Author Archives: ClaireRaymond

Joan Rachaelsdaughter: Slow Forward

On “Slow Forward,” a Retrospective of the Work of Joan Rachaelsdaughter at UMF Art Gallery, 10 March to 10 April 2016

Joan Rachaelsdaughter’s work combines, in uncanny distillations, intimately tactile materiality and formally realized visual image. Her best work is placed as if mystically in that fold where the material—the object that can be touched—becomes the visible, the form seen. Touch, the haptic, is always an atomized experience: one touches with one’s hands small areas of objects and cannot touch — simultaneously and all at once— an object larger than one’s body. Touch is specific to the delineations of one’s own inhabited body. Sight can, however, be expansive and encodes a path out of the limits of the self: illumination, enlightenment, these terms imply vision, light. Rachaelsdaughter’s work moves between touch and sight, creating palimpsestic photo- graphic images that evoke the realm of what is lost— coffee filters, old clothes, dis- carded books—and revivify the lost object as found vision. Metamorphosis is the trope and style of her work, and liminality her homeland.

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Images of windows, books, clothes, moths, birds, angels, objects in the physical world that invoke transformation, departure, and liminality, make up much of her oeuvre. There is always an outside to Rachaelsdaughter’s work, or rather, a sense of emerging into an expansive unknown. Hers is an oeuvre of hinge— her images act as hinges thatopen from clothes, textiles, nature, politics, discarded household items, the human face, and from this opening move into a space that is unclaimed and unclaimable; in its refusal to claim, to settle, her delicate and forceful work is its most evocative. This farther space that I find in Rachaelsdaughter’s images puts me in mind of the late night fields and sky I used to watch, as a child, in my father’s car in the deep South— after we had been driving all day and well into the night, the hinge of exhaustion and placelessness would suddenly open to an expansive, terrifying, and beautiful contact with the very and actual distance of the land, its near endlessness, at the edge of human touch. Rachaelsdaughter’s life work, I think, has been to keep opening the sight of the edge of a journey, never closing down the vista.
Ten years ago, I wrote a small series of moth poems based on Rachaeldaughter’s “Moths” series of images. Her “Moths” originated as used coffee filters and, photographed with evocative dark blur, became the flickering umber presences that evoke the mythology of the moth as the soul that rises from the newly dead. I wrote not about moths as such but about Joan’s moths, their double-presence as the thing that is gone (the discarded coffee filter) and the thing that is saved (the gorgeous and haunting image of the ‘moth’). Rachaelsdaughter’s touch is so delicate, so deft, none of her works overbear. Instead, they retain their mystery: the Kinglet series, while it plays with the idea of mapping, also resists any direct mapping of bird and book and land.

The kinglet, the book, the land, all stand as openings through which a sacrificial time moves in Rachaelsdaughter’s kinglet series. The sacrificial is always present, just under the skin of Rachaelsdaughter’s images. If her earlier work emphasized textile, the delicate hanging garments conjuring meditations on the meaning of embodiment, her more recent work exposes the materiality of the gaze itself. “Full fathom five” offers an astonishing self portrait of the artist, seen as in a webbed but intact mirror, reminiscent of the obsidian mirrors used in the Americas before contact. The artist’s window, that I interpret always as a window watching Maine, presents a mythic Maine—not the tourist attraction of blueberries, blue sea, and blue skies, but the tractive and brooding Maine of winter and distance that cannot be owned, only limned by the longing eye. In Rachaelsdaughter’s work, the goal of longing is to watch: her work is very still and does not imply resolution to the visual webs it investigates. Instead, Rachaelsdaughter’s work stays in the realm of the watch- er, the gaze does not claim or take over what it sees but allows the act of seeing to be- come an invitation to the material world, beckoning the material world—birds, trees, the human face—to become manifest at the hinge of vision. Her invocation of religious symbols—the cross in “Tree Sacrifice” and the ankh in textile works—invites the viewer to contemplate the force and history of religion, making of given religious forms fresh, mysterious, and compelling myths. The work is not anti-religious nor conventionally religious but instead gets its charge from the feeling of being outside and look- ing in on something powerful and unknown.

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Indeed, one of my favorite of Joan’s new images is a deceptively simple photograph of the view from her window. Tracing its lineage back to the beginnings of photography—Niepce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” and Talbot’s “Oriel Window”—Rachaelsdaughter’s window view gazes toward a distinctly Maine skyline of evergreen trees, pointed firs, looming from a curved hill. This hill in the mystical darkness at the fold of her photograph looks as if it were part water part earth part sky, a dark fold matched by the edge of the image which is strongly framed by the presence of the wall/window frame, a dark line that is both grounding—it is from here that we gaze—and disturbing, the forceful absoluteness of the window frame’s heft contrasts with the dendritic fine hairs of the winter-stripped deciduous tree at the image’s edge. In the lower third of the image the glass of the window and ice and frost combine to give the impression that the whole scene is fragile, balanced on the vitreous breakable stuff of vision. And yet Rachaelsdaughter’s vision holds fast, through these decades of remarkable works, leading her audience through astonishing and subtle encounters with the self, the other, and the forms of the animal, plant, mystical worlds. The encounter is always with the visible, but the hither side of the visible. This retrospective at University of Maine Farmington is long overdue.

