#36 ‘Are you mom enough’ by Susan Bright

time-magazine-breastfeeding-cover

 

A close-up portrait of Aisha, an 18-year-old girl who had her nose cut off by the Taliban (2010). The famous O.J. Simpson mugshot, with his skin significantly darkened (1994). A pregnant rape victim from South Sudan (2016). ‘Is God Dead?’ in 1966 in bold red font, and a smiling Ellen DeGeneres came out declaring “Yep, I’m Gay” in 1997. TIME magazine does not shy away from controversial covers. So why, then, was the cover of Jamie Lynne Grumet breast-feeding her son in May 2012 any more shocking than the others?

The article it represented was about the American paediatrician Dr. Bill Sears and his philosophy of ‘attachment parenting’. A cover portrait of a largely unknown old man, however, does not sell magazines. A beautiful young woman nursing does. Not only does it sell, it gets people talking. But really, one has to ask why? Why does a mother feeding her child cause such emotive responses?

Firstly, it’s important to note that breastfeeding is not widely seen in the media. It is one of the invisible aspects of mothering, along with post-partum bellies and other more graphic side effects. The yummy mummies going jogging after dropping the kids at school, or wearing pastel shades with young babes in their arms, do not show the side of mothering fraught with ambivalence, exhaustion and mess. The post-feminist baby is perfectly plump, we just don’t want to see how it came to be so.

Secondly, the shock factor arises from the fact that Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son are not conforming to what a mother and child ‘should’ look like. She is 26 and her son is three (the text at the bottom tells us so). She does not cradle her baby and gaze at him as most mother and child images show. There is no soft lighting, no Madonna references, no short depth of field. Any parent knows that it is not transgressive to nurse a child, and nursing mothers often stand, walk around, or lie down to feed – but to show this is an altogether different matter. It is the lack of conformity to an ideal that the photographer knew he was going for, the photo editors who commissioned the piece hoped for, and even the mother was well aware of. They knew this would be a provocative act, cover or not. The fact that the photographer, Martin Schoelle, was asked to pull out of another job in order to do this one suggests the magazine’s awareness of the controversy it would cause.

Of the very few pictures of breastfeeding mothers in the media, the more iconic ones are of course of celebrities. These include Angelia Jolie for W magazine in November 2008. Reportedly shot by Brad Pitt seven weeks after the birth of their twin children, Jolie is smiling benignly at the camera and cradling her baby on the cover, as if virtuous proof of good mothering. She is no longer really Angelina Jolie at all – but a generic perfect mother and part of the celebrity mother and baby phenomenon which has done much to perpetuate unrealistic myths around motherhood and has become a vital part in the construction of today’s maternal guilt.

The TIME photograph by Martin Schoelle does its fair part in this maternal guilt, but uses different tactics. It shows a young blonde woman standing looking directly to the camera. She has agency and appears entirely at ease. Her nursing son is standing on a chair in order to reach his mothers breast. Its visual signs and signifiers are a semiotic extravaganza. The mother is young, slim and pretty, and counters any clichés of ‘hippy parents’ who are thought to practice extended nursing and attachment parenting. The son is a little plump and wearing characteristically macho army pants. He does not gaze at his mother as common representations of nursing show, but stares straight at the camera. The stool is there as a devise to extenuate his height. There is a touch of Norman Rockwell nostalgia about his face. TIME Lightbox ran some ‘behind the scenes’ pictures, in which classical and iconic paintings adorn the walls of the studio as if influencing the photographer. In addition other mothers were shot to emphasise different ‘types’ of women who practice extended breastfeeding, though they are not diverse at all: all are white, young and slim, and dressed the same in dark colours as if to highlight their figures.

Extended breastfeeding is only one element of attachment parenting. This means that the mother will nurse until the child naturally weans like all animals do. She does not time the act according to government guidelines or doctor’s orders. The breast is best philosophy is a strong one, but not without it problems. Not only does it make women who cannot, or chose not to, subscribe to it feel bad about themselves, but it also has to be done for the ‘correct’ amount of time. What that ‘correct’ amount of time is, is completely arbitrary and depends on who you ask – six months (UK), one year (USA), two years (World Heath Association). Too short a time and you risk not being a good enough mother, too long and you are indulgent. Another case of damned if you do and dammed if you don’t.

So all these swirling, confused and emotive feelings come right along with a picture like this. Add to that American puritanical notions of women’s bodies and decency, and the uproar the cover caused was somewhat predictable. By day two, the cover was featured on 18 late night TV shows across America. Morning segments included The TODAY Show. Online, the cover was on every major news website and parenting blog. ‘TIME Magazine’ and other related keywords for the cover were the top four out of five search terms on Google that week, and on Twitter the day after its release ‘Time Magazine’ was trending in the US by mid-morning and worldwide by noon. That is a pretty impressive reaction to a photograph of a mother breastfeeding her child.

There was vitriol, venom, celebration and confusion. There were even accusations of molestation and abuse. It seemed everyone had an opinion. As with all photographs, and especially those in magazines, the text that accompanies it is key, and it is here where judgment and guilt weigh in. The tagline ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ insinuates that mothering is some kind of endurance test or a competition where mothers either succeed or fail. This added fuel to the fire of the media-led ‘mummy wars’ which see working mums pitted against stay at home mums, breastfeeding against babies who are bottle fed, and other such binaries in parenting aimed at making already vulnerable women feel worse about their decisions. The TIME tagline fed into this culture and was not at all empathetic to the very real pressures and issues of nursing, which beyond the physicality of the act, include enough paid maternity leave, nursing facilities in the workplace (so that new mothers do not have to pump in the toilets), room to store milk and public places in which to nurse. All this without mentioning the weird and confused societal reactions to these things. Needless to say none of which was covered in the interview, which concentrated on biographical information about Dr Sears and was not really useful for mothers who may be looking for impartial information on extended breastfeeding, as one may have expected from such a cover.

So what happened to Jamie Lynne Grumet after being thrust into the limelight? She used the attention to garner support and attention for her charity work for clean water in Africa. The controversy faded almost as quickly as it rose and the following week there was another cover. A couple of years after the media storm images of nursing mothers are still not common, and when we do see them they adhere to sanitised norms. For TIME this was a missed opportunity to further or broaden the stilted cultural conversation about breastfeeding in any helpful way. Instead the magazine continued to perpetuate the limitations of a commercial, white, male gaze. So societal reactions to nursing remain confused and retrograde and social media sites desperately try to get their image policies straight. There are great claims about photography being able to change the world, or at least influence opinion. If only that were true.

 

Susan Bright is a curator and writer based in Paris.

 

 

#35 ‘Leap into the Void’ by Fiontán Moran

3506-061

Leap into the Void, 1960 (Yves Klein, Harry Shunk and János Kender)

 

Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void of 1960, like many performance art works, is only known through a photograph. The sight of the painter, sculptor and judo-enthusiast mid-air, back arched and head pointed skyward to suggest flight, apparently oblivious to the law of gravity and ground below him, still embodies a spirit of child-like abandon. It epitomises the artist’s fascination with levitation and was meant to commemorate a leap made a few months earlier but which, significantly, no one had witnessed or recorded. However, this photograph is less the straightforward documentation of an acrobatic gesture, than the product of an expertly realised photomontage. This is a performance that exists solely within the photographic image.

