On Becoming An Angel: Dan Commons

Nature is more raw out in the provincial areas. The desolate and the blooming sit aside one another. Coiling vines and sprawling undergrowth, windswept and seldom-travelled rivers and lightning-cracked trees all impose a stricken grandeur. Out here, angels in old graveyards wear in gusts while livestock are born. At least in Britain, the church is present in structure, but increasingly absent in spirit; small villages and market towns are organized in part around these grand buildings, now often a reminder of our past, of a more conservative social order.

Commons’ silver paper, light-trails and chemical splatters may seem at first just a distanced, photographic language intended for those who still know what a darkroom is. The pages are silver-coated, smooth to the touch — almost as though wet with photographic developing chemicals. Yet riddled with flash-lit graveyard angels, monochrome greenery and blurred horses, Commons’ world shines, it glows. That stricken grandeur creeps through here, building in atmosphere across the book.

Halfway through, a penis with a flower trailing out of the urethra, as though a sprout from a seed. At first ambiguous images (a water-tower, a milk jug, a blooming dandelion) coalesce with these numerous angelic statues and darkroom splatters. These darkroom splatters – and an androgynous nude – seem to hint at a more down-to-earth existence than the chaste aspirations of the church. Here, the ingredients of life move unceasingly, as The Word says is good, but so does desire, sexuality.

As the product of a method or process, No Silver Bird seems to be the result of someone who wants to elevate the scenes of daily life into an ecstatic, shimmering experience of seeing, an attempt at using photography to represent life with a transcendent nudge.

Commons’ follow-up Absent Air is claustrophobic. Here, in this town, the waters of life manifest in piss on a street corner, clouds wreaked with darkroom-chemical stains, silver winter snow. Thorns and wire barriers, contorted nude figures. Though these develop thematic coherence, there is no consistent shooting style, no linear sequence here, no dialogue from one page to the next. This discontinuity builds tension in both form and structure. This all makes Absent Air subvert my expectations page-to-page, something I must scrutinise, something to which I must give meaning. At the same time, the images of human figures and the body that punctuate these location-oriented scenes seem, in their stylised horror aesthetics, almost overloaded with affect.

It’s difficult to say exactly what Absent Air is doing, except to pull on a feeling of anxiety, centred around life in what seems to be a small English town. When Jason Evans photographed around New York for NYLPT (2012), he listened to ambient drone music, setting the mood for his carefree multi-exposure experimentation. A musical analogue to Absent Air would be more like Stephen O’Malley’s Gruidés [link], where cracks and clatters punctuate long orchestral drones flowing between harmony and dissonance. I get the sense that, structurally speaking, Absent Air is an attempt to prevent images from being read as pairs or in a sequence, to instead make a collection of photographs that work on both an individual level, and which amalgamate as a whole. Half drone; half clatter.

Commons seems to be taking experimentation as his practice. Some images look as though they could have been shot at the same time as No Silver Bird. Yet when his style or method has changed, it seems as though he has just mixed new and old work together, rather than segregating the two into separate projects. The result for me is a more diaristic practice, where Commons’ way of approaching the world is as much the subject of each project as whatever its ideas are. While I prefer No Silver Bird, this approach makes Commons a photographer whose work I will want to follow and continue to collect — not because I expect to like all of it, but for the same reason I would buy every album from musicians like Stephen O’Malley. That is, I want to see what they’re doing next, how they are developing as artists and changing their way of thinking, rather than how they pursue a particular trend or aesthetic until it’s bled dry.

Dan Commons
Salt n Pepper Press 2019, 2020

All Rights Reserved: Text © Callum Beaney; Images © Dan Commons/Salt n Pepper Press