[Guest post by Stephen Palmer]
What makes a man go out into his local wood to take photographs of fungi?
In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy the main character, Monique, a resident at Shrobbesbury Orphanage, is a young woman with a talent only men are supposed to have. She encounters great resistance from those believing she is a freak – perhaps a dangerous freak, because she isn’t a man – and her story follows her attempts to understand why she is talented and why she is different; and then, what to do about that. Resistance comes from the Reifiers, men able to make real the contents of their minds.
These novels are set in 1899-1900, and one of Monique’s closest friends is a French painter, Henri Manguin, a real person who I encountered whilst reading a book about the Impressionists. Monique and Henri engage over the course of the first two volumes in a conversation about what creativity is, especially in the field of art. Monique paints buildings and other structures with a modernity and zest which takes Henri’s breath away. He, meanwhile, paints evocative images of the orphanage pool, in which he sees ethereal images of his childhood in Paris.
At first, Monique is wary of Henri, despite him clearly being in awe of her. In fact, Henri soon realises Monique’s talent is a gift, which he nurtures, not least because she is an orphan with absolutely no prospects other than servitude. Yet the two, as their relationship develops, begin to tease out the characteristics of visual art, and when in the second volume Monique meets a certain Mr Bleakmonger, her education improves further.
Art, Henri says, “is following nature, yet interpreting it also… to make a painting we grasp what is inside our mind, we splash it out upon the canvas.” Later he says, “We take nature as it is, though we interpret what we see for our canvases. But a Reifier, he take what he believes to be nature from his mind, which we would never do – which we could never do. And such a man therefore can on occasion be wrong.” To this Monique says, “Then I must be open to the world, not closed to it.” When with Mr Bleakmonger she says, “I was thinking of my creativity. Mr Bleakmonger, it could be one of two things. On the one hand is the selfish option – forcing your will upon the world to make real the mind’s fancies. My creativity is the same process, making real my mind’s images, yet it’s the selfless option. I reach into my mind, to create… I do believe I see the difference now! A Reifier reaches into his mind, but he doesn’t interpret the world. He doesn’t allow the world a chance to affect his sentiments. He blocks it off. He denies it… An artist allows the world to have a profound effect deep inside them, because they’re sensitive. When I paint, I welcome the world into me, and then I interpret it.”
What then of our photographer? It is surely the fungi and the atmosphere of the wood which affect him: Nature. He is sensitive to it. The wonder and beauty of the wood, and the things growing in it, affect his deeper mind – “We take nature as it is, though we interpret what we see for our canvases…” – which in turn gives him the impulse to create, interpreting the wood through his lens. And although photography is a technique of capturing reality, the person behind the camera uses insight and sensitivity to choose and frame what they wish to photograph. Photography is Art. To quote Monet: “Every day I discover more and more beautiful things, it’s enough to drive one mad.”
Monica Orphan, book one in the Conjuror Girl trilogy:
All three books in the trilogy are now available.