Sugimoto’s Patience

The Patience of Seeing: Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Oceans and Movie Theaters

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Keeping his camera’s lens open for the duration of movies, or setting his camera on long exposures before various seas and oceans, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto created two series of images that empty and fill the visual field with uncanny quietness. The stillness of the images hold a volatile core of motion, as if the images were created to give form to Roland Barthes’ description of a photograph finding in the viewer a still, calm, erotic and lacerating place. I saw two images from the movie theater series this June in Washington DC (The Memory of Time) during the calm of summer, and returned to the images not in a museum but in my classroom this winter, the last class day of the worst semester I’ve ever experienced. The images opened for me very differently before and after this semester. The uncanny hollow light in Sugimoto’s movie theater photographs this summer bothered me. I did not like to look at this commentary on what we see when we watch a movie—light, darkness, light, a blur that manifests ultimately as seeing nothing at all—the visual commentary of the movie theater series seemed almost too sharp, too close to saying that not only as we watch movies but also as we live there is this hollow core of motion that manifests as nothing, or nothing but a gaping shudder of light.

And yet this winter when I returned to the movie theater and ocean series of photographs they transfixed me. Here is the stillness of the ocean that is made of incessant movement; here is the stillness of moving picture films, built of incessant, meaningless movement. It put me in mind of the stillness in my grandparents’ small town in winter in Georgia, the cheap restaurant where they would take us out to eat for a treat after the disappointments of Christmas, seemingly always in a cold occlusive rain, the movement of rain making everything still and pale, my grandfather’s hands still shaking years after he saw battle. The stillness in the center of what you do not want to avow but what creates you. This trauma of movement, the unending movement of time, Sugimoto fixes in the ocean and movie theater photograph series that for me form one coherent series, a darkly patient meditation on time.

The images for which I lacked the patience in summer’s long days and transpicuous light, in winter’s bitterness were the very images that saved my sense of what patience is: waiting and suffering, taking the time to see the nothingness in the center of all images, the brilliant hollow horizon set against all the details of theaters and shores, life details in crisp outline, that are in the end only the image’s edge. Having the patience to hold still at an ocean’s graphite horizon, so still you see the detail of corrugated water, the fold of horizon, or no detail, only the vista of your own watching, itself the first and last detail. That is surely what Sugimoto means when he says that these images “explode behind his eyes,” he means that they open the interior presence of what is seen, its duration. The images of theaters and oceans are one series, for me, because they turn on the same premise of constant movement that is revealed to be stillness: over time, so many repeated movements add up to stillness. In the summer that idea did not charm me, but in winter I see the truth of it.

December 31, 2015

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Killing Mad Men’s Betty Draper

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There is an immense and impenetrable friendliness to certain kinds of capitalist exchange. The love of family, lifelong friends, none of these comes close to the frictionless glissade of buying face-to-face that which could be gotten elsewhere cheaper, or that which could well have been done without. In no other human interaction is one so blithely adored as in the sphere of non-necessary capitalism. I am not wealthy and do not have these purchase interactions often, but I remember their giddiness, like that of eating MSG, before the headache sets in.

Betty Draper Francis, the blonde from Mad Men, is the headache. Her death from lung cancer at age 38(ish) is somehow the payment that Mad Men—which offered a giddy sleekness not at all unlike that of the shiny exchange explained in my first paragraph—has been willing to make so that viewers will know the beauty of capitalism kills, or rather kills in some cases. But the sacrifice is at once so small, since Betty was effectively written into a characterological corner after the first season, and so gendered, the payment is scarcely fair. And yet it gave me a headache to see Betty’s punishment.

Ten years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation (published as my first book, The Posthumous Voice in Women’s Writing on the deep cultural allure of the dead woman. In my book, I traced how various women writers responded to this cultural position of being ‘dead’ by writing from the perspective of the dead, ie, using the posthumous voice, a form of rhetoric. The book focused on 19th century writers, Shelley, Bronte, Dickinson, Rossetti, with a closing chapter on Sylvia Plath. Concluding the book, I made the case that the need for women writers to use this ploy, of writing as if they were dead, was over in the 21st century since now women were no longer placed in the cultural position of the dead.

And then came Betty Draper Francis, whose sacrificial body, whose death, posed at the closing of Mad Men, gave me a headache. Do we still need the dead body of a woman to draw off the poisonous residue of every one else’s power? Of course other characters have died during the series, many of them women, dying of cancer before they reached age 40. But Betty stands alone as a major character whose life ends unequivocally badly. She is the sacrifice. Betty’s husband sold the cigarettes, the smoking of which ostensibly gave Betty her very youthful lung cancer, and he is positioned by Mad Men as a troubled hero, while Betty is simply nullified, erased, evacuated. The gray dress in which she smokes in her obfusc kitchen as the show ends is the same dress in which she smoked during the first-season’s psychoanalysis that gave her the diagnosis of being infantile, childlike.

I am not defending the character of Betty, concerning which I cannot say I much care, but instead I am fascinated to see that the trope of using the dead woman, the beautiful dead woman, did not die out in the 19th or even the 20th century but is victorious in the 21st century. Betty’s death allows every one else in Mad Men to succeed; Betty alone suffers an unbearable fate. Her ultra femininity, displayed throughout the show by signs of blood, fertility, infantilism, excessive delicate beauty, and, above all else, residence outside New York City, caused her death. Her excessive feminine uselessness makes her the “mark” the one who can go down so that others carry on; this violent sacrifice is deeply entwined with capitalism.

While the Sopranos made some effort to goad viewers into thinking about the violence of America even as we embraced the violent Tony Soprano, Mad Men never really sank a comparable punch regarding capitalism. That is, the show should have been about capitalism in the way that the Sopranos was about violence. But instead, Mad Men stayed just at the edge of the glossy giddy capitalist exchange, never quite showing that pain that bends beneath that exchange—that is why Mad Men could not ever really deal with race—and so Betty’s death becomes a capitalist death, a woman killed by merchandise. The sacrificial aspect of her death is strong and yet not strong enough to disavow Mad Men’s contrapuntally brilliant superficiality. The mask of the dead woman shows—not is—the false front of capitalism. Don Draper’s vicious childhood the show submerges as if no one, after Don, might ever encounter such suffering, as if, with Don, all Americans had moved past poverty. Beauty reigns.

