Photos I’ll never take
The photograph as a performance to camera
The destruction of the feelings of loss that face those abused
The dark history of nature in art
“A heart-rendering tale of identity, love, poverty and death” (Kim Thue)
The translucent and subtle qualities of the metaphor and
A fear of leaving, confronted
Religious or mythical interpretations of the creation of the heavens and earth
A surreal journey through a psycho-geography inspired by dreams
Paul O’Kane, September 2014
Consider them, my soul, they are a fright!
Like mannequins, vaguely ridiculous,
Peculiar, terrible somnambulists,
Beaming – who can say where – their eyes of night.
These orbs, in which a spark is never seen,
As if in looking far and wide stay raised
On high; they never seem to cast their gaze
Down to the street, head hung, as in a dream.
Thus they traverse the blackness of their days,
Kin to the silence of eternity.
o city! while you laugh and roar and play,
Mad with your lusts to point of cruelty,
Look at me! dragging, dazed more than their kind.
What in the Skies can these men hope to find?
Obsessed, as was much of 19th century Paris with looking and seeing, Charles Baudelaire wondered, poetically, and somewhat offensively why those whom we now refer to as ‘visually impaired’ sometimes appear to cast unseeing eyes skyward as if, even for those denied sight, the vertical source of natural light remains a kind of orientation. Even the most secular among us occasionally look heavenward, when e.g. trying to remember a word or form the best response to a question. And whether or not we are stricken with vision and visuality our life is likely to be metaphorically represented as a dialogue with light, until that is, the inevitable and inexorable ‘darkness’ brings life to a close. There may be light after life, but for now, for here, photography remains our most reliable means of retaining the light of our lives, which, in its passing, waxing and waning, also gives some form to the time of our lives.
Belief that a direct and immediate record of the light and the time of our lives might take us closer to the truth of our experience is a reasonable hunch and one that remains worthy of pursuit even as we erase the word ‘truth’ from our vocabulary and search beyond it among the image’s multiple masks, becoming ourselves images in a grand pageant of wilful disorientation. From a crude FLASH that produces a cheap SNAP to a long, soft exposure that produces a finely nuanced negative or High Definition file, speeds, tones, shadows and gleams become the vocabulary of a language of light that some read and use more expertly and poetically than others.
Video clips, a candle burning down, a steadily passing scanner’s beam, the ‘rising and setting’ of the sun, the constant speed of light itself – despite all these forms applied to light the profundities of light’s interaction with time nevertheless eludes a human desire to give convincing and comprehensive form to experience. Still photographs, made of framed rectangles and/or formed into strips, may, in retrospect, have been little more than a local and short-lived attempt. Is the light and time of our lives constant or constantly interrupted, is it incremental, continuous or heterogeneous? Does it appear to us in episodes and FLASHES, in moments of mechanised Satori or Haiku? Is brevity necessarily the soul of photography? Does a FLASH of enhanced seeing and being show us timeless life or deathless time?
The FLASH of atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the forensic night street photography of Weegee come to mind as archetypal documents of a 20th Century which, despite all its avid and vivid documentation, despite all its forward-looking modernity and futuristic promise now slips back into History along with the 12th, the 7th, the 19th etc. as a new future looms threatening a battle to attain or repel neo-medievalist forces. But who or what applies such numerical structures (18th, 19th, 20th … ), this extensity (the ‘medi-eval’) to otherwise intense and formless experience? If only we could reconcile ourselves with that intensity and formlessness, with that mismatch between (bourgeois) acquisitive aspiration to claim and represent, and the ultimately ungraspable forces that determine our experience. Perhaps experience is best presented as a formless volume, what theorists of the baroque refer to as a plenum that sets the whole notion of form aside as all-too human, Euclidean, profane, insufficiently Catholic, non-Bergsonian or un-Bataillean. And if not a neobaroque model then to whom or to what should we entrust the responsibility of awarding appropriate responses to experience: the poet, the filmmaker perhaps, or today’s new hybrid ‘creatives’ freed from professional categories by a proliferation of readily available technological tools? Maybe the scientist, theologian or philosopher? Or might we turn to the musician? “Life Is Just A Moment” sang soul/jazz artist Roy Ayers, alluding to the sense that in life’s midst we may fear rapid aging as a sign of inevitable infirmity and death and yet the time and the light of our lives expands like an accordion as we sometimes seem to see – as mystics like William Blake or Walt Whitman would concur- eternity in a fraction of a second, the universe in ‘a grain of sand’. To an accelerated modern world where fashions, tastes and generation gaps marked increasingly rapid change, photography brought a lyrical value akin to that of those popular songs that first please with their novelty, soon become over-familiar and tiresome, then grow increasingly evocative and valuable again, enhanced both by collective and subjective memory.
