Ephemeral: Nicola Onion

Project 2: Exercise 2.2 (Digital Image and Culture, pg. 45)

Write 500 words in your learning log on a piece of work by one contemporary artist-photographer who uses the archive as a source material.


Photographs are essential to recording moments in life; they freeze time so you may relive your memories forever. However, you can not actually freeze time or memory. (Onions, 2014)

I had a look at artists involved with GRAIN and was immediately struck by the work of a young photographer, Nicola Onions. Graduating from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 2014 with a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication (Photography and Moving Image), she describes herself as having a passion for experimentation and working with different mediums and processes. She has self-published five photobooks, featured in a number of group exhibitions and won the GRAIN photography hub graduate award.

‘Ephemeral’ is a poignant, delicate and personal project. Following the death of her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, Onions started a project based on memory. It is focused on her grandfather and his life following the loss of his wife and his own Alzheimer’s. The aptly titled ‘Ephemeral’ is an ‘extension of my focus on memory. I use ice in a conceptual way to visualise just how temporary memories are.’ (Onions, 2014)

I leafed through family albums, and discovered our family archive, using this to visualise memory loss, by changing the image, making them unrecognisable. I showed my Grandfather’s worsening condition through his eyes, so everyone could understand the horror that is dementia, and memory loss.

Many if not most of us will have some experience of dementia through our families and friends. The statistics from the Alzheimer’s’ Society are revealing:

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051.
  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
  • 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.

I recognise what Onion refers to as the ‘horror of Alzheimer’s’ and it seems to have become a topic increasingly tackled by photographers (Jean Jameson, Maya Daniels, Christopher Nunn, and the exhibition The Other Place http://torch.ox.ac.uk/other-place-art-and-alzheimers, to name a few). Many have used a documentary style but I was struck by the impact of Onion’s more conceptual approach.

I use ice in a conceptual way, to visualise just how temporary his memories are. By creating a unique piece of art, that only remains for minutes, and can only be frozen by the use of a camera, I communicate the idea that not only is life transient, but so are the memories of my Grandfather. The ice obstructs the image encased, manipulating the memory, and as it melts, it shows the memory fading away. I also used this process to convey my feelings about the disease, and my own existence. (Onions, 2014)

The ice is obscuring each small photograph and as it transforms to a liquid state it interacts with the enclosed image. Warping, fading, distressing what is found inside. Something that particularly appealed following my recent experiments with water. All that remains of the original artwork is the photographic record; it almost represents an archive of an archive. It also raises interesting questions about photography’s relationship to memory as well as the fears that the thought of a fading memory can provoke.

Selfhood hinges on our ability to order memory, and connect a set of experiences to form a coherent autobiography of who we were and how we became the person we are now.(Leadbeater, 2014)

References and citations:

Leadbeater, C. (2014). The Disremembered.   Retrieved 30th November 2017, Aeon, from https://aeon.co/essays/if-your-memory-fails-are-you-still-the-same-person

Onions, N. (2014). Ephemeral.   Retrieved 29th November 2017, from https://the-dots.com/projects/ephemeral-123865