While many photographs of live art are viewed as records of an ephemeral event, Leap into the Void complicates this understanding and questions where meaning resides by using the medium to construct the message. This doctored image is all at once a representation of a real jump, a conceptual artwork, a portrait, a publicity still, and the product of collaboration and technical skill in the darkroom; in this case by Harry Shunk and János Kender (known as Shunk-Kender), who took the photographs and created the montage.

Klein had previously worked with the couple, who documented many of the most exciting artists of the sixties and seventies, on his performance Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue (Anthropometries of the Blue Period) at the Galerie internationale d’art contemporain on 9 March 1960. Standing in a tuxedo, in front of a specially invited audience dressed in evening wear, Klein directed three nude female models as they applied paint to their bodies and pressed themselves against paper that lined the wall and floor. Far beyond the realm of art exhibition or the presentation of an artist at work, it was closer to the world of theatre. By having the event documented, Klein not only ensured that there was evidence that would outlive it, but placed the act of making and complete mise-en-scène of audience, model, and orchestra (who played Klein’s Monotone Symphony) at the forefront of the work. Shunk-Kender elaborated upon this dramatised setting by approaching the action from both behind the audience so that the dark silhouettes contrasted with the white of the paper and models, and from the side of the ‘stage’ to provide intimate access to action that could only be experienced through the photographs.

In mid-October 1960 Shunk-Kender went about documenting Klein’s leap from the stone wall pillar of 5 rue Gentil Bernard in the quiet Parisian suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses. János Kender, using a 35mm Leica with a telephoto lens, took action shots of Klein at various stages of flight in a similar manner to their documentary practice, while Harry Shunk, using a Rolliflex camera positioned on a tripod, was responsible for taking the two photographs that would later be combined together. The first image that made up Leap into the Void depicts Klein’s jump with a group of figures from the local judo school standing ready to catch him with a tarpaulin sheet, and even features Kender crouching in the bottom left-hand corner poised to capture his descent. For the second image, Shunk suggested to Klein that they include Kender as a cyclist and wait for a train to pass on the tracks in the background, referring to a reproduction of a 16th century painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicting the fall of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun. In the landscape painting, Bruegel chose to place the moment Icarus crashes into the sea on the periphery of the canvas and a ploughman in the centre foreground who, along with many other figures, is oblivious to the tragic event. This suggestion of everyday activity set against a mythic and dramatic narrative served as the perfect comparative for Klein’s work. While the artist is definitely the focus of Leap into the Void and in no apparent danger, the cyclist, along with the strong perspectival line of the street, draws the viewer’s attention toward the train, and in doing so creates two force fields and types of activity that dramatise the contrast between Klein’s extraordinary act, and the mechanical, everyday labour of life.

Leap into the Void formed a part of Klein’s participation in the Second Festival of Avant-Garde Art in Paris. His contribution consisted of a self-published broadsheet titled Dimanche that mimicked the conventions of such publications, and used the same typeface as the real newspaper Journal du Dimanche. The photograph was accompanied by the headline ‘Un homme dans l’espace! Le peintre de l’espace se jette dans le vide!’ and followed with a caption that read: “Today the painter of space must actually go into space to paint, but he must go without tricks of fraud, and not in an airplane, parachute, or rocket. He must go there himself… In a word, he must be capable of levitating.”

Set against the context of the space age and Klein’s interest in zen meditation and judo, Leap into the Void was not merely a daredevil act, but a definitive statement on his belief in the transformative power of art. Across the four pages of Dimanche, Klein included 17 proposals for the ‘Theatre of the Void’, which included a play with no actors, scenery, narrative or spectators so that, “for one entire twenty-four-hour day, life would become the theatre … a veritable spectacle of the void.” The desire to dramatise everyday reality was reiterated when on 27 November 1960, the date of the festival, Klein drove around in his Deux Chevaux car with a group that included a young Hans Haacke to distribute the pamphlet to newsstands. While it was only placed in three locations, it too was photographed so that this fictional paper became a part of the real mass media. This was followed by a press conference, organised by Klein at Galerie Rive Droite, where he explained his project and distributed additional copies of the publication.

The image that became known as Leap into the Void soon took on its own life. A few months after Dimanche, Klein published a version of the image that omitted the train and cyclist in a catalogue for the exhibition Yves Klein: Monochrome and Feuer at Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld in Germany. Then a few months later he chose to feature the bicycle montage again in the Zero Group’s exhibition catalogue. By readily using two different compositions (although never the third, which included Klein’s car in the background), he dramatised the act of reading and looking at art, so that it became impossible to locate an authentic art object or reality. Instead, what remains is his original concept, which continues to be reimagined by other artists including Yasumasa Morimura who, 50 years after the original, created his own version of Leap into the Void set in Tokyo as part of his series A Requiem: Theater of Creativity, and Ciprian Mureşan’s Leap into the Void: After Three Seconds (2004) which depicts a similar scene only with the figure lying flat on the ground.

However Klein never descends from his grand leap. With the invention of the photographic medium, and darkroom trickery, it became possible to fly closer to the sun and to remain there. Klein seems to have been aware that any subsequent representation of a live performance would evoke an absence, and so he transformed what previously would have been considered the trace of an event into the form. Just as the void was meant to embody a state where the material facets of the physical world dissolved into the ether, so too does this image, and its subsequent dissemination, erase any necessity for an original ‘truthful’ act, be it performance, documentary photograph or art object. Subsequently, the work can be placed within a narrative of performing directly for the camera that includes The Seven Words (1898) by F. Holland Day who reenacted the final moments of Jesus Christ, Man Ray’s photograph of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, and the carefully constructed film stills of Cindy Sherman.

In Leap into the Void Klein created an image that speaks to both his own theatrical artistic life, but also to the constructed nature of reality in an increasingly media-driven age. Today, with the advent of social media and tools such as photoshop, the original strain and effort that people encounter in their lives can be hidden, so that truth only resides in the (altered) image presented to the world – performing our ideal selves for a camera, hoping to escape from the muddy gutter of the street and up towards the stars.

 

Leap into the Void was part of the exhibition Performing for the Camera which ran 18 February – 12 June 2016 at Tate Modern, London.  

Fiontán Moran is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern and editor of the zine Death Becomes Herr.

#34 ‘Commons View (Self-Managing 1 to 27)’ by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Commons View

Removal of Top Floors of Faraday Building, 1972. © BT Digital Archives.

 

1. Here’s an everyday photograph of a scene so familiar to Londoners, that it can’t be seen, as such. A postcard never bought or sent. A witless selfie-opportunity…

2. In fact, this is one overfamiliar sight you cannot have seen before. The image is a retouched photograph, akin to an architectural visualisation. It dates from May 1972 when it accompanied proposals for the removal of three storeys of the Post Office’s Faraday House (aka Faraday Building S Block) in response to decades of criticism that its height obscured views of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Post Office concluded that it would cost £850,000 to meet the City of London planner’s aspiration and that was that.

