Marianne McGurk explores the grief of her mother’s death in the photo series This is how she lives on.
She is the winner of the graduate Photoworks Prize, receiving a £200 printing voucher from Spectrum Photographic.
We talk to her about her practice, representing phases of grief in her work and the need to have open conversations about loss.
‘Everything just came to a stop’
McGurk studied fine art sculpture in the early 2000s before returning to education for a BA in Photography at Blackpool in 2012.
Her early experience resonates in her photographic work which incorporates sculptural elements.
She often creates scenes and characters.
“Surrealism plays a big part in my practice,” she says.
“My work has always been autobiographical as well.”
In 2012 McGurk was showing Eva as part of Fresh Faced and Wild Eyed at The Photographer’s Gallery London.
She was also four months pregnant. It was at this time that her mother died.
“Everything just came to a stop,” she says.
“I was dealing with these conflicting emotions. On the one hand I had this newborn baby which was wonderful but I had lost my mother.
“There was both life and death.”
This is how she lives on
McGurk ended up taking a step back from photography.
But in 2017 she began creating new work.
She knew her mother was going to be an element of that work but was unsure what form it would take.
Inspiration came from an unexpected source – the Natural History Museum.
“I became completely enamoured with the rocks and minerals collection,” says McGurk.
Then she discovered it was possible to grow your own at home.
When she glanced at her mother’s lipstick collection sitting in her studio she decided to grow the crystals directly onto them.
“I was looking at the crystals and looking at the lipsticks and my mum’s DNA is still on these lipsticks,” she says.
“Each crystal grew differently and it was like my mum was deciding how they grew. This is how she lives on.”
‘I was just spending time with my mother’
When McGurk started her MA she knew her mother’s lipsticks would be the focus of her work.
She has spent the past two years repeatedly photographing them in different styles.
The early images are shot in black and white with dark, void-like backgrounds reflecting McGurk’s feelings of grief and isolation.
She then made paper negatives creating a ghostly contrast to the previous darkness.
After that, however, she felt it was time to move on to something different.
“As a person I am all about colour. I had to bring myself into it because at that point it was all about my mother.”
McGurk started making colour paper negatives which came out with a golden hue and then colour photograms.
Since then, she has shot and printed the lipsticks in almost every style imaginable – apart from cyanotype which she hopes to do next.
“Repeating the process of photographing these lipsticks in different ways I felt I was searching for something,” she says.
When McGurk presented her work at university they would ask if she wanted to widen the focus.
But she felt sure focusing on the lipsticks was still the right thing for her at the time.
“I just worked through it until I eventually found colour.
“What I realised I was doing in using these different processes was I was just spending time with my mother.
“These repeated processes were just me processing my grief.”
Reliving final memories
McGurk describes spending two weeks in the darkroom working on negatives as a meditative experience.
She thought about how each lipstick had been sculpted by her mother’s hands.
She pondered when her mother had worn each one, who she had spoken to, who she had kissed.
When McGurk reached the point of colour seen in the latest images she felt she was ready to move the project forward.
She began incorporating other memories of her mother, including sharing wishbones from a chicken roast – something McGurk does with her own children today.
McGurk also collected her mother’s ashes to photograph their minute details.
“They were still her bones,” she says.
“When we were preparing her for burial we dressed her in this black cardigan with big black buttons and in the ashes you could see the black beads.”
In the end, the project was cathartic.
“It has been a real process to work through my grief and the trauma of her passing.
“She spent five days in hospital before she died and we came together as a family to be with her. Through this project I have relived those memories.”
The landscape of grief has changed
McGurk now wants to create a book and introduce the project to a wider community.
“It has been really hard doing a project on grief through a pandemic,” she says.
“The landscape of grief has been forever changed by COVID-19.
“Everyone has experienced grief over the last 18 months whether that is the loss of a life or the loss of experience, of a potential life lived.”
McGurk believes it is important to have open conversations about dying and grief, particularly after COVID-19 when so many people lost the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
“A funeral is a safe space where everyone gets to come together and grieve.
“We live in a country where, since the World Wars we don’t have outward displays of mourning.
“I want to start a conversation on grief and make people feel comfortable talking about it. People don’t talk about it yet it happens to everybody.”
For more on the Photoworks Prize visit photoworks.org.uk/marianne-mcgurk.
View more of McGurk’s work at mariannemcgurk.com.