Not much, photographically speaking, happens in St Agnes, a small Cornish coastal town that retains a distinct village feel.
If you live here, like me, and have a thirst for imagery that goes beyond a beautiful sunset or a sweeping beach scene, you do tend to have to travel further afield to quench your desire.
And that’s why, on a grey day with a constant Cornish mizzle, a beacon of considered and thought-provoking photographic light lit up a room in the Miners and Mechanics’ Institute.
Donning a rain coat, I set off to see the project, This Poisoned Isle, a collaboration between photographer Dara McGrath and historian Ulf Schmidt.
The touring exhibition, which launched in St Agnes on September 21, aims to engage local communities with the history of, and their connection to, chemical and biological warfare trials that have taken place in the UK since World War I.
The images displayed come from McGrath’s series, Project Cleansweep, on which the pair worked on its exhibition catalogue.
With the majority of images devoid of a physical human presence, they have a disquieting ability to compel you to look deeper. They unsettle and prod at your curiosity.
With neutral lighting, McGrath’s photographs create a tension between an evidential aesthetic and a sense of intrigue.
The photograph ‘Nancekuke, Cornwall’, which is only 16 miles from St Agnes, pictures a dividing metal fence cutting across rough and ready scrubland. It was, in the 1950s, the UK’s main site for making nerve agents.
‘Little Heath, Suffolk’ shows us an abandoned chair on a former storage site for mustard gas. You can feel the cold of the melting snow surrounding the empty seat but you can’t be sure the chill is from your perception of the temperature or the story of the place.
There is a comedy in the image ‘Woodside, Flintshire’. At first glance you see a patch of grass edged by a wood with what looks like oil drums snaking along the fence. On closer inspection it appears as if the drums are marked with chemical warning signs. Looking closer still, you can see birds dotted nearby and even right next to the containers. Once a place to store chemical weapons in bulk, the field is now used to raise grouse. The drums contain their feed and they merrily help themselves.
Both photographer and historian are passionate about the research behind this work. McGrath spent time in each location, talking to locals to find their truths, investigating the areas online before, and often revisiting to give his work gravitas. Schmidt is the author of Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments and Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent.
Their aim is to use this collaboration, without judgement, to engage with the communities that have been involved in, or affected by, the UK’s chemical weapons programme.
I spoke to McGrath after the talk. He said that he often felt a sense of guilt when taking these images. “When I take a photograph of a person, in some ways I am taking their soul for that moment, I have it forever. I feel the same about these landscapes. I go to these places and I somehow feel guilty; I’m intruding in these landscapes. It’s very important to me to go back to a community and say I appreciate you letting me do this and to give something back. In this project, these individual locations are a part of a much wider history.”
McGrath’s images have been exhibited at a number of galleries between 2015 and 2017. With this touring show, the photographs are displayed on information style boards, with supporting text.
It could be said that the necessity to easily transport the work and information slightly dilutes the power of the photograph compared to a ‘white cube’ setting.
For me, the slickness of display is unimportant. The fact that such fascinating images and stories have escaped the gallery walls and ventured to a place that is not known on the photography circuit gives this exhibition more power.
The travelling exhibition will now visit another nine places across Wales, Scotland and England.
And even if you think where you live hasn’t been involved in the UK’s chemical weapons past, it may be worth double checking.
Full details can be found at: https://poisoned-isle.com/.
Or visit http://daramcgrath.com/project-cleansweep/ to view more Project Cleansweep images.