3. Of course, no one is interested in suggestions of visual deception here. However, I was surprised and confused when I first located it and the un-retouched original. More so when relating this image to the patinated copper roof of the defiant Faraday building that actually stands on the site set back from the Thames between the Blackfriars and Millennium Bridges to this day.

4. What interests me is what is generated by this image. Or rather, by this view – in the signifying economy of built form. What is called View Management, or specifically the London View Management Framework with its corridors and prescribed vistas. Since the 1930s a set of views has locked-off around this one and St Paul’s itself: the western towers, peristyle, upper drum and magnificent dome, topped with the Golden Gallery which owns one of London’s best views.

5. Beyond that, I’m interested in articulating a radical alternative to this proprietorial articulation of our city.

6. The neutered Faraday House on the left was one of four related ‘blocks’ clustered to the north of the two ‘blocks’ in this image. They were built on the site of the Doctors’ Commons: Inns of Court for advocates of civil and ecclesiastical law. The ruins of the Doctors Commons briefly housed a grotto patronised by fish merchants before demolition made way for Queen Victoria Street and the first Post Office structure, behind the one above.

7. In 1902 the old PO Savings Bank acquired a central telephone exchange with 200 establishment subscribers, which soon expanded into a long distance exchange in the same building. Then, with improvements in methods of transmitting speech over long distances and a need to expand, the adjoining site was acquired and Faraday House completed by May 1933.

8. “The modern world is removing the barriers of distance. It demands more and more speed in its communications. Speech begins to bridge the world as the most urgent, the most personal and the most effective means of conveying thought.” This is from an in-house publication on Faraday House and its newly opened International Telephone Exchange from the 1930s (†1).

9. Naturally, the ‘thought’ conveyed by this first global network was Imperial. Colonial possessions were now connected, so that South Africa could speak to India, for example, but only through this building. If it had come earlier, it might have allowed Herbert Baker in South Africa to speak with Edward Lutyens in India about their parliamentary complex in New Delhi, which they were falling out over as visions, legacies and egos clashed.

10. When he became the Surveyor of the Fabric of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1931, Walter Godfrey Allen settled in a modest terraced house in Faversham, Kent. On his commute he enjoyed “the most famous views” (†2) of his place of work available: more or less the one above. He’d spent the previous years strengthening the structurally dangerous building and now watched agitatedly as the river view was obscured by Faraday House. Immediately he began composing letters of objection to anyone he thought might listen or respond.

11. In 1930 the London Building Act authorised new buildings up to 100 feet but the London County Council retained powers to grant exceptions to this rule. Shell-Mex and Unilever Houses led the way…

12. A.R. Myers, the Ministry of Works designer of Mount Pleasant and PO landmarks across the country, built Faraday House to the capacity required by his governmental client and without restraint. His building was at the centre of a communication ‘universe’ and had a physical determination on the city all around it.

13. Allen regarded Faraday House, standing at about 150 feet or 46 metres, as an “outstanding result of the exercise of this exemption”(†3). It not only blocked views of the cathedral but also “compromised the architectural amenities of this important locality near St Paul’s”(†4). After the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932, Allen conducted detailed surveys of the topography and urban form to argue for height restrictions in the locality and preservation of “famous … vistas” (†5) to the west and north, in a 1934 report.

14. Allen’s official allies tipped him off about new applications, like Lutyens’ plans for his Reuters building on Fleet Street. A tautly well-humoured correspondence began in which Allen asked Lutyens to rethink the top floors of the planned building rather than compromise a historic monument. Lutyens wriggled but conceded. His own rather monumental structure was completed in 1938 and Pevsner later praised the architect’s restraint, instancing the way that the top floors drop back ten feet with a parasol detail. The real story is contained in letters that I read in the eves of Wren’s cathedral.

15. The 1937/8 Town Planning Act embedded Allen’s restricted heights and views around the cathedral, principally from the south side angling east and west. The establishment of this unique hinterland led eventually to the present Framework of 27 ‘managed’ views. The legislation defines them as London Panoramas, Linear Views, River Prospects, and Townscape Views. The purpose is to preserve the visual identification of this post-Great Fire landmark and with it a notional identity of the city as a whole.

16. The Serpentine Bridge Townscape View details the method: “Development in the background of the view should not undermine the relationship between the predominantly parkland landscape composition in the foreground and the landmark buildings at the focus of the view in the middle ground … New buildings in the background of the view must be subordinate”. In practice, this means that housing developments at the Elephant and Castle, for example, were determined by this view from a Royal Park.

17. This Framework exists within an episteme of built form as real, even Royal estate. The Serpentine Bridge view is joined by Greenwich and Richmond Parks, the latter of which “was first enclosed by Charles I and is the largest of London’s Royal Parks.” This Linear View from King Henry VIII’s Mound begins with an avenue of trees planted in the early 17th century “just after the new cathedral was completed.”

18. The result is that a vast glass palace, with entrances in Royal Parks and vantage over densely populated parts of the city, squats over London and Londoners – albeit virtually. Architecturally rendered, the Framework’s system of corridors would form the largest structure in Europe, seemingly invisible to those whose lives it determines.

19. Mention of Charles I conjures the most significant name associated with the Doctors’ Commons. Isaac Dorislaus was a brilliant young academic, who gave two lectures at Cambridge referencing Tacitus to propose legal methods to depose tyrants – before being banned. Thereafter he joined the prosecuting council at the trial of Charles I in January 1649, before being murdered by Royalists at The Hague in May of that year. Parliament endowed Dorislaus’ children and ensured they could keep his rooms at the Doctors’ Commons. Their father was buried in Westminster Abbey only to be disinterred at the Restoration, his body thrown in an unmarked pit outside it.

20. I like to think of Faraday House as a fitting memorial to Isaac Dorislaus.

21. One of the longest glazed corridors in London’s palace stretches for ten miles from Richmond Park. Distance and topography mean that at Richmond there is only a vista: a notional image of the city. On the Mound a telescope offers an alluring vision beyond gold-lettered gates reading THE WAY through the trimmed avenue of trees and on to a postcard cathedral. I walked up and out here, along that glassy ‘Way’ and against the grain of what it represents.

22. All of this is underscored by what lies below Faraday House. The Citadel was the last part of the Faraday complex built, forming its north east ‘block’ (†6). Six shafts descend below this defensive bunker, to join a network of tunnels 60 metres below. It links arms around St Paul’s cathedral before reaching out to establishment locations around the city for at least 12 miles. Once a state secret, this BT-owned network remains out of public reach in 2015.

23. High above, a virtual palace is formed by glass corridors which cut through London’s sky from Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill, ironically, and Alexander Palace as well as Point Hill, a small public park above Deptford. From here the cathedral is almost lost in the sea of new London below, but visible as view as well as vista. The former is a pleasing expression of attention to the city and generates no animus in me. It is the latter generator of a vast crystal palace of established exclusivity that does.

24. So, look again at the photograph and focus on the watery commons it displays in the foreground. The Romans built their colony beside the river, which also became the conveyor belt of Britain’s industrialised Empire. If I am to offer an alternative vision of the city, it can still be organised – I prefer self-managed – around this location. Let that be my Dorislaus Memorial and let’s follow the logic through, using our city’s riverine commons.

