#18 ‘Old and New Dreams’ by Geoff Dyer

Luigi Ghirri

 

I sometimes think that the defining element in my understanding of photographs derives from the way that, for years, I never thought about who had taken them. Actually, that is to understate things;  beyond the fact that a button was pressed it didn’t occur to me that they were or could be by someone. Photographs were entirely about who or what they depicted. I date my interest in photography from the  moment I learned that a picture of D.H. Lawrence of which I was particularly fond was made  by Edward Weston, a major figure – to put it mildly – in the history of the medium. Before this there was the old way of looking at photographs; afterwards, the new way.

*

The covers of ECM records have always played an important role in defining the record label’s identity. It is less striking now that their releases are only available as CDs or downloads; back in the days of the LP the cover played, quite literally, a much bigger part. The design managed to covey the overall constancy and ethos of the ECM project while suggesting the particular character of the music within.

I’m thinking today of one such album: Playing by Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell. Popularly known as the Old and New Dreams band – after the title of their first release – this was actually their third album, recorded live in Bregenz in 1980. The cover featured a lovely photograph of an empty goal post, very white, backed by a wall of dark green trees (almost a forest). In front of the goal was the lighter green of the pitch, the lines of which – six-yard box, penalty area – were impossible to see. Like this the goal became something tangibly abstract, and the pitch almost a meadow.

I knew all the musicians on the album – that’s why I’d bought it – and I  also recognised the quotation that began on the bottom right of the cover – ‘The kicker suddenly started  his run…’ – from Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The only thing I didn’t know was who took the cover photograph; he was credited on the card inlay but I paid it no mind and the name, in any case, would have meant nothing to me. But of all the many pictures used on ECM covers this, more than any other, seemed a visual distillation of ECM-ness. The famous  tagline – ‘the most beautiful sound next to silence’ seemed perfectly embodied by the silent, empty and waiting goal. (This waiting, by the way, is integral to ECM: on CDs the time counter always begins several seconds ahead of the first track so silence becomes part of the listening experience.)

I had to wait more than 20 years to properly appreciate the identity of the photographer, to recognise him. I was looking through Kodachrome by Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992), an Italian photographer I had only recently become aware of. And there it was: the same picture – but, as often happens in these circumstances, slightly different. In its ECM incarnation the forest had lost some detail, its implied depth, and the grass was somewhat yellowed, drier looking, either because of faulty reproduction or because, over the years, my particular copy of the CD had faded. The biggest change, however, was simultaneously subtler and clearer, and it was what might be called Ghirri-esque.

Like many Ghirri pictures this one is quietly but rigorously self-enclosed. The frame within the frame – the frame of the goal posts – concentrates our attention absolutely within the frame of the image (which on Playing had been framed again by the white background of the album cover). In the picture there is no narrative to suggest what might be going on either beyond the spatial frame or beyond the moment depicted because – and this is often the case with Ghirri – there is absolutely nothing going on within it, no hint of movement (which perhaps renders inappropriate the quotation from Handke on Playing). This is what a still from a dream might look like. Pellucid and infinitely mysterious, each picture  contains almost no incentive to move on, to turn the page and look at another. We are content to look and wait, to attend. The experience might, in this context, best be described as ‘Staying’. So it’s convenient that, on the page facing the picture of the  goal, there is a similar and perhaps more extreme image: a basketball net in Paris, surrounded by walls, within which are two black-bordered rectangles: the back-board and a smaller target area painted on that.

Ghirri also likes views of places in which a mirror consolidates the feeling of sealed-in-ness by blankly and greyly reflecting on one or more of the surrounding walls. But sometimes these mirrors serve as windows, discreetly breaking the seal, affording glimpses of another world of flesh, tanned arms, bikinis. Though calm, even serene, sometimes playful, the narrative allure of this world is considerable.

Some lines of Walt Whitman’s, used by Walker Evans as the epigraph  to the catalogue of his 1971 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, hold good for Ghirri too:

‘I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have their exteriors…’

In Ghirri’s case, however, there is scope for extension and elaboration because his interiors also have their exteriors, and exteriors their interiors. Hence Francesco Zanot’s decision to borrow the title from a book of Handke’s for an essay in the English edition of Kodachrome:The Inner World of the Outer World of the Inner World.’

The double quotes perhaps double as a description of what happened when I recognised the Playing photograph in the Ghirri book – an incident which can in turn stand for the larger experience of my interest in photography. An isolated picture of a goal, pitch and trees – a kind of dead end – became part of a larger world of images. A new world opened up, a world characterised by its sealed-in-ness, every glimpse of which seemed both complete unto – and to suggest something beyond – itself. That seems to be Ghirri’s vision and goal: photography’s old and new dream.

 

Geoff Dyer (*1958) is a British author. His most recent book is Zona, about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. A Portuguese translation of this piece was published at revistazum.com.br.

#17 ‘Past Particles’ by Martin Holman

Shrapnel grains

 

We are used to photographs that unlock information. It is a process of disclosure not unlike a chemical reaction and it unfolds the moment a viewer’s curious gaze falls upon whatever medium carries the content of the image: the emulsion surface, the printed page, the digital screen.

And like a reaction in chemistry, the combination of elements yields a product. Perhaps it starts with the simple naming of things or the actions of the protagonists that the photograph depicts, animal, vegetable or mineral. As bonds break down under the force of looking – between a figure here and an object or location there – the viewer is permitted to concoct a narrative. Within moments the chain of possibilities roars forward with the prodigious velocity of nuclear fission and the image departs from passivity with rampant conceptual energy.

An electron microscope photograph unlocks more information than perhaps we care to acknowledge. It is a species of photography that has made possible nanoscience, where matter is manipulated at the molecular level. Its task is to visualise what macroscopic vision cannot grasp in detail and which conventional science may not even know exists. With discovery being a staple of science, and newness a prerequisite of modern living, penetrative visualisation has the potential to confer celebrity on the microscopic worker at the critical bottom end of evolution. This potential has been realised, even if it is stardom that corroborates Warhol’s 15-minute variety.

Think of those photographs of, say, the dusty particles collected in the crevice of a trouser pocket enlarged 150 times. Images in that genre have been common enough in newspaper supplements and in the pages of books, and now they can be whistled up in seconds on the Web. In them a grand nighttime architecture blooms where strands of hair and threads of downy lint burrow like industrial ducting into softly shaded grey hummocks of crystalline precipitate and between the scurf of discarded skin.

That is the territory of electron microscope photography (also called micrography). Although the lens is routinely turned on subject matter more deserving than a vacated garment – a canine rectum, for instance, or the filter setae of Atlantic krill – the technique has its playful side. It plays to the layman’s desire to be enthralled and disgusted. Yet interest has its limitations; find a tiny, sightless mite thriving in the dust of that pocket fold and, once surprise and fascination pass, distaste firmly closes the portals to further perception.

Nonetheless, high-powered magnification photography, by focusing its sophisticated paraphernalia on the barely seen, presents commonplace things in terms where they become a great spectacle. Pollen spores blossom into startling, beautiful complexity or the geography of a dehydrated cancer cell can be surveyed like a lunar ocean.

It is seldom, however, that an image of this type actually takes the reverse route. That is, that it draws its spectacle into itself, like the great suction and compression that follows the eardrum-splitting detonation of high explosive. And then, holding on to that awesome moment, decelerates to a crawl the process of exposure. When this occurs, it is as if an image locks its spectacle behind innocuous commonplaceness, choosing its own moment to dispense significance.

The photograph made in connection with research by senior American geologists Earle McBride and Dane Picard accomplishes this effect. The two scientists subjected to close examination by micrography specimens of sand they had collected on a Normandy beach in 1988. To the untrained eye, the same one that marvels at the generously magnified fluff cluster or the hairline crack in metal that could pass for a view of the Grand Canyon, the sample, once photographed, remains resolutely unexceptional, regardless of the scale.

A grain of sand typically measures a fraction of millimetre. A handful satisfies the generic expectation of a dun-coloured yellowish (well, sandy), particulate, glistening, roughly homogeneous mass. Looked at more closely, the generous, pick ’n’ mix variety of putative origins becomes apparent. But the eye needs help to distinguish the different progenies, and that is the role of micrography.

