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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Any Photographer's Blues

A personal essay about photography. May 2011
[Adaptation from the title Any Woman’s Blues (a Novel of Obsession) by Erica Jong (1990)]
Reflections on the impossibility of the memory
Yesterday I thought that I would be able to describe something only if I had the thing in front of me. Let alone writing about something: I would not want to rely on my memory in this exercise; I would want to have pen and paper, there and then, when I am in front of it. I realise now that I was just thinking of photographing something with words instead of silver grains. Almost as I wanted to negate the possibility of the memory, or at least the possibility of my memory.
I really don’t want to rely on my memory to describe objects or people. It is not that it would be too much of an effort to remember them; it seems that I do it because it is too deep the pain involved in remembering something that has existed in a moment in my past. 
But this must be a contradiction! Because I normally photograph that thing, and print the image, and look at it, and linger on it, sometimes I kiss it, and I talk to it, still, there, dead, trapped in its own past on the photographic paper.  And it should be this ineluctability of the image to scare me the most instead of the remembrance of that thing. 
But in a certain way, with photography it feels like I posses it, the thing, as it has been, in the past, undoubtedly dead, but completely under my control. It is because the photographed subject is there and dead that I can control it: in any other way, it would be subjected to the capricious and volatile character of the memory and other mental processes. It is the ‘almost’ of the memory, which shares the same regime with love and life (Barthes, 2000, p.66), that terrifies me.
The murder
Death is the only human situation we don’t have recollection of. It is embedded in us as the original state from where everyone comes and to where everyone goes. Death excludes memory, negates it. We cannot have any remembrance of this state without experiencing it: and if we experience it, there cannot be any memory of it anymore. That is, because memory is an intrinsic quality of life, Barthes even says that it is the substitute of life (Barthes, 2000, p.93). 
Photography too excludes memory. Actually I photograph precisely to avoid the memory.
It is wrong what people believe, that photography is an instant art, always available, bare, offered to satisfy any instincts of the photographer, ever. Photography is, instead, a delayed art because we photographers, differently from painters, sculpturers, musicians and writers, cannot create, or better, cannot take a photograph from our memory. We can take a photograph of some of our memories, which usually means to reconstruct, physically, even if only in the search of the right composition, what we remember before immortalising it.
Critics and curators such as Charlotte Cotton refers to this certain type of photography (the constructed tableau, the directorial mode) as ‘too late’: a photography in which everything ‘can be attributed to the intent of the artist’ (Klein ed., 2009, p.103). Why can the concept of ‘too late’ be applied to a type of photography that withdraws from memory and not to painting that always, even if to different degrees in different paintings, literally draws from memory and the intention of the artist? Because when the photographer has finished to reconstruct the recollected scene, it is in that precise moment that vanishes the last glimp of life of the thing represented. Which in fact can remain alive only in our memory. Alive because it is only there that it can keep on changing and being modified by our experiences and mental processes. 
I believe this is exactly what the photographer doesn’t want to do: he doesn’t want anything to be changed and, ultimately, to be affected by time. For it to be possible he needs the subject to die in front of his eyes, following the modes he only has decided, a modern version of the freudian myrmidons of Death (Freud, 1961, Pag.33). And in the same instant that he negates memory and substitutes it with the image, his intellectual desire is to negate life with its caducity: every image is always ‘too late’ because it is too late for the subject to be alive when we look at it arranged in a photograph. The photographer has already performed the murder.
The resurrection
Photography is always a negation of something (all the other points of view) in favor of something else (the chosen point of view). It is the negated thing that keeps on living whilst the photographed one dies. 
It comes to my mind the struggle of Barthes in going through the photographs of his dead mother,  in search for the one that would be truly her, that would encompass her true being. The one that would, in his words, ‘resurrect’ her (p.64 et al.) 
At the beginning of his search he keeps on saying that ‘he couldn’t find her’ but I think that what he could not do was to re-find her in freudian terms, that is, he could not re-find the object (whose presence is already in the ego, i.e. it has already been accepted as ‘good’ by it and introjected in it) to convince himself that she was still there (Freud, 2001, p.237).