As Mad Men shows Betty’s daughter reading aloud her mother’s dying wish, the viewer is encouraged to fantasize very specifically about the beauty of Betty’s dead body. Sally reads Betty’s instructions, and views the accompanying photograph, so that we, the viewers, can imagine the beauty of dead Betty. The cultural allure of the dead woman, an allure that in the 20th century becomes deeply intertwined with capitalism’s facility, makes it into the 21st century not because Mad Men is faithful to 1960s verite, but because the beauty of the dead woman, she who dies for the beauty of the merchandise, apparently is still a compelling trope now, in 2015. Or not now, but two months back, in May of 2015, an age ago, in rapid 21st century time.

 

 

Francesca Woodman’s Fashion

Francesca Woodman: Melancholy Fashion

In February, I visited Francesca Woodman’s show I’m Trying My Hand at Fashion (Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 W 57th, NYC), and have some thoughts, analytical and personal, on the show. Many of the photographs at Marian Goodman for this exhibit are shown for the first time, most were made in the late 70s, and in 1980, many in New York City, a few in Providence, RI, and one in Italy. So, trying her hand at fashion was something Woodman tried several times, and not in one discrete moment, though it seems that after graduation, in New York City, she apparently hoped that she could become a successful fashion photographer, at a time when that seemed a more realistic route than becoming a fine arts photographer. One must recall that for this idea—of using fashion photography to support one’s fine art’s work—Woodman saw successful precedents, Deborah Turbeville of course, but also Diane Arbus cut her teeth as a fashion photographer, and as Christopher Anderson’s dual (or triple) career shows, fashion photography remains a viable way of earning a living while also creating powerful fine arts photographic work.

There are 29 images in this exhibit, I’m Trying my Hand at Fashion, 22 of which were taken in New York City in 1979 and 1980, one of which was taken in Rome, and the remaining six in Providence, RI when Woodman was still as student at RISD. The title is taken from a caption of a photograph; it is not a title that Francesca Woodman applied to this group of photographs. Indeed, given the scattered times and places where fashion photographs were taken, Woodman apparently tried her hand at fashion here and there several times, with increasing interest and intensity in New York City in the year and a half before her death. How can we connect these tiny and in many cases brilliant fashion images with Woodman’s experiements with diazotype, in approximately the same era?

An ontological instability is presented in the images, walls flaking paint, detritus on the floors, and the photographs seem to move into another almost but never quite seen domain, where something very real is grounded, but always withheld; there is something powerful happening in the ‘blind field’ of the photographs, as if someone were moving away from the image, drawing you to look and follow them. The images draw desire in this way, the pale pink and green of the late 1970s room pictured in a small group of images is incredibly nostalgic for me, and also haunting because it’s so cheerful but the women are always displaced, pushed to the edge of the frame, climbing on walls. The whole fragility of the body and its turn in time and space is always eloquent in Woodman’s photographs, articulated by the body parlayed to shadow and corner. Francesca Woodman is very good at finding corners, sharp corners that seem to retreat more quickly from the viewer than ordinary corners– also, sharp chairs, old chairs, fragile chairs that indicate unreliable domicile, and unstable harbor for the body.

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An image where Francesca poses herself inside two squares of light uses its peculiarly pointed chair (that looks impossible to sit in, and also shows up in the widely circulated image of Francesca and her father George) to make the viewer aware of the frail and steep construct of rooms and light. Here, the look on her face is so poignant; it’s not at all fashionable, it’s too emotive, but that’s what makes the photograph compelling, as if an accident were caught on its hinge. Woodman’s images do not plan our response to them; with a kind of pure talent, Woodman controls the image but never the audience.

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The idea of trying her hand at fashion is transparent: Woodman is sincerely approaching the trope of the fashion photographs. And yet Francesca Woodman’s fashion photographs, some of them captioned with comments that reveal a deep ambivalence about the project (captions such as “this one is more fashion than the other”), are too immersed in querying the terms of the visual to be fashionable; and despite gestures toward Turbeville-like insouciance and visual non-sequitur, Woodman’s images never attain the flat sleek vacuity of fashion. Instead, the images are marked by a sense of texture and gesture that make them move toward the viewer in a disturbing way that is at odds with fashion images’ glissade.

One has to grapple with Woodman’s images in a way that fashion photographs do not usually demand grappling. There is a grist, a traction to her work, textured, visceral, a pull geometric, chiaroscuric, emotive. Woodman’s fashion photographs so often find their way into corners, that a force of the photographs is this sense that one is being pulled into spaces where vertigo reigns. In her photographs, there is an unsettling power that resists the shiny capitalist world of fashion; the images are often startling, sometimes gorgeous, but not sexy in a marketable way. I can see why she did not become a successful fashion photographer; still she improved her art by practicing taking fashion photographs, and some of the fashion photographs stand as works of fine art, now. Trying her hand is the apposite term of the phrase, trying her hand, for Woodman’s work is very much of the juncture between hand and eye, between sight and essay, between possibility and remembrance. She tries her hand, deftly, dexterously,

Woodman, in her fashion photographs, does not dispense with the ruined interiors that she uses in her fine arts photographs and so the echo and texture of ruin haunts the emblems of fashion she puts forward—the broken dilapidated interiors and hyper-maquillaged women— in a way that ravels fashion’s premise of surface without depth. Woodman’s photographs, instead, irresistibly suggest depth—something moves beneath these tiny photographic spaces (I say tiny because on the wall the images are shockingly small); the images often carry a mystical distance, pulling us toward them as if seeking an answer to an ambiguously formulated question. And this pull is not the norm for fashion photographs that instead need to both goad and assuage a viewer. Woodman’s images neither goad us nor assuage.

