See Artist-in-Residence James A. Hudson's pictures of the Ashmolean from his own unusual angles. Captured just after its restoration a few years ago, the images show how often visitors accidentally mirror the artefacts that they are viewing...
By James A. Hudson
(Artist in Residence at the Ashmolean, 2011)
It started out, like so many projects, with wandering. I’d moved to Oxford; the Ashmolean Museum had re-opened after a multi-million pound rebuild, and I just wandered in. Almost immediately I started taking photographs somewhat surreptitiously - I was probably subject to the conventional wisdom that museums jealously guard the image rights to what they display. Only later did I realise that photography was not only permitted but actively encouraged by the Ashmolean.
People in museums often mimic the exhibits they are looking at, sometimes jokingly, as if they were mirrors, and sometimes completely unconsciously. I began to notice the interactions between the Ashmolean’s visitors and its new architecture, as well as between visitors and the objects on display. Often the similarity between object and viewer was something I could only see from my particular vantage point - my subjects having no idea they were ever in such a relationship. Glass cabinets started to contain visitors and not merely the objects. In fact, everything that I saw in the Museum became one of its objects as I wandered around, while the black and white film in my camera removed sound, movement and colour from the situations.
Later, when I showed some of the work to the writer Heathcote Williams, he suggested that my growing collection of images was starting to resemble a “cabinet of curiosities” - Elias Ashmolean’s original title for his collection. Although I never really bought into that idea, several months later I decided to show my own version of the “cabinet of curiosities” to the Museum’s press office.
At some point quite far into the project I remembered reading about statues coming alive and people being turned into inanimate objects in Ovid’s stories of metamorphosis, and decided to re-read some of them. In one story, Daphne becomes a tree; in another, Pyrrha and Deucalion create a new race of men from stones thrown on the ground. These changes in form happen over and over again. The frustration caused by an inability to speak is also a recurring theme in Ovid’s stories, and this related to what I was seeing in the Museum - quiet, often silent, visitors and speechless objects.
Some of the photographs might look as if they are set up, but they are not. The girl on the gantry with her hands in the air, unknowingly mimicking the ancient miniature gures, was (I later found out) actually a dancer practising for a future performance in the atrium of the Museum. The religious persuasion of the man praying was revealed to me at exactly the moment I took the photograph. And the young girl with one leg appeared only after many months of hoping something might happen near the important cast of the ancient one-legged statue of the sherman.
Metamorphosis: Form and Change in the Ashmolean Museum captures and preserves the moments of true and often tender connection I witnessed between members of the public and their historical predecessors - a pictorial study of men and women finding identity, companionship, and solace in art.
The collection of photographs is now available as a beautifully produced hardback photobook, published by The Bardwell Press (Oxford: 2016). Featuring 77 high quality duotone images, the book is available in a limited edition of 350 plus a limited edition of 20 with a presentation slipcase (all signed, stamped and numbered). Lamba fibre prints of the images are also available. Copies of the book can be purchased from RRB Photobooks. For the slipcase edition or prints please contact the artist studio direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About James A. Hudson
With a photography career spanning over 20 years, Bristol-based photographer James A. Hudson started out shooting for skateboarding magazines, before moving on to a variety of personal and commissioned projects. Rooted in social documentary, his personal projects are often inspired by literature, history and personal experience, whilst his commissioned work is carried out largely within the cultural and built environment sectors. His work has featured in a wide a range of publications, exhibitions and festivals, including the FORMAT International Photography Festival. Further information at www.jamesahudson.info.
*NEWS: The Ashmolean Museum has almost finished a major refurbishment of its 19th century galleries, enabled by a gift from two of the museum’s most generous supporters, Barrie and Deedee Wigmore. The galleries will reopen on Friday May 13.
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All images © James A Hudson