Wednesday, 13 April 2011

More notes towards notes on photography: We are exotic

I had begun this introductory essay for Justin Partyka before and now I want to pick it up. Photography is a subject I keep returning to because of its association with truth to evidence. As the end of previous blogpost on the subject read:

...The camera is the eye. The camera is the I. Best believe it.

And so we go on...

But the moment of innocence is minimal. The moment is not sought for innocently, and is not handled innocently, if by innocence we mean without knowledge, calculation, idea, culture or intention. Sit there. Yes, just there. Turn towards me. Smile, Move your hands to your lap. So. Now wait while I move around you. Or, If I move slightly to my right the elements will be better composed. I will lose that awkward shadow, and yes, that Hall’s Distemper Board too. Perhaps I should focus in on the washing line not on that hold-it smile?


Or my mother’s occupation in my childhood. Starting as a press-photographer she was soon confined, through illness, to a home-based one-woman light-box laboratory-cum-surgery, a visual plastic surgeon with a shard of lethal-looking razor, removing a wart, or a shadow under the eye from a negative, adding delicacy to a cheekbone, tidying up a loose lock of hair. At times she would even take out those tiny, magical tubes of photo-oils, mix them on a small sheet of glass, and with brushes that were hardly there, colour in what had been black, grey and white, embalming those from whom the colour had vanished, turning them into peculiar mortuary icons, as my brother and I were so turned, introducing our ghosts to the world of the technicolour sarcophagus. That sarcophagus has a beauty of its own now. It was the art of the possible as it looked then, as we looked then, as the colour lay then, as the hand that moved the colour moved then, as the person who was alive at that time, loved the colours then. The beauty was her desire to preserve those in image that she might not have been able to preserve in life.

What were we like then, in those photographs? I think we were a little like those Pompeian wall-paintings or Great War postcards with their tinges of pink and blue against sepia.

And how were the pictures composed? On what principle?

Composed they certainly were, mostly on the principle of balanced form.

And where did she learn these principles of balanced form? In what sense are such feelings innate, or culturally transmitted?

We weren’t being composed according to the principles of Japanese woodcut, or the principles of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism that derived their balance from the Japanese example. Nor were we composed, not exactly, according to the principles of Baroque art, as catalogued by Wölfflin. We weren’t dynamic shapes in motion: we weren’t reportage and speed, we weren’t bursting from dark into light, we weren’t protruding over the picture frame in an act of psychological aggression. No, we were still and posed and sub-classical. We were arranged to be at rest. It was from a position of rest that we turned our heads to regard the world. We were an arrangement for posterity. We were interpreted as form.

The innocent moment of light through lens, on film, remained. It was the chief reason we were, to put it in Barthes’s terms, memento mori irrespective of art. Yes but we were also interpreted. We were not only forms but Form. We were the balance between image and moment, between representation and dumb, once present, self. The latter we cannot lose. The former has since been reinterpreted time and time again, falling into the ambit of cliché, then, as time passed, out of it again, into pure exotica. We were, are, exotic. It is language that makes us so.

To be continued...


Mark Granier said...

'The camera is the eye. The camera is the I. Best believe it.'

I do George. Innocence and manipulation. Yes. And Barthes’s 'memento mori', HC Bresson's decisive moment and Berger's 'quotations from appearances'.

Then there's this (again by Barthes):

'Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.’

Thanks for inflaming, again, the imagination.

I may have already mentioned this, but I wrote about these things here:

George S said...

The link doesn't lead to the post, Mark. It takes me to Blogger where it says the post doesn't exist.

Thank you for the comment. I know of your deep interest and work in photography. I will continue with a few more sections, probably covering some fairly general ground that is still worth exploring in the hope of finding new, or at least personal.

George S said..., personal something.

Mark Granier said...

Eh? That's weird George. Just tried that link and it takes me to the post no problem. I dunno.

George S said...

I'll tell you what's weirder still, Mark. Firefox takes me straight there, but Safari takes me where I said it did. I use three browsers: Safari, Firefox and Chrome and they all behave slightly differently. I use Safari for most purposes as it is linked with my phone

So here's advice for anyone following up Mark's link. Go via Firefox (or maybe Chrome).

Mark Granier said...

Ah hah. I don't use either of those, but Google Chrome.