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PETA LILY, Image Maker
pictures of our epoch...
Peta Lily is a highly skilled theatre director, theatre maker, actor, performer, writer and teacher. She has developed an aesthetic, ethos and teaching methodology for a new clown genre: Dark Clown. She is also a poet and very talented photographer whose development I have seen across many years of friendship.
Her other skills overshadow her photographs, not in quality but in her professional life. Perhaps it is a more casual engagement with her photography practice which allows her imagination to freely flow, unfettered by schedules, billing, travel concerns, clients, actors or the burden of complex cameras.
All of her images are shot on her phone’s camera, some made in the camera and some in computer software, where they are combined, collaged, montaged and recoloured.
Peta’s images are filled with historical references which I believe are a consequence of her interest in art and artists, particularly painting and photography, which has developed in her an informed and also an intuitive eye. She values chance sightings, strange juxtapositions, assonances and dissonances and as I look at her work it reminds me of the associations made by Dadaists and Surrealists. As the French poet Lautréamont wrote about “the chance encounter on an ironing board of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
Peta’s images share what we have in common, the broken and sometimes beautiful world around us, but more than most, she gives her attention and through that gives importance to what most of us would consider trivial. That is her knack, transforming the unimportant into powerful metaphor, representations of something far greater than the objects themselves. It forces me into that old repeating: “truth is in the detail”.
You may ask, “what is that truth?” It is the sad reality that we are living in a time of profound social upheaval wherein our quasi-liberal democratic beliefs and institutions are under assault, our deeply flawed capitalist economic institutions are proving incapable of dealing with unfairness, inequality, corruption and social disintegration, and meanwhile we passively observe the destruction of our planet. It is a time of madness and hope reflected in Peta’s images.
With this image above, as with many of her images, I need to look and look again. This is redolent with demands, contradictions, questions. In its base image there’s a flower, a symbol of nature, clouded by, set upon, becoming a bed for our inventions, cluttered like our junk yards and rubbish dumps. This is our world where mother nature is being overwhelmed by our stuff, our conveniences, our bringing light to the darkness, thus creating a new dwindling of the light.
Her work brings to my mind, and is perhaps informed by the late 19th century photographer, Eugène Atget, who pledged to document old Paris before it was swept away by capitalist needs to build factories, warehouses, power stations and apartments for the developing industrialization of France, in the wake of which came not only destruction of the traditional but also the detritus of pragmaticism in which money only pays attention to what produces profits, rather than what produces a more beautiful world and better lives.
In that tradition, the American photographer, Bernice Abbot not only became aware of Atget’s marvellous photos, but also published his works, which were for me an exciting view not only into Paris as it had been, but also into a way of viewing the world; of seeing meaning in apparently unimportant detail. This is why I so appreciate Peta and her intense pursuit of these reflections of our time.
In the urban image above, Peta looks at the surface and shows us its cobbled together wiring and switches at the same time as providing the multicoloured flowered background (probably multicoloured because of the mixture of tungsten and daylight illumination), and several levels of reflections.
In this image, nothing is whole, congruent, together. This is a reflection of our broken times, of our fragmenting cities, societies, governments and of our achingly crumbling moral compasses. This imagining of our fragmented world began after the end of Nazism, once artists in the western democracies came to fully understand the rank evil of the holocaust. We see this rejection of classical realism and figurative art in the output of the American abstract expressionists who could no longer work within the classic rules of art, as it and it’s surrounding culture had proven too susceptible to evil wrapped in profits. They and those that followed found it too difficult to accept and show us as being whole. Hence the sense of dis-integration in their works until those depictions too became decadent in the bowels of a seductive capitalist art marketplace. Many artists proved to be too easily bought off by the colour of money.
In Peta’s work there is also irony, humour, wit and a reflection of English endurance under stress; an image that can make us smile not only for the fond memories of a people united in war (as were the Brits during the horrors of World War II and to a degree during the recent pandemic) but also for the person, Peta, the messenger, having brought us this gift.
When we spoke, she told me about how so often while walking to and from the bus stop on her way to work, she would see things, and without much conscious processing, she would know they were worth photographing for some future use. Or, she would be in the bus shelter surrounded by ugly, vulgar posters. To her left would be a fragment of a mouth or eye, and to her right, a fragment of a perfume bottle or a sky and somehow, she knew, these could be married in a collage.
She has produced so many enticing images it is as though she had created an encyclopaedic volume of our crumbling world, filled with sadness, humour, some celebrations of beauty and even a bit of hope. After all, we made it, we can fix it.
A double exposure? a montage? I don’t know nor do I care, but I do care about this photograph’s delight in nature and beauty. It is this celebration, almost the innocence of a child, that this magic is given in the midst of the fragmented degeneration of our society and world that offers relief.
Below are ways to see more of her photographs and to read her dancing poetry. It’s worth it. Peta has self-published poems, plays and her photographs.
You can follow her:
On Facebook: Peta Lily
On Instagram: @petalily
On X: @peta_lily
And have a look at her books here:
Theatre Website: www.petalily.com
Photography website and blog: www.petalilyphotography.com
Several years ago I made a film about Peta’s work with the Dark Clown. Have a look