The Image and the Letter: Nancy Hellebrand’s “Y”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Sally Willow selects an image by Nancy Hellebrand, which features in our current exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography.


Nancy Hillenbrand, 4, 1989/2016. 

Take One: Writing by Nancy Hellebrand

The line has been traced: starting top-left, looping down into a heavy curve that rises, doubling-up lightly on the right to begin a swift and certain downward stroke with slight faltering hesitation at its stem. It is underlined for clarity at the base.

Yes, it is the base. The base of a handwritten letter Y – the underscore confirms it. But without it, without that delineation, might I be looking at an “h” if I turned the image the other way up? A letter out of the context of a word, a sentence, is nothing more than an inscribed shape. A pattern of lines and spaces that I’ve been taught to understand as Y. Or “h”, from a different perspective.

Presented in portrait, the camera marks it as Y. A lone and single Y. Is this a question:  “Why”? The blank and empty space around it suggests the weight of that question and the innumerable events, objects, ideas to which it could be applied – the unspeakable silence that both echoes within the question and haunts its lack of answers. Although it looks more like a Y of certainty and hope with its bold strokes and positive positioning in the space.  A “Yes” then, perhaps.

Take Two: Nancy Hellebrand, 4

I double back. In my certainty that I am being presented with the letter Y – oriented by the underscore; defined by the collection’s title: Writing – I have overlooked the title of the photograph, 4. Are these lines, marks, strokes intended to signify a number not a letter?  It doesn’t look like a 4. Not in the typographical sense that I’ve come to recognise instinctively and unconsciously: the sharp angles and enclosed triangular shape. Yet I’ve caught myself, in my own handwriting on several occasions since my first encounter with this image, drawing out a curved and open number 4, just like this one.

Double Take: ‘She continues to be driven to see beyond that which is seen’ (Nancy Hellebrand)

The letter is double: it is the visual representation of a sound that we interpret within a series of images and sounds to signify as language. In ancient alphabets across the world letters, or their pictorial representations, carried symbolic meanings alongside and prior to their identification with particular sounds. One such alphabetic system is the Celtic Ogham: its symbol Ioho has been identified with the letters I, J and Y.  Ioho is the final letter/symbol in the ancient Ogham alphabet and is named after the Yew tree, with which it shares symbolic resonances. Both Ioho and Yew occupy the position between the beginning and the end in their respective sequences, Ioho in the cycle of the Ogham and Yew in the cycle of the seasons – symbolising death and rebirth within the cycle of life. Again we are doubling, slipping, generating an excess of meaning and signification. Ioho, the Y and the Yew: aurally, the “I” and the “you”; death in life and life in death endlessly entwined. 

Doubling: the image and the letter. The image of the letter – its isolation giving rise not to a dearth of meaning and significance, but engendering an abundance, a proliferation and multiplication of meanings and possibilities. Its isolation requires the viewer to shift the focus from a visual representation of a sound designed to be read as part of a signifying sequence, to a pictorial image with multiple layers of meaning and significance of its own.

The camera lens removes the image from its context, reducing it to a series of lines, a dark shape on a lighter space with nothing but silence all around.  Taken out of sequence its meaning is redoubled, made mysterious and uncertain. A polyvalence is suggested which requires double-looking to interpret, yet it can never be brought fully into the sharpness of focus that would determine a singularity of meaning. It remains open to ambiguity and an excess that cannot be resolved or reduced. 

you are


i am


Who writes? Who is the reader? Who makes the meaning, on [off] the page?

I catch you. Your eye and your attention with a word written: in your voice. Who is speaking.  It is your voice. The words transformed in your mouth in your memory. From what they were. You speak the sound.  You speak the silence. From what they were you transform: them.  Make new.  Begin again from here.  Hear.  You see

Nancy Hellebrand’s Writing series, particularly this image 4, asks us to look again at the symbols and structures we encounter every day and perhaps fail to really see. By isolating the component parts of language and placing them in the position of an image for the camera she foregrounds the pictorial qualities of the hand-drawn letter.  By removing the letter from a sequence she encourages us to see it anew and explore unexpected layers of meaning to produce alternative readings: to “see beyond that which is seen”.

Sally Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as a research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press project. She’s interested in ways that literature can embody a kind of utopian consciousness and experiments with this in her own writing, often with surprising results. @willowwriting

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