New photography acquisition: Siân Davey

January 11, 2024

‘There is an expiry date to anger. It just turns inwards if it burns too long, so I turned to spirituality and transformed anger into love. That turning inwards took me into psychotherapy and then in my 40s, a portrait photographer.’

Siân Davey
The Garden II, photograph, by Siân Davey, 2021. Museum no. PH.2040-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Looking at Siân Davey’s (born 1964) photographs, it comes as no surprise that she has a deep interest in, and connection to people. ‘From a small child I always wanted to connect with others,’ she says. ‘We were often in temporary accommodation and I would make friends with the elderly people in my community, shop for them and call by their houses for a chat.’ She may not have known it then, but this experience would guide her toward becoming a therapist and act as the seed for her photographic career.

Since 2014, she has produced numerous bodies of work, and in 2022, the V&A was delighted to purchase four of her photographs, generously funded by Rafaël Biosse Duplan and the V&A Americas Foundation through the generosity of Dominique Levy. The pictures are drawn from two different series, Martha (2015 – 2016) and The Garden (2021 – 2023).

Martha in the Morning, photograph, by Siân Davey, 2015 – 16. Museum no. PH.2038-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Martha began when Davey’s stepdaughter, Martha, asked why she had stopped photographing her. Davey had spent the last several years working on a photography project about her youngest daughter, Alice, and was struck by the question. What did Martha’s question suggest about the inner life of a teenage girl and Davey’s relationship to her? In response, Davey spent the following years photographing Martha and her peers in a way that, according to Davey, would ‘embody who they really are’. In Martha in the Morning, a docile looking Martha stands against the kitchen sink lit by calm morning sun. Her eyes are locked onto the camera’s lens, hinting at a sense of rebellion only partially masked by her youthful appearance. In Gathered by the River – 7pm, we see Martha among friends scrutinising photographs on a camera’s miniature LCD screen, while others smoke roll-ups and eat crisps. Equal parts vulnerable and defiant, Davey’s pictures of Martha and her social group reveal the opposing forces of a version of teenagerhood and get us closer to the heart of Martha’s negotiation with childhood and adulthood.

Gathered by the River – 7pm, photograph, by Siân Davey, 2015 – 16. Museum no. PH.2037-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is notable how Davey’s affection for people translates to all living matter in her series The Garden. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she and her son Luke, who are both practicing Tibetan Buddhists, cleared their overgrown back garden and created an oasis where flowers ‘erupted from every corner’. ‘It was perhaps inevitable that [Luke and I] would meet spiritually in our creativity,’ she says. When I asked Davey about the genesis of the project she told me,

‘when making a new piece of work one never knows what one is actually doing and what the work will reveal about us and the world that we live in. We have very little creative control over that. Every time I doubted the process, I was reminded to cease my desire to control it. For example, Luke’s anarchic ‘overcrowded’ planting, seemed too chaotic, I feared that the plants wouldn’t have space to grow and the project would fall apart. I kept questioning him, and then was internally reminded (and by Luke) to relinquish my control and attachment to ambition and let the process speak for itself and find its own way.’

The incredible care and intention that went into sowing this garden of earthly delights manifested into a public place of respite from the pandemic. The garden was open to all – friends, neighbours and strangers – and while there, Davey would ask if she could take their picture. In the photograph, The Garden II, a man gracefully navigates blossoming plant life while coordinating a dog lead and two small children. The Garden I shows lovers pressed on top of each other on a carpet of emerald green grass. For two people lying nude in a neighbour’s garden, they look completely at ease. This is a testament to Davey’s approach to photographing, which is to ‘photograph how I want myself to be treated by others,’ and the sense of safety offered by the garden. Davey recalls how ‘the people who entered [the garden] felt as though they were always meant to be there. We observed people disarming, relinquishing their holding, and returning to a state of equanimity and love. The garden revealed that we are nature, we had just forgotten. It was magical to witness.’

The Garden I, photograph, by Siân Davey, 2021. Museum no. PH.2039-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Not long ago, my colleague Debora Moritz posted about The Garden on the Parasol Women in Photography Instagram account. They described the artist’s ‘exploration of family dynamics, particularly those that are complex or non-traditional’ and how this ‘might resonate with the queer community, many of whom have had to navigate complex familial relationships due to their identities.’ Crucially, they concluded that, ‘[Davey’s] work can be seen as a subtle challenge to the heteronormative model of family, broadening the concept to a more inclusive understanding.’ This is an important assessment of the work because it confirms the project’s mindful ambition. Davey’s photographs convey an admirable level of emotional intelligence and genuine interest in the psychological territories that underpin our lived experiences as individuals and a collective. Whether it is her stepdaughter Martha or the strangers that visited her family’s garden of Eden, Davey’s sitters extol empathy, compassion and calm within uncontrollable and complex times. In her words, ‘The Garden became a metaphor for the human heart itself. When there is nothing but love there is no need to hide. It is this quality of reconnection that you see in the pictures.’ 

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