The assumption of uniformity soon dissolves in the face of the diversity within natural sediments alone. Add the deposits of algae and shell-life or the matter of granular inconsistency, and the common man’s meagre idea of sand soon seems frivolous. What the geologists’ saw, however, put their own informed prediction to task. Translucent spheres like badly blown glass balls jostled lookalikes of enamel-shiny dental fragments and flat-sided shards of shattered vessel-like containers. Muddled in with the sea-worn smooth grains were others, elongated or flattened, sub-angular or just plain pointed. Also in the mix were nuggets that were truly irregular, darker than the rest and gnarled and brutish.

*

A scatter of random things: so far, so unspectacular, a state of affairs which invigorates this technology. Text imprinted on the images puts everyman in his place. We are not the small looking at the huge, at a distant planet, for example, seen through a hustle of intervening asteroids; in this instance the ‘X75’ marks the observer’s spot, and we are the huge investigating the miniscule.

Scientists expect to find hardwearing silica in silt and gravel; they do not expect tiny shreds of magnetic iron or beads of glass less than a millimetre in diameter. But McBride and Picard found both and, by their quantity and concentration, recognised them as intruders in the beach ecology. Metals, unlike minerals, do not occur naturally in the sandy mix of worked-over shorelines. Their source was not nature but history.

At this level of magnification and beyond, vision descends into the deep, monochromatic inner space of the beach sample. Isolated by the process into silver-shaded, strangely spectral formality, the least native shapes stand out from their backgrounds like exhibits in a museum display case illustrated in an old textbook. Are they the miniaturised, Dinky Toy version of archaeological finds? Primitively decorated tools, perhaps, of a minuscule Stone Age settlement.

When interrogating the expansive blackness, interpretation can slip into fantasy. Does time shrink and put away the material remains from passing eras in order to make room for what is still to come? Is nature excessively house-proud as well as quirkily practical? For, in their modesty, these photographs seem content to exist within speculations and behind the subterfuges that viewers invent to crack their inscrutability. Where particles gain definition, their surfaces and edges appear too used, too fragmentary of a larger whole and too fissured to be granular sand.

The image’s reliance on monochrome can strike a modern culture that feasts incessantly on colour as archaic, demure and even as a badge of eccentricity. The unsought anachronism arises not because science disdains the capricious relativity of mechanical colour (in the way art historians once mistrusted polychrome transparencies as illustrations to their lectures and discussed paintings projected in black and white), but because information about colour is not traceable at these deep focal depths. The resulting enigma inadvertently adopted by existence deep down, another characteristic of nature going about its business, seems safe from being cracked, for just as distaste is an obstacle to perception (and electron microscope photography is vulnerable to this barrier), so is clam-like reticence.

*

The geographical region of Normandy is not small; it occupies five per cent of France’s mainland territory. Its coast is correspondingly extensive, from above Dieppe at one, northerly extreme to the sheltered beaches near Granville at the other. The clue to a mighty in-breath of great events within McBride and Picard’s image comes with the tip-off that the beach from which the sand samples were scooped was known operationally as Omaha in 1944 by Allied forces gathering on the coast of southern England.

Come D-Day, it would be one of five landing points on a 50-mile stretch of shore earmarked for invasion. Across the Channel, Erwin Rommel, commanding the German defences, had assigned the 7000-yard stretch of shingle and sand a more prosaic description. He intended it to be a killing zone and 30 tonnes of ammunition had been moved up to positions in its vicinity.

The Allies’ invasion planners, sand-bagged into ministries in Whitehall, already had their samples from the Omaha beach. Grains of sand had been gathered by stealth (and transported in waterproof sheaths) by two British servicemen whose midget submarines had crept across the Channel’s grey winter water at night. Examination by sight, book and microscope confirmed that the beach was secure ground for a strategy to land 34,000 men, mostly Americans, their tanks and equipment before noon and then 25,000 more before evening, with 4000 vehicles. The sand would not swallow them.

Metal debris started to hit the beach before the invaders began arriving around 6.30am. A half-hour naval bombardment preceded the landing with the intention of leaving the German defenders either stunned or destroyed by its ferocity. US planes dropped 1300 tonnes of explosive ordnance. Fires were started; destruction followed; and smoke trailed across the landing zone. The assault on the nerves and the senses had started that would not ease all day. By and large, these tirades fell beyond their targets which included the well-placed German emplacements.

What fell with deadly consequences on the Americans once landing commenced was a gale of destructive firepower. There were 12 German strongpoints overlooking the beach and three times that number of pillboxes manned by gun crews. As landing craft approached the shore along the 7000-yard width of Omaha, the infantrymen inside heard over the roar of the waves bullets ring against the bow ramps; when the soldiers disembarked into the fast-running lateral current, every German battery on the chalk bluffs opened up. For the troops, the only way was forward: chances of survival shortened with every hesitation in filthy, oily, bloody seawater.

That same path was thick with the trajectories of bullets and the peal of machine-gun fire. Veterans remember the rocket-launching ‘Screaming Mimis’ and the sound like ripping cloth emitted by the terrifying MG42. ‘Hitler’s Zipper’, the Americans called it: the Maschinengewehr 42 could unleash hundreds of rounds each minute. Hot metal streaked with tremendous gas-powered speed across a distance of 1000 yards or more. Enfilades of deadly firing pumped into wave upon wave of invading troops from enemy positions at the furthest extents of the gentle crescent curve of the beach. It is no wonder sand vitrified into beads of glass as shells fell hot into the ground.

Allied casualties occurred mostly in the first few hours when the landing zone became 200 yards of congested open land, with no bomb craters for shelter as the second wave of assault troops joined the increasingly exhausted first. Units were blown off course by the current and delayed on the sand by defences that the opening salvoes had failed to silence. Engineers fought to land vehicles and breach obstacles under constant fire; troops out of place regrouped to force their way to the safety of the seawall; warring armies battled with the wearying sensory assault and the desire to survive. As the 18-hour day ended, land was penetrated with two bridgeheads established on the bluffs. And 4500 men had died, with the Allied side sustaining by far the greater number of losses.

*

The shoreline is now clear of visible reminders of war. In the 60 years since Rommel organised his killing zone, engineers and beachcombers have picked the area clean of the rusting detritus of tanks, trucks, landing craft and ships; of mortars, machine guns, rifles and ammunition belts; and of battledress, helmets, insignia and corpses. Some adjacent roads proclaim the liberators to every passing motorist and direction seeker, and 172 acres are set aside for a cemetery where 9000 headstones await the celestial reveille in orderly rows.

To permit life to go on, the events of war are compartmentalised, shrunk to a patch of land and accorded their tributes. A monument on Omaha beach was dedicated in the anniversary year of 2004; three groups of simple steel structures that may be wings, or waves, or highly stylised figures lean into implied forward motion towards the seawall. The sculpture is planted in the sand; maybe each morning the sea delivers it up afresh for another watery assault in the interest of liberty.

Yet since around dawn on 6 June 1944, the bloody events that raged over the beach compiled their own memorial. For, as McBride and Picard’s photograph attests, the actual story laid itself into the raking stage of this particular theatre of war, and dug itself in. The tangible connections with history rolled, unseen, back, forth and more deeply within the beach face on every subsequent tide and shaped by wind, enfolding and hushing the violence into the chilling banality of a world that keeps turning.

The photograph portrays a modern reliquary proofed against sectarian veneration. What differentiates this memorial from the steel neighbour above is the absence of consolation, the refutation of transcendence. Above ground, the devastated living seek reassurance that the sacrifice of the dead was selfless and noble: ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’. As higher thoughts ascend, below in the swash zone of the beach or the trough of the shingle, snips of shell cases lie as shattered as the bodies they shattered. Their killing power gone, they become repositories of memory, tiny UXBs that allow the beach to cling to the true memory of one long day.

Thus the beach has ingested the hard, redly oxidising fact. It majestically manages a respectful, measured exhalation of memory. Every so often, a thought-grenade loosens its pin to ask if, among these fragments, did any rip through a soldier on its way to rest in the sand? Deepen magnification to 700 the power of human sight and does a speck of US Ranger repose still in the fine grooves etched into the skin of a fragment of shell casing?

The samples make plain (and the photograph is evidence) that the beach was itself a casualty. To this day it carries within its own body, like an old soldier, the rusted remains of its own cataclysmic encounter with the animal taste for hostility. Does it resent the intrusion of these pinprick foreign trespassers? There is no guessing nature’s sensitivity. The embedded splinters may trouble the beach still, catch the shore uncomfortably in a storm as towers of water crash and churn the sand.