Such sentimental, possibly Aristotelian affections, may be anathema to various forms of elitist evaluation forged in the long shadow of Plato’s notorious critique of art, but photography’s great ubiquity and inseparable adherence to the underlying and universal values of time and light, has, from its inception, troubled all partisan, institutionalised and hierarchical judgments. Photography may be the most ubiquitous and therefore banal of all systems of image production and yet, paradoxically, its special remit to occupy a crossroads where time meets light embroils us in profound dialogue with this nexus. Photography offers evidence of a fleeting existence in series of stilled glimpses of a life in motion on a world that orbits and spins. Nevertheless a billion photographed sunsets soon embarrassed us into labelling them ‘kitsch’ thus rendering perhaps the most profound image of all almost valueless by dint of its popularity. Today we watch the sun go down on an entire age of pre-digital photographic values as we wrest our eyes from damp dark rooms to gaze continuously into illuminated screens on which we proudly Google-up a million examples of a million image genres (thus every image has today become a form of kitsch ‘sunset’, rendering the original sunset the mother of all images.) We invent further genres in the process, all produced by a type, a swipe and a click, but there is of course nothing we can do with all these images but play with, hide, store and reorganise them. Repetition and ubiquity lose any remaining stigma that might have survived Walter Benjamin’s 1930s affirmation of the political value of mechanical reproduction as we revel in newly technologised extremes of quantity, relativising all qualities. As divisions between amateur and professional, artist and non-artist, art and kitsch are further eroded what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as a ‘transvaluation of values’ appears on the horizon of our thoughts. Events – all events, including our selves as events- come to be seen with maximum relativism, minimal hierarchy and photographs are no longer seen as ‘beautiful’ nor even ‘interesting’ – the vacuous default of an aesthetic vocabulary overwhelmed by the task that now confronts it.
Once photographic images reach such bewildering quantities and can be organised into a flux of mercurial taxonomies it might be wise, even as we are blinded by the present, to use the past to help find a way into a future. Perhaps we should reappraise the very birth of photography, re-reading its first critical responses, reviewing its earliest manifestations, fundamental processes, original aims and raison d’être. This might help us to re-categorise all photographic images, old or new, analog or digital, and perhaps regard them merely as records (what Benjamin called ‘evidence’), reflections of passing time and changing light that falls upon, bounces off or passes equally through all, through water, alabaster, a face, a screen, a body, the city etc. Once the ‘content’, semiotic meaning and narrative of each and every photograph is thus levelled – being considered primarily for and as a relationship with time and light- we might begin to suspect that it was photography that led us to our current state of relativism, akin to the philosophical musings of the ancients (Tao, Zen, the Pre-Socratics.)
Photography has long been the belief system of choice for a secular consumerism, helping to define its ways and means, limits and possibilities, but it is not the content of photographs that really sways the consumerist, it is the medium itself, which –as Marshall McLuhan famously stressed – is ‘the message’ (for ‘message’ read ‘scripture’). Photography’s peculiar ubiquity and pervasiveness came to shape our behaviours and appearances, gestures and postures in imitation, not of Christ or Beckham, nor of any other particular redeemer, but of the image itself. Obsessive selfie-takers repeatedly self-affirm with a rapid hand gesture equivalent to the sign of the cross, a process which rewards, reassures and reorientates, whether the resulting image is considered for more than a split second or not. In this case the ‘mirror with a memory’ may have lost its memory and become just a (HD, electronic) mirror. Of course mirrors remain profound, mythical and beguiling for all that.