In a group of nineteen-seventies inflected color images, the pale green and pink suggest femininity, against which backdrop Woodman, in a skirt to match the walls, looks curvy and ultra-femme in high heels. She catches herself taking the photograph in a large mirror, setting off a cascade of framing effects that cause the audience to think of anything but fashion—instead, we see frames, door frame, mirror frame, articulated moulding, and of course the camera itself is articulated in this image, held in the upper center of the frame. The obsequiousness of fashion just isn’t here. Through her multiply echoing camera, Woodman commands space in this image, commands refracted space through mirror, through multiple frames, with the camera at the helm. And so a mis en abyme of watching is established that jars the viewer rather than soothes, as would be fashion’s wont. Looking at this image we are arrested. The image ruptures the illusion of the photograph, what Barthes calls its “invisibility,” and yet the photograph also pulls into it. Looking at this image, we are looking in the mirror and looking into the room and also cast back by the mirror, pushed out of the room by this doppelganger for photography, the mirror. The fashion garment is rendered by analogy as a subjective turn of loss; for its color is almost that of the walls, and the walls caught in the echo of the mirror and camera, camera and mirror, shape frames that cast up the uncanniness of the architectonic, bending attention away from the consumable object pictured, the lovely dress.

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This image structures a regression of space, through the mirror and the frames of the doors and window, and also a shifting or displaced chain of signifiers in that the photographer’s face is replaced by her camera. Instead of seeing Woodman’s face, where we would see a face, we see a camera. Her gaze has become the photographic absolute. We cannot see her because she is ceding herself to the photographic absolute, that does not take away her gaze but extends it. The camera extends her gaze in time—the image, in its exponential replication of seen space, is continued into time indefinitely. Whomever looks at the photograph, or at the photograph’s copy, participates in this extension of Woodman’s gaze, the trope of the mirror extended. So also, the photographer’s gaze is extended in time by the trope of the camera replacing the photographer’s face, its lens her eyes. The gaze is extended in space in that the mirror both deflects and multiplies the gaze of the camera, doubling and shifting the gaze of the observer who is at once melded with Woodman and her camera, and pushed to the other side of the looking glass from Woodman and her camera. As Winnicott wrote, an artist is someone who both longs to hide and to be understood. In the above image, Woodman obscures herself (which is not the same as erasing herself) so that the queer geometric and time/space coordinates of her image are revealed. And all in the haunting melancholic pale swimming pool green and baby doll pink of the late 1970s, the last era of lead paint in America.

In pointing out ways that Woodman’s handmade fashion images differ from the typical Vogue shot, I certainly don’t mean that fashion cannot do some edgy turns. But the goal for fashion photography is to suggest just enough mystery to make the audience want to be the model, or buy what she wears. Woodman’s fashion photographs instead make us uncomfortable in our skin, aware of the fragile and all-encompassing terms of space/time, and embodied gazing. Her photographs make us think — about images, replication of forms, about geometry, space, light, about mortal time and dereliction, and about cameras as “clocks for seeing.”

I mentioned that the exhibit at Marian Goodman calls up nostalgia, and I say this because these fashion images, more so than Woodman’s fine arts images, do evoke a specific time, late 70s, 1980, and perhaps do bespeak a panic that is absent in much else of her work; one feels, here, that she made these photographs seeking something and that she didn’t get it—didn’t get a job as a fashion photographer—and one cannot help feeling the pain of that. The photograph showing Woodman’s face surrounded by fur on fur on fur may be an allusion to Surrealism, but above all else it is a description of poignancy, a severing of the terms of embodiment, a punctum of panic. By contrast, photographs from RISD and Rome bespeak deep pleasure and a profound sense of personal and aesthetic power, a young woman in the ecstasy of her art. But the melancholy of these fashion images also for me derives from my own history, in that on seeing the exhibit at Marian Goodman I remember the Woodman’s exhibit at Marian Goodman, in 2004, Woodman’s first exhibit at that gallery. I brought my toddler with me, carrying him while he slept and I looked at the images. That child has now begun Middle School. And, as well, having earlier published one book on Francesca Woodman, Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime (Ashgate 2010), I have now completed a second book on Woodman, called Francesca Woodman’s Dark Gaze, which will be published later in this year of 2015. So, I feel I  might be closing this decade of intense focus on her, and that is melancholy for me. Especially I note that my interest has been fueled by the almost constant revelation of new images in the past decade. And I wonder (worry?) that these fashion photographs may represent the last batch of new images. But I do not know. Maybe there are more waiting. One hopes so.

So my February visit to the gallery is attended by this triple sense of personal melancholy —Woodman’s fashion images that more clearly than her other works have a look of being very much made at the end of the 70s, the decade of my infancy, combined with my sense that this may be the end of the stretch of time in which I immerse myself in this work of Francesca Woodman, that has been so powerful for my life, and also a fear that possibly—though I do not know—these fashion images represent the beginning of the end of new Woodman images coming to light. And with that fear of reaching the end of her oeuvre one is reminded what a shame it is that she is not still around to create new work; she would still be in her fifties, now, had she survived. The gallery lay out of the images is clear, crisp, and it does not get in the way of the photographs, all vintage silver prints. The overall sense of weird power, evocation, of the images calling to audience is strong, even despite the melancholy of some images.

