Rose-Lynn Fisher – The Topography of Tears
A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing American photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher at Tate Britain in London. She was in the UK to speak at a seminar discussing artists who use human biomatter in their work, and was kind enough to spare me a few hours to discuss her project The Topography of Tears. (In return I introduced her to her first ever cream tea!)
Rose-Lynn was a joy to be with: honest, energetic and marvellously optimistic. But in 2008 — when the project began — she was feeling derailed and frustrated. A number of people close to her had died, and she had entered a period of intense grieving. One day the phone rang and Rose-Lynn was told that a very dear friend had passed away. This time there seemed no end to her tears, but as the days wore on she realised that her tears of sorrow were often intermixed with tears of gratitude. Being a curious and creative soul, she began to wonder what her tears might look like under a microscope, and whether tears of gratitude differed from tears of grief.
In reality, human tears fall into three distinct categories: basal, reflex and psychic (emotional). Basal tears are the eye’s natural lubricant, reflex tears are the type you expel when your eyes are irritated (when you cut an onion, for example), and psychic tears are the kind you shed when you are overcome by strong emotions, such as sorrow.
Most scientists agree that tears do, in fact, differ in terms of the ratio of electrolytes and proteins, but Rose-Lynn never intended the project to be a scientific experiment. The truth was kind of immaterial — if she’d gone down the science route she would have required controlled conditions to ensure each step was repeatable. Instead, her approach was more poetic.
Rose-Lynn was no stranger to the workings of a microscope: one of her best known projects (BEE) features a dead honeybee she discovered on her windowsill and photographed for 17 years! So she set to work gathering tears on glass slides, both hers and those of her friends and family – she even managed to gather tears from a newborn baby!
When she looked through the microscope (an old Zeiss model that had belonged to her cousin) Rose-Lynn saw ‘aerial views of emotional terrain’ – a landscape of rivers, islands and paths. Some slides resembled blueprints, others were reminiscent of frost on glass. One or two had the delicate tracery of fine fabric. Just as a poem can be interpreted in myriad ways, the images ask us to draw on our personal experiences to provide meaning.
These photomicrographs fascinate me. Some people will argue that the abstract shapes and patterns are simply caused by the method of collection or variables in the equipment Rose-Lynn used but, quite frankly, I don’t really care. For me, The Topography of Tears summarises everything I love about close-up, macro and micro photography. There is an element of discovery, but with more questions raised than answered — it’s an invitation to see the world anew.
Rose-Lynn’s book, The Topography of Tears (ISBN 978-1-942658-28-3), is available now*.
You can see more of Rose-Lynn’s work at rose-lynnfisher.com.
A selection of images from the series can also be seen at Esbjerg Art Museum in Denmark until 17 March 2019.
(*Amazon affiliate link.)