Limitations can set you free. In the art world and in society, institutions and gatekeepers often hold the keys to individual opportunities. These closed circles, whether rooted in race, gender, class, status or otherwise, can be exhausting and impenetrable if one is trying to make work that reaches a wider audience or has a broader impact. Having certain limitations can enable artists to draw from new perspectives when creating.
A photograph itself is, in a sense, the ultimate limitation, capturing a split second of the external world in a single still frame. In practice, there is the common “one camera, one lens” restriction that some photographers might impose upon themselves when shooting. There are also broader boundaries such as confining oneself to a specific place within which to photograph: a city, a studio, or even one’s own home.
For the Manchester based photographer Robert Parkinson, limiting himself in his work is nothing new, but it took on new meaning at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and during the worldwide lockdowns that ensued. From March to April 2020, Parkinson photographed what he saw of the outside world from just one window in his home, gathering images that would become the aptly titled publication, Rear Window.
Previously, Parkinson had collaborated with photographer Adam Murray on a decade-long project called Preston is my Paris, which included publishing zines, organizing installations and educational events, and ultimately, a retrospective self-titled book in 2019. Murray and Parkinson’s grassroots publishing imprint, Preston is my Paris Publishing, or PPP, made work that was free to the public and celebrated regional identity with a focus on social and political engagement, all by highlighting the disregarded and the ordinary within their unassuming hometown of Preston, UK.
In Rear Window, Parkinson again uses limitations to his advantage. Photographing from the view provided by a three-panel window in his central Manchester home, Parkinson is able to make the work feel like it was made from multiple windows, or even from several different homes. The distillation of everything down to the fundamental aspects of photography: subject, light and composition, allowed him to focus on the essence of what he saw in front of the lens from that fixed perspective. The vantage point is the same; the pictures certainly are not.
Parkinson uses elements like shadow, texture, and abstraction to create strikingly diverse images. Only four pictures in the book contain human subjects: a group of construction workers passing by. Were these pictures made on the same day? Or were the workers there throughout the entire week in which he photographed? It seems like an inconsequential question, but within the context of confinement and isolation, these tiny nuances become magnified, and in some strange way, embellished by their ordinariness, like the feeling of waiting all day to make the trip to the mailbox to see what treasures wait inside. Likewise, a parking meter draped in late afternoon sunlight becomes a tower of aesthetic pleasure. A patch of intensely yellow daffodils in shadowy contrast to the grass they sit on becomes a fond memory of an afternoon spent in a friend’s garden. A group of birds nestled in a canopy of trees across the street might evoke the desire for freedom of flight.
The images speak in grand, ornate sentences while having little to work with in terms of visual vocabulary. The design by Tide Press makes smart use of varying crops and smaller print sizes. The layout and placement of images on each page might initially seem random and haphazard, but upon repeat viewing, it echoes the movement of daily life during lockdown, each day illogically melting into the next without end.
“The power of Rear Window lies in its simplicity and unassuming nature, and its ability to take a universally shared experience and stretch the viewer’s perception and understanding of it.”
Parkinson states that in the midst of isolation, with not seeing anyone in person for weeks, he photographed as a way to maintain sanity and to explore and deconstruct something he should know like the back of his hand: his own home and surroundings. It was spring in Manchester and he was able to chronicle the growth of trees, the coming and going of birds, and flowers blooming. He found new ways of observing his own domestic environment by focusing on things changing and moving in front of that single window. The power of Rear Window lies in its simplicity and unassuming nature, and its ability to take a universally shared experience and stretch the viewer’s perception and understanding of it.
For Parkinson, limitations, whether self-imposed or external, help him to focus while making work. In this sense, limiting oneself while creating can simply be a way of crystallizing artistic intentions and visions. By creating apart from a set of established norms and values, and working with restrictions that help refine their objectives, an artist can build a new set of values and perspectives from which to perceive the world. They can transform limitation into liberation.