An image that seems relatively far removed from fashion, though it does feature a gorgeous velvety dress, was possibly the most powerful of the show. I will close with a discussion of this image. A sense of homelessness pervades all of Woodman’s photography, that is, a feeling of vertigo in built space, a sense of occupying built space transiently, and at some risk. But this photograph, shown below, in particular conveys a sense of unsteadiness because the walls look like they are on fire and the model kneels toward a wall that, by inference, one might assume is also on fire. Due to the low ‘ceiling’ of the photograph it is as if the model kneels in a box where the walls are on fire and yet she stays calm and just reaches to touch the wall. A materiality of instability is figured in this image, even as it is impossible to decipher if candles were used to produce the effect of fire, or, if a pattern of paint produced the look of flames. Regardless, in the frame of the photograph the image is of a wall on fire, and a woman whose face cannot be seen in the frame is kneeling at the edge of this fire. The blind field of the image is spectacular: we are drawn toward the place where the woman is looking because we cannot see her face but only that she is kneeling and there is a wall on fire beside her. The ontological instability is framed as fire and in this photograph the space beyond the frame evokes extreme vertigo—is the space beyond the frame stable, or is it already ashes? The woman kneeling, whose face we cannot see, marks the boundary, she handles the boundary for us, as our proxy in this liminal zone of fire, she is our fire-wall, and so the sacrificial figure veers from fashion which poses but does not go through with sacrifice. By contrast, Woodman’s image visually goes all the way through—here the wall is burning and the woman is kneeling in the one still dark place that the fire permits. It is this magnetic finding of corners in desperate places that marks Woodman’s work apart from the generic trappings by which it could be read.

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The photograph appears uncannily to be on fire. The woman is touching the wall, gently, delicately as if seeking possibly a way out from the box of walls on fire or also perhaps as if just to know better the strange substance of the wall, its immaterial fire. The photograph does not so much display the beautiful dress as make us question how the velvet cloth is like fire, and how clothes are like fire, an unsettling comparison to be sure. This image where it looks like the wall is on fire, and a woman who seems almost to be praying kneels, stops short of over-determination: we see the wall is fragile, the body knelt, the low-sky frame of the image oneiric. Here, as in most of the interior photographs, Woodman’s skill with corners is powerful; she makes the corners look sharper and slightly skewed, angling the shot closer to the wall than one would usually stand. That Woodman experimented with placement of her camera is clear from the images; also her father, George Woodman, recalls that, in such experimentality, Francesca once positioned her camera through a hole in the ceiling, in order to get an extraordinary and uncanny angle for her shots. Uncanny that even as Woodman failed at professional fashion she succeeded in creating images, however rough in places, that open themselves in the field of thought, as if through an unseen hole in the image. Woodman’s fashion photographs are often formally masterful and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, theory-producing images. The melancholic turn of these images, though, is surely also secured by what one knows of her fate: that her hope of making a success in fashion didn’t pan out. And so this sense of thwarted desire haunts the images. She wanted to make the things of this world work, wanted success and maybe even the ease success brings; early death was never her desired telos but that which happened to catch her.

 

 

Modernity and James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey’s Photographs and the problem of the Modern

James Nachtwey’s photographs raise the question of who is responsible for holding trauma, and what is the place of the traumatized in culture? Another way to frame this question is to ask who is responsible for holding in place modernity?

Because the notion of trauma as regressive, a nil-sum, pain without traction, is a benchmark of modernity. In capitalism, we do not learn from suffering; suffering is a sinkhole, a thing to be disavowed, and above all suffering is represented –given film as well as cultural imaginary representation—as the dispossessed ethnic other. The fount of modernity, then, is this division of life from suffering based on the premise that suffering is without benefit—suffering will not bring one closer to the divinity, it will not make one strong, it will not prove one’s worth before the deities, it will not show one the truth of the fleeting world. No, in capitalist discourse suffering is simply what one must disavow and avoid. And so the fountain of the modern is the twin spring of colonialism and capitalism, regimes of disavowal and separation from suffering.

In the not widely viewed film “Silent Tongue” a white, European settler says of Native Americans “They were made for suffering,” thus putting succinctly the economy of the modern: that the one who suffers is to be disavowed and if oneself is suffering, then this pain must be displaced, figuratively, onto the body of the dispossessed colonized subject, whether that colonization be internal or external it is the same psychic paradigm. James Nachtwey’s glossy, beautiful and always elegiac photographs track this disavowed subject of suffering. The question that haunts Nachtwey’s work, as Susie Linfield, writing in The Cruel Radiance, summarizes it, is whether he aestheticizes the suffering of the other. Nachtwey is accused, that is, of making beautiful the other’s suffering. I disagree with this critique, and here’s why:

This question of aestheticization is really beside the point, and misses the point, of Nachtwey’s work. If one approaches Nachtwey’s career from a Foucauldian viewpoint, one would say that we have Nachtwey because he is the expression of our culture. Linfield admits as much when she writes that Nachtwey isn’t the photographer that “we” want but the one we need. But it’s precisely in this coining of a “we” that Linfield gives away the game, indicating that what is really at stake is the creation of a “we” that can, free of harm or danger, watch the other suffer. Nachtwey’s photographs emerge from this crisis but far from reveling in it, his images of severe beauty work as a critique. And also raise the very disturbing possibility that no critique of the modern is ever enough to overturn its press to disavow suffering, that no image will be able to undo the force with which modernity makes of the dispossessed other the place of suffering.

