Friday, October 29, 2010
The photograph above is part of a sequence at www.letusburnthegondolas.com. It reminds me of a portrait of a waiter, by Josef Sudek (reproduced below), in which, as Ian Jeffrey explains, the man is accompanied by his shadow … and by his reflection …. [I]t is a portrayal of a subject reduced and simplified almost out of existence. There’s a paradox at the heart of this quotation, because in Sudek’s photograph the man is reduced by multiplication. Not only that, but his doppelgangers – a broken black shadow and a will o’ the wisp white reflection – are unrecognisable reproductions. By contrast, the doppelgangers of folklore were indistinguishable from their originals: except for the fact that they cast no shadow and left no reflection.
Behind me, over my right shoulder, is a plate-glass window which opens out onto the street. A reflection of a small part of this window, framed by drapes, is also visible in the mirror above the espresso machine. Because it’s dark outside, a faint image of the waiter’s face bounces back off the plate glass window into the café interior. That image is also visible in the mirror: the reflection of a reflection.
People walking past the café always look in. They can’t help it. It’s a reflex. So, I think, if I preset the focal point of my lens manually ‘inside’ the reflection in the mirror, I can capture someone looking through the glass from outside at the precise moment that their reflection passes the faint outline of the waiter, projected onto the glass from inside.
Because I am left-handed, I hold the viewfinder up to my left eye, and I have to pull it down and away from my eye in order to get enough space to flip the lever that advances the film. As I do so, I expel the air I have been holding in my lungs to keep the camera steady against my eye. So each exposure on a 35mm film represents a single breath and a discrete perception, which has a finite duration: in this case, 1/60s.
This particular image, which exists as a hypothesis in my head before I am able to test it experimentally, is doubly singular, because I know that I'll only get one chance at it. The experiment can’t be repeated, because I’ll have to bring the camera up fast and shove it right in the waiter’s face, with no warning. I'm willing to do this once – I’ll take my chances and apologise afterwards – but I won’t get away with it twice.
The footsteps outside reach a particular pitch when someone is approximately two seconds away from the right location, so I’ll have to start moving the camera up when I hear that cue, before the image has actually presented itself to my eye.
1/60 of a second is – just, barely - long enough to distinguish the sound of the shutter opening from that of it closing, an interval during which I cannot in fact see anything, during which I am conscious of nothing: except duration itself.
What is the resulting photograph ‘about’? It includes three versions of the waiter. In one sense the bisected mannequin in the foreground at frame right is most real. It’s closest to the camera and is actually there, physically present. But that version of the waiter is an amorphous blob: half a white tuxedo, half a black tie, a quarter of a grey jawbone, an icon of the idea of the costume of a waiter, reduced and simplified almost out of existence. The man’s back, visible as a reflection in the mirror above the espresso machine, is further away, but clearer, more recognisable as an actual human being. Still, it’s turned away from us, expressionless by definition.
It’s only in the second-degree reflection bounced back from the plate glass that the man acquires a personality, but this minute, barely visible face floats uneasily next to that of an outsider peering in, whose naked, grainy curiosity is unbound by the blank protocols of service. Together, these two faces make up less than five per cent of the negative. They’re the only parts of the photograph in focus, but they never coincided or connected in reality.
But perhaps the most important thing about this photograph is what it doesn't show. No-one ever asks the right question, the most puzzling question, the most important question: ‘How did you keep yourself out of the mirror?'
Sunday, October 24, 2010
In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.
Child of an unfortunate father.
In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.
Friday, October 22, 2010
Many photographers claim to gain access to a hidden reality that exists behind ‘mere’ appearance, to isolate or to capture something essential about a particular individual, place or situation. When it is put in these terms, this attempt seems misguided. By definition photography is confined to the depiction of surfaces. It cannot get behind or penetrate inside things (X-rays notwithstanding). It cannot show you what is essential as a painting can, though it may show you what is typical.
The affinity of photographs for surfaces is to do with the fact that they are themselves surfaces marked by the action of light, but we are often encouraged to forget this. Certain characteristics of photographs make it easy for us to do so. For a start, they are flat, textureless. Unlike a painting, on which brush strokes are visible, they show little direct evidence of their own production. This aspect of the photograph is often turned into a point of principle. For example, it is one of the mantras of Lenswork magazine that A good photograph is one that makes the viewer so aware of the subject that they are unaware of the print. And with a digital photograph, there is no apparent need for a physical surface at all. Once it has been created, the image can thereafter remain entirely immaterial.
But surely a photograph that does not admit to its status as a photograph is as bad as a photograph that is pretending to be a painting? Both are guilty of bad faith. In any case, my point here is that the insistence that photographs can depict an essence that somehow goes beyond their literal content is logically linked with the repression of their status as marked surfaces.
To admit this status is not to say that photographs are meaningless. On the contrary, to take a photograph is to assert that meaning is legible on surfaces. What the photograph actually does is to deny and exclude all claims to meaning that cannot be read there. In a photograph, you are what you do, or rather, you are what you look like. Many people find this disturbing (especially when they do not recognize the self presented to them by a photograph), but it might equally be considered liberating. In other words, photographers are natural existentialists.
This image comments on the obsession with getting beyond or under surfaces. The fact that it uses pronounced foreshortening is part of the joke. I like to think of it as an anatomical illustration of the city with its skin stripped off, exposing the musculature – and it is in modern medicine that the association of understanding with penetration is at its strongest. Or alternatively, the pipes are the city’s intestines, a reminder that Venice’s canals were an early and ingenious solution to the problem of sewage disposal in Western cities.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
In addition, I'll be doing a short radio interview today in Melbourne for Aural Text on Triple R, at about 12.40.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Details are below:
Wednesday 20 October 2010
5.45 – 7.15 pm
McArthur Gallery, State Library of Victoria, Swanston Street, Melbourne CBD
(Directions to the McArthur Gallery at the SLV: walk through main ground-floor reading room, take the stairs adjacent to central lifts to Cowen Painting Gallery [level 2A], walk straight across into the Redmond Barry Reading room, then look right for the double glass doors "Maps, Rare Books etc." If any problems, ask staff on the main reference desk)
Attendance is free and everyone is welcome.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Saturday, October 9, 2010
VE1 Tristram Shandy from Visual Editions on Vimeo.
Visual Editions manifesto:
We think that books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell; with the visual feeding into and adding to the storytelling as much as the words on the page. We call it visual writing. And our strap line is “Great looking stories.”