When Siân Davey’s stepdaughter Martha asked her why Davey no longer took photographs of her, the Brighton-born artist was taken aback. She hadn’t anticipated that the teenager would have realised the photographer’s subject matter was shifting towards Martha’s toddler sister Alice.
In response, Davey began focusing on Martha with renewed attention, capturing her development within shared family settings, but also among her friends as “the young woman shaping herself as a social being,” giving the project a youthful breadth and liveliness.
Published in 2018 after three years of shooting, Martha reflects this focus on adolescence as a plural, interconnected period. It shows Martha in the home and holidaying with her parents and siblings, while also capturing her partying and relaxing with friends, their similar age creating a shared atmosphere of anticipation and excitement.
These latter images speak to the layers that characterise the pair’s relationship: the artist’s multiple identities of “stepmother, mentor and friend” mean that she hovers between parental intrusion and distanced observer, allowing her to document the romance, vulnerability and emotion of youth with greater intimacy and authenticity. This is epitomised in Last Summer Kiss (2017), where the central figure of Martha stares directly to the lens, in contrast to the obliviousness of the embracing pair behind her.
Davey’s images feel unchoreographed and loose: empty cider bottles and roll-up cigarette materials remain in shot throughout the lakeside photographs, positioned as props of youth rather than tarnishing features. In another shot, Martha looks directly down the camera as if posing for a careful portrait, but in the foreground her friend clumsily chews a piece of pizza, interrupting the illusion of grandeur.
The effect is similar in Last Summer Kiss. Its human components suggest the seriousness of love and companionship, but Davey remains closely in touch with the transience and lightness of youth, all observed from her safe and knowing distance.
Ravi Ghosh is Elephant’s editorial assistant
Siân Davey and Eleanor Antin: On Hannah Arendt: The Crisis in Education
Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, until 18 SeptemberVISIT WEBSITE