Charlotte Colbert: Do writers and housewives share a common madness that comes from their isolation?

The scriptwriter and photographer Charlotte Colbert explores the idea in her evocative new exhibition

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Alongside photography, I work as a screenwriter. Both for me are part of the same process. Telling stories with images. They feed into each other. In the writing, I imagine scenes, images, people and places, and my photography often grows out of a story and is written up as a loose script which I then cast, build props for and shoot. The main difference, obviously, is movement. And it's the stillness and mystery that I love about photographs. They exist in themselves as little portals that someone can hang on their wall. A window into another world.

Screenwriting is a very strange occupation. It mostly involves being on your own in a room with a bunch of fictional characters: your body tied down to its chair while you converse and live in a would-be world with imaginary people. It is very solitary and some of my screenwriting friends describe their office as their cell. Locked in with your computer and fantasies. A kind of awake dreaming. A sort of semi-acceptable madness or schizophrenia. As Marguerite Duras said: "Solitude is always accompanied by madness." It is filled with rituals, compulsiveness, superstitions and habits.

I went to a friend's studio the other day. He paints really intricate patterns over and over. He said they came from his mother, a New Jersey housewife who used to hoover the carpet so obsessively that over the years it became indented by the pressure of the hoover-head into patterns similar to the ones he was painting. Obviously there is this long tradition of the 1950s housewife as a sort of semi-hysterical woman, isolated in domesticity while fantasising about other lives. The neatly ordered rooms are a world away from their inner states.

I found it interesting that the writer and the housewife had this kind of common madness that comes with isolation. The artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, with her early painting of the "femme maison", literally translated as the "house" "wife" or "woman", really captured that, with the nudity of her figures trying to escape the clench of the house, of convention, of the imprisoning social notion of "normality". I guess some people have a strong sense of control over their reality but I often feel the thread linking us to the world is so frail that at any time it could break, leaving us at the mercy of all our repressed confusion, loss and fear.

So, for my show, A Day At Home, I decided to play with and explore the relationship between the imagined and the real within the context of the home. My pictures are loosely parallelling the writer and the housewife as figures struggling to distinguish between the two, their identities dissolving within the huis-clos [no exit] of their setting and imaginings.

I wanted to find a location which could capture a sense of the crumbling of the reality around us. Its fragility and impermanence. I found this house in Bethnal Green. The interior was perfect. It hadn't been touched since the 1950s. And the house, being at the corner of two streets, had the feeling of an Escher drawing. All angles and confusion. Like a labyrinth or asylum. Deceiving spaces. Nowhere to escape.

We shot there on a few occasions as it was being renovated, catching it in a moment of transition when the home is torn and stretched between its past and its future: the ghosts, dreams and aspirations of previous tenants meeting the desires and projections of newcomers. Like long exposures, the building site collapses time. It is a time capsule. And with each wall being broken it felt like we were getting deeper into the madness of the character. Layer upon layer of wallpaper being stripped back, revealing, such as the rings of a tree trunk, all the lives and interiors of the families who had lived there. There were also some amazing discoveries, such as the local newspapers from the 1960s in chimney-breasts and under floorboards which we ended up using in the shoot.

Historically photography has often been associated with "objectiveness". The capturing of something "real". News, documentary, anthropological, medical pictures. They expose, chronicle, record. Everything there is to see is in the image. On the surface. The "truth" of it is a given. But for me photography is interesting in its fiction. In day-to-day photography, for example, snaps are the pieces with which we tell and build the story, the fantasy, of our lives. We choose moments, edit them and create a narrative from them. The images become who we are. But they can never rid themselves of the feeling that they are just a trace, a fragment. That they can't capture it all. That there is always something missing. And in that lack lies its slight morbidity. Ghostliness even. The subjects, whether landscapes, objects or people, dispossessed of themselves and rendered into an image with a life and reality of its own. The moment is captured. The immediacy is destroyed.

Even sometimes when you look at a picture of yourself you feel a sense of grief or mourning. When did you cease being that person staring back at you in the image? Were you even ever that person? In that sense, they intimidate and frighten me slightly but I can't help being fascinated by them. Like a child seeing something decompose for the first time. In their unnaturalness they are a bit grotesque, monstrous even. They distort and often reveal more about the person taking them than the subject. From as far back as I can remember I've always been interested in stories. As a child I remember going to flea markets and sieving through old black and white photographs dismantled from forgotten family albums. Who were these people? How did they live? What happened just before the snap was taken? Names and places often scribbled in worn ink at the back. Like pieces of a puzzle, of a lost story.

Shooting on a building site has its downfalls. Everything is unstable, precarious, ready to topple or break from under your feet. At the end of the day, we would end up with blackened snot from all the dust. There was something surreal and schizophrenic for the house itself, which during the week was filled with builders, and at weekends with props and naked models. But the building site itself, like the ruin, really captures this feeling that we live in very fragile spaces. Thin plaster walls like the cardboard partitions of a doll's house. And, we always seem to forget, the earth, just below the brick. When it's exposed it feels the entire foundations and precariousness of civilisation are stripped bare and made apparent.

The destructiveness of the ruins break the boundaries of the home and capture an inner reality, a psychological state of breakdown. Because suddenly nothing makes sense, all your reference points disappear. A door opens up to a crater of emptiness. A staircase stands alone. A torn off chimney reveals a hundred-year trail of soot like a dark forest of fairy tales. It's as if the housewife had sledge-hammered the comfortable fakeness of her clean interior, reaching a form of truth, a surrounding that more accurately reflects her inner anguish. She is stripped of her clothes. Barefoot. Naked. Trying to connect. But never managing to, her surroundings always eluding her, swallowing her up in their reality.

We found and built props to fill her inner world. The 1930s doll's house, of course, a giant eye, bird masks inspired from pagan rituals, and the big bad wolf – a symbol of the dark shadows of childhood. The object of the doll's house becomes an Escher-like illusion. A house within a house, a reality within a reality.

It's the same confusing interplay that connects the writer and the written. The fiction on paper filling up the space with its own reality. The doll's house is turned inside out. A plastic hand sits on the typewriter. The doll's hand. We are no longer in an understanding of the world that separates the perceived from the perceiver, the inside from the outside, the self from its surroundings. And it's quite fun because if surrealness is destructive, it also opens up different worlds, and as Salvador Dalí said, "shakes what it considers to be the shackles limiting our vision". Broken pieces of a day. Little windows into the madness of domesticity, isolation and being human. Like the puzzle of a dream or nightmare, the missing pieces are left to be filled by the viewer with their own stories and inner landscape.

A Day at Home, 29 November to 20 December, Gazelli Art House, 39 Dover Street, London W1S 4NN,