And then he found the Winter Garden picture. The picture that resurrects her, that made her there again, immortal, a non-dead, an undead: for Barthes, the fetish par excellence. But what is it that makes her a living dead? It is that the Winter Garden picture is not a fragment of her anymore, one where only one or only some aspects of the person are depicted, and dead, whilst others are left outside, leaving and breathing in our memory. It is a photograph where the soul of the subject is exposed, shot, killed in its entirety: immortality only occurs through the annihilation of any hints of life in the subject.
It is death, then, what we ultimately try to re-find in photographs, because it is the only way for the subject to resurrect. 
The resurrection of the subject is when the photograph “becomes alive”. It is not that the pictures is suddenly doted of a life; it is that we can construct and project alive sensations and sentiments on it. It is like if we ‘let it speak” to us. More fragmented is the image and less complete is the range of alive responses we can project on it. If a portrait captures, to say, a person in an angry moment or expression, that photograph will always be angry with us, every single time we look at it and receive back its look. We will not be able to project, for example, happiness on it, so we will not be able to feel any happiness in response. But when we find our Winter Garden photograph, where all of the subject is truly dead, that picture, that very person depicted is so completely there and dead that it becomes the tabula rasa of our ego and we can project everything on it, even life, a new life.
My Ariadne! My Frankenstein.
I found my Ariadne, I found my Winter Garden picture. 
No, I am lying, I have created it. I am the photographer, I wanted it. And beyond alchemy and magic, what I have wanted was to resurrect a subject that is still alive. And I killed it. What can I do now if not waiting for my own death?
The more I become involved with photography, the more I realise that it is the meta-language of death. 
Other than just talking about death or dead people from an alive perspective, photography can actually explain death and its characteristics, as only a dead subject, been born and being living dead, can do.
As Jesus Christ is the christian meta-language of God, because from Him he derives and with Him he shares all the holy characteristics, photography shares an impressive number of characteristics with death. For instance its disconcerting, disturbing, frustrating flatness that hides everything, from the hand of the artist (‘resulting in a radically impoverished mode of criticism’ [Bedford in Klein ed., 2009, p.9) to what is actually depicted in the picture (‘however hard I look, I discover nothing’ mourns Barthes [p.100]). Photography and death don’t hide, but they don’t say what they let us see either. They affirm the ultimate distance between the  viewer and the subject, probably negating once and for all Benjamin’s theory of the loss of the aura. The viewer’s consent, action or power, is inverted into mere participation (Levinas, 1998, p.4). They also affirm the impossibility of the memory, for to have memory there should be life and to be life there should be a future. But there is no future, in both of them; there is only a congealed co-presence of past and present, what is in front of us and what has been once, for sure, with no possibility of modification anymore (to avoid any doubts, digital manipulation is for me what colour is for Barthes, a make-up for corpses).
And still, precisely for this reason, it discloses the door to immortality, as, if the future of the immortal being was still possible and so forth uncertain, we would not be sure of the reasons of its immortality.
My Winter Garden is called You Are Everyone’s Horizon. Like the latter it is the long, thin line that wraps any man’s visible world, the long kiss between earth and sky, human and celestial, the long journey through which every men wander, from life to death and back. This is what this photograph is to me. 
I sit in front of it and I see the hedgerow of Leopardi’s Infinito (1818-1821)the fence that occludes part of the view and, for this reason, allows the mind to contemplate the infinity. I see the ‘devouring light’ of Turner, as his soul is completely bare in it, offered to the viewer, without eyes that return the look and set boundaries to the sight. 
It drags me to the other side, or better, it drags me to  a “side other”: because I don’t know yet which side of what, but for sure his eyes have never touched the surface that I touch with mine when I look at it. There is no point of contact in the middle between the viewer and the subject; the contact is in a “space other”, that is beyond the negative, a space the viewer is invited to dig in. 
