An unused introduction text for ‘Dragons and Snakestones’ by Jamie Dormer-Durling, 2021, a photographic book about the fossil discoveries of Mary Anning.
Representation is difficult and history is contested. The photographer Jamie Dormer-Durling reminds us of this. He turns his camera to the fold of a drawing gently distorting its image, the semi-transparency of paper with the scrawl and bleed of ink, and the compression of what was once living into a physical stone form. The fossils, field notes and correspondence of Mary Anning have become the subject matter for his lens.
Mary Anning was born to a poor family of religious dissenters and had no formal education so far as we know. From an early age, she developed an intimate knowledge of the land walking the beaches and searching for fossils with her father. In later life that obsession with looking and trying to understand led her to make observations missed by the establishment. Working outside of the establishment freed Mary Anning from the constrains of it, but prevented her discoveries from reaching wider acclaim. In fact, there were those who sought to benefit from those discoveries. Adding your name to an artefact (plate XXIV - Prof Sedgwick) maybe one way to include your name in history, but what if that name is as meaningless as a graffiti tag marked on a building? What if the marks of an activity are around an artefact but those marks do not form academic texts and publications? Jamie Dormer-Durling takes us back to the origins of this story through his photography. He scrutinises the contours as if searching for the true signatures and asks us to re-evaluate the evidence. His photographs bring us close to the activity, through the years, to Mary Anning’s hand itself.
We have the artefacts, the documentation and discussion around those artefacts, and a collective understanding that is being challenged. The arts have always been interested in challenging the status quo and at times of uncertainty, (as I write there are differing narratives around coronavirus, global versus national, the legacy of colonialism, truth in the media and fake news), the search for better answers and equity has never been more necessary. At times of national doubt, we naturally look back checking our path to see where we might have gone wrong. Here we have found the reassurance of rock and stone. What could be more stable and real than stone itself?
Stephen Monger is a photographer and academic at UWE Bristol.
The book can be purchased here