Simon Marsden: Photographer who struggled in his life and work against banal modernity

 

Academics see in our undying fascination with the undead symptoms of political and economic unrest. Zombies, for instance, are an expression of guilt and dread regarding the lack of affordable care for the aged. The vampire is a vehicle for racial and geopolitical agendas. Ghosts, too, can be demystified, explained away in the light of historical and current events.

The intellectual project to reduce the timeless to the topical, and the irrational to the banal, is one Simon Marsden opposed both in practice andin principle. He was a romantic, engaged in mental war against modern technology, materialism and the prosaic in general.

Marsden was a photographer and master of darkroom techniques. He shot in black and white, often on infra-red film. His disdain for digital advances was inevitable given his commitment to the medium pioneered by Daguerre. The medium was part of the message, and photography for Marsden was partly a seance, an attempt at what Jonathan Swift called "real vision — the ability to see the invisible". In the camera and in the darkroom, light and photosensitive emulsion enacted a version of the alchemical wedding of spirit and matter. Marsden could wax poetic on the subject, but he was never po-faced about it. His ebullient laughter echoes in the memories of all who knew him.

As a boy, Marsden had been thrilled and terrified by the ghost stories his father read aloud to the family. That his boyhood homes were both dilapidated halls in the Lincolnshire Wolds added considerably to the effect these tales had on his imagination.

He began taking photographs as a young man partly to exorcise his own fears of the inhabited dark. Inspired by the Cottingley Fairies, the famous photographic hoax of the 1920s, Marsden's first photographs were of cardboard ghosts shot against real landscapes and houses. Subsequently he made it clear that he was not interested in trying to capture spirits on film; what haunted him was the atmosphere certain places had, the way certain sites seemed redolent of narratives untold.

Best known for his pictures of ruins, haunted houses, statuary and spectral landscapes (infrared film bleaches verdure white and darkens the sky) his photographs have been widely exhibited and are held in several collections worldwide. Aside from book jackets, his images were sought as album covers by rock bands of a Gothic tendency, most notably Cradle of Filth. In 1984, in a transaction marked by mutual respect, the band U2 paid Marsden compensation when it was pointed out that the cover of their album The Unforgettable Fire was a direct copy of the one on the cover of his first collection, In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland (with Duncan McLaren, 1980).

He went on to publish 12 more books of photographs, most of them accompanied by his own congenial texts. These include hallucinated photo-excavations of sites in France, Venice, East Germany and the US, as well as Ireland and the UK. A new book, Russia, A World Apart, with texts by Duncan McLaren, was in production when Marsden died and will be published later this year.

Marsden was on a lifelong quest, and he relished the adventures and encounters his travels afforded him, the more bizarre the better – the elderly brother and sister who welcomed him to Huntingdon Castle in County Carlow, for example, who regaled him over lunch with lore pertaining to the haunted history of their demesne and then posed for his lens in ceremonial robes in their very own Temple to Isis. Such natural hospitality and eccentricity inspired Marsden's romantic spirit and reinforced his sense of purpose. As he wrote in The Haunted Realm (1986), "I could only reflect that these were things to be protected in our modern day mechanical world."

Marsden could be scathing about the modern world and the values it seeks to impose. His critical tirades wereeloquent, heartfelt and often hilarious. He knew his quest was quixotic, that the invisible was no match against the forces of instant gratification,consumerism and junk culture. His cause was doomed, which may have been part of its appeal. He was in a long line of romantics and visionaries, stewards of lost causes, individuals whom he admired for their refusal or inability to conform.

Duncan McLaren relates that on their recent expedition to Russia Marsden found himself able to understand and to be understood by people on a level deeper than language. This won'tsurprise those who knew him. He was a wonderful communicator, able to broadcast and receive on many subtle wavelengths.

While his travels took him far afield, it was to the Lincolnshire Wolds that he returned when he married CassieStanton in 1984. They had a daughter, Skye, and a son, Tadg, and in a converted presbytery they set up a home for themselves and the Marsden photographic archive. Tadg now inherits the baronetcy created for Marsden's grandfather, owner of a Grimsby fishing fleet, in 1924. Cassie continues to oversee the Marsden Archive.

Peter Blegvad

Simon Neville Llewelyn Marsden, Bt, photographer: born Lincolnshire 1 December 1948; married 1970 Catherine Windsor-Lewis (divorced 1978), 1984 Caroline Stanton (one son, one daughter); died 22 January 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most