As Giorgio Agamben implies in his essay on Daguerre’s 1838 image Boulevard Du Temple the photograph has supplanted a fundamental Christian teleological narrative, Judgment Day is no longer distant, deferred and metaphysical but immanent within every photographic exposure where time and light are captured. By newly objectifying the terms of our mutual, shared existence photographs make moral demands on all of us (all of our light and all of our time.) Agamben saw judgment rendered immanent by the invention of photography thus supplanting the religious narrative ‘live now be judged later’ with evidence of existence as a mark on time that ‘proves’ life to be not so much an epic, tragic, teleological or biblical destiny as an evaporating event that newly exacerbates the value of presence. But presence, as Jacques Derrida insisted, is itself a debatable condition and Agamben drew some Deriddean attention to all those missing-presumed-alive figures on Boulevard Du Temple who were merely passing by and thus not still for long enough to be adequately recorded by Daguerre’s exposure. They are present-yet-absent, and not through abstract, theological or metaphysical reasoning but due to the vicissitudes of a then new and still crude contraption which complicated not only their presence but, by analogy, all presence. Thus photography does not only carve actualities out of a world latent with possibilities but also – if inadvertently – evokes all those events that, despite all the desire in the world, never formed themselves in time and space and therefore remain, haunting the world and our lives, as wishes, regrets, invisibilities, impasses and impossibilities.
Amid the deafening traffic of the town,
Tall, slender, in deep mourning, with majesty,
A woman passed, raising, with dignity
In her poised hand, the flounces of her gown;
Graceful, noble, with a statue’s form.
And I drank, trembling as a madman thrills,
From her eyes, ashen sky where brooded storm,
The softness that fascinates, the pleasure that kills.
A flash . . . then night! – O lovely fugitive,
I am suddenly reborn from your swift glance;
Shall I never see you till eternity?
Somewhere, far off! Too late! never, perchance!
Neither knows where the other goes or lives;
We might have loved, and you knew this might be!
Baudelaire’s Romantic, Realist and rather ‘photographic’ poem ‘To A Passer By’ seems to have anticipated a century or more of (mostly male) street voyeurism, afforded by handy cameras that gave all a new license to see, to peer, to take and make exposures in public spaces – a right that, in an age of terror and surveillance we are both reluctant to surrender and careful not to abuse. To resist or succumb to the temptation to represent, to take and make or to ‘Let It Be’ that is the question. Dionne Warwick’s classic pop lyric ‘Walk On By’ (penned by Hal David and perhaps inspired by Baudelaire’s poem) might be a corrective to the voraciously snap-happy street photographer or could illuminate Agamben’s remarks on Proust (also made while interpreting Daguerre’s Boulevard De Temple) wherein he speaks of the wistfully erotic message “… what might have been…” scrawled on the back of a boy’s portrait that Proust had treasured. No desire can ever be entirely fulfilled, no life made wholly satisfactory or complete, no past entirely regained, no matter how photographed, how accurately or imaginatively recorded in memoir, biography or autobiography.