25. In place of views constructed by regal corridors think of them by river catchments – the catchments of living tributaries to the Thames. Rivers that link the Thames to the City Commons and that of Epping Forest, for example, at London’s conventionally mapped extremities. The Roding, the Ravensbourne, the Wandle and Brent, perhaps. Now stand with me on Keston Common in the south-east, or Ashstead in the south-west, on Pole Hill in Epping Forest or on the roof of Brent Cross and conjure vistas of a radically different city.

26. From these places, self-managing views are supplemented by another form of urban commons: London’s forest canopy. Canopy connects all along our muddy passages and helps sustain our existing commonworld. That is, this composition of water and urban forest is also a necessary corrective in our time, as climate change builds. These are vistas of and for common life, ones that we can and must invest ourselves in. Ones to enhance and reimagine our city around, in fact.

27. Retouched or not, doubling formally and substantively, this is an image of that coming city for Londoners based on a radically new urban commons. One that has long enabled life here and which is now our best or only muddy portal, rather than palatial corridor, to a future we can share.

————————————————————-

†1. Faraday House, General Post Office publication, undated ca 1930s, BT Archive

†2. W. Godfrey Allen, F.R.I.B.A., St Paul’s Cathedral, A Survey of Views, London, November 1934, p3

†3. ibid, p4

†4. ibid

†5. ibid

†6. Both north blocks have been demolished and replaced by the Grange St. Paul’s Hotel.

————————————————————-

Guy Mannes-Abbott is the London-based author of a singular series of texts which often perform in visual art contexts. The longest is In Ramallah, Running (London 2012), while the latest are contributions to End Note(s) (Rotterdam/Hong Kong 2015), and e-flux journal’s Supercommunity (Venice Biennale 2015). @guymannesabbott

#33 ‘Stoning the Witch’ by Chloe Aridjis

Stoning

 

It is easier to say all the things it is not, and only with hindsight am I able to see more clearly what it is. This photograph could have been a film still, yet it was taken in between scenes where no one was acting. It could form part of an anthropological study, yet the narrative it sets up is somewhat false. It could chronicle a local event, but again, it is partly lacking in authenticity. And it feels too intimate, somehow, to have been taken by a tourist. Six years after I took it, I view this photograph as the stage for the story that was about to unfold, a foreshadowing of the various tensions that arose shortly afterwards. It prefigures a certain dynamic, and the contrasting expectations imposed on an encounter. The idea that an image can transfix – that is, pierce through, fix or fasten, across two cultures or individuals – was somewhat put into question.

In the winter of 2010 my sister Eva shot a feature film, The Blue Eyes, in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state and home to the Tzotzil Indians, direct descendants of the Mayas. One of the main locations was San Cristobal de las Casas, a handsome colonial town famously associated with the Zapatistas and still a magnet for idealists from around the world. During the final week of the shoot, I flew out to help as stills photographer.

The Blue Eyes tells the story of a young American couple who travel to Chiapas and soon find themselves caught up in the machinations of a shape-shifting witch. And while Eva’s film tells a fictional story of cultural tensions and obfuscation, she encountered real problems along the way. Recent elections in one of the film’s locations, the Tzotzil town of Zinacantán, had created a shift in local politics, and filming permits granted to my sister’s team by the incoming party (the PRI) were challenged by Indians who supported the ousted party (the PRD). So while the PRI supporters wanted to be involved in the film, some of the PRD supporters decided to sabotage it for political reasons.

A week before my arrival, the crew had been held hostage for several hours by drunken men wielding machetes who accused them of desecrating their sacred grounds – they’d seen the prop of a baby made of resin and claimed it was dug up from their cemetery. However, they made it clear they would forgive all if handed the sum of $10,000  in cash. The crew was finally released after paying the men $1,000, the new amount having been negotiated by the male location manager as the Tzotzil men refused to negotiate with my sister or her female producer. The remaining scenes that were meant to be shot in Zinacantán were instead filmed in the neighbouring town, including the scene depicted in this photograph.

In the film an Indian woman is seduced and abandoned by a blue-eyed American anthropologist. When her baby is born with blue eyes, she kills it out of spite and is subsequently labeled a witch and evicted from the community. For this scene, several dozen Tzotzils were brought in from Zinacantán. The two elders who spoke Spanish translated for Eva: everyone was instructed to shout Witch! and throw papier mâché stones at the thatched mud hut that stood before them. Yet when the camera began to roll, many did not do as they’d been told. Eva asked them a second time to pretend they were angry and throw stones. But we’re not angry, they insisted. It was then that we realised they had no concept of representation; the thought of pretending to be angry when they weren’t feeling anger seemed odd. Why behave in a way that isn’t in accordance with your experience?

During the Conquest of Mexico, the Spaniards put on various religious plays in their efforts to convert the Indians, among them Fray Andres de Olmos’ The Final Judgment. When the Indians saw this production they believed the scenes they were witnessing to be real. According to one chronicler of the time, they were led into cathartic states of terror and compassion, overwhelmed by the lavish stage sets, gunpowder and fireworks.

In a way, this photo depicts a similarly unmediated regard, one untouched by the awareness of artifice.

The children fill the frame. Their faces exhibit a blend of reticence and curiosity; they stare with interest at my sister and the movie camera, uncertain what to make of them, while my sister and the camera stare back. No one is aware of me.

Among the many beautiful young Tzotzils why did I focus that day on Adrianita, the girl holding her hands up to her mouth as if in prayer or a hush? Her dreaminess and timidity set her apart from the others, a certain nostalgia in her face as if focused on something beyond. Her body language is self-effacing, her hands partly cover her mouth. I can detect early signs of the Tzotzils’ deeply patriarchal society—the boy’s stance is more confident than the girls’. But there’s also a difference in posture between Adrianita and the other two; they thrust outwards while she draws into herself.

That day she had a rattling cough and kept staring into the camera, so after a few takes my sister had to ask her to please step aside. Visibly confused, she went to stand by another makeshift hut nearby, her face cast in shadow, and continued to cough. I offered her a lozenge I had in my bag. She accepted it; the coughing stopped. Later, once the shoot was finished, I watched her playing with some other children, laughing loudly as they slid down a muddy slope.

The following morning, with the help of the man in charge of procuring extras for the film, I was able to locate her address in Zinacantán. She was out on the hill helping her father pick flowers, her neighbour Juana said, but she’d ring the father on his mobile and tell them to return. After 20 minutes the family appeared on the back of a pickup truck that had given them a lift and off hopped Adrianita with her hands and hair full of earth. Prudencio, her father, spoke some Spanish, and he introduced me to the rest of the family: her mother, two sisters, and little brother. We entered their home, a cement rectangle with a tin door held closed with a string. The room was divided into sections by hanging sheets of plastic and in one corner stood an enormous altar with the framed portraits of various saints engulfed in fresh flowers.

There wasn’t much time to talk; I was leaving back for Mexico City that afternoon. We quickly established that I would be Adrianita’s godmother and help out however I could. Prudencio would open a bank account in San Cristobal and I would deposit a monthly sum to be used for the children. Before leaving we walked to a tiny shop that sold clothes and I told Adrianita to pick something out. She chose a puffy purple jacket with a hood that matched the colours of her traditional dress, deep pinks and purple. We then took a series of photographs outside their house and said goodbye.