Or has it absorbed the hostile jetsam into its ancient self, a particle in the grand pattern of its story? Did the continental land mass feel the gnat bite of the daylong battle on its flank? Perhaps as a fleeting, troublesome moment at some point ‘back then’ which scorched, pricked and scratched irritatingly.

But sand is the future of rocks and memories, like people, eventually turn to dust. Earle McBride estimates that within a century, these residual traces of conflict will have been washed away beyond the power of even science to pick them out among the silica grains on the shore. History lives on as the mammoth sea-container of fact and conjecture, travelling on the sea of time, that is held in public ownership.

Memory, however, flourishes in the private domain and diminishes as each generation passes which carries the direct imprint of experience: the feel and sight of the sutured wound; the uninvited flashbacks; the young adult’s misery manifested as an old man’s meteor streak of anger. In a hundred years, D-Day will itself have slipped its moorings in common memory. Time will have disposed of the survivors, their habitually buttoned lips and terse anecdotes, their tangible connection with actual events. Our grandparents, parents and ourselves will be dust.

Recalling his part in the first assault on the Normandy beaches and remembering the mayhem and the sheer terror of it all, an old soldier asked himself decades after the event, ‘Why didn’t I cry?’

 

Martin Holman is a writer and art historian who has recently collaborated with Italian artists Gianfranco Baruchello, Mario Fallani and Paolo Icaro, and with British artists David Mackintosh, Jamie Shovlin and Richard Rome. His exhibition about Pino Pascali was shown at Camden Arts Centre, London, in 2011.

#16 ‘Kappa’ by David Blandy

Kappa

 

Truborndoor2: Bboydragon has no skill, Kappa that’s y he is the King

Kaladias: not for long

Truborndoor: lol

Shatteredsaint: take the crown if hes so bad Kappa

Sithlordgaga: SHOTS FIRED

Shatteredsaint: whoevers winning in this lobby is a retarded spammer who can only play 1 character and they’re soo cheap Kappa

>> no matter who it is

Truborndoor2: Kaladias is just toying with him Kappa

 

This is Josh. His portrait has been used hundreds of times today, and countless times over the last four years, to express an emotion in an online chat. It has a name: others like it are called PJSalt, BionicBunion, SwiftRage and DansGame. But this is Kappa. And Kappa rules the online fighting game scene.

Josh used to work at JustinTV, a video streaming company, started as a way of broadcasting any live content the user wanted to be seen on the internet, free of charge. Computer games players saw this as a convenient way of broadcasting their competitive play, and it has now become the main streaming channel for the fighting game community.

Part of the streaming service is the ability for the viewers and broadcasters to engage in live text chat, which acts as a form of commentary about or around what is being shown on the stream. Early in JustinTV’s life, the company introduced a range of emoticons, images, mostly of faces, which form a shorthand for expressing an emotion. Alongside the more conventional ‘smileys’ that are found in SMS messaging, they included a list of staff pictures as hidden content, ‘Easter-eggs’, only accessible if you knew the correct code phrase.

One of these was Kappa. If you type Kappa (it’s case-sensitive) into stream chat, on the screen you see this image:

kappa

 

 

Early adopters of these emoticons saw a similarity between Josh’s enigmatic smile and the internet meme Trollface. A sarcastic smirk, like he’s trying not to laugh at something. Maybe you. So people started writing ‘Kappa‘ whenever they said something they didn’t mean, to mark it out as a sarcastic comment, mocking the players that they were watching on stream – ‘Great combos Kappa’, or the ineptness of the stream broadcasters – ‘Call Spooky Kappa’, or the ‘stupidity’ of their fellow stream-chatters – ‘I’m sure you’re better than Tokido Kappa’. The people watching these streams, rather than featuring in them, came to be called ‘stream-monsters’, partly because of the vitriol that was unleashed in the stream chat. And Kappa became their badge. It showed that you were in on the joke. It showed that you were a regular watcher of these streams, that you had the shibboleth, the key to understanding your role in proceedings, as the braying crowd.

There are many other things broadcast on JustinTV. It was originally just what the name is: a single channel live broadcasting Justin Kan’s life, a real-life self-imposed Truman Show, the ultimate reality TV.  In 2007 Kan started wearing a webcam attached to a cap and streamed online via a laptop-backpack system.  But it was only the competitive gaming community, originally with Street Fighter IV and then with Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and others, that really wore Kappa as a badge of belonging. Maybe it’s because of the sense of superiority felt when beating your opponent, displaying a better knowledge of the quirks of the game engine.

So someone found the original image that the Kappa emoticon was based on, the staff picture of Josh – hi-res Kappa! And people started incorporating the image into their online forum avatars (small pictures that show up next to text you write), and forum signatures (larger and wider images placed at the foot of every forum text entry).

Internet forums are one place that gamers go to discuss, share ideas, argue and promote events when they are not playing games or watching streams, a relic from the time before Facebook’s ubiquity and live streaming. But they are still used, still a place to become visible in the gaming community. And using Kappa as your image meant you weren’t a Noob (a new player). So hundreds of images now exist incorporating the Kappa face, Josh’s face. Josh has become a meme.

 

Kappa Composite

 

As Susan Blackmore, a prominent memeticist, argues : “the effective transmission of memes depends critically on human preferences, attention, emotions and desire. Affinity spaces [such as the gaming community]  play an important role in the fecundity of a successful meme, especially when the meme is distributed online.” The very nature of memes is that as they are passed from person to person, they keep changing and evolving along the way.

Josh’s face itself reminds me of the Mona Lisa: the soft shadows, face tilted to one side, an unreadable smile. Is he laughing with you, or at you? And it functions in much the same way when used. ‘I’m being sarcastic, do you get the joke?’ I am superior, but I’m one of us. The image is vague enough to be read in many ways, to be related to by many people, but specific enough to be instantly recognisable. Like a brand created by accident. It is no longer an image, it is a signifier, a marker of belonging, of the joke being on you for even caring.

 

David Blandy (*1976) is a British artist, educated at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. Blandy’s work deals with his problematic relationship with popular culture, hereby asking the difficult question of just how much the self is formed by the mass-media of records, films and television, and whether he has an identity outside that.

#15 ‘Self and Alfonso’ by Gareth Evans

Self & Alfonso

 

– Why is the measure of love loss?

Jeanette Winterson, from Written on the Body.

 

Whitstable, 2004; I think.

Things are already speculative, provisional. The place is / was on a threshold; estuarine of course, but that’s only the start. Between ages of itself, phases of being. In transition, from its multiple previous incarnations, as historic settlement, trawling village, version of a port, a Victorian resort (of sorts) and now – in at least an aspect, a leading one – a metropolitan extension, an urbane mood without the urban for city-fleeing weekenders who, from their weekday working towers of chrome and glass, long for salt in the hair and distressed wood, from towers where even the air is conditioned and the reverie of breeze – tidally inflected, stars of sun on lapping water – remains merely that, a dream.

Open water but not. Defined by capital, the capital. An outreach project. And yet, in all of this fashionable, financial flux, itself; recognisably itself. Peter Cushing, after loss, after his beloved wife; on a bench by the coastal path, staring, day after day, looking so long, willing himself perhaps to become the distance he gazed on, and so to disappearance. We become our loved and so we become our loss. Come once the body of the industry has gone, gutted. Elegies everywhere, like oyster shells, scattered. But still it is, and still, recognisably a place, space with character, and grounded, rooted. It belongs somewhere.

So we went too, out of Hackney heading east; follow the river and stop on the shingle. Go for the light and the shellfish, for the ebb and flow of days, older patterns. Be, and become something else, briefly. Calmer. Never quite at ease, military style or otherwise, but something not so tightly wound that one turn more might break it.

Normally I’d resist all purchases beyond the local pleasures of seafood and certain ales or wines. Maybe a postcard; pin it up later, some kind of talisman, a trace memory, a view, if lucky, from a window one had borrowed for a night or two. ‘Everything becomes a postcard in the end’, says Don DeLillo.

So much rubbish waiting for our money. But maybe something this time, something appropriate with age. Suitably weathered. Books  – things in and of time – it always comes back to books. I am rarely drawn to objects, but paper… this ghost timber, this sense of walking through the forest of words… Actual and unseen burdens, the weight of endless boxes, in the move between temporary properties that seem, when stacked, to be made of the books they house, room space expanding and contracting (and finally always opening out into all the visions of the heads that wrote) with the density of volumes (it can’t be any chance that a Kindle is so called; what’s used to set the bonfire of the books…). Now this will to purchase papered texts seems like the building of a dam against the pixel flood.