The photograph is of course of the lineage of the modern. And the question of whether and, if whether, how the camera might disrupt the script of the modern is condensed, I think, in the conundrum of Nachtwey’s body of work. That is, he takes the quintessential tool of modernity—the camera that creates instant disembodiment—and uses the camera to critique the way that modernity seeks to separate the subject from the body of pain. In his photographic oeuvre, then, is a compression of the problem of the modern, and a strong argument that, as Bruno Latour argues, we are not post-modern, no, we are only ever deeper into the modern.

To say that Nachtwey performs the crisis of the modern is to see his work as expiative, and indeed his career has all the trappings of secular sainthood, a legitimate sacrifice of self that should be sounded out in any interpretation of the photographs he produces. The image shown here is from the Congo, and for Nachtwey is a gentle enough image, no overt physical horror on display. And yet this photograph represents the way that he enters the modern and attempts to ravel it—the little girl whose eyes are on level with the photographer’s is creeping against a wall avoiding danger and of course she represents innocence, par excellence, but she also represents the eye versus the gun. That is, her large bright eyes contrast with the soldier’s gun.

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The girl’s eyes and the soldier’s gun are the twin foci of the photograph. Her eyes also represent the photographer’s gaze, the delicate gesture of watching, watching carefully, while flattening one’s small body against the wall of the modern, placing oneself at risk to see the corner, is the impetus of Nachtwey’s work. The corner is the limit, just as Kant envisions the sublime, a place where the power of the imagination is forced to enter into the patterns of reason and through that violence revelation occurs: a place of the edge. That is not at all to say that violence itself is a force of revelation, no matter what Walter Benjamin may have claimed for divine violence. Instead, I mean that Nachtwey’s photographs attempt, and sometimes, many times, succeed, in forcing a revelation through the pain of keeping one’s eyes open. Keeping one’s eyes open is the gesture against modernism, for it is the character of the modern to look away. Nachtwey’s photographs, though, insistently stage the gesture of not looking away and, as such, protest the modern condition.

At the corner of modernity, aesthetics is placed. And Nachtwey’s images contend with the crisis of the modern by this crux. The Kantian sublime is only elliptically connected to Edmund Burke’s sublime, connected of course in part by contemporaneity, but also connected by the association of fearsomeness and pleasure. And yet Kant’s sublime is the pleasure of seeing the edges of one’s mind, of retaining, in the place of reason, the dissolutive pleasure of an embodied aesthetic, while Burke’s sublime is the pleasure of seeing danger and harm to others when one knows that oneself is safe. Where are the beautiful and painful photographs of James Nachtwey positioned in terms of these contrary subliminities? Are his war and famine images carriers of the pleasure of Edmund Burke’s sublime, that is, the pleasure of watching the other suffer while knowing that oneself is safe, a pleasure that is not so ethical. Or, on the contrary, are many of Nachtwey’s images exemplary of the pleasure of confronting—of literally approaching— boundaries of knowledge, that is knowing the limits of the possibility of knowing the world, a pleasure like that of Kant’s sublime? That is, do Nachtwey’s violent images of violence bring us to a place of sublime gazing, a limit of seeing such that we step from our harness of easy belief into the dissolution of unknowing that—for Kant—resolves through the strongest aesthetic experience there is—the sublime, the moment of seeing when the cognitive faculties are compelled to physically see, a violent torque that shows us the limits of seeing, and the limits of those categories we establish to comfort ourselves—the truest form of seeing is to be aware that one has not seen, not comprehended. The title of Nachtwey’s dark fin de siècle work, Inferno, indicates a Christian frame, in its invocation of Dante’s Inferno. And yet one can dispose of this Christian frame and still contend with the problem of boundaries in Nachtwey’s work, the problem of the boundaries of wealth, privilege, violence, and poverty in advanced capitalism which is compressed, in many of his photographs, into the metaphor of the pain of seeing, of stretching oneself to see with pain, to “think with pain” visually.

Charlottesville, Virginia

December 2014

 

Rebecca Belmore: the Photograph’s Wound

Rebecca Belmore and the Photograph of the Wound

Barthes argues that the photograph, if it has power, wounds us, shooting a puncturing arrow into our psyches—very much like Cupid, only this Cupid is one of memory and mourning rather than desire. And yet memory, mourning, and desire are never so far apart, as Barthes’s lover’s discourse on photography, Camera Lucida, demonstrates. For Barthes, a photograph’s ‘punctum’ is the force that wounds the viewer, and can never be planned or planted by the photographer. And yet Barthes, in Camera Lucida, claims as the ultimately wounding image a snapshot, of his mother as a child, made by a peripatetic journeyman photographer, an image that Barthes understands would lack power if seen by most of his readers but has great power to him, because it shows him his mother as she truly was, or so he argues. Thus, the idea that inheritance, family stock, and wounding reach a high water mark in photography can be claimed as the central thesis of Camera Lucida. What if one’s inheritance, one’s stake in the family stock, is itself a site of cultural wounding? What if one is part of a group of people, the Indigenous people of North America, who have survived near genocide? What photograph, in that case, could capture the truth of one’s stock, the wound of one’s wound? Not, surely, the unjust images of Native Americans captured for purposes of study and preserved in Natural History collections of museums.

