Sometimes a picture seems to represent the spirit of the times, or since Goethe coined the word in his “Faust”, the Zeitgeist. We are living in an anxious age of global warming, forest fires, seemingly endless religious conflict, mass migration, sophisticated propaganda and mass manipulation, populism, racism and white supremacy, rising sea levels and deluge. I lived most of my early and middle life through the Cold War, now things seem to be hotting up.
I cannot honestly say any of this was on my mind when we set out to take a picture that day on 21 October 2016. I was in pain as I had broken 3 ribs 5 weeks before but this was the last opportunity I had to photograph the two Dresden girls before they returned home.
I had intended to do quite a different picture called “Furies” for which I had even brought a wig but it looked hopelessly false and I could tell on location it was not working.
We opted for a plan B, “After the Deluge” based loosely on Winifred Knight’s apocalyptic painting of 1920. We had a 10 minute walk upstream. This was after the Brexit vote but before Trump. Was there something in the air that late October?
Winifred knights painted Deluge shortly after the First World War. In 1917 aged just seventeen she witnessed the Silvertown Explosion in East London killing 73, many of whom were female munitions workers. Traumatised by this experience and the Zeppelin raids on London she continued her art studies in the countryside. On her return to the Slade School of Art in 1918 she resumed her studies on the theme of war and peace and produced her first work of genius in 1920 – The Deluge with which she won the Rome Prize to study in Italy. She portrayed herself in the foreground seemingly pushing towards the high ground. Her mother is behind her holding the baby. The Ark can be seen in the background. The wall on the left looks like a bursting dam.
Are we seeing the end of Capitalism as we have known it till now? We have a weakening middle class, underpaid workers – if they are working at all, a looming pensions crisis, mega wealth and power increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer unaccountable hands. Marx himself quoted Louis XV’s famous expression born of the disasters of the Seven Years’ War, “Après moi, le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.” This recklessness seems to have extended to the health of the whole planet. An Ark will not save us now.