Christine Widdall’s “In My View” – an appreciation by John Cogan

Christine Widdall EFIAP MPAGB BPE5*:  “In My View was presented jointly with the Royal Photographic Society to Durham Photographic Society 21 st February 2013

Widdall and I

Looks can be so deceptive.  First impressions promise an evening of academic imagery.  But, when the prints are arranged around the room, you have to question your first impressions.  This isn’t going to be an evening of desaturated tulips and Dutch-inspired landscapes.  So, who is Christine Widdall?

It is safe to say that, to a certain extent, Christine Widdall is an alchemist!  For a start she appears to have a vast repertoire of magical techniques which she drops into the conversation.  She doesn’t spend the next couple of hours running a “How-to” workshop.  That’s not her style.  It’s more like a “let the arcane processes of photography blow your mind as you experiment” sort of session.  It’s alchemy!

Now, having travelled across Saddleworth Moor several times in my youth, I can confirm there is a rawness to the place and the lingering feeling that the heather and the cloughs never quite free themselves of the past.  However, those who can endow those self-same cloughs and the “blasted heath” with their own indelible beauty are indeed skilled and passionate artists.  And this Christine is undoubtedly one of them.  Like Will Cheung, she advocates re-visiting places time and time again making the most of that time getting to know a place.

Those first images were rich in their colours; and intense in the way they were constructed.  Admitting to a little HDR, Christine went on to decry the excessive use of the process but was unashamed in her employment of it to reach the final print she wanted.  It’s part of her way of working, her way of understanding the world.

Those first images we saw were enriched by their intense palette.  Using Oloeno software, Christine melds the various images into the final print.  Five (often more) shots, all a couple of stops apart, are layered and merged.  In some of her panoramas there might well be seven vertical sections (each with the five layers) all stitched together.  That means working with 35 images.  Though her husband keeps telling her she’s distorting the truth this is not her concern.  It is not the accurate depiction that she seeks but the truth that lies beyond reality.

Dismissing her work-method as fiddle and diddle, she will use that magic last light, the golden softness that marks day’s end, to tell a different story.  Many landscape photographers will only work in the early hours, dawn and an hour later, perhaps, decrying any other time.  Don McCullin, whilst on his project to record the Roman Frontier, was very picky about missing that early morning light.  I find that a shame.  I share Christine’s love of that powerful, dramatic and sometimes boisterous last gasp of the day.  An evening glow can add so much to a portrait, or pick out the mellow stones of a side-street in the Dordogne, blessing them with a romantic warmth.  It seems apposite at the end of the day, to sit beneath an overgrown umbrella with a glass of wine, the last sip of an Illy espresso and the smell of a gitane drifting over from one of the nearby tables.  

In Paris, she produces sculptural works whilst on the street she will ignore the rules and do “her own thing”… A woman with a slightly bent back and wearing colours at odds with the shop window that is her background walks out of the frame to the right.  Ah, she’s been told that people should always walk into the frame especially from the left.  Yes, it may be optimistic and was the format demanded by Joseph Goebbels of his photographers, but how can you make a seriously-sad looking woman an object of optimism merely by placing her differently in the frame?  In this instance Christine is not only being true to the scene but being consistent in the story she tells…

From depressive shoppers to Goths is little more than a click of the mouse button away, but an eon apart in conceptualization.  “This is a man I found up by the whale bones….” is a strange and ambiguous introduction to a well-crafted image but there he is in his Victorian attire and subtle face paint, standing by a bleached wooden door.  Now, Christine’s inventiveness takes over and every feature, aspect and nuance is dedicated to the look of that final print.  The intrusion of a copse of trees from Saddleworth completes a picture, the bulk of which originated in the cemetery at Whitby as an exotically-clad Goth sits demurely on a tombstone.

As for Rosie in her blue dress; she leans against the door frame of Salford Library offering a master class in seduction, which sets the pulse racing until Christine tells us it was only the photographer that Rosie was interested in.  Ah… the bitterness of rejection, it cuts deeper than one of Chris’s put downs!

Eyes… so important to a portrait, the windows to the soul, are whatever Chris wants them to be.  Forget the guilty cloning of a catch light or the lightening with a touch of the dodging tool.  Chris will do whatever she feels appropriate, including changing the colour.  Colour is essential to Christine.  It’s as important to the overall composition as any other feature and Christine will manipulate it with as much brio as any other fiddlerdiddler.  What she has in her mind, that pre-visualisation, drives all that she does, even directing (perhaps unconsciously) that renowned fiddle and diddle.

Still a scientist, Christine’s innate approach is often, and maybe unconsciously, directed by an empirical approach and her constant search for a new and innovative technique is more often than not driven by her science-trained enquiring mind.

At odds with her normal canon are the still life botanical pictures.  As meticulous in her planning and execution as with any other image; the addition of cellophane as a background, a few layers and an indecent amount of F and D later, the masterpiece is ready and proud in its new incarnation.

Satisfied that, for once, she can outdo the Queen of layers (Katie Allen) with her complex multiple-layered Photoshop-merged botanicals; she admits that landscape is her first love.  Further to that confession she adds that many colours are anathema to her.  The limited palette only adds to the great subtlety of her work which is an odd thing to say when you consider the vibrancy of her work.  However, consider the work of the late, great Lakeland landscape artist William Heaton Cooper who shares a similar aesthetic with Christine and will see parallels of colour and subtlety.  For a lady with such a raucous talent for put-downs her work is imbued with a strong compositional structure that belies the degree of care taken to ensure the coherence of her work.

Despite being told by her dad that she’d learned nowt (about the “rules” of composition), Christine’s work is, in a corrupted quote from Withnail and I, “… These are the sort of pictures faces look in at …”  and long may it be so!  As for the lady herself, I’m still recovering!  

John Cogan ARPS

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