Instead, the work of First Nation artist Rebecca Belmore shows the wound as the place for the photograph and the photograph the place for the wound by staging, in painfully careful tableaux, the mother as wound, the female body as that which bears some scar that the photograph both seals and reveals. Looking at Belmore’s “Fringe” and “State of Grace” I want to talk a little more about how the photograph and the wound—and the capacity to wound as it relates to the pain of seeing – are connected. Belmore’s photographs “Fringe” and “State of Grace” are the opposite of casual snap shot images. They are legible as highly staged images, the scenes surrounding the photographed women stripped back so that nothing is visible except the proscenium effect of the lighting. No possible ‘accidental’ trace, these images purposely take on the camera’s commemorative arc.

rebecca_belmore1_fringe

Belmore created the photograph “Fringe” for a billboard in Quebec—the enormous image of the woman’s harmed and mended body set into the skyline. This use of the photograph can fruitfully be compared to Felix Gonzalez Torres’s photograph of an empty bed, ‘Untitled,’ signifying his mourning for his lover and, also, signifying the AIDS deaths of his generation, of which his lover was one and he destined to become another. The billboard showing sleep—as Belmore’s image ‘State of Grace’ shows sleep—reverses public/private discourse in a way that wounds. Suddenly, we are brought into the most private place that holds the body of the wounded. ‘Fringe’ shows the wound as a staged and enormous scar across the back of the recumbent model. The wound comments on clichéd figures of racism—merging Native identity with beadwork and ‘fringe— while also demonstrating the wounds caused by clichés. And yet the sleeping woman, the clean sheets surrounding the bright red wound draw us into a place deeper than social commentary. As with Gonzales Torres’s ‘Untitled’ photograph of an empty bed, in ‘Fringe,’ and ‘State of Grace,’ Belmore draws us into the place of the bed, the recumbent and private space, where she also stages—and the term stages is central to her work—the wounded body signified by highly aesetheticized wounds. ‘Fringe’ features an enormous slashing cut across the back of the model, stitched shut by blood red beads. The stillness and cleanliness of the photograph echoes poignantly the pain the wound causes. Likewise, ‘State of Grace’ is slashed through multiple lines –Belmore has literally cut the image several times—a careful series of slashes that burn through the calm and sanctified image.

belmore_state_of_grace_

The photograph should wound us, if it is powerful, argues Barthes. But Belmore stages the photograph that presents, that stages, deep wounds of historical trauma: the near genocide of Native Americans, and the particular trend of violence against Native women, violence committed largely by men who are not Native. Why does Belmore choose the photograph, as opposed to other media, to stage the wound? Rebecca Belmore is a multi-media artist. The photograph is the proper domain of the aesthetic wound—it marks time, it marks mortal time, it mirrors the mortal body. Belmore’s elegiac images of Native women whom racism has eviscerated, turned into ghosts, fuses the wound with the act of seeing, fuses a kind of visionary truth of history with the aesthetic turn, by taking to the limit the photograph’s connection with the wound, of time, of fate, of the body. These images “Fringe” and “State of Grace” brilliantly call upon the photograph to act as scar, sealing and revealing, in compact visual phrase, a cultural history of violence enacted against the bodies of Native American women.

 

Francesca Woodman’s Zen

Francesca Woodman’s Zen

 

In Photography Degree Zero, Jay Prosser writes, with clarity and very persuasively, about the Buddhist strand in Barthes’ Camera Lucida, arguing that here, in his last book, Barthes the semiotician confronts or is forced to come up against the limits of words. In particular Prosser emphasizes what he sees as the photograph’s connection to trauma, a connection that Prosser argues is inherent to Barthes’ theory of the photograph as memento mori. This trauma Prosser does not interpret along the lines of contemporary Western trauma theory but instead along the lines of Buddhist notions of the fleeting emptiness of the physical world, the illusion of stability that surrounds those things that occupy time/space.

house3

 

Francesca Woodman’s House and Angel series of images occupy time/space with a visceral code of trauma. Woodman has been interpreted as putting into photographic images her own trauma. And yet, notably, no one seems to say quite what Woodman’s particular personal trauma might be, other than the eventuation of her act of committing suicide, which needless to say was not an act she had yet completed at the time of making her photographs: it was not a foregone conclusion to the images. My suggestion is that to read Woodman’s images as secret messages of a personal history of trauma is to entirely miss what photography can do. It is not that I don’t think Woodman might have had a personally traumatic history; it is certainly possible that she had a personally traumatic history. And yet that doesn’t matter to her photographs, doesn’t matter when we look at her photographs. Instead, their quality of “thus-goneness” carries the ontological curve of the hollowing spatial real.

 

Hollowness and lightness are the codes by which one might read the image above from Woodman’s House series, and this image below from her Angel series.

Untitled_From-Angels-Series

In both pictures the body of the girl, Woodman, depicts a quality of near disembodiment, with the flourish at the edges of the body as detritus. If Prosser posits the unbearable loss of Barthes’ mother as the engine of Barthes’ need for photography to provide the path of death that words cannot provide, Woodman creates images that provide the path of nullity for reasons that remain powerfully latent in the images. Instead of offering personal confession, the images are deeply informed by the privative code of the photographic as such. As Sloan Rankin has made clear in different commentaries on Woodman’s history: when Woodman was making the photographs on which her reputation now rests she was not depressed but in fact healthy and even joyous. The slant and precarious beauty of the images expresses this delicate space of joy, of the recognition of the emptiness of the physical/temporal world not as a pathological state but as enlightenment. It is not that Woodman was a student of Zen in the sense of studying much less ascribing to Buddhism, but rather that her work exemplifies a careful and serious encounter with the ephemeral contours of embodiment, an encounter that Woodman repeatedly stages in photographs that repeat and exhaust embodiment.

 

I am fascinated by the gendered aspects of Woodman’s reception history, by the way that meditative intellectual energy is elided as a possible source of her imagery and instead it is supposed that some sort of feminine pathology or the nightmare of the feminine rules her images. Not the nightmare of the feminine but the illusion of objects in time/space is exposed in the delicate and frightening imagery of Woodman’s abandoned House and Angel series. Importantly, photographs taken contemporaneously with these images Woodman organized by titling them Space squared, indicating that the images’ first and second interactions are with space itself, with rendering space in the flat plane of the photograph.