At first, it was easy to romanticise her existence. Extreme poverty, yes, but she seemed to enjoy a freedom and an innocence unfamiliar to most children I’d met, far from the tyranny of gadgets and the internet. With nothing but the plot of land outside her house and the fields and hills beyond it as her landscape, her play seemed purer, more reliant on the imagination. And to my ears Tzotztil sounded like birdsong, while the deep pink and purple embroidery on the women’s skirts and capes resembled the most beautiful of plumage.

Back in Mexico City I prepared a box of things for her; clothes that would match, such as purple pajamas and purple trainers, and school supplies. Yet finding the right doll, which was what she wanted the most, proved a difficult task: after scouring the toyshops and department stores of Mexico City, my mother and I were unable to locate an even remotely Mexican-looking doll; every single one had blonde hair and blue eyes. (My mother finally found one in New York). Adrianita slept on a rug with two of her siblings, so we had a bed and mattress sent from Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, to their house.

A few months later Prudencio rang my father in tears. Ana Rosa, the eldest daughter, had drunk weedkiller – used in flower preservation – and died. Upon returning home from the hill they’d found her lifeless on the floor. He was asking for 20,000 pesos for the funeral. I called Juana, who finally confessed several things of startling note. She told me that Prudencio had been using the money I was sending to set up a greenhouse. And that he would lock Ana Rosa up at home, and forbade her from continuing her studies or pursuing any interests of her own. And that the children were anaemic and extremely malnourished, partly because none of the money I’d sent had actually gone to them. After that, all my dealings were with Juana and we decided that I would deposit the money into her account instead. This worked at first but eventually, it created conflict between the neighbours. Juana stopped answering the phone and for a while we lost touch.

*

While my sister was creating her narrative in Chiapas, I’d been constructing my own, one that also departed from reality, though not as dramatically of course. Mine began with the moment this photograph was taken.

Now, six years on, Adrianita has learnt more Spanish. Her voice has changed. She was six when I met her, now she is twelve. She still doesn’t know what she wants to become in life; perhaps when she is older she will join the local community of women weavers. Someday I will ask her what she remembers from the day in the photograph, and whether she believed the actress was really a witch.

 

Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican writer based in London, and is the author of the novels Book of Clouds and Asunder. 

#32 ‘The School in the Orchard’ by Ken Worpole

Aboyne.300

 

I trained to be a school teacher in the 1960s, when many people thought that the world could be changed for the better. Our student idealism was reinforced by studying the poetry of the Romantics, the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, the novels of D.H. Lawrence, the child development theories of Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget, along with the anarchist proposition that play and freedom were the same thing. We watched films such as François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups, and were encouraged to believe – and many did – that childhood was a state of grace.

These ideals were reinforced by what was happening in architecture at the time – Aldo van Eyck’s revolutionary 1961 orphanage in Amsterdam turned the world of institutional childcare upside down, as did his post-war programme of creating 700 playgrounds in that one city alone – and this new spirit of the age was captured and amplified by a new bravura in architectural photography.

John Pantlin’s photograph was first published in 1950 in The Architects’ Journal, and records a view of Aboyne Lodge Infants School in St Albans. It was soon to become an icon for the optimistic world of British post-war school architecture, particularly for the architects’ department at Hertfordshire County Council, whose design it was. The county’s then Chief Education Officer, John Newsom (who went on to become a national figure in British education), realised that good publicity could only help further the county’s ambitious school-building programme, and cultivated the architectural press assiduously. As a result, the photographer chosen to document the school, John Pantlin, was someone whose work was already admired for its sharp, sunlit images of a new world in the making, and in this photograph he captured everything Newsom and his colleagues wanted.

The image became popularly known as The School in the Orchard, since the new pavilion-style school had been built in the grounds of a former market garden. Pantlin took advantage of the location to construct an elaborate idyll of a new Eden. Photographed in spring, the apple trees in blossom provide a perfect proscenium arch for what at first sight appears to be a theatrical tableau. But the image is rather more complicated than that, and its construction and effects more far-reaching, since it directly challenged many established conventions associated with architectural photography.

For a start the building itself is relegated to the background, and the viewer soon realises that through Pantlin’s lens it is not the building which is being celebrated, but the building’s social and historical ‘moment’. The ‘decisive moment’ on this occasion is not an existential fragment of time, but a historical moment, when more radical ways of thinking about the world seemed possible. The photograph thus opens a new door in social time. Furthermore, most new architecture is photographed and published as pristine, uninhabited space, isolated from its immediate surroundings or milieu. But not here, where the building’s users are centre-stage, and artful design has constructed a setting evocative of the dawn of creation. By contrast, when Alison and Peter Smithson designed Hunstanton Secondary School in Norfolk, four years after Aboyne Lodge, they notoriously stipulated that it was to be photographed without any equipment or furniture – and certainly no children – so that the images would present a series of machine-precision Euclidian voids, privileging the design and the materials used (thus earning a place in the modernist canon), rather than its potential as an environment which supported learning and pastoral care.

If The School in the Orchard is not an architectural photograph, then is it political propaganda, one of those images which consciously symbolises the virtues of a new regime or social order? People had got used to seeing such photographs featuring the eager faces of young people in Soviet or Nazi propaganda, which used such imagery tirelessly, though after the war this genre became discredited, only to be replaced by a new trope – those of children at play amongst ruins or slum streets – where a more tentative ambition was suggested.

Such images came to prominence in Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 New York exhibition, The Family of Man, an exhibition whose aesthetic was that of self-styled  ‘documentary humanism’. Photographs of street children, or children at play – often face to camera – were meant to suggest resilience in the face of adversity, or the universal inclination of children everywhere to play and create worlds of make-believe, however harsh the circumstances. The closing photograph of that exhibition was W. Eugene Smith’s 1946 portrait of his own two children walking hand in hand through a sunlit wood, called The Walk to the Paradise Garden, to which Pantlin’s photograph might be regarded as a sequel, though we cannot be sure Pantlin had seen it when he took his photograph.

Yet The School in the Orchard challenges these conventions too. Its principal subjects, a boy and a girl, possibly brother and sister, are photographed with their backs to us, seemingly lost in thought or engaged in a private conversation which we can never know or presume to know. Both are sitting on a bench, on the edge of a circular sunken play area, the fair-haired boy’s arm protectively around the shoulder of his dark-haired companion. The other children in the photograph are likewise absorbed, including the boy with a hoop who seems to have been borrowed from a painting by Poussin, and none of them either can in any way be interpreted as avatars of a new ideological order.

In this period school architecture was required to focus as much on promoting health as it was on pedagogy. As architectural historians Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor wrote in their survey, School (2008): ‘If one were asked to identify an iconic school building of the first half of the twentieth century, it would be very easy to single out the ‘First Open Air School for Sick Children’ in Amsterdam designed by Johannes Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet in 1929-30.’ This is an extraordinary building which my wife and I have also studied and photographed, the design of which owes much to the development of pavilion architecture, whose origins are often credited to Florence Nightingale.

