Stephen Leslie

Pity the poor balloon seller seriously considering a vasectomy due to the horrors of his job. Every weekend at party upon party he witnesses the worst behaved children imaginable, miniature armies of spoilt Jaydens and Callistas whose parents are seriously trying to raise them without ever using the word 'no', lest it damage their rampaging egos.

He has been punched in the testicles by a four year old boy for not inflating a giant lion balloon fast enough. He has stood agog as asix year old girl spat at her mother because she wanted 'af reaking rainbow balloon arch like Vinessa's but bigger'and, unbelievably, the mother apologised to her child and then paid him extra to make it happen. His wife wonders why their sex life has gone off the boil? Why, when they're making money he seems so unhappy and exhausted? He feels he is being worn down. The other day, between jobs he fell asleep standing up. Each arm was raised by a handful of balloons so that he resembled a slumbering Christ. He only snapped out of it when an angry parent rang his phone wanting to know why his precious offspring was being kept waiting?

And so it is we find him this Sunday, resigned to his fate and contemplating having his tubes snipped (or tied off, like a balloon?)rather than risk adding to the shrill carousel of modern childhood.And this next party promises to be a humdinger, they have ordered over 100 balloons.

Hesighs and takes the first 25 from the van. He has learnt from bitterpast experience never to turn up empty handed. It is a beautiful sundappled day yet he fails to enjoy it, does not even notice the playof green, white and yellow against the tarmac that has turned him into a walking stained glass window. He finds the address and rings thebell. After a moment the door is opened by a tiny woman in hereighties. The Grandma, he assumes.

'Hello,I'm here for.....' Hechecks the name on his order sheet 'Arthur?'

Theold woman smiles and gestures for him to come inside. He follows herdown the hallway, slightly bemused by the lack of noise. There is noscreaming of children at play, no music or any of the usual partysounds. The old woman reaches a set of double doors and slides themapart. He stops and almost lets the balloons slip his grasp. In frontof him are at least 30 other pensioners and there, in the centre ofthe room surrounded by wreathes, is a coffin. He stares until the oldwoman taps on his wrist.

'Please could you tie them to the casket?'she asks.

In a daze, he carries out her instructions.

'Do you think one hundred will be enough?'asks the woman as he attaches the first twenty five.

'Enough for what?' He asks, utterly bemused.

'To lift him of course' she replies, 'Arthur always had a mischievous streak and this was his dying wish. Everyone here's chipped in and he didn't weigh much at the end, so we hoped one hundred should do it.'

He nods his head and mumbles a reply, then goes out to the van to fetch the helium cannister. Without realising it he breaks in to a excited trot.

Inthe end it only took eighty seven. He got a standing ovation when the simple pine box broke free of gravity and started hovering. He felt like a magician looking out at an appreciative crowd, their wrinkled faces full of wonder and genuine delight. Arthur's widow hobbled over and gave the coffin a push then watched it float smoothly over to where an old man was waiting to bat it back.

The balloon seller lingered for a few moments then slipped away, leaving them playing ping pong with a floating coffin and feeling happier than he had in months. Optimistic, his spirits actually lifted.

If this photograph works at all, it does so due to a combination of unexpected detail. People tend not to wear dressing gowns outdoors or, if they do, it is usually only briefly to go and fetch a forgotten something from the car, to coax a reluctant cat back inside or, at a stretch, to go buy milk from the corner shop. So having three women outside in dressing gowns is a result.

Then there is the fact that all the dressing gowns are identical and they are wearing flip-flops. It leads us to assume that they are attending a health club or a Spa but they are bunking off and they are bunking off to have a fag. This is funny, even tragic. You have paid for a day of healthy pampering and what do you do? You nip outside for a ciggie. It is not clear if the woman slouching with her back to us is also smoking. She may have just come with to keep her friends company, she cannot bear to face the sauna alone. Maybe being pampered is harder than they all anticipated, necessitating a quick puff? Or maybe they have had an argument? It could be a hen day and the woman on the right in thedoor-way who is not the bride but her best mate has just confessed to snogging the groom while drunk after karaoke that one time four months ago. They have cried, made up and popped out for a fag to decompress.

As an explanation that could all work,it is plausible. It's certainly less patronising than just assuming they're so inherently addicted that they can't even face a single day of health. The photo also works on a purely aesthetic level because of the elongated shadow of the cigarette in the hand of the woman on the left. A bonus touch. Shadows are arty, everyone knows that.

However, this is all a lie. It's a narrative interpretation based entirely around composition and what has been deliberately excluded. The real context. Imagine the rest of the street. To the right of the doorway where the women are smoking there was a fire engine and a couple of fire-fighters half heartedly investigating the possibility of a fire in the spa.

This is the real reason behind the now infamous dressing-gown fag break. It has been enforced by a precautionary evacuation of the club. They aren't particularly lazy or getting over a trauma, they've been told to leave and are passing the time smoking. Of course I tried to get this other photo, of women in dressing gowns smoking in the street while firemen milled in the background but I couldn't get far enough back to fit everything in and so opted instead to focus on the women alone.

