ART + DESIGN. ISSUE 23. SUMMER 2019.



POSTSCRIPT
‘Snaps of Time’ Tell Stories of Old
Archival photographer Veronica Bailey explores love and lost arts
By Angela Dansby
Photography: Veronica Bailey





Looking at envelopes, we are reminded of the lost art of hand-writing letters, even in the face of love. Archival photographer Veronica Bailey of London explores “nostalgia for the threatened forms of human communication … and the lure of traditional forms of paper and script in a monotonously digitized age.” She visits historical archives to photograph ordinary objects in extraordinary ways. Using a macro lens, she turns envelopes, letters and books into 2-D geometric sculptures, exposing just enough words for intrigue without giving away their content.

“My style stems from being interested in biology as a young artist, looking at tiny details of works and seeing from a different viewpoint – one that we usually take for granted,” Bailey says. “But I also allow space between myself and the viewer. For example, I don’t show a full letter, just a sentence, leaving the rest to your imagination. I reveal very careful details of human presence in objects that are on the point of being easily discarded, whether physically thrown away or a dying art. It’s like protecting something from destruction.”

Almost all of Bailey’s objects have rich stories behind them, such as this “Postscript” 2005 series of letters and telegrams (1937-45) between former American Vogue magazine model and WWII photojournalist Lee Miller and her then British lover Roland Penrose, surrealist artist, art collector and biographer. Their correspondence spans the time from when they first met in Paris when Miller was married to the end of the war. They were long-distance lovers for two years before she moved in with him in London just before WWII broke-out. She worked there as a freelance photographer for Vogue through The Blitz against Britain. In 1944, she became a correspondent accredited to the U.S. Army – probably the only female combat photojournalist in Europe then – following the army from D-Day to the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and burning of Adolf Hitler’s “Wachenfeld” house on the eve of Germany’s surrender. She was stunningly impactful behind the camera just as she had been in front of it.

“I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ archives, especially women doing something challenging in their day,” Bailey notes. “Miller was a fascinating woman, who stimulates the imagination. She went from being a model for Man Ray to observing the most horrendous atrocities in WWII. She did something I couldn’t as a war correspondent and paved the way for female surrealist artists, whose works were barely shown in her day. Plus, she thought she would never have children so her son Antony (who runs the archive) was a surprise around age 40.”

Heroines and war-torn love are themes in Bailey’s work, which stems from a traumatic family story of her own. In 1982, when she was 17 years old, she attended the wedding of her 22-year-old cousin, a helicopter pilot in the British Army Air Corps. Right after marrying his sweetheart, he went to fight in the Falklands War and his helicopter was shot down reportedly by friendly fire. But the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) covered it up, claiming Argentinians were responsible. According to Bailey, it wasn’t until years later when her aunt took the MoD to tribunal that the government admitted the truth, producing a new death certificate.

“This was a case of love destroyed by war, two extremes of life,” Bailey says. “It was the romance of someone being in love then going to war to protect his country, followed by death and deception. It made me think that governments aren’t to be trusted because they write the rulebook to suit them. But like my aunt, women find the strength to find the truth.”
The love letters between Bailey’s own grandparents inspired “Postscript” but she chose those of Miller and Penrose to inspire interest. Plus, there were parallels between the couples as Bailey’s late grandfather was German and her mother lived through WWII in London with clandestine ancestry. Letters in both cases were the sacred forms of truth.

“An envelope is like the shield that protects what is within,” Bailey notes. “When the seal is broken, you know it has been opened. Privacy exists with letters unlike with digital media where everything is recorded.”

In order to protect archives themselves, Bailey limits her time with these contained works capturing moments in history. For example, with Miller’s archives, which took six months to get permission to access, she only allowed herself three hours for photography.
“I always limit the time possibilities of what I can do with archives,” Bailey says. “I do my own visual storytelling with ‘snaps’ of time.”Her images makes us think about how different forms of communication speak to others.“Hand-written letters have a sensuality about them whereas e-mail is virtual typeface,” she muses. “I’d much rather receive a letter from my lover than an e-mail.”In her own art of discovery, Bailey unfolds human emotion … one envelope at a time.

P.S. “Postscript” is represented in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and by Bernheimer Fine Art Photography in Lucerne, Switzerland. Bailey’s limited edition collections can be viewed at veronicabaileystudio.co.uk.


All artwork and images © Veronica Bailey 2019.