It was Nightingale’s insight into the recuperative effects of the circulation of air and access to sunlight, which resulted in a new style of hospital ward, with large opening windows on both sides, and with balconies and garden terraces along one flank, where beds could be moved out into the open whenever possible. In response to the scourge of TB,  the Victorian pavilion ward was adapted and modernised as a sanatorium pavilion, and out of the sanatorium pavilion emerged the architecture of the modern primary school.

When the project architect for Aboyne Lodge, Donald Barron, set to work in 1949, he was still required to design a building in which each classroom ‘required no less than six complete air-changes every hour’. The long glazed facade we see in the photograph could easily have been that of sanatorium, with easy access to the surrounding gardens, and in recent years this pavilion style has been further modified and updated to create the modern hospice.

My own childhood included two long stays in hospital, one as a result of a street accident, and the other requiring a period in an isolation hospital after being diagnosed with ‘scarlet fever’. I rarely revisit my past, but I can now see how the world of the hospital ward  became a place where reveries of ‘life outside’ affected me deeply, and to which I have ever since been committed personally and politically. I am only interested in architecture which connects to the world beyond, whether street, garden, park or city.

 

Ken Worpole has written widely on architecture, landscape and public policy, and has collaborated with photographer Jason Orton on two books on the English landscape: 350 Miles (2005) and The New English Landscape (2013).

#31 ‘Whaling Station During the Lunch-hour’ by Tom Overton

Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour

 

In 1936, the poets W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice got an advance to write a travel book about Iceland. Reading Don Juan on the boat over from Hull that June, Auden decided that it should be structured around a letter in verse to Lord Byron:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,

           And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,

Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,

    Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;

           I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.

I’m going to be very up to date indeed.

It is a collage that you’re going to read.

The trip had been planned as a holiday; an attempt to get a perspective on Europe. Auden and MacNeice clearly enjoyed themselves, but signs of the impending Second World War provided what Auden called ‘the orchestral background’ to the book: a gently mounting horror-film drone behind their inept adventuring (MacNeice didn’t bring any camping equipment, and the tent Auden brought collapsed on them on the first night. MacNeice tells us that Auden, wearing pyjamas, flannel trousers, riding breeches, two shirts, a golf jacket, a coat and an oilskin, looked like ‘something out of Brueghel’ while he was trying to inflate the airbed, and moved ‘like something that would be more at home on water’.) News of Franco’s uprising against the government of Spain reached them in July, and at one point, Auden exchanged ‘politenesses’ with Goering’s brother at breakfast.

The island was awash with Nazis searching out the genetic cradle of the Aryan race, and read now, Letters from Iceland is a book that seems to display the horrors of fascism at a kind of embryonic stage. But it goes further than that, finding its DNA in Romanticism, and wondering if Byron, were he alive today, would have fallen in with Oswald Mosley. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote, ‘with Picasso in painting, Stravinsky in music’, Auden was ‘a master of the uses of the past, projected into the present and prophesying a future’.

In a letter that ended up roughly halfway through the book, Auden describes meeting a ‘selfish little Englishman’ who viewed the struggle in Spain as nothing more than an inconvenience for tourists. The addressee, Erika Mann Auden, was Thomas Mann’s daughter. Auden – who was generally, but not exclusively interested in men – had agreed to marry her so she’d have an English replacement for the passport the Nazis were about to take away.

Auden’s letter mentions that he’d visited the whaling station of Talknafjördur. But before explaining, he interrupts himself by recalling a nightmare: in hospital for an appendix operation, he was befriended by an intense, violent man who follows him when he tries to escape; later on his father arrives. Then, suddenly, the letter switches back, and it is no longer the dreaming Auden being carved up:

I wish I could describe things well, for a whale is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. It combines the fascination of something alive, enormous, and gentle, with the functional beauties of modern machinery.

In the summer sun, with the radio, the chirping of a canary and the whistling of a workman in the background, the waking Auden watched as a seventy-ton whale was ‘torn to pieces with steam winches and cranes’, and a fifty-yard pool of blood flowed out into the bay past five other half-submerged corpses. In a verse-letter to the artist William Coldstream later in the book, he remembers the station as ‘slippery with filth – with guts and decaying flesh –  like an artist’s palette’. In the letter to Erika,

A bell suddenly clanged and everyone stuck their spades in the carcass and went out for lunch. The body remained alone in the sun, the flesh still steaming a little. It gave one an extraordinary vision of the cold controlled ferocity of the human species.

In this book, at least, Auden had photography to help him describe. Perhaps he felt more inclined to experiment because of his recent work at the General Post Office film department, where he’d been allowed – with no prior expertise – not just to write verse, most famously for the film Night Mail, but to direct the shooting of scenes. It was a golden age of state-sponsored documentary, but Auden was going off its certainties. In February 1936, he published a review of Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Film, sceptical of ‘whether an artist can ever deal more than superficially […] with characters outside his own class’ (most British documentary directors, he pointed out, are ‘upper-middle’; he was no different). He was also sceptical of the disinterestedness of the large government departments or companies needed to fund these films.

The problems a pen and a camera posed were apparently fewer, or at least different. In July 1936, Auden believed that

any ordinary person could learn all the techniques of photography in a week. It is the democratic art, i.e. technical skill is practically eliminated – the more fool-proof cameras become with focusing and exposing gadgets the better – and artistic quality depends only on choice of subject.

According to the scholar Marsha Bryant, Auden scribbled the captions on the backs of the photographs so hard that his publishers worried they’d show through to the other side. The one on the photograph at the bottom right reads ‘Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour’, though it doesn’t show the whale itself. There are two overleaf – captioned ‘Flensing by Steam-winch’ and ‘The Corpse’ – which show it as abstract shapes, done violence by the workmen, and by the cropping of Auden’s camera.

In Flensing by Steam-winch, a thick rasher of whale is being torn along its length. Though the heads of six men are visible above the strip, and their chests through the loop it makes as it folds back over the body, they must only be helping – avoiding a wastefully messy tear by making guide-incisions, perhaps. The force is clearly coming from out of shot to our left, as if backwards over the other page, if you read the images in sequence. That’s where the central, diagonal form of Whaling Station comes in – surely this, with its shiny exposed pistons, and the toothy gears which hoist it up and down, is the steam-winch which is doing the flensing.

Auden’s framing makes it look like a howitzer abandoned among the deserted rubble of the station; a reminder of the landscape of the Great War, like the poetic description of 1936 as ‘the eighteenth year of the Western Peace’ that comes later in the book. Auden’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines would probably agree. In his reading, the memory of the whaling station returned to Auden in 1938, when he was in Brussels, looking at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting was then thought to be an original Pieter Brueghel, and perhaps the dim memory of how MacNeice had described him inflating the camp-bed made him loiter for a while. Either way, he turned it into one of his most famous poems, Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

It reminds us, Davenport-Hines thought, ‘how easily we put aside other people’s catastrophes to pursue our petty quotidian comforts. Most of us stick our spades into the carcass while it is still steaming and go off for lunch.’ Though its specifics are a little different, Whaling Station was Auden’s version of this image, captured at a moment when he could talk of seeing

[…] as clearly as at the moment

The wraps of cellophane torn off

From cigarettes flit through the glass

Like glittering butterflies […]

Auden’s 1949 poem Memorial for the City is similar in that it describes blossom falling, entirely unaware any impropriety, on the dead. But the attitude towards photography that went along with it had changed. Auden had been disillusioned by his experience of the republican cause in Spain in 1937, and discombobulated by writing another collaborative travel book, this time in China with Christopher Isherwood in 1938. He had moved to America, met Chester Kallmann, the love of his life, and written ‘September 1, 1939’, on the outbreak of the Second World War and the end of a ‘low dishonest decade’. Gradually, he had rediscovered the unifying pattern of Christian faith. All of this shaped the lens through which he saw the images released from Auschwitz, and, during his work for the US Strategic Bombing Survey, the wholesale devastation of Germany. In Memorial for the City,

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye

See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.