I am Odysseus in putrefaction: no Circe advised me how to escape the enchanting song. My siren sings and I sink into its blue sea (and that couldn’t be closer to the truth, for the subject of the photograph, my subject, is immersed into the blue, like in dreams or in the water). I force myself to remember that he is alive. He is not a photograph, no, I can kiss him, I can talk to him in person. He is in the other room at the moment. He is probably working on his computer. But instinctively, compulsively, I kiss the photograph before remembering him being there. I sometimes talk to it instead of him... 
‘The photographer is caught between his desire and his intellect’ (Wise, in Klein ed., 200, p.84), between the subject, alive, and the negation of the subject (in a previous essay - SEE NEXT POST - I sustained that photography is a compulsion to repeat an event that is already present in us, the death, but in order to develop the anxiety that will prevent a future traumatic neuroses to happen - i.e. it is a compulsion to repeat the very act of forgetting that the subject is alive so when death will arrive we will be sufficiently ready to receive and accept it). In my case it feels like I have succumbed to the intellect: in an extraordinary turnaround of events, the living being becomes the picture of Dorian, showing age and crime and illness, whilst the photograph flourishes again and again, undead, immortal, fixed in its evolution, like in a loop: from life to death and back, all the time.
Any Photographer’s Blues
The truth is, no photographer would act on the shutter if he wasn’t deeply in love with the subject in front, be it an object, a concept, a surface or, even more, a person (it is of no difference if the photographer is simply the executor of the love of someone else towards something else). The agony starts when this love is being transferred to a proxy, the image (which is also a proxy to death) instead of being channelled and expressed, as opposite to repressed, toward the living subject. But it is also a well known fact the impossibility for mankind to grasp and explain deep and intense feelings of love. And what is You Are My Horizon if not a long, blindly passionate, love declaration?
In the essay I previously mentioned, I had advanced that photography is a death practice that serves a life instinct, implying that the two forces, love and death, not necessarily have to work in opposition but can become altruistic: they can actively act to pursue the aims of the other primary instinct too. Using the meta-language of death to express love and affection might seem, at the least, a bizarre choice, and definitely one that causes struggle and obsession; but maybe this is precisely what can help us to make the leap that will bring us closer to Eros. The difficulty for the photographer, or at least for this photographer, me, is then to accept it: to accept that through the mode of death we can aim at life and that we are the privileged dancers of the ballad of love and death. 

Barthes, R. (2001) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage
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Giacomo Leopardi (Italy, 1798-1837)
L’Infinito (1818-1821) 
Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle
E questa siepe che da tanta parte
De'll ultimo orrizonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando interminati
Spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
Silenzi, e profondissima quiete,
Io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco
Il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
Infinito silenzio a questa voce
Vo comparando; e mi sovvien l'eterno,
E le morte stagioni, e la presente
E viva, e'l suon di lei. Così tra questa
Immensità s'annega il pensier mio:
E'l naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.

The meaning:
Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedge, which from so much part
Of the ultimate horizon the view excludes.
But sitting and gazing, boundless
Spaces beyond that, and more than human
Silences and profoundest quiet
I in thoughts pretend to myself, where almost
The heart is overwhelmed. And as the wind
I hear rustle through these plants, I such
Infinite silence to this voice
Go on comparing: and come to mind the eternal
And the dead seasons, and the present
And the living, and the sound of it. So through this
Immensity is drowned my thoughts:
And being shipwrecked is sweet to me in this sea.
Faithful rendering by Lorna de Lucchi:
I always loved this solitary hill,
This hedge as well, which takes so large a share
Of the far-flung horizon from my view;
But seated here, in contemplation lost,
My thought discovers vaster space beyond,
Supernal silence and unfathomed peace;
Almost I am afraid; then, since I hear
The murmur of the wind among the leaves,
I match that infinite calm unto this sound
And with my mind embrace eternity,
The vivid, speaking present and dead past;
In such immensity my spirit drowns,
And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea.

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