Friday, March 30, 2007

The Mask of Images

Woman in a bird mask

In his often-quoted introduction to Robert Frank’s series of photographs, ‘The Americans’, Jack Kerouac wrote:

'Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America on to film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world'.

“Sucked a sad poem..." I’m not sure I even like the phrase, but I’ve never forgotten it. And I am unlikely to forget the gist of the following passages, from Roland Barths’ 1980s book 'Camera Lucida' (Barths admits from the start that he is ‘not a photographer, not even an amateur one’):

‘We might say that photography is unclassifiable. Then I wondered what the source of this disorder might be.

The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid…’

‘Show your photographs to someone – he will immediately show you his: “Look, this is my brother; this is me as a child,” etc.; the photograph is never anything but an antiphon of “Look”, “See”, “Here it is”; it points a finger at certain vis-à-vis and cannot escape this pure, deictic language.’

‘The photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both… This fatality (no photograph without something or someone) involves Photography in the vast disorder of objects – of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other? 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.’

Sucking a sad [or noble] poem, or souring like neglected milk.

It is good to keep such opposing perspectives in mind. As much as we may be sucking sad (or occasionally happy) poems out of the world, we are also doing the opposite: blowing images into the world, each one another piece, another pixel of that ongoing, worldly collage. Were the final work ever assembled (on some Day of Aesthetic Judgment) it would no doubt already cover the planet. More likely, it would plaster the planet, in the way that a child plasters a balloon with gluey strips of newspaper that will harden into the mold for a papier-mâché mask.

Still, I keep taking photographs, more so than ever these days, with the digital Canon 10D I bought a couple of years ago (vastly outdated now of course, technology on its ever-accelerating treadmill).

What am I at anyway? Why add more images to the mask? The simplest answer is probably twofold: firstly, that this outlet, this means (for framing the world at every turn) is so tantalisingly available; secondly, that I have always been particularly obsessed with the visual; so that my writing is steeped in it. I could ask the same questions of my efforts at poetry. Why more images, metaphors, secular thanksgiving? Most of the stuff written by others and myself is mere wallpaper for our little, laboratory-bubbles of time; they will break on the surface (that calm, unshakable meniscus) without so much as a sigh.

Perhaps this all seems a little moribund and deflationary. Let me make clear that I love photography, almost as much as I love poetry. The first time I got a loan of someone's SLR in 1979 (while working as a KP in Captain America's Restaurant in Grafton Street) I was smitten. I held in my hands a device by which I could frame whatever came within the sphere of my way of looking, my slant, my 'eye'. John Berger (possibly quoting someone else) called photographs 'quotations from appearances', unlike paintings, which are 'translations'.

Photography has become wholly accessible now (to anyone in the First World, that is). We are all adept at pointing and snap/quoting. Does this make it any less exciting? Perhaps it does. But there is still ample room for delight: Mary Ellen Mark's travellers, Koudelka's gypsies and urban landscapes, Salgado's workers, Parr's tourists... For myself, I try to keep a line open to my initial thrill, that first, real buzz in Captain America's.

Can a photograph be a work of art? Even Barthes, for all his scepticism, admits that there is a photographic aesthetic; this is bound up of course in the essential quality of the photograph and its subject (Referent). As Barthes puts it: '...this stubborness of the Referent always being there would produce the essence I was looking for'. Yep. That's what photography is, a great buffalo wallow of referentiality.

Photography, like poetry in some respects (Barthes compares certain kinds of photographs to haiku), is about looking and memory, about the concentrated glance. In that sense, it is primal; we were framing moments of the world long before we had cameras or film.

And before humans happened along the world photographed itself, and keeps doing so, through any odd little hole (in a tree, a cave, a keyhole..): accidental pinhole cameras. Such as the one I was introduced to in the poem below; about a visit to my old friend's little terrace house in Glasthule, Co Dublin:

in memory of Trevor Scott

His hall was a narrow dark cubicle. “Do you see it?”
On one wall, a square of soft light – a postcard
cinema – was showing part of a door
and window, the redbrick terrace house from
across the street. Oh. I was inside a camera
obscura, a keyhole lightshow. On cue
an upside down girl in a lilac raincoat walked
past. And the secretive universe blinked.

I see. This is how things take in
each other, how the rays of day enter
a keyhole, dressing a dark, unadorned wall;
how the hinterland composes itself, for itself,
standing as it wants to stand, silent, unadjusted,
on its head, at the apple of its own eye.

(from my collection, 'The Sky Road', published by Salmon in May 2007).