The vocabulary of mental health is not recent by any means, and yet it feels as if only in the past decade has its language started to fall into place. Still a controversial topic in both formal and casual contexts, the open language of short- and long-term feelings and states of mind is fertile ground for (mis)communication. I know the problem first-hand – trying to describe generalised anxiety to family and medical professionals alike without knowing that all the disparate symptoms fell under this umbrella stretched my linguistic resources so far that I described it as being possessed. I have become more well-versed since then, so when I read Marie Smith’s book title, The Fog Has Lifted, I immediately recognised that feeling of mental clarity, of relieving peace that follows, in my case, an episode of anxiety and confirms the return to my usual self. Smith’s fog is my cotton wool; the words in themselves matter less than their sensorial potential. The vocabulary of mental health can hardly be factual, medical; it is in fact acutely poetic.
The vocabulary of mental health can hardly be factual, medical; it is in fact acutely poetic.
Smith’s book takes the shape of an undated diary that brings together writing and black-and-white photographs. Her raw observations, both introspective and extrospective, were recorded on a private page on her website and acted as the base of the book. It’s rare that someone allows you to become so immersed in their personal thoughts, and the interweaving of the past and present tenses places me in a state of immediacy, absorbed by Smith’s honest dissections of her own behaviour and mental state. The book starts with an account of Antidepressants Discontinuation Syndrome, which Smith goes through when she suddenly decides to come off her anti-depression medication. It goes on to discuss living through the pandemic under a right-wing government as a Black woman, and yet finishes on a hopeful note – ‘My anxieties have become more low level, yet they still remain. However, despite everything, I feel I have been on a huge learning curve over the past few months.’ The relationship between mental health, grief, and creativity is constantly assessed throughout the book, much like one would keep an eye on their symptoms before deciding it’s time to act on them.
Most of the photographs were taken before Smith conceived the book and only a few, including the cover image, were taken to round up everything into a standalone body of work. The artist’s labour, in this case, is more that of an editor, who brings together various strands of her practice from different points in time in a series that I cannot help but associate with the contradictions of 2020 and 2021, the restless and yet solitary and sluggish lockdowns. Many will look at Smith’s self-portraits in an empty room – white walls, bare wooden floors, a two-seater sofa, and an ottoman, and will be reminded of their own homes closing in on them during the pandemic. But these photographs were taken before this time, in the house of a friend who was moving out. To me, this speaks of images and societal imagination constantly going back and forth; we imagine, we live, we project, we assign and understand meaning in a never-ending cycle of processing our being in the world.
The publication’s simple but effective design, formally reminiscent of Jason Evans’ NYLPT, acts as a structure or as scaffolding for the interplay of images and text. While the latter takes centre stage, in the background, the pages run from fully black to equally split between black and white, a visual concept that concomitantly sustains a sense of dramatic tension, of discomfort, and of the respite slowly making its way into Smith’s life. It reminds the reader that perturbed mental health can make one feel in extremes, in pure black and white, with no greys and no middle ground to negotiate the self’s withdrawal from and reinsertion in the world in realistic terms.
The relationship between text and images can be a difficult one to navigate for me; I immediately jump on the former and just glance at the latter. When I find them together, I seem to expect the same from photographs as I do from words – to say something. Yet photographs are mute. Smith’s book keeps them separate; generally, one spread is dedicated to text and the following to a picture, which usually sits on one page. This creates ample room for the reader to meet and take in the narrator’s voice, on the one hand, and, on the other, her self-represented figure and the environments she is in behind the camera as an artist, but absent from the picture as a character. The work is so personal that it could have easily left the viewer out, however one can feel that there has been a great degree of care involved in how all these spaces and timelines can coexist coherently and invite the outside in for a change.
The work is so personal that it could have easily left the viewer out, however one can feel that there has been a great degree of care involved in how all these spaces and timelines can coexist coherently and invite the outside in for a change.
The book is also a timely example of the dependency relationship between the personal and the political spheres within the Black artist’s life, which is articulated in Smith’s account of her experience of the NHS as a Black patient. It is during the pandemic that the artist questions her position within society, when Belly Mujinga, a Black London Transport worker dies after being spat and coughed on by a man while on duty. This particularly shocking event prompts Smith to write that as a Black woman, her life never felt so precarious, and that she feels ‘suffocated by COVID-19, Brexit and the rhetoric of the right wing government’. The personal is political, but the political is also deeply personal, and all the while the creative process is stretched between the many issues that gnaw at the artist.
The two self-portraits that come before and after Smith’s reaction to Mujinga’s untimely death couldn’t be more different. In the first one, Smith stands in the door, looking expressionlessly at the camera, her arms hanging down listlessly. She looks weak, powerless, undecided whether to step into the bright room or to recede into the darkness behind her. The second photograph, which can also be seen on the cover, shows the artist in the forest, with her eyes closed. She is engulfed by the branches of the fir trees, with shadows playing on her face. She doesn’t look resigned, but as if she is recharging peacefully. The choice between light and dark is not a question anymore, instead their coexistence is embraced. In the first instance, the photograph seems to act as Smith’s escape from her own head; focussing on the world and especially on making is known to ease depression and anxiety. In the second, she appears more at ease, more comfortable in her own body.
Much like the language of mental health, the fluid and diverse artistic vocabulary is still a much-discussed concept. A useful notion for any critic, it allows a breakdown of the artist’s strategies in order to evaluate cohesion, not to pass judgement on value. Looking at The Fog Has Lifted as one piece in Smith’s practice, it becomes clear that this book marks a shift in the way she approaches photography. Firstly, on this occasion, she starts using black-and-white film and makes a connection between the mindful process of shooting film and the alleviation of her anxious mindset. Secondly, if we are to disengage the photographs from the text, the project becomes a question – what happens when the Black figure is visualised in the landscape, a question most famously asked by Ingrid Pollard in her 1988 Pastoral Interlude, where she criticised the exclusive association of the Black experience with an urban environment.
The difference is that in this book, as well as in the following series, The Wanderer, we see Smith herself. The question becomes complicated by the presence of the artist in front of the camera, by her own gaze upon herself. Any viewer needs to recognise that in this case, as in any instance of an artist positioning themselves in front of the camera, their gaze is not entirely their own, but moulded onto the artist’s. Smith looking at herself through photographs is a double-sided gesture: on the one hand, it seems to be a way of positioning herself as an artist who tackles the creative process itself as a subject and the ways in which her mental health shapes it; on the other, through it she performs the intimacy needed for the viewer to connect on an affective level. She doesn’t simply want to be seen, but observed as someone aware of her vulnerability and who acknowledges that the photograph is part of a wider process.