things invisible to others. He took to making photographs of subject matter that most would have considered worthless of attention as they were excluded from his hallucinatory vision. What appear as planar surfaces of rock, beach and ice to everyone else were seen by MacEnnis as portraits of a young woman called Eleanor. The most enigmatic of these images appears to be a perfectly exposed photogram of naturally distributed household dust. It is still unclear how this image was produced. The real identity of Eleanor also remains a mystery.
Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896; by Douglas MacEnnis 1899
MacEnnis self-published “Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape” in Edinburgh in 1899, shortly before slicing his wrists with a photographic plate. The book actually contains 31 images. ‘Portraits’ that would have bewildered its contemporary audience as merely photographs of nothing, but which can now be seen as quietly exquisite examples of early abstract photography, wildly at odds with the conflicting photographic ideologies of the time. The images are all dated as MacEnnis' time-locked summer 1896. It is believed that only one copy of the book is extant (in a private collection in Argentina). Very few examples of Eleanor images are in circulation.

It is worrying to note that Dr Relling, one of the main characters in The Wild Duck, has the with-hindsight prescient line, "deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness." Something cracked after publishing "Eleanor" - one wonders who deprived MacEnnis of his vision...

The image shown here is "Eleanor at Loch Lomond, summer 1896" from MacEnnis' book, "Eleanor, 29 portraits in the landscape". It appears to show fracturing sea-ice. As sea-ice is not common in Scotland, this photograph may have been taken on an unrecorded visit to Norway or Sweden.

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