 

In the House image, shown above, Woodman looks as if she had just crashed through the window, the fractured lines of light seem to emanate from the shoulders of the figure of the girl crouched beneath the windowsill. The blurred figure suggests not only a ghostly figure but more directly a figure without weight, or whose weight is of a different quality and force than we usually interpret as according with the human body. The room seems to sway with a kind of wind, as if the figure of the girl, falling in, shaped the room into a hollow. Each echo of this hollow is articulated and embellished by the photograph’s implicit gestures of counter-comparison: the damaged wall, the fracture line of the wall, the overly bright light (overexposed) light of the trees, the trees as fracture lines, the girl both overexposed and blurred (long exposure time during which Woodman moved), the floor covered with detritus as if the building were emptying itself. This ascesis is Woodman’s enlightenment, her coming to terms with the illusory nature of the physical world by photographing its limits, photographing the places where home is not, in fact, home and cannot protect or sustain us.

 

Similarly Woodman’s Angel series questions the boundary of flesh and illusion, the unseen seen. In the Angel image from an abandoned factory in Rome, Woodman seems to be trying to levitate, but of course the fey joke of the image is the impossibility of flight for the body in gravity. And yet this picture also abounds with the pun of the illusion of materiality. The present absence of the body as it attempts, comically, to transcend gravity to gain control of its own illusory field. The place where it happens is marked by the photograph as a kind of wound of time, the nubile body half stripped trying to jump out of its skin, or out of its social position or, more straightforwardly, out of its materiality, its illusory secured place in space/time.

 

The photograph as illusion that leads to truth, what Prosser calls the way of the dead, is particularly relevant to Woodman’s Angel series of images. She creates the most obvious and banal illusion: the image of the angel in a post-lapsarian space, and infuses it with awareness of its falsity that becomes exemplification of its truth. The path of the dead the camera opens through its proscenium function, its function of creating a stage, in Woodman’s Angel photographs. The stage she uses is carefully set and also vacuous, inhabited by a problematic shift of gravity, as the angelic body that tries to lift itself above earth, in the context of an abandoned factory, is marked by the gravity of partial nudity, a partial escape that is echoed by the clumsy wing-like sheets draped above the jumping figure, toward which the figure gestures. The young girl’s partial nudity, her thin arms and long hair, trying to reach the sky signifies in graphic detail the impossibility of flight.  But the photograph as the path of the dead signifies its own domain, here, as Woodman stages the facing of the immaterial through the material, stages the invisible through the visible. The angle of the shot forces us to look up through the impossibility of her path, through the narrow gauge of light that is the impossible domain of her trajectory. The photograph becomes the way of the dead not because Woodman has a death wish but because she is true to the medium of photography, to its capacity not to stop time but to show the fractionary gait of time, the mortal divisions of depth that imbricate the body in time that is almost light.

Francesca Woodman’s Polka Dots

Francesca Woodman and the Polka Dot Oneiric

 

The camera-produced image, the photograph, does not invite or permit the viewer’s act of imagination, argues Baudrillard: the hyperreal instead stays above the mortal and dreaming world, a kind of final, fatal Platonic form. Here Baudrillard extends, perhaps, Adorno’s thesis that diabolical popular culture actively deprives the proletariat of the space of dreams, imagination, aesthetic force. Francesca Woodman’s series of almost self-portrait photographs oscillate between popular culture—of a cultic, teen-age girl obsession sort—and fine art—displayed at the Tate, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most attempts to explain the power of her images come up short—either we, who like her work, venerate the cult of the dead girl, deluded in our fondness, or we see her real talent and her links to Surrealism, and maybe her purposive feminism but cannot explain why any of that matters. And yet, I think another way to read Francesca Woodman’s photographs’ power, eccentric but not antithetical to my earlier readings of her work as contending with the Kantian sublime, is by tracing the force of the oneiric as it pulses through the images’ striking constellations of the nude female body, damaged architecture, and frames of violence implicit and obscure. The shapes of things as they emerge in understanding rather than in fact form the visual game of some of Woodman’s best known images

 

woodman_francesca_polka dots

Consider for example this image from Polka Dots. It is one of the two images chosen for the poster of the popular culture film, The Woodmans. The image from Polka Dots pulls the eye to multiple fractionary darknesses in the frame: the polka dots, the damaged walls pitted with dark marks and gaps, the girl’s eyes, and most saliently the girl’s body, which is shown as a shadow beneath and within her partly opened dress. The girl, of course, is Woodman herself. As if she were showing a wound, or the way the body is a site of wounding, as if she were her own doubting Thomas, Woodman places—and invites the viewer to place—a hand in the wound of the open dress, the space of darkness manifest not as the female body but rather as the mortal body overwritten by gendered codes of fragility. The girl in the picture, Woodman, looks not only vulnerable but also terrifying, as if crouched to take flight, her crouched form echoing the large black spot on the wall above her, with its wing-like irregularities.

 

The image invites us deeper inward, even as the form—the photograph—is the essence of surface, the definitive superficial. As Baudrillard argues, the photograph’s is a realm without depth, or as Woodman herself put it, the photographic image is flattened to fit paper. This play on the premise of depth in the visual scape of superficiality arrests the image, trapped in its own performance, much as dreams are experienced as a concatenation of images and symbols, so compressed, or pressed together, as to impress us with a sense of the impossibility of their complete resolution into translatable meaning. It is this tractive quality of resisting translation that makes some of Woodman’s photographs almost inexplicably powerful. That is, given her social place and subject matter—a privileged child whose subject matter appears to be meditation on the end or edge of childhood’s privilege—we might not expect the images to carry such heft. But they do