In June 2022, British photographer Jacob Black had an accident. He fell from a substantial height and hit his head seriously, causing a complex cluster of symptoms including headaches, vertigo, head pressure and disassociation. “These symptoms lasted for four to five months. During that time, I found myself trying to visualize and create a body of work to distract myself from, and process, what I was experiencing,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but I almost enjoyed feeling so strange.”
It was almost as if he was scratching a new part of his brain that he hadn’t ever accessed before. “At times it felt dreamlike, and I had memories that I knew were mine even though I wasn’t experiencing them in the way I usually would. But then at other times this weird, creative brain function could swiftly change into very dark and detached thoughts which would last for days. I really struggled to make sense of them at the time, but after speaking with people who have also had post-concussion I realized it’s very common.” These symptoms have mostly disappeared now, Black says, but the hazy, near-ineffable sensations of what those strange few months felt like still lingers.
It was this set of personal experiences that led Black to create his photo project, I Can’t Wipe Sunrise Down My Jumper to Get Rid of Fingerprints. Immersed in the depths of his own brain, he began shooting images of his environment that seemed to embody something of the way he saw the world at the time—spectral and illusory, uncanny and intense. From the beginning, he decided to shoot the series in black and white, a choice he made because of the juxtaposition it allows for light and dark, clarity and confusion—both aesthetically and atmospherically.
“I find black and white imagery can hold more secrets than color, and more ambiguity too,” he says. The title of the project, meanwhile, is paraphrased from a poem/song by Ellen Renton. “I listened to it a lot and the words were one of the few things that would stay in my mind,” Black says. “I felt like naming the project this helped speak to my realization that I couldn’t force the feelings of concussion to disappear. I had to just let time take its course.”
From the glassiness of water to the translucence of a bug’s wing, to the hand of somebody he loves glowing in the sunlight, Black’s work is full of human bodies and animals, leaves and water, fragments of the living and natural worlds. These are recurring themes he often returns to, inspired by a childhood spent in the countryside. Now based between South London and his homeland of Devon, Black grew up for the most part in Totnes. “I spent much of my adolescence in fields, on beaches and along the river Dart, and coming from this place shaped the person I am today,” he says. “I guess I have always taken photos—it was just something I did. I remember taking photos of flowers in my parent’s garden when I was ten and feeling a sense of freedom that I could control and shape what was in front of me.”
As he’s grown up, Black has found himself repeatedly returning to the unknown in nature—“what we don’t see until we truly look,” he explains. And with this project, he felt he could use the symbols of the natural world metaphorically, as a way to explain what was going on in his mind. “I was shooting in South Devon, a landscape that I know so well, but was seeing it through a completely different frame of mind, finding it both interesting and scary,” he says. “I also wanted to include the people I knew and saw daily too, because I was having trouble connecting with those around me and feeling isolated in my symptoms, so I wanted to photograph how I was seeing them during this time.”
From ideas of concussion and confusion, to mental fogginess and warped logic, Black manages to crystallize so much intangible feeling in I Can’t Wipe Sunrise Down My Jumper, and both the thickness of the summer’s heat and the depth of the darkness he was immersed in seems to swell from the pictures. “I am interested in the relationship between fact and fiction in photography, and how images can simultaneously illustrate and obscure,” he says. “In photography, we take what is already there and create something new, walking this fine line between what is real and what is not. For this work, I used every image to visualize how I was feeling, and to try to explain this simultaneous sense of wonder and darkness.” Some of the images he planned—like one of a hand with a black circle drawn upon it, for instance—while others he took intuitively, as certain scenes unfolded and revealed themselves before him.
That dichotomy between darkness and lightness is also evoked aesthetically in the project through the use of intermittent pops and bursts of light that recur throughout the images—like illuminated moments of lucidity, spotlit among the deep shadowiness that shapes and flows through the series. Explaining this, Black says, “these small moments of light are at the core of the work. Something I found after hitting my head is that I would see stuff out of the corner of my eye but then turn to see nothing out of the ordinary. It was kind of hallucinatory, these half-second visual abnormalities. And I would also forget what I was doing a lot, then remember at the strangest times, so the light is used in this series to highlight these small moments of clarity.”
In many ways, the point of evolution of Black’s photographic style can be marked at the accident and the beginning of this project, so clear it’s like a split in the ground. “Photographing used to be something I did simply because I enjoyed it, but as the image-making process has become thoughtful and more calculated, I have to get myself ready, mentally. It’s hard to create and it takes a lot from me,” he says.
Ultimately, what makes him want to take a photograph of something is a lingering way of seeing the world that has stayed with him since his accident. “I want to photograph because I see in stills. I can’t help it,” he says. He remains drawn to themes and subjects that seem distant or ambiguous, and enjoys the challenge of trying to visualize them in ways that ignite further discourse. “I’m interested in images that don’t reveal too much, and instead convey feelings of mystery and isolation,” he says, “because photography is quite lonely and that isolation eventually comes out in the images.”