I Am Not a Camera – published in 1962, but assembled from observations in a 1947–64 notebook – ends

The camera may

do justice to laughter, but must

degrade sorrow.

Where the Auden of 1936 had used photography in an effort to fill in for the documentary shortcomings of writing, here he used writing to express the documentary shortcomings of photography. He criticised it for being what the Auden scholar John Fuller called ‘the necessarily choiceless disposition of fact’: for being too much like the whalers blithely lunching on the periphery of vast suffering.

Letters from Iceland is island-like and separate in Auden’s attitudes to the camera, but worth a visit every now and again. It ends with an epilogue to Auden from MacNeice, now alone in London, looking back on the overshadowed fun of their trip, and forward to the mood of Autumn Journal (1939): 

Our prerogatives as men

Will be cancelled who knows when;

Still I drink your health before

The gun-butt raps upon the door.

The newsletter of the W. H. Auden Society thought Davenport-Hines was getting carried away in his version of the whale story, overzealously scribbling his caption on the back of these images. But read now with a knowledge of the history that followed, the whole book seems to be about what it is to be just out of shot from coolly systematic violence.

Like Musée des Beaux Arts, it’s a case-study in the practicalities of witness; a contradiction to that famous line from another artistic visitor Spain in the 1930s, Robert Capa: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ It suggests the better, more eloquent picture might be off to one side somewhere.

 

Tom Overton’s writing has been published by the New Statesman, Apollo, Tate, the British Council, the British Library, openDemocracy, The White Review and others. The first volume of his edition of John Berger’s writing on art – prepared as a Fellow of the Henry Moore Institute, and the Centre for Life-writing Research at KCL – will be published by Verso in October. He’s working on a book of his own, and tweeting as @tw_overton.

#30 ‘The Piano Man, No Ordinary Scrounger’ by Patrick Wright

Piano Man

 

Shortly after midnight on April 7, 2005, a young blond-haired man wearing a dark suit and white shirt was found wandering, dripping wet and distressed, near a beach at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent. The police who picked him up couldn’t get a word out of him, so they conveyed him to the Medway Maritime Hospital on the mainland in Gillingham, where he was kept for a while and eventually sectioned for his own safety. He refused to speak, and became highly agitated when approached. He had no identification on him, and all the labels had been cut from his clothes. The clinicians made no progress with their nameless patient until, on being given some paper and pencils, he made a drawing of a grand piano. Taken to the piano in the hospital chapel, he sat down and played, much to the amazement of his carers, who recognised snatches of Swan Lake in his performance. Over the following days they encouraged him to play more, presenting him with sheet music of Lennon & McCartney tunes, and admiring the ease with which he played them at sight. They decided this troubled young man might actually be the real thing: a brilliant pianist, who had suffered some sort of breakdown and turned up on Sheppey dressed, so conjecture now suggested, as if he had walked out of, or fled, a perhaps disastrous performance. It was thought that the mystery man was probably British, and that there might be an orchestra or music academy somewhere that was missing a pianist. Such was the intention with which news of his situation was relayed to the press as well as to the National Missing Person’s Helpline.

It was the Mail on Sunday that triggered the explosion of interest. An article, published on May 15th, introduced this ‘silent genius’ to the world, and dubbed him the ‘Piano Man’. Speculation was intense, and the story of this man who had apparently risen from the sea was taken up almost instantly all over the world. Journalists and television crews from far-flung places advanced on the Isle of Sheppey: ‘This is really bizarre, no. . .’, muttered the local reporter from the Sheerness-Times Guardian as he pointed out a Tokyo television crew for a French journalist (Le Point, 26 May). There were some, including the duly interviewed manager of the pub on the road where the Piano Man had been found, who maintained the downbeat view that the stranger was just another illegal immigrant: either he had jumped off a passing ship, or been pushed into the water by people smugglers as they were approached by coastguards or the police. Such dark suspicions lurked in the back of some newspaper minds too, but the drama would soon be removed from its desolate location on the Isle of Sheppey, and relaunched as a universal ‘story’ about the identity, existence, loss and, in words attributed to an interested Hollywood producer by the Guardian, ‘the fragility of the human mind’ (Guardian, May 18). Here was a story that proved the proximity of art and reality, or so it seemed to the novelist, Chris Paling. He wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph (20 May), claiming to have written the Piano Man’s story already in his just published and duly advertised novel, in which a forgetful man crawls out of the sea and heads into a nearby town.

As the story spread throughout the summer, the Piano Man was the subject of a great efflorescence of speculative theories in which the suspected illegal immigrant and NHS scrounger was displaced by a tortured artistic genius who must have suffered some sort of nervous breakdown after a disastrous performance and not even had time to change out of his concert clothes before stepping onto the boat from which he would leap, distraught, as it approached the Thames estuary. Meanwhile, the search for the mystery man’s identity produced a dizzying array of contenders – many hundreds of them. There was a performance artist who had been seen in France or Spain, a classically trained pianist who had once played in dissident rock tribute band in Prague, a Canadian drifter known as ‘Mr. Nobody’ who had once tried to enter Britain illegally. Various women announced themselves quite certain the Piano Man was their missing boyfriend or husband. The man himself had by now been transferred to the Little Brook hospital in Dartford, where the Sun tried to donate a keyboard for his room. His ‘story’ was said to be of interest to so many Hollywood producers that, if Mark Lawson was to be believed, doctors and carers could hardly get through the crowd at his bedside (Guardian, June 18). There was also a flurry of armchair diagnosis. One psychiatrist, who had never met him, was in no doubt that the Piano Man had been hurled into a ‘fugue state’ by trauma. Pop psychologists also took to print to throw in their pennyworth – Oliver James was in very little doubt that the Piano Man was suffering from a ‘borderline personality disorder’. Dr Judith Gould of the National Autism Society diagnosed him as one of theirs. As the legend grew it became carrion for the meta-commentators too. The pop-Lacanian analyst, Darian Leader, speculated in the Times about how the story had activated ‘the common fantasy of escaping a humdrum existence’ (Times, May 21).

By the time the tide turned, the doctors and nurses at the Little Brook hospital had been caring for the Piano Man for the best part of four months. By late July, they were said to be wondering whether their patient’s voice box was damaged, or had even been removed, but were impeded by the difficulty of getting his formal permission for an endoscopic examination. On August 8, the Independent reported that doctors were worrying that ‘the talented musician in a wet suit’ might never be identified. But this all came to an abrupt end on the morning of Friday August 19, when a nurse went into his room and asked routinely, ‘Are you going to speak with us today?’ Unexpectedly, the Piano Man had opened his mouth and replied ‘I think I will.’ He went on to identify himself as a 20-year-old Bavarian, who, far from stepping out of the sea, had come to England by Eurostar from Paris, and had been trying to kill himself in the hours before he was picked up by the police. Informing the hospital staff that he had two sisters and was gay, he also announced that – as the hospital chaplain had himself suspected – he really could not play the piano particularly well at all, and that he had only drawn one because ‘it was the first thing that came to mind’.

