The late photographer Allan Sekula once said, “Every photograph is a point of view.” The punning nature of Sekula’s comment allows for ambiguity, openness, viewer-participation and the simultaneous absence and presence of dogma, within an image. Meaning doesn’t have to be singular or prescribed. It can be ascribed post-facto by the viewer as much as the photographer. Most importantly, I believe, a photograph can be about something as much as of something.
I was walking down a side-street in Rome in 2014 when I saw this remains of an image on a doorway. As is so often the case with photography for me, I took the photograph as a form of gut-reaction, without fully knowing why I was taking it. It just felt right. Frequently, reason comes later.
Last year, while searching for another image, I rediscovered this photograph and realised how imbued with meaning it had become in the intervening period. Some semblance of reason (for why I might have taken it) began to take hold.
The older I get, the more intrigued by religion, and belief-systems in general, I become. For me, one of the real mysteries is how people far more intelligent than I am can harbour profound, impregnable religious belief. Equally baffling is the certainty of the nothingness proposed by atheism. Hedging my bets, I guess that makes me a sitting-on-the-fence agnostic.
Henry VIII died a catholic. The irony of his appearance (pace Hans Holbein) on a doorway in Rome, wearing a surgical mask – which may well be protecting him from religious contamination as much as from any Covid19-like biological infection – appeals to me, as does the image’s apparent prescience.
Half a millennium after Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome, which was done purely for reasons of political expediency (and 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door), we find history not quite repeating itself but, as Mark Twain might have said, rhyming.
We now have the poisonous divisiveness of Trump-ism (arguably, as much a product of a political system which seems capable only of producing an us-and-them, polarized bipartisan choice, as much as it is a product of Donald Trump himself. In the very dated political rule-book of the USA, there can never be a third-way, it would appear.) the suspicion and mistrust of Brexit, and the plague-echoes of Covid19.
But, the cynical pragmatism of Henry VIII and the Tudors has morphed into something more ideological and even more dangerous in our own time. Henry VIII’s worries about progeny and inheritance seem almost trivial by comparison. Maybe that’s the real reason Henry feels the need to wear a mask, and why he can manage a (albeit drawn) saucy smile through the telescope of five hundred years of history.