On a section of light industrial shelving a lifetime’s photographic negatives plump-out a series of folders. This is an archive, it fills racks, occupies boxes and has the particular form realised by a particular means of documenting a human experience. Nearby sits an ominous, monolithic scanner, its bright beam moves slowly as if (as Louis Armstrong once sang) it has “All The Time In The World.” This slowest of F L A S H E S ‘passes by’ too, but far from merely prurient the scanner’s beam can dematerialise an entire physical archive, rendering it invisible as virtual files. Like a Lilo-borne dreamer the beam gazes heavenward as it makes its gentle progress, the glaring strip of an eye precisely measures and divides, taking our time as it takes its time, taking time out of one world and into another, out of the actualised and extensive and back whence it came, back to the virtual and the latent. All the promises that the multitudionous flytraps of analog photography have captured and delivered to posterity are thus digitally milled back into promises, rendered newly latent, virtual once again, but no longer ‘negative’, no, the digital realm is always positive, that is what makes it slightly fearful, faintly fascistic, an evangelical, inhuman and inexorable force. The glowing scanner’s beam patiently ploughs past into future, renewing, reviving and revisiting. Every image is re-evaluated by a futuristic technology that is nothing if not archival. The beam growls forward as it draws everything back, begging comparison with the hand-held cameras that preceded it, inviting us to reconsider even the most dynamic, innovative, modern and expressive photography as merely part of a long and complex history of conservational, curatorial, museological activities (Andre Malraux comes to mind.) The scanner’s beam becomes a drone gliding over a photo-topo-graphy, a scythe or sickle, a decapitator’s blade, a Lightsaber of Solomon drolly dolling out a kind of justice or judgment as the digital awards afterlives to all pasts. Faces and places dematerialise, disappear and are quietly displaced out of sight, touch and reach, tidied away into a new order. An archive houses images in a state of rest, pristine, uniform and orderly, ready and willing to be roused and given new duties in the service of another time, and yet that ‘other time’ is always also now as each re-appraisal of the past becomes itself another layer added to memory, itself an event demanding a place in our story, to itself be revisited and re-evaluated.
We too inhabit our archive, even as we labour in its service, building it, in an attempt to organise, control, distance and represent our experience. The reality and the self we thought we knew are put to bed by the process of digitisation, as strips of celluloid negatives and grids of paper ‘contacts’ surrender their pedestrian narrative sequences to a seemingly arbitrary, infinitely variable constellation of JPEGs and TIFFs, now individuated, newly disconnected from what had been their neighbours in extensively measured time and space. The digital makes mosaics of us all in a grand process of mass pixilation, atomising us into a realm where everything and everyone becomes more nodal and increasingly alone while nevertheless more connected and contingent. And in this respect digitisation is the perfect handmaiden of a consumerism that prefers us to make individual choices en masse and to desire and need at least one of every commodity to grace our indistinguishably individuated lives (even when targeting us as unique members of a singular ‘nuclear’ family unit.)
Opposing any prohibition of our beloved images we have instead surrendered to them. As passionately secular consumerists we enjoy a daily shower of images while living in increasing fear of the iniquitous alterity of religious fundamentalists whose professed prohibition and active censorship of images is testament to faith in maintaining one great, un-contestable image of God. Nevertheless, the infamous terrorist attack on Manhattan’s World Trade Centre on the eleventh of September, 2001 has been described as ‘the devil’s masterpiece’ and YouTube beheadings are only the latest manifestation of a cruel media savvy traceable back to 1970s airline Hi-Jackers who first recognised the power of seizing TV news coverage to impose their own gripping global dramas unfolding ‘live’ in real time. Thus it is the religious fundamentalist terrorist, ferociously opposing the pornographic transparency of secular consumerism who has mastered today’s unprecedented visual networks and who is, as a result, able to utilise and deploy the power of the networked image in ways that the most up-to-speed artists and avid facebookers can only dream about. But where do all our uploaded electronic and digitised images go to when their essential electrical power is rescinded? While our unsustainable lifestyles balance precariously on diminishing energies that increasingly inflame resource wars each and every digital image must be switched on and powered up in order to appear and thus to exist. What if/when power runs out or is seized by neo-medievalist militants holding the pampered capitalist democracies to ransom? Then our digital archives may be rendered inaccessible and we might reach out in vain for a lost past that is as inaccessible as our recently abandoned future; then the visually impaired, once poetically maligned by Baudelaire, might be called upon to lead us through a new dark ages by means of their special, hard-won expertise as we all become aligned with less-retinal means of guidance, more haptic or sonic modes of orientation, that transform a primarily visual notion of the image into something equally heard, felt or otherwise sensed.
The Blind, Charles Baudelaire, translated by James McGowan, in The Flowers Of Evil, (pub, Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, p.187) To A Passer By, Charles Baudelaire, translated by C.F Macintyre, in ‘Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Walter Benjamin, (pub NLB, 1973, p. 45)