Just off the waterfront, one street back and at the fork, tucked into shade, the kind of shop that is so hard to find, and ever more so now, only a decade later, in these all too conscious days; aware of its stock but not so savvy – or even bothered – that it checks online with every sale, making sure it hasn’t missed a gem, a virtual under-pricing; a second-hand shop on the cusp, between its stock and salvage.

Near the door, on a trunk, modest, inconspicuous, as though they’ve just been put down for a minute, while someone sorts the shelves: a clutch of photo albums, a job lot, a memory lot, in the old style, heavy, black, cloth-bound, pages thick, and slightly buckled when the sheaves are full, a little like warped wood, like wood in rain for years and years and years. I sit down next to them and look; maybe half a dozen. Flick the pages, families in Wales and by the sea; the early years of the old century, pre-Millennial; people in neat, small gardens, weddings, promenading, waving, on holiday, at home; people, like strange fish, who can only breathe in the past.

And then, one left to browse through, idling minutes really, before the next indulgence, one left, the slimmest, A4 landscape format, screw-bound fastened, no spine, just these maybe 30 pages secured between the boards, as if the whole collection was not a finished album, even when it only was a virgin product, let alone a gallery, as if it could swell or shrink dependent on the need and the length of available screws.

I open it. On the first page, there are four photographs. Two each of two men, separate, seated. In high-ceilinged bourgeois rooms – paintings, ornaments, a model aeroplane hanging from the ceiling – both are relaxed, sitting back; the older man, pipe smoking, maybe 45, staring into the lens; the younger, 22, looking off. Hand-written titling for the page declares: Alfonso and Robert, F8 Viscaya, Nov 1933.

Remember Alfonso.

And so, the facts: the album is constructed, and not only as all are, with pictures positioned and labelled. It is conscious; and male. It begins in its present of making and runs in reverse (that is, it has been assembled after the event ); or rather, from its now towards an origin, towards the earliest of its evidence, into its own oldest past, 1909, and another age entirely. The images are small, black and white, of course; corner mounted, never more than six to a page, often less; and in remarkably good condition. With only a handful of exceptions, the sequence remains in its established order (occasionally a tango step or two back and forth between years). Most spreads or series are labelled with time, place and forms of naming. In this, the spectrum of chronology apart, it is conventional.

What it shows is, well… at the back, the earliest pictures are literally – and suitably – sepia-tinted. College photographs, young men with surnames on steps and playing fields. An incongruous page of baby-carriage snaps, unscripted. And then the men are seen again, the youthful suits now gone, replaced with uniforms, barracks shot, officers’ quarters, tents, several comedic poses, occasional leave locations, women in group portraits looking anxious, and men also visibly tense before the box photographer.

And then a page of Somme-like dereliction. Bombed out churches, Christ trees bare as bone along the crest, the image surface edging out to white.

Afterwards: the mess at Camiers 1919 ; survivors, greatcoats and women in white headscarves beside a snow-pale road.

This is the world before; the old world; 10 pages or so.

What follows; 13 years clear of the camera.

But in that time, an ocean’s navigation, a journey into heat, and Mexico. Boys again, late teens, physical education students at the Colegio Williams; class portraits, and interiors, and excursions across the country, to the mountains, to the sea, Taxco, Acapulco, San Miguel Regla, Nevada de Toluca, Bellavista; friends informally together, holiday cottages, boot boys and houseboys, the road to El Chico; a melée of shots from 1932 to 1934. A life so far from European straits, from formal clothes and poses, the stresses of the war.

A life lived by a man called Self, by now maybe 40, an Englishman entirely in his class, clean shaven, tall, with hair receding, in shirt and tie outside his house, standing confident, himself. Half a dozen images of him.

And dozens of Alfonso.

Alfonso in cricket whites and rugby shorts, with cats and bicycle and swimming, in bedrooms sitting, waiting, and smooth against a wall; by the car in alpine snow, lying on chaises longues, on all the travels, known to all these places; pages where it’s only him, and one page where there is a single portrait only, his gazing straight into the camera, wary, slightly, vulnerable, open necked, mid-1933.

Self and Alfonso.

And so, the speculation; which is hardly that, of course, when all is weighed. A teacher and a student, the humid freedoms of a zone beyond the empire map, colonial (regardless of the nations), the two-way promises of wealth and flesh and who knows how much love, for surely there’s affection here, these are photographs of continuous looking, a developing bond, mapping the hues of the gazed upon. For how long, who can say? And beyond the opening page, forwards, towards us… the bright, lost lives within the album slipping into times no longer held by any means or form; becoming what they always and anyway are, unknown, and now completely gone.

What else are photographs but images of what they, we didn’t see? The negative space around the image is the first omitted element, but even the presence is tense with all that can’t be carried over. Light artist James Turrell is renowned for his sky view portals, apertures that hold the clouds, a frame around the day, that’s all. But frames allow, enable the human need for stories. Once a frame is there, things are in or out. Choices can and have been made. And so a narrative begins. The album is the personal frame par excellence, and on all the obvious levels, from the choice of subject, mood and moment to sequence, size and overall selection.

But oh, the life outside the album’s cell. There the living’s done. Surely photographs are grief emulsion, shards of raw experience torn from their pitch and flow, spirit thefts (we know) and site thefts, fragments of their place, rich threads of the weave. This is how the world unravels. In Laura Mulvey’s thesis – for cinema – it is death that is caught 24 times / frames per second, not life.

In certain folk tales, the ‘death’ of a character is not found or carried in the body, but in another object, exterior and elsewhere (an egg in a tree, a box in a tower etc.). Destroy that avatar and the life is taken. This remains true in many material ways. Death can grow from within a person and spread; or it can come from outside, in the form of a car, a blast, a bullet, a plummeting plane. An album serves in a way to remind us of this fact. By creating a vessel of our selective, chosen life onto pages, we are securing its inverse, its passing, there too. All albums are books of remembrance in the mortal sense, even while their maker is breathing, dispatches from the kingdom of the (soon to be) dead. A visitors’ book for the earth, signed in half-fixed smiles, unsteady lips already trembling somewhere else, then closed.

Photographs of absence, not of presence, regardless of the people in the shot.

Is this because, at base, at source, an album is, due to its dependence on the (soon to be) dead, finally a forgetting project; with memory a burden, and this burden seeking dispersal, a passing out of the head onto the page, to be held there as if in amber for a period, and then, inevitably, following its subjects to the place beyond all lights.

As Julian Barnes wrote in his recent essay on the death of his wife: ‘grief is love’s negative.’

Despite the proximity of the images in this strange collection of threshold moments, recognisable scenes of universal human business, it is as if they might have come from the perspective of the early aerial shots of pioneering Parisian balloonist photographer Nadar, another subject of Barnes’s book Levels of Life, rising into the air over the city to show something that had never been seen before. All change. From above, everything is different and all the hurt, all the joy is gone to naked eyes, only figures moving like ants across a yard, or rain across a pane. Flying above it all, and at some point, maybe, freefall; flying become falling.

We can never know another human being. The Japanese Zen garden of Ryōan-Ji is designed specifically so that not all of its features can be viewed from a single point.

It’s strange because, when I first acquired the album, beyond the otherness of the people featured –  their actual lives and the evidence of their times, even if the currency of their moment seemed accessible – I felt nothing like the pressure of the terminal that I have done recently, examining it again closely for this piece. I am older, yes, and my son has been born since I bought it, the surest measure of the finite span. But something else seems to invest this encounter with its constellation of elegy.

There is one image, on its own on its black sheet (on the reverse of the very first page), taken from what looks like a fourth floor apartment or hotel room balcony on a residential avenue, a tight diagonal shot down the shadowed street. There is nobody in the picture. It is a bright day. On the next railing along, there is something like a towel or blanket.

Placed centrally, this picture appears always to have been alone. There is no trace of the imprint of lost pictures or mounts. It stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it, and it still does. It feels unquestionably, despite the many surprises of the collection entire, and its broad, dramatic sweep as described above, like the hinge to the entire album. On this balcony, in this room, here, something happened. Something happened; finally, the only sure description of all our fleeting lives. We all have a balcony moment in our own experience, a key, sometimes only turned into awareness after the fact, when a door opens and a threshold appears, and there is a before and an after, and a frame and a choice.

Whitstable, £2; I think.