By the time news of his recovery reached the press, Andreas Grassl was back with his dairy-farming parents in the tiny village of Prosdorf in Bavaria, whence he would only speak in carefully measured statements issued through the family’s solicitor. He explained that he had known nothing of the media storm brewing up around him, and, having thanked the psychiatrists and nurses who had looked after him, and also the many sympathetic people who had written to him while he was in hospital, he now had to think about his future. He wanted no more contact with the media. By the time the gay news service Pink News revisited the story two years later in 2007, Grassl was living in Basel, Switzerland, and studying French Literature at the university. By then reporters had found various of Grassl’s former friends and acquaintances who spoke of the difficulty of growing up gay in a conservative Bavarian village, and who declared that his crisis was said to have become acute in the French coastal town of Pornic, in South-Eastern Brittany, where a relationship had gone wrong.

The British press was by no means unanimously content to have its summer fantasies about the Piano Man so rudely interrupted by reality. Some commentators used merely plangent terms to express their disappointment at the sudden disenchantment caused by Grassl’s recovery. Writing in the Independent, Charles Nevin, who claimed to have dreamed that the piano man was another genius like Paderewski, regretted that ‘a little touch of magic and mystery is no more’. Other papers – and not just the tabloids – reacted as if they had been grievously let down by Grassl, who had proved quite unworthy of the celebrity they had so generously bestowed upon him. He was multiply denounced as a ‘fraud’ for not being mute and as a ‘sham’ for not really being able to play the piano well either. It was now said that his ‘glorious, enchanting music’ (Darian Leader) had actually consisted of ‘hitting a single key repeatedly’. Grassl was nothing but a ‘suicidal gay German’ and ‘just a fiddler’ who had made disreputable use of past experience as a ward orderly in Germany to act mad and freeload on the NHS. Various papers gleefully declared that the Health Authority were considering legal action to recover the costs of his care, but this wishful recommendation went nowhere – partly, as may be surmised, because the clinicians never doubted that Grassl had been in the midst of a crisis that was now successfully resolved.

Many of the loftier commentators, who offered the world their thoughts on the interest Grassl had accidentally generated, shared the assumption that the Piano Man was powerful because he represented what Darian Leader called a ‘blank canvas’ on which people could project their own longings and fantasies (Times, May 21). In reality, ‘canvas’ was not the medium that supported the billowing clouds of speculation, and neither was the screen on which they were projected in any way ‘blank’ .

In the words of the Sunday Telegraph, the story of the Piano Man was ‘strangely cinematic, from the shock of his dyed blond hair to the unusual formality of his attire. He is a walking plot yet to be unravelled’. (ST May 22)  In the early weeks that ‘unravelling’ took several different forms, each one suggested and confirmed by a different film. Many, including some of his carers, saw the Piano Man through the prism provided by the Australian film Shine (1996) – which turned the tormented pianist David Helfgott into an embodiment of what one American psychiatrist diagnosed as ‘movie madness’:  i.e. a ‘celluloid amalgam of schizophrenia, manic-depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and idiot savant’ (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D., letter to the editor, New York Times, March 15, 1997). For those inclined to emphasise the ‘autistic savant’ in this mix, further corroboration was provided by Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988). A French writer, Jerôme Cordelier, who visited Sheppey for Le Point, added a more recondite film – The Man without a Past (2003) by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, the hero of which is a welder who loses all knowledge of himself after being beaten up and robbed a few hours after arriving in Helsinki, and then builds a new life among the city’s container-dwelling outcasts. In Germany commentators reached further back to Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), in which a disorientated and more or less mute young man walks into early 19th century Nuremberg, having apparently been raised in total isolation from fellow humans.

However, the pictures that really kept the Piano Man aloft as he was pushed and pulled through this seething chaos of contending plots and scenarios were of a decidedly static and unmoving variety. A Kent-based ‘photojournalist’ named Mike Gunnill, has described how he got a call from the picture desk of the Daily Mail informing him that ‘a man has been found, he isn’t talking’. The Mail had been alerted to the story by an authorised social worker at the Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham, who explained that the ‘mystery man’s’ carers needed help in identifying him. On May 6 Gunnill visited the hospital and tried to photograph the unknown figure, but it quickly proved impossible – ‘he just covered his face every time and started to become distressed.’ A French reporter quotes Gunnill as saying that the man ‘screams and cries like a baby when he sees someone new’ and that he looked around ‘as if seeing the world for the first time’ (Le Point, May 26).

Realising that Gunnill might fare better when he took the man for his daily walk, the social worker, Michael Camp, took Gunnill out and showed him a place ‘partly hidden by trees’, and told him to be standing there and ready with his camera at the appointed time. Gunnill, who was effectively working as an NHS-assisted paparazzo, managed to get a few pictures before ‘the mystery man’ noticed his lens and took evasive action. They show Grassl as a frail, lightly bearded figure, with somewhat spikey blond hair, wearing his by now dried-out suit and white shirt, with every possible button done up. In one of Gunnill’s stolen shots, the solitary figure sees the camera and stares back with what may be a mixture of fear and disgust, clutching his plastic folder of music in both hands. In others he shields his face completely with the folder, or peeps out with one fiercely bright eye.

In the most evocative example, a cropped version of which was used by the Mail on Sunday to accompany the article of May 15, in which Grassl was first converted from ‘silent genius’ to ‘Piano Man’, he is all there from head to toe: tall, lean, very thin, somewhat awkwardly bent, and this time clutching his folder over his waist with both hands. He has the caught-in-the-headlights look, characteristic of pap shots, but it is the contest between the predatory lens and Grassl’s retaliatory stare that gives the image its unforgettable quality. Here, to be sure, is the Piano Man as something other than the formulaic sufferer of psychiatric illness: a strongly minded figure, pale, and surrounded by leafy green rather than a white room with all the ligature points removed and slumped figures in armchairs watching daytime TV. Far from looking abject in his melancholy, the young man in Gunnill’s most widely circulated image looks closer to the inspired and also tormented figures of Kaspar David Friedrich, Edvard Munch, or August Strindberg in his Inferno period. According to the article published in Pink News on May 1, 2007, Grassl’s last words on this drama before he got on with studying Baudelaire were wishful as well as decisive: ‘That Piano Man stuff, no-one is interested in that anymore.’ He was properly stitched up by the press and its less than authoritative commentators and hirelings. It still seems possible, nevertheless, that, one day, he might look back at that photo and feel just slightly satisfied that he produced an image that kept the snarling (and not just) tabloid contempt for asylum seekers and scroungers at bay for a full season.

Patrick Wright is a writer and broadcaster who teaches at King’s college London. He has recently made a radio documentary about another German visitor to the Isle of Sheppey: ‘A Secret Life: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness’ broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday April 19, 2015.