Umbra Sumus – Artists Statement Update

Posted on March 28, 2014


I have looked again at my artist statement for Umbra Sumus (I appear to have fixed on this as the title for my East End Work). Here is the latest version which updates the critical context for the work and seeks the position the work as an exploration of the ephemeral nature of immigration in London’s East End rather than a ‘history’. The new text is below.


London’s East End has been a destination for immigrants for centuries. Successive waves have settled in the area because of its proximity to the docks and the City, and the prospects of finding cheap housing and unskilled work. Incomers have had to confront violence, prejudice, and poverty. Most have ultimately been integrated into British society and many have subsequently moved away from the area, often leaving little trace of their former presence.

Umbra Sumus explores the ephemeral nature of immigration in London’s East End. It takes the form of a series of photographs of modern day places and people, juxtaposed with texts providing historical context. The places are of significance in the history of immigration in the area. The people are descendants of earlier immigrants.

I have taken my title from the inscription on the sundial of the Jamme Masjid Mosque in Spitalfields, which reads ‘Umbra Sumus’. It is a quotation from Horace and means ‘We are shadows’. It refers to the transient nature of human existence.

Critical Context

The work explores the idea of the photograph as a memorial of the past. Barthes, Sonntag and others have all written on this concept. It also raises questions about the whether we can really know the truth of what lies beneath the surface of a photograph? Can a picture of a landscape, for example, reveal the history of what happened in that particular place? This is another area for research. 

There are several contemporary documentary photographers whose landscape work is relevant to my project. These include Simon Norfolk, Angela Kelly, David Gillanders, Richard Misrach and Joel Sternfeld. I also plan to look again at Zarina Bhimji’s work. She does not use text but adeptly combines sound and images to convey a sense of the past. As regards the portraits I am interested in exploring Shirin Neshat’s recent work ‘Our House Is on Fire’ which intertwines portraiture and text.

The interplay between the image and text is an important consideration in the work. I want there to be a disjuncture between each photograph and its associated text. My hope is that this will cause the viewer to question what this might mean and through their enquiry to open up alternative meanings. I need to explore the critical texts on this question. Barthes ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ will be a starting point.

My Critical Review, ‘CONTEXT AND MEANING IN DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY – A Comparative Study’, is also highly relevant to this project.

Aesthetic Considerations

I am planning to shoot the landscapes in the early morning and at night when there are no people around. My sense is that if there were people in the frame, they would draw the attention of the viewer away from the subject of the photograph, which is the place itself. Shooting in low light will also result in a dramatic and expressive style. Perhaps the shadows in my low-key images will be read as metaphors for people from the past.

I have yet to finally decide on how I might present the portraits. To a great extent this will depend on the style which proves successful for the landscapes as I would want there to be a consistency throughout the series. My thoughts at the moment are that I will continue to use a low key aesthetic (as per the landscapes). I will also aim to avoid drawing attention to present day clothing, accessories and backgrounds. I want the faces of the portrait subjects to operate as a window into the history of their families. With this in mind it is likely that the portraits will be tightly framed (head-shots or head and shoulders) against a dark background.

Presentation of the Work

In total I expect to present around 20-30 images with supporting texts. I am unclear at the moment how I will show the work. Options range from large-scale gallery prints to a slideshow that controls the sequencing of image/text or a combination of these. The key will be to find a way to ensure that when a viewer looks at the photographs they already have the historical context fixed in their minds. The risk of using large prints is that these would divert the attention of the viewer away from the associated text. Conversely, I want each photograph to a site for contemplation, which implies that the viewer should be able look at the photographs in their own time. In a video/slideshow the artist controls the sequencing and timing. The trick will be to strike a balance between these two considerations.

Keith Greenough, March 2014

Here is the current status of the image/text combinations (Work in Progress).

Umbra Sumus ©Keith Greenough2014

Umbra Sumus
©Keith Greenough2014