States of Grace

Anne Noble : States of Grace

He is listening, but to what we can’t hear. As he leans away from us and into that shadowy background, the boy in Anne Noble’s photograph Echo draws around himself a world of sound and concentration. Denied the familiar welcome of a face, we’re drawn close by unfamiliar details – the nap of the hair; the slope of light along the shoulders; and above all by those strange, pinkly glowing, suede-soft ears.

This is what people love in Noble’s work – these moments when the pitch of attention suddenly sharpens, and we’re drawn in close to listen. One of a generation of photographers who rose to prominence in the late 1970s, when galleries were starting to recover from their long-time nervousness about the medium, Noble (born 1954) has patiently worked against the assumption that the camera is a device of rapid grabs and quick takes. Amid the thrust and din of the contemporary image-world, she photographs as if time is on her side.

Noble’s photos pay almost prayerful attention to the texture of things, from the fine froth of manuka in bloom to the swarm of stubble on a chin, but they’re also powered by a commitment to the quiet and the hidden. Whether she is photographing the wordless rituals of Benedictine nuns or the nearly invisible traces of a coastal journey, she holds to a faith that photography is most eloquent when evoking things that can’t be pictured directly. Each image points, compass-like, to larger grids of emotion and life – bonds of love, the sediment of history.

Tact, not tactics, defines Noble’s images of people. Where the photojournalist rushes toward high human drama, Noble can be found walking in the other direction, on lighter steps. An ally of small, enfolded communities that exist beyond news photography’s hearing range, Noble found her perfect subject in 1988 when she spent time with the nuns of Tyburn Convent, a zone of silence and slow time amid the racket of central London.

There’s no such thing as an ordinary object in Noble’s art. Her A Little Book of Relics makes things speak as eloquently as portraits. At the end of her third form year in 1967, Noble filled the pages of a 1H Olympic exercise book with mementoes lifted or scissored from her school. The result is utterly charming, as if Joseph Cornell and the Borrowers had collaborated on a museum of childhood. What is a photographer, after all, if not someone who cuts a swatch from every dormitory curtain they see – a collector and curator of memory?

And in her newest work, Noble offers a beautiful account of what we see when things are what remain of people. A photographic memorial of her father Charles Noble, In My Father’s Garden, achieves something rare, transforming the album of a private loss into a public meditation, monumentally intimate, on memory and sight. Gliding through her family home, Noble stops to stare at ordinary objects that now have the magical weight of relics. They anchor the gaze in memory while big gusts of emotion blow past. Noble’s most moving recognition is that her father’s body is now an object too, a thing of surfaces to which she attends with her characteristic mix of tenderness and decorum.

Yet even as Noble looks out at her father’s garden there are noises – raucous, joyous – coming in from a nearby room. In 1997 Noble unleashed the first of her spectacular, electrically coloured close-ups of her daughter Ruby, whose tongue-loads of lollies are expanded to a scale that is a little scary, then comical, and, finally, gaudily heroic.

Seen whole, her art reveals itself not as a row of isolated masterworks but an album, in which each image seems to be hinged to the next, and they all catch each other’s generous lights. Between Ruby’s room and Charles Noble’s garden, between the greys of elegy and the Dayglo of appetite, she opens another space in which to pause and see and feel.