An uncommon angle
Greenham peace camp revisited in Control Tower photographic show
AN exhibition of photographs of the Greenham peace camps is currently – and fittingly – on show at the Control Tower. The black-and-white photographs, by Wendy Carrig, now an established freelance photographer, were taken on film in 1985, when she was a photography student, and have now been digitally scanned and printed. Alongside them is a panel of the photographer’s contact prints, always key to understanding the processes of selection and contextual approach.
The history of the Greenham peace women, who campaigned against the siting of US cruise missiles on the base, is now part of the narrative of the Cold War, included in academic histories, but here the photographer focuses on the domestic life of the women, their day-to-day existence, rather than on the protests they carried out. Of the 17 photographs on show, only one, Keep Death Off the Road, of placard-carrying figures shot in harsh, contre-jour light, shows a protest.
Carrig, recently nominated as one of the Royal Photographic Society’s #Hundred Heroines, has an acute eye, and a strong, yet pleasingly-oblique sense of composition, which lends the photographs a sense of informality. What appears candid, however, is the result of creative intent and control.
Here we see the daily life of the women; cooking, folding up bedclothes, sitting round fires,
sheltering under tarpaulins, and making music. Several of the photographs were shot in hard frost, with ice and snow on the ground, so that what comes across is the bitter cold, the discomfort, and the grit the women showed, their determination to be witnesses and active opponents of nuclear weapons and the masculine realpolitik of the Cold War. Several images show women sitting hunched round smoky campfires on makeshift furniture. One would expect them to interact, but they often appear as discrete individuals, lost in their own thoughts. A moving photograph shows a seated woman, fingerless-gloved hands pulling a ribbed jumper up over her face. You can feel her eyes smarting from the thick wood smoke.
Individual motifs are often isolated. In Campfire, we see no faces; booted feet and gloved hands are cropped at the photograph’s edges, so the compositional focus is on the central kettle, boiling and wreathed in steam. The Visitor was shot with the camera at an angle, creating a dynamic image, arranged to direct attention to the woman and dog at the centre. Another photograph positions a guitar player sideways to the viewer, so instrument and listener are emphasised.
In some photographs the time period is now unmistakeably historic; in clothes, hats, haircuts and vehicles. In a striking image a Morris Minor is the dominant element: frost-covered, loaded with tarpaulins, it sits in snow, radiator covered with blankets. The peace woman opening its door is now a QC. Fast Food has a distinct feel of the past. The food stall is covered with peace graffiti; cycling towards it is a caped policeman, unmistakeably a ‘bobby’. Visually, less is almost always more, with Carrig here using space to full effect. The expansive foreground in the vertical image Blue Gate #1 concentrates the gaze on the sign in the foreground; the bleakly telling After the Bailiffs shows three abandoned chairs amid the detritus of fire and camp. The Fence uses the structure of the barbed-wire-topped perimeter fence as a dominant diagonal element; a tiny plane flies overhead. Music was part of the life of the peace camps, and included in the exhibition is a panel of hand-written songs by the women, dubbed the Blue Gate Song Book.
The exhibition also contains Campfire’s Burning, a 2017 statement by one of the most prominent peace women, Dr Rebecca Johnson, outlining the philosophy behind the camps; peace activism, sexual politics and opposition to the patriarchy. The women’s spider’s web motif was a visual representation of the international, non-hierarchical network of women the movement encompassed.
This collection of photographs is about far more than aesthetics. It’s an important social document of a particular historical and political period, though its underlying feminist philosophy, in the age of Trump and populism, has never been more germane.
The show runs until March 9, and can be viewed during the control tower’s opening times (Thurs and Fri: 10.30am-1.30pm; Sat and Sun: 9.30am-4pm). Entry is free and all the photographs and postcards are for sale. The photographer’s website is www.wendycarrig.co.uk
Rebecca Johnson, who protested at Greenham in the 80s will give a talk about the effect it has had on the rest of her life in From Greenham to Nobel Peace Prize, at the Control Tower on Wednesday, January 16 (7.30pm). Visit www.greenhamcontroltower.org.uk