What began as a joke about the mispronunciation of our surnames (his is like ‘Macbeth’, mine is not ‘Strange’) turned into admiration for a beautiful body of work created during lockdown. ‘Perdendosi’ is the title the photographer and printmaker Norman McBeath has given to a series of photographs taken as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the UK. This musical phrase means ‘gradually dying away’ and the subject of the series are leaves, found by McBeath and captured ‘poised on the cusp of decay’.
What is normally unseen
McBeath has explained that ‘an underlying theme of much of my work….is the richness of experience which can be gained by focusing on what is normally unseen in our everyday surroundings.’ At a time when normal routine was shattered and inspired by the rallying cry to ‘look hard at what you see’ of the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), McBeath reflected on the life cycle of the leaves which he came across whilst living under lockdown restrictions in Edinburgh.
More like parchment than plant
McBeath was drawn to those leaves which appeared to be held at a drawn-out stage in their metamorphosis. Neither bursting into being and thereby signalling the arrival of Spring, nor changing colour to provide the palette of Autumn, but rather showing the least trace of that transformative cycle, when they have lost all colour and suppleness and have become ‘more like parchment than plant’.
Shot individually and digitally on a dense, black ground, in black and white and under even lighting, McBeath imbues his botanical sitters with personality and emotion. At times curled in protectively and at others twisting out balletically, the viewer is drawn into a direct and personal relationship with a usually disregarded object. McBeath professed himself ‘delighted by the sheer uniqueness and individuality of their form’.
The leaves of the herbage at our feet
Indeed, inspired by the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) to examine ‘the leaves of the herbage at our feet…[which]…tempt our watchfulness and take delight in outstripping our wonder’, McBeath found potential subjects in the gutter, behind plant pots and on his doorstep. Other Perdendosi images show leaves which are obviously vulnerable: veins provide skeletal structure whilst damage and loss are apparent, in a poetic vision of the shock and fear McBeath experienced as a result of the spread and impact of COVID-19.
A source of delight and solace
However, all of the leaves proved to be a source of delight and solace not only for the artist but eventually for the viewer as well. As work-in-progress prints created on an A5 scale – meaning that the leaves are shown lifesize – and contained in a presentation box, the feeling of direct and close observation is maintained, from McBeath’s physical handling of each leaf to our experiencing of his resultant works in real life.
Moreover, the Perdendosi images translate remarkably well to digital consumption. A marked characteristic of 2020 has been the acceleration of on-line life, as shopping, socialising and even visiting art exhibitions have been experienced through a device. McBeath’s imagery of the variety, fragility and richness of the natural world has the ability to command respectful attention through the computer screen, in a way which provides relief from the frenzy of advert-laden social media and zoom work meetings.
Beauty amidst decay
In his Perdendosi series, McBeath portrays the leaves at the point where decay and disintegration meet, in the final Act of their existence. The series was prompted by a specific moment in history, which he described as a time ‘of heightened awareness and increased sensitivity towards my surroundings, particularly the natural world’. The images preserve that moment in perpetuity and prove that beauty can be found even during a pandemic.