 

Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, editor of the journal Artesian, publisher of Go Together Press and works as the Film Curator of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. He programmes PLACE, the annual cross-platform festival at Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk and produced the essay film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee.

#14 ‘Tracking Shot’ by Glenn Adamson

Carson Sink, Nevada, by Timothy O' Sullivan.

Carson Sink, Nevada, by Timothy O’ Sullivan.

 

A photographer’s wagon stands stock-still, arrested in the midst of a long drag across the wide-open reaches of America. Four mules – famous for their bloody-mindedness – have swerved from their trajectory, doubling back along their plodding tracks. The wagon’s U-turn is marked in a great double sweep along the ground, a double swathe of sand displaced by the wooden wheels.

All around these features, containing them much as a canvas might contain a few brushstrokes, is a landscape of surpassing blankness. This is Nevada, but it could be Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon: a great empty topology, nearly as empty as the sky above. The shapes upon the earth are legible only thanks to tonal contrast. That is all that black and white photography affords, of course – the same chemistry which yields the silhouettes of animals, wagon, tracks, and scrub grass. The ground is so featureless, however, that it prompts thoughts of way the image is built up. One can almost feel the slow deposit of particles accumulating on the flat substrate of paper, creating an impression of depth, much as windblown sand continually builds the surfaces of rolling, textured hills.

And then we notice a feature in the foreground, cutting right across this slow drama of emergent, horizontal figuration, leading right up to the camera’s position, and hence our own: another set of tracks, those of the photographer himself. (Or are there two sets? Perhaps his assistant struggled up the hill alongside him.) No attempt has been made to erase this passage, to un-disturb the terrain.

Not surprising, really, since the subject of the picture seems to be that of operating on difficult ground. Timothy O’Sullivan, the man who made this image, was among the first photographers to ‘go West,’ and certainly the most ambitious. In the early 1870’s he carried his kit across miles of thinly populated country to capture craggy mountainsides, scrappy mining settlements, traditional Native American communities. In this one photo, however, his objective was different. Like a general turning his attention away from the front in order to assess his supply lines, O’Sullivan shows us the efforts required to make his work.

His pride was justifiable. Photography then was a new medium and an extraordinarily cumbersome one, difficult even to imagine in our own day of convenient pocket-portability. Today we might take three, five, twenty pictures of an only slightly interesting subject, knowing that we can delete them later. For O’Sullivan, every photograph was extracted from the world only with difficulty. That lends this mule-and-wagon picture another layer of meaning: for it prompts the question, ‘why this spot?’ What was it that made O’Sullivan go to the trouble of turning his wagon around, so that he could record this particular place?

At a stretch, we might guess that he saw a promising composition in this patch of earth – the asymmetry of the mounds’ silhouette, with two dark patches of background setting the lighter foreground in relief. But for me, the point of the picture is that the terrain is unremarkable, unspecific. I like to imagine  that he could have obtained a similar image at any point for miles east or west. That vast tract tacitly frames this image as one of arbitrary decision-making. Nothing visible in the shot prompted O’Sullivan to take it. He simply stopped – and took a picture for no good reason at all, except that of literal self-regard.

Of course, as we Americans have belatedly come to admit to ourselves, the space of the Wild West was not so blank after all. It was inhabited ground before the settlers got to it, and the tragedy that befell the Native Americans should not be far from our minds when we look at O’Sullivan’s work. He is no villain in this regard – he may have been proud of his achievements, but as I have mentioned, one of the most striking aspects of his work was the way he captured, even-handedly, the mixing together of peoples out on the frontier.  Even so, we might recall here Susan Sontag’s observation that ‘A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on.’  The American campaign of westward expansion was undertaken not only with wagons and guns, but also with images – both photographic and painterly – which cumulatively framed natural space as prime real estate. Those other pictures typically lacked the self-awareness of the photographic act contained in this picture. And certainly, they depicted nothing like the U-turn seen here – a motif that suggests a doubt quite alien to the ethos of manifest destiny.

O’Sullivan captured at least one moment when the photographer asked himself, for whatever reason, ‘what am I doing here?’ And today, when the patch of earth he shows us here might well be covered over by a roadside K-Mart, it gives us a way to imagine what might have been otherwise.

 

Glenn Adamson is Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His new book, The Invention of Craft, is published by the V&A in conjunction with Bloomsbury.

#13 ‘Home’ by Tony Grisoni

'Only fragments and shadows can be summoned to bear witness to that which has vanished.'

‘Only fragments and shadows can be summoned to bear witness to that which has vanished.’

 

The house is strangely featureless, as if most detail had been erased with a rubber, and it were all made of one element. It looks like a house built by someone who does not know what a house is or does. And it is already cracking and falling to pieces. Jonathan Jones: ‘Something has been here before you – something with sharp claws and a sense of humour.’

A girl stands at the edge of a black doorway. She is wearing a simple striped cotton dress and perhaps a hair slide. Nothing about how she stands tells us she will ever step off the concrete foundations. She watches us, her hands held loosely in front of her. A man leans against the wall beside her. He is dressed formally in suit as black as the house interior, a tie and a hat. His hand is in his pocket. His eyes are on the girl.

I have the poet and performer Brian Catling to thank for introducing me to this house. It is not the first house I have ever known. But it is very close. Although there is no strip of blue sky or green grass, and no radiating sun, it is simple and symmetrical and archetypal. It is the house we build and unbuild forever.

‘It’s my home. Nothing bad has ever happened to me here.’ Sonia Szurma still lives in the detached, pebble-dash house in Bradford she and her husband, Peter Sutcliffe bought for £16,000 in 1977, before he became known as the Yorkshire Ripper. Another tidy, featureless house; the single garage where Peter kept his tools, the kitchen where he washed his soiled clothes, the garden where he burned incriminating evidence. Her home.

In the early 80’s Brian Aldiss granted me an option on his 1977 teratological novel, Brothers Of The Head. It is the tale of conjoined twin brothers, Tom and Barry Howe – from their birth on the windswept, bleak Norfolk marshes, to their grooming into a novelty punk band, to their inevitable demise. We never see or hear from the brothers themselves, only learn about them through others. As with Jekyll and Hyde, we can never enter the private rooms of various players, only listen to the accounts of what they say took place there. The witnesses claim the dead and keep them locked away.

Over the years North Norfolk became an escape from the city. Near Blakeney I spotted a tiny house perched on a spit of shingle, half-submerged in salt marsh and mists. I was convinced that was where the Howe brothers lived. The archetypal battle for supremacy began in a tiny fetid bedroom within those four walls; one infant’s arbitrary twitch is rewarded, another’s is punished. Aldiss knew that nursery room: ‘Although I was not an Unwanted Child, I was a Not Much Wanted Child. That is what brings suspicion and inquiry into existence.’

Years later we were finally making the film. I told Aldiss about the Norfolk house, which in fact is part of Blakeney Nature Reserve. It turned out he knew that part of Norfolk well: ‘My wife and I were taking a short break… In fact Margaret and I were not getting on too well at the time. We were driving back home… when suddenly I remembered the nightmare that had visited me in the small hours. It burst upon me like a sudden shower… ‘Oh, what a ghastly dream!’ They immediately wanted to know what my dream was about. The more I protested that it was too horrible to tell, the more they persisted – as one might expect. What I told them was the basic story of Brothers of the Head… ‘

The window of Aldiss’ study in Blakeney looked out across the water to the same tiny house I had seen. When we shot the film we used the house. We installed mum and dad and the conjoined Howe twins. Tom and Barry will always live there.

Like a childhood friend’s house, the cinema always smelt wrong, felt wrong. Without knowing the rules, we bought the ticket, took the ride. We entered to be confronted with a second threshold. Like the artist Mike Nelson’s emotionally charged false buildings within false buildings, ‘the rooms and corridors are self-contained, with ceilings. And yet they’re not seamless. They have a raw, wooden hokeyness, a rankness, a stench of bitter memories… It induced a nameless anxiety in those who experienced it.’ (Jonathan Jones) We are dollied slowly towards the Bates’ house, into the hallway, up the stairs. The visitor’s book in Matt’s Gallery reception was part of the installation. When you signed it was a contract ‘to accept his invitation into a fictional world. If you do this, what Nelson offers – very different from the irony we have become used to – is total immersion in a work of art.’

