Shutter Hub member Naomi James has worked with film and digital imagery, and experimented with alternative processes. More recently, she has worked extensively with instant film, particularly Polaroid film and the emulsion lift process. She is drawn to more personal projects and is currently exploring her search for identity as an identical twin.
The daughter of a portrait photographer, Naomi was inspired by her father’s chemical stained shirts and stories of long hours in the dark room. Growing up she loved being in front and behind the camera, and as an adult this lead to her setting up a darkroom in the bathroom, spending hours experimenting.
We asked her to share her latest project, The Blue Twin, and tell us more about her experience of creating this highly personal project…
I always used to say that I came from a broken egg and spent a great deal of my childhood wondering, had the egg not divided, which one of us wouldn’t exist, suspecting it might be me.
Obviously, I can’t speak for other twins, but for me, being a twin was a wonderful thing something that made me proud and was a major feature of my identity. My sister and I loved being together and shared our own language; both verbal and non-verbal. We lived in a self-contained world, often to the exclusion of others.
Many people struggled to tell us apart, so we were colour coded. I wore blue and my sister wore a contrasting colour- often red. Sometimes people would even refer to me as ‘The Blue Twin’ whilst others might use polarising labels to distinguish us- the funny one/ the serious one, the chatty one/the quiet one. We each gained a whole series of imposed traits which placed us at the extremes.
Our twin identity was a source of fascination and scrutiny. We were the only twins in our family and the only twins at school. We were a ready-made ‘spot the difference’ game.
When I look back at photographs from childhood, I am able to find my sister but can’t see myself. Her features and expressions jump out but I’m not sure what I’m looking for in myself. This is quite common amongst identical twins and it was an avenue I wanted to explore photographically. Initially, I overlaid a self-portrait with a portrait of my sister. I kept changing the ratios…but even when there was only the tiniest percentage of my sister in the image, it was still her I saw.
With such a strong and established twin identity, forming my own individual identity was difficult. I relied on my more outgoing sister in social situations and generally felt safer when we were together.
The hardest period of my life was when we had to separate to go to university. I was bereft and struggled whilst my sister seemed to thrive. I became increasingly introverted and constantly had a sense of something missing which has remained to this day. I have stayed in the shadows, less sure of my individual identity than our collective one. Rebecca Solnit describes the melancholy blue at the edges and depths of the world as ‘The light that got lost.’ (Rebecca Solnit: A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2006). This feels like a fitting description.
The Blue Twin started life as a cyanotype project where I created digital negatives and used them to print on fabric. For various reasons, it wasn’t quite working. It was the summer holidays and I thought I would have all the time in the world to experiment and create images of the two of us. A family crisis meant that it was virtually impossible to find any time together and what time we had felt rushed and very different from the excitement I’d originally felt about the project. We looked utterly miserable and strained in all the photographs and, as time moved on, I realised I had been wrong to assume my sister shared my enthusiasm for the project or, indeed, had the time for it.
It was a period during which I was sharing my work with others and was also considering different avenues for the project. There were so many different opinions that my head was spinning and my confidence evaporating. Suddenly, I found myself moving in a direction I felt unable to execute effectively. And yet, I still believed in the project and wanted to compete it.
I took a step back and thought about how I could express my twin experience without the actual presence of my sister in the photographs.
I am drawn to pairs and I spot them everywhere. So, I decided to use this as a starting point to explore an absence I have felt from my first day at university; a day that marked the point I was going it alone. The inability to see myself, the fact that my project was progressing without my sister and my general sense of lacking her confidence and personality, all seemed to relate to this sense of loss- the sense of something missing.
The start of my project had been difficult, and I had been left feeling pretty unhappy on many levels. So, I knew it was important to inject a little more joy. Tackling the project in a more abstract way also meant I didn’t need to engage so deeply on an emotional level. It was a relief not to be in any of the photographs this time- there’s nothing more sobering and character building than putting an image of yourself out there for inspection.
I’ve had a bit of a love affair with the Polaroid SX-70 ever since I picked up a second hand one during an online shopping spree. It was a camera that came out during my childhood. I love everything about my camera, from the fold up design to its unpredictable performance. I started experimenting with Polaroid emulsion lifts. It’s a delicate process that requires concentration and patience and is wonderfully therapeutic. I would be at the dining room table with a paintbrush in one hand and my dog on my lap, feeling utterly content. I love the way the emulsion lift allows the introduction of an element of texture which didn’t seem so far away from my initial thoughts of using fabric in my project.
Once I had made the decision to work with Polaroid film and watercolour paper, I could finally move forward. The images raise questions about perceptions of the whole. Can something be complete when part of it is missing or will the loss always be felt? And at what point does what is absent cease to exist?
Finding suitable subjects wasn’t that difficult but I wanted to include items that had a special significance in the context of my life as a twin. For example, as children, my sister and I would spend hours on end on a double swing in our garden. We would sing and chat and immerse ourselves in imaginative games, even covering the whole thing in sheets so we could hide away together. I can remember the exhilaration of swinging as high as we could and then launching ourselves off the seats.
I also wanted to acknowledge the initial stages of the project so framed one of the fabric images of my sister and used it in one of the lifts. In another photograph, I included a child’s dress made from a vintage pattern. The fabric was printed with the image overlay sequence I created at the very start of this project.
The Blue Twin has altered course and evolved. In the same way, the deep bond and connection I have with my sister continues to change as we progress with our own lives and, as individuals, make our way in the world.
See Naomi’s Shutter Hub portfolio here.
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