It's a photo that works but it is not the truth. If anything it's better, if slightly harsher, for being a lie. I think this applies to a lot of photography.

Shehas lived in the house her whole life and has no intention of evermoving. Each afternoon, weather permitting, she carries a chair outon to the terrace and settles down to look. The view of the coastlineis stunning and she knows it by heart – the mountains and treecovered islands like vertebrae in the mist.... this is why she nowchooses a smaller chair and is careful to position it close enough tothe wall so that she can't see over. She still wants to take the airbut has no desire to look at that fucking view ever again.

Instead,she focuses on the tiles and takes pleasure in what she finds there.The quality of the workmanship, all done by her father. She can stareat the lattice of cement straight lines for hours imagining each tileholds a different memory from her past. Although she's just ascontent to switch focus and concentrate on the tiles themselves,follow the passage of drops of condensation or the gradual spread ofmould and lichen, a spider doing battle with a fly or a parade ofants as they carry their spoils back home. All of it unfolds right infront of her, an entire myopic world. She has no further use for themore conventional view. She has seen it so often that it bores her totears.

Ifjust one more person tells her how lucky she is or mentions the treecovered islands and how they look like vertebrae in the mist againshe is going to stab them repeatedly in the face with a bluntchop-stick, she's not joking. She doesn't care any more.    

This  photograph is of my late Grandmother, Matild Leslie. Even aged 92 shewould attract hopeful men and the one in the background was herlatest doomed suitor, I think his name was Marc. If you look closelyyou'll notice that he's just wet himself.

But  he does not concern us here. The real subject of this shot is Matild.I know that I took this on September 10th,2002 andthat's significant as it was just two days after her youngest child,Victor, my father's brother, had died from anaphylactic shock after awasp crawled in to his mouth and stung him on the tongue while he atean ice-cream by his swimming pool on the Isle of Wight. His death wastragic, and bizarre enough to briefly make the papers - Victor wasjust 57 and at one time had been a successful businessman.

A  few months later, one of the tabloids ran a follow up interview withhis widow, his second wife Pat, who they photographed lounging infront of the same pool in a bikini talking about her loss. I onlymention this because even though it was in extremely bad taste, in astrange way it also reminds me of Matild’s life. In my parents'loft there are boxes and boxes of old cine film and photographs ofMatild posing in swimsuits in front of pools around the world,'cheesecake shots' I think they're called.

In  her prime she was a beautiful, striking woman and her husband, Alan,had a fantasy that she and my father would break in to the movies andmake a fortune, rescuing him from being a taxi driver, sometimerepairer of dentures and occasional shop-lifter. Of course it neverhappened. Matild and my dad were extras in a handful of films –watch Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, there's Matild in theparty scene at the Embassy or in Ken Russell's The Devils, she's anonlooking peasant - but it never went any further. She once had aninterview with the famous producer Alexander Korda about a speakingrole, apparently he said that her thick Hungarian accent might be aproblem and she told him his own Hungarian accent wasn't exactlydiscreet, they had an argument in Hungarian and that was that.

She  was always outspoken,  always dramatic. She favoured leopard printclothes and had my father dye her hair bright copper right up untilthe end. She smoked until her mid-eighties, drove badly until she wasforced to stop. As a Jewish Grandmother she was useless, she couldn'tbe bothered with cooking or making a fuss of children. Although Iused to love going over to her flat and being left alone to explorethe rooms, cupboards with drawers full of false teeth, an automaticcard shuffler (for her marathon sessions of kalooki) and a cigarettecase that thrust your next fag out towards you when you rolled backthe top. She was always complaining, she felt her life had been adisappointment and as she got older she became 'theforgotten voman'or even 'avoman alone'.

Certainly  she outlived most of those around her. The youngest of six shesurvived all her brothers and sisters, her husband and one of herchildren until she became the figure you see here; confused, frailand uncertain. She would have hated this shot but that's the cruelpower of photography, with time it imposes the image over the factsuntil all that remains is the image. Without my thumbnail sketch ofher life she has been reduced to nothing more than an old lady in achair with an incontinent man standing behind her.  

This  is what happens should you leave a box of negatives in a damp  cupboard under the stairs for at least ten years. We tend to think of  film as fixed, it freezes a moment in time and holds it there while life moves on but we forget that film, real 35 or 120mm silver  halide film, is unstable. It creates its images through a chemical reaction but that's not the end of its involvement with chemistry. If you  allow it to get damp the emulsion decays and the gelatin cultures  mould like a scientist growing  bacteria in agar.  It continues to develop in to something else. It lives.

That  all this has  happened to a photograph I took years  and years ago of a ruined nightclub called 'Amnesia' is almost too perfect to be true. I  honestly cannot remember exactly when or where it was taken, possibly Sicily or Corsica sometime around  2001 or 2002. It's easy to use photography as a weapon against the  inevitable. We wander    around preserving memories as a way of avoiding the reality of our own decline but this      is a delusion. The photographs are not immune to attack or decay and neither are we.       I'm certainly not the same person I was when I started taking photographs.                             I've changed and aged and now, thanks to my own neglect, so have some of my photographs.


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