1931, the Isle of Man. The Irving house. No radio, no electricity, no gas. The north wind coming in off the Irish Sea was an intense irritation to James Irving. It may even have frightened him. So he slathered the entire exterior of the house in concrete. Still the wind penetrated the wintery home he shared with his wife, Margaret, and 12-year-old daughter, Voirrey. So he built wooden panelling throughout, insulated their home against the exterior. And the house fell silent. Until Gef came.

The spitting, growling sounds coming from behind the wooden panelling turned out to be not that of a rat, but a talkative mongoose. It proclaimed its identity in a number of ways: ‘I am of a strange creature. I have hands and feet and you would faint if he saw me. You would freeze and turn to stone or a pillar of salt!’ Gef, an entity or familiar or presence, attached itself to the family for six years by which time they would leave a portion of their food for him during meals.

Paranormal investigator Harry Price studied the case in the 30’s and on occasion stayed at the house. ‘Neither Mr. Lambert [his companion] nor I slept very well. The mongoose problem obsessed our minds and made sleep difficult… We saw numerous peep-holes; cracks through which Gef threw things at doubting visitors; squint-holes through which the mongoose watches the Irvings and interrupts the conversation with facetious and sometimes rude remarks. We saw the runs behind the panelling by means of which Gef can skip, unseen, from one room to another, upstairs or down. In Voirrey’s room we were shown Gef’s sanctum, really a boxed partition, on top of which Gef dances to the gramophone and bounces his favourite ball.’

Over those six years Gef developed a different relationship with each family member: James Irving taught him things, and Margaret provided a flirtatious relationship. But when it came to 12 year old Voirrey, it was Gef who played the active role. He looked out for her, he protected her. From what she needed to be protected, we can only surmise, but years later she managed to step out of that black doorway and off the crumbling concrete. ‘I had to leave the Isle of Man and have to work where people have never heard the story about it. Gef has made me not get married. How could I tell about it to the family of my husband?’

Some 60 years after Gef first arrived at the Irving house, Catling and I tracked Voirrey down to her new home. There was no doubt Gef still existed, no doubt he was still looking out for Voirrey. ‘Some say that all this is engineering because I was a ventriloquist… The story is not an engineering. But I hope it never happens.’ Voirrey died in 2005. Perhaps now Gef is free to return to the Land of Mists from whence he came.

Referring to Sonia Szurma, the Mail Online dishes out the customary punishment normally reserved for returning vampires: ‘Her once flowing jet-black hair is now greying and unkempt. The smart wardrobe – and trademark designer sunglasses – replaced by scruffy clothes, lines under her eyes and unflattering tracksuit bottoms.’  The Wests’ home at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester was erased down to its bloody roots. Now a landscaped path cuts through the terrace. Every brick was crushed and every timber was burned. When Brian Catling and myself went in search of the Irving house on the Isle of Man the only trace we found was a wooden post spiked with hammered iron, and a lump of the concrete foundations which I still possess.

Tom and Barry’s house still stands on Blakeney Point. In that house, a third nascent head slept and listened and learned to ventriloquise. This third brother was later to be born on the back of his weaker sibling’s death, in Aldiss’ book if not in the film. There are things that must not and cannot be seen outside and publicly. The notoriety and investigations of the event are now all but forgotten. Only fragments and shadows can be summoned to bear witness to that which has vanished.

 

‘Talking Mongoose’, by Harry Price. Photograph courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library.

‘Vanished! A Video Seance’, by Tony Grisoni & Brian Catling can be watched here. 

http://www.tonygrisoni.co.uk

 

#12 ‘atǝiP’ by Wim Cuyvers

Bataille

 

A black and white photograph, in all likelihood taken in 1898. I found it in a book I bought in 1988, published the previous year. I saw it the first time I opened the book – it is the first image shown – and I have never forgotten it. It is clearly a reproduction of an existing paper print: the corners of the damaged original are rounded; a diagonal tear in the top right corner emerges from a scrap that is half torn out and folded over; and another, almost horizontal tear can be seen right of centre. There are various stains. Tears and stains combine to form a distinct pattern, which seems to have belonged to the image from the start: not just part of the image as I see it now, but as the photographer had intended it.

The photo presents us with part of a facade, very likely that of an ordinary family house. The plaster applied to the natural stone is flaking off where puddles of rainwater have splashed up time after time. We see the lower part of a two-sashed window frame with single-glazed panes; its wooden frame is painted white, but seems soiled. Reflections make it impossible to make out the details of the interior of the house; the gutters throw two horizontal shadow lines across the front of the house; a natural stone window ledge juts out a few inches to the left and right of the window. There is a wooden shutter on the left, but not on the right; it hasn’t been fastened to the hasp, which hangs loose, the weather must have been mild when the photograph was taken. It’s easy to imagine how light would filter into the space through the two oblique slits of that one shutter when closed. If the archetypical facade of the time is anything to go by, it is not hard to guess at the arrangement of the room beyond. Below the window, a rectangular part of the plasterwork has a slightly different colour than around it: does it conceal a sloped former entrance to a cellar? The pavement in front is cobbled, the rounded stones separated by a sandy grout.

In front of the facade a wooden chair sits on the pavement, its ornate structure finished with a glossy varnish. The legs in front are the fruit of intricate woodturning; the back legs are squared, tapering towards the end; the seat of the chair has been fastened by large-headed nails. Only a small bit of the equally ornate and carefully varnished backrest is visible. The chair isn’t supposed to be there: it is not a street bench; it belongs inside, in the best room of the house, and was only brought out to the street for the taking of the photograph.

Placed in front of the window, the chair is occupied by a man supporting two children on his lap. He sports a cap with a peak throwing a strong shadow across his forehead. The top part of the cap is light-coloured, the bottom is dark, black perhaps. In between the cap and one of his large ears a small bit of neatly cut hair is visible, his nose is big and angled, not unlike that of a character in a comic book. He wears a moustache, but the stains on the photograph partially obscure what could be a goatee. The man is dressed in his Sunday-best clothes: a three-piece suit with big buttons, a white shirt and tie. A white piece of cloth juts out from under his thighs. Somebody put it on the chair before the man took his seat.

Of the two children, the youngest – maybe one year old – sits on the man’s right leg; an older child sits on his left, both are looking at the camera, unlike the man, whose body and face are turned at a below-45-degree angle away from the lens – putting his wide-open left eye exactly on the vertical axis in the middle of the photograph, along with the gleaming buttons of his jacket, and the areas where we know his navel and crotch to be. It seems as if the man is listening to the camera. The smaller child on the left – just grown out of the baby stage – has his fingers clenched into near-fists and his toes are tensed up, he seems unhappy and scared. The older child of about eight seems far more at ease and is smiling, unfazed: the boy who can handle anything. The scene could be read as a representation of domestic bliss: a father with his children on his lap, peacefully seated in front of the family home. But then again, on account of the man’s stiff posture and expression, one might just as easily imagine that the photographer had asked the children to pose on a statue.

This particular configuration brings to mind the Pietà genre in painting and sculpture, that of Mary, the Holy Virgin, cradling the dead body of her son Jesus in her lap. The figure of Mary in Pietà scenes differs from another classical depiction of Mary, that of the Sorrowful Mother: the Pietà Mary is more peaceful and accepting. The photograph inverts the idea of the Pietà in many ways. What we see is not a mother, but a father; there are two sons instead of one: one happy, one not very joyful at all. Rather than dead, the sons are at the very beginning of their lives. The small child is Georges Bataille (*1897). Next to him is his brother Martial (*1890). Their father on the chair is Joseph-Aristide Bataille (*1853). At the moment the picture was taken, Joseph-Aristide was already infected with syphilis – he was ill with it before Georges was even conceived – and it had blinded him. At the time of Martial’s birth there were no symptoms yet. So here the Immaculate Virgin is replaced by an unsightly, blind, incontinent – no doubt the reason for the white cloth on the chair – father, riddled with syphilis, the disease of the whoremonger.

His piercing eye, at the centre of this photograph, was the inspiration for his son George Bataille’s famous book, Histoire de l’œil, written in 1928 under the pseudonym Lord Auch: ‘Je suis né d’un père P.G. (paralytique général) qui m’a conçu déjà aveugle et qui après ma naissance fut cloué dans son fauteuil par sa sinistre maladie,’ and also: ‘…Le plus étrange était certainement sa façon de regarder en pissant. Comme il ne voyait rien, sa prunelle se dirigeait en haut dans le vide, sous la paupière et cela arrivait en particulier dans les moments où il pisait.’ 1

The Immaculate Virgin is replaced by a Gilles de Rais-type figure, someone I can imagine luring children to danger. The painters and sculptors of Pietà scenes most likely admired the accepting Virgin with her dead son, but here we can’t really imagine the photographer being guided by a similar sentiment: his camera is positioned higher than the eye of Joseph-Aristide; the photographer seems to look down, cynically and condemnatory, on the syphilis sufferer and his offspring. The vanishing point fixed by the camera is higher than l’Oeil Cave that was later described by Bataille in Le Petit, published in 1943 under another pseudonym, Louis Trente. Not until 1961, a year before his death, in an interview with Madeleine Chapsal, did Bataille indirectly admit that he was in fact the author of Histoire de l’Oeil and Le Petit, and that the descriptions in those two publications are about his father. His brother Martial, the cheerful child, vigorously denied this.

The photographer looked into the ‘dead’ eye of Joseph-Aristide. He was able to do so by looking through his camera, with an indirect, removed kind of observation. In his films Alfred Hitchcock often invites us to look from one space, through another space at the action in yet another. He perfected this technique in Rear Window. From the vantage point of his apartment, Jefferies (James Stewart), spies on his neighbour, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) across the courtyard in between. It is no coincidence that Hitchcock, in a climactic scene, has Jefferies look through the long lens of a stills camera, and at the moment when Thorwald enters Jefferies’ apartment – the moment when the action enters the voyeur’s own space – has Jefferies fire the camera flash several times.

We look at this photograph and we are not unmoved: we know it depicts Georges Bataille and his brother on the knee of their father. We don’t look into the father’s eye, but at a photographic representation of it. We, weak observers, look through the dark room of Bataille’s literary work, at the depiction. We are piggybacked by his writing. The photographer needed his camera, his room in between, Bataille needed the life of a writer.

————-

1 ‘I am born of a paralytic father, who conceived me when he was already blind, and who after my birth was confined to his wheelchair by his sinister disease’, and ‘… The strangest was definitely the way he looked while urinating. As he saw nothing, his eye was moving up in the void, under the eyelid. This happened especially during the moments when he urinated.‘

————-

 

Wim Cuyvers (°1958) is a Belgian architect who works as a forester at Le Montavoix in the French Jura. This text is a translation of the commissioned original, written in Dutch.

#11 ‘Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4’ by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4, C-41 Photographic Print, 120 x 120 cm, 2012, by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin.

 

A young, glamorous Caucasian woman wearing a white fur stole, long black evening gloves and an expensive-looking pearl bracelet is pictured from the waist up in front of a mid-grey background. The way the photograph is framed makes it unclear, but she is surrounded by what appear to be three velvet cushions in primary colours: one blue, one yellow and one red. Her friends call her ‘Shirley’.

The print she inhabits is what is known as a ‘norm reference card’ and the model pictured worked at the Kodak lab in Rochester, NY, in the mid 70’s. When colour film was first developed in the 50’s, Kodak photographed a white female employee , the original Shirley, and distributed a picture of her to all of its colour printing labs across the US. All subsequent cards with different models are known as ‘Shirley cards’, and ‘skin-colour balance’ in photographic printing refers to a process in which your Shirley of choice is used as a basis for measuring and calibrating the skin tones in the photograph.

It was the French director Jean-Luc Godard who made the apparent predilection of Kodak for white skin famous, by refusing to use Kodak film stock on a filming assignment in Mozambique in 1975. He had been invited by the newly-elected Marxist president Samora Machel – alongside Jean Rouche and Ruy Guerra – to formulate a new model for a national television station. Local TV didn’t exist in Mozambique and Machel didn’t want to follow the Western capitalist model. Godard accepted the commission on the condition that he could use video and not film. Kodak film, he insisted, was ‘racist’.

It was only after Kodak’s two biggest consumers, the confectionary and furniture industries, complained that they could not accurately render dark chocolate or dark wood that the chemists in Rochester began to develop an emulsion that could more accurately depict darker colours. Their Gold Max was the first popular consumer film to address this problem: it was initially referred to by Kodak as being able ‘to photograph the details of a dark horse in low light’.

The relationship between the social and the technical, the possibility that politics could be bound up with the material, and the idea of a material unconscious has always interested us. Once, on our way out of Tel Aviv airport after visiting and photographing Yasser Arafat in his compound just weeks before his death, our 5”x 4” film was X-rayed maybe 30-40 times. The Israeli security staff knew where we had been and what we had been up to, and they were deliberately attempting to damage our film. They succeeded. The yellow waves – a result of X-ray damage, evident on the negative and subsequently on the print – is their clumsy signature. What is so interesting is that the film continued to record the narrative of that conflict even after it had been exposed. Film, as a material, it seems, has a longer biography then we imagine and has a political life of its own, one of which we are not entirely in control.

Recently, we accepted a commission to ‘document’ Gabon. We made two trips out there to photograph a rare Bwiti initiation ritual. Months before our departure from the UK, we began to collect unexposed Kodak film stock that had expired between the 1950’s -70’s; film that Godard would have called racist. We took just this film stock along with us on our journey deep into the rainforest to find the most orthodox and authentic version of this ritual. Using outdated chemical processes we succeeded in salvaging just a single frame from the many colour rolls we exposed there. This is it.

 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are artists living and working in London. Together they have published nine monographs and have had numerous international exhibitions. They are the winners of the 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.

#10 ‘Tiny Village’ by Tom Morton

Tiny Village (2008), original composite image created by ‘Real Live Dead’, subsequently adapted by ‘Undersquid’.

 

I first encountered this photograph through a Google image search, while I was prepping a slide lecture on the subject of scale. Although the keywords I’d entered were Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan H. Juran’s 1958 film was to feature in my lecture, alongside Jeff Wall’s 1994 shot The Giant, and Charles Ray’s 1992 sculpture Fall ’91), Google’s algorithms seemed minded, on that day, to introduce me to the macrophilia subculture, which is to say people whose sexual fantasies revolve around the figure of the giant or giantess. Given the impossibility of ever encountering, let alone getting amorous with a genuine colossus, this fetish is presumably a pretty tough and lonely gig. It follows that the contemporary macrophile must feel especially grateful for the twin technologies of the Internet and Adobe Photoshop. With these he (and it nearly is always a he, macrophilia being overwhelmingly the province of the heterosexual male) may communicate with others who share his interests, and exchange images of obscure objects of desire that have no counterparts in the real, disappointingly-scaled world.

Most images uploaded to macrophilia sites follow a simple formula: take an existing photograph of an attractive young woman from a lingerie or swimwear campaign, then comp her into a landscape shot so that she appears, say, to be grasping the top of the Empire State Building with one hand, while she adjusts the seam of her stocking with the other, or else to be washing her hair in the roaring waters of the Niagra Falls, as though they were no more powerful than the spray from a shower head. Unsurprisingly, there are also numerous macrophiliac photoshopped images that borrow material from pornographic shoots (these make much predictable use of the size differential between fetishist and fetishised), and a popular subgenre involving gigantic business women bestriding the smoking remains of Wall Street or Canary Wharf, like Godzilla in stilettos and a Donna Karan trouser suit. Tiny Village is different. It’s not an image of sexual submission, or of violent retribution against capital, but of something more elusive. Originally posted on the macrophilia web forum giantesscity.com by a male contributor going by the screen name ‘Real Live Dead’, the work might be understood as an attempt at a kind of macrophiliac pastoral.

Real Live Dead lays his scene in a quiet village, where a smattering of rather Nordic-looking houses sit between steep rocky peaks and a silvery lake. It is spring, or perhaps early summer, at any rate late enough in the year that the last of the winter’s snows have vanished from the mountaintops. From out of a valley emerges a youthful giantess wearing a white skirt, her shapely legs silhouetted against the diaphanous fabric. Five times as tall as the village’s tallest structure, she carries a wicker basket filled with grapes, each one larger than an adult human head. She is East Asian in appearance, and in Real Live Dead’s original she gazes out at the viewer, although in the version of the image I first encountered (which is reproduced here) she glances down at the ground far below, where we see a male figure waving up at her, unperturbed, even pleased, that this gargantuan woman has strode into view. He is the addition of another Giantesscity contributor, ‘Undersquid’, who describes him as ‘the little guy who I imagine owns [the towering woman’s] heart, and who has the terrific job of peeling those grapes’. ‘Undersquid’ is female, and does not self-identify as a macrophile, but rather as a ‘shrunken-man freak’. For her, it seems, Tiny Village might be understood from a human, rather than a giant’s point of view.

A reductive reading presents itself: the powerful male macrophiliac fantasises about experiencing powerlessness, while the powerless female ‘shrunken-man freak’ fantasises about experiencing power. If this is what’s truly at stake for Real Live Dead and Undersquid, then Tiny Village might be said to serve each artist’s purpose simultaneously, but I suspect there’s something a little more complex going on here than just the scratching of an erotic itch. This is an image that foregrounds plenitude – gathered from some hyper-fecund vineyard behind the verdant peaks, those grapes could happily feed the larger female, the smaller male, and a whole host of villagers, ‘shrunken’ or not. It is also an image of a social contract, on the lines of the ‘scientific socialism’ laid out in Karl Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program: ‘From each, according to his ability, to each according to his need’. We do not see the man exhaustedly rolling individual fruits across the valley floor in order to serve them up to the idling woman, and neither do we see the villagers presuming on her superior strength to, say, help them transform their modest settlement into a sparkling crescent of lakeside palaces, surely the work of few afternoons when your hands are big enough to peel off the roof of a house in order to take a peek inside. The woman, I suppose, must make her home behind the mountains. There, we might imagine her laying herself down in a bed not much smaller than her neighbours’ whole village, dreaming of her comparatively tiny paramour, or else entertaining him long into the spring night. (It is a measure of this image’s success that such thoughts come more readily to mind than wondering from where, precisely, Real Live Dead snatched the shots of the female figure and the landscape. I think of many things when I look at this image, but ads for Korean greengrocers or Swedish eco tourism are not one of them).

Tiny Village could not have existed in this form without the Internet. This is not only because it functions as a repository for ‘found’ imagery of the type appropriated and modified by Real Live Dead and Undersquid, but also because it operates as a place where such individuals might come together. Macrophiles and ‘shrunken-man freaks’ may very well have existed in the pre-digital era (the latter would certainly have been well-catered for by Jonathan Swift’s 1726-35 novel Gulliver’s Travels, in which the titular hero is used as a sex toy by the land of Brobdingnag’s supersized ladyfolk), but the anonymity and global reach of the web have allowed them to create a community of sorts, and with it a subculture. Tiny Village, it seems to me, is both a reflection of, and a reflection on, this situation. It is an image about how images are negotiated; a photograph about how photography – and crucially its dissemination – might bring people together, however small or large they may feel, or wish to be.

 

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor for frieze magazine, based in London. 

#9 ‘Photographing Apples’ by Daniel C. Blight

‘Windfall’, by Melanie Stidolph.

 

One of these apples is no longer attached to this tree. It was thrown into the camera’s view and an image was made as it crashed through the branches and presumably fell to the ground, with some noise. The photograph was not taken by a human hand, but rather by a motion detector; triggered by a single, unattached apple moving vertically through the frame.

Looking at this picture I know it is a photograph, and therefore I know the apple tree is dead. There is an absence in this image that attracts me to it. Like other interesting photographs, this one thinks. Like all other photographs, this one lies. I enjoy this picture because I know there is nothing more difficult to photograph than an apple, but in some unavoidable way, I am lying too: if I think photography has nothing whatsoever to do with truth then any reflection upon it cannot contain a modicum of certainty.

In 1912 Gustav Klimt painted an apple tree. The tree fills most of the canvas; its rounded form practically inseparable from a background of other foliage dabbed out in oil paint. Klimt’s painting is confusing, dense, noisy even. His ritualistic brushstrokes render him present: they are incessant in some frustratingly colourful manner. The apples are alive in Klimt’s painting, as are the flowers growing in the foreground. The painting does something that a photograph cannot; it keeps the apple tree alive.

Apple maggots bury themselves in the core of ripe apples still attached to the tree. Their birthed larvae eat the fruit from the inside out, causing it to rot and bruise. When an apple is rotten, it falls to the ground. An apple maggot, now fully grown into a fly, emerges from the apple’s inside only to mimic a jumping spider – so it may disguise itself before flight. The fly emerges from the apple, denies its crime, announces itself as something that it is not and disappears.

This photograph alludes to a particular state of photography: that supposed end-point at which a photographer seems completely unable to remove their falsely trusting desire to create an unexplainable and rhetorical emotional response within a photograph; something that ‘pricks’ at its viewer. In similar words Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, called this phenomenon the punctum; in exact words Barthes also admitted that “The punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum can be ill-bred.” Barthes offers two different types of possible expansion for the punctum as a phenomenon, neither of which helps us to understand the meaning of photography, I would argue. This photograph successfully removes the possibility of a punctum within it, and therefore its expansion, because to know this photograph is to acknowledge it exists to disrupt the reliance on emotional response we so often have when viewing photographs, and to think beyond the need for a punctum at all. By taking away something in the making of this photograph, we are offered  something dead and rotten with no sharp ends. The picture allows us to think politically: to think beyond one human and one response and instead to the wider social function of a particular form of photographic technology as it relates to the authority of images.

At the end of the First World War, Léon Theramin invented the earliest motion detector. The device, given the name Radio Watchman, was what we would colloquially now call a burglar alarm. The device that led to the development of the motion-sensor-triggered-camera-shutter was designed to alert one individual to the presence of another, possibly one attempting to steal something from the other. In this sense one could read the nature of this form of technology within the context of photography, as existing to mechanically capture, yet immediately prohibit, the long presence of an individual or object. If a subject were unaware of the presence of the device when approaching an area where one has been set-up, a brief shock or moment of surprise would ensue. Click – that sense of immediate personal insecurity that many of us experience when being photographed. When a moving subject triggers the device, an alarm is sounded – this alarm is the shutter itself. The camera as alarm: technology left to its own devices, with no human operator, wards off the presence of a moving subject. This invention, traced historically from the end of the First World War to the present day, essentially seeks to banish or inhibit the presence of human subjects: within the context of photography it seems to state: ‘Click, get away from here, your presence has been noted.’

Human agency is stripped away here in part. The photographer sets up the possibility for the camera to trigger itself with the onset of movement, but the camera then takes the timing and the image capturing under its own control. Camera technology, without the properly manual intervention of a human hand, becomes a strange mechanical-natural cause: a series of deterministic processes.

What is a photographic image rendered entirely by the technology that produces it, with no human intervention at the point of capture? Since the invention of the mechanical motion detector, this is a genuine point for photography’s consideration. As the motion detector – a small piece in the larger puzzle of technological development – has contributed to the revealing of photography as a potentially humanless form of picture making, there are further questions revealed about the state of photographic images. There are differences between an individual controlling the camera, and the camera being left alone under the stipulations of a particular mechanical or digital setting, to take a picture of its own accord.

The manual, hands-on taking of a photograph is a complicated choice; a perfect mix of individual and social determination. A person captures an image of the world beginning at a chosen time and lasting for a particular duration. This act of photographing is instigated by the individual, but carried out by the camera. The resulting picture exists as a synthesis of human individuality and social influence (agency and structure). A triangle is formed here between a human, a camera and the rest of society: human agency is mediated by technology to give a photographic impression of the (social) structure of our world. The ritual of human agency within photography is consumed by technology, perhaps to the benefit of its proper exposition. One might recall Walter Benjamin at this point: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” If a photograph is a work of art, its mechanical reproduction frees it from its dependence on human agency. Human agency, as individual ritual, is exposed by the act of photographing. The further the auto-mechanical essence of photography is accelerated, the more this ritual is exposed, in Benjamin’s words, as a parasite.

This parasite has a name: the punctum. It is the presence of human ritual in every photograph: it obscures the proper understanding of the relationship between social and technological phenomena. To remove the affective pinprick from a photograph is to cure photography from the parasite of human agency: the punctum, as doxa, embedded under emulsion or ink. This parasite is human narcissism itself, made clear by Roland Barthes mournful, solipsistic Camera Lucida. Like the definition of a parasite, the punctum ‘eats at the table’ of authenticity, fattening itself on the meal of another. The ‘other’ in this analogy is the relationship between the auto-mechanical and society.

Photographs taken with the mechanical motion detector are photographs emancipated from their dependence on human ritual. The punctum emerges from the photograph, denies its crime, announces itself as something that it is not and disappears.

 

Daniel Campbell Blight is a writer, curator and academic based in London. He currently works in the education department at The Photographers’ Gallery and is a dissertation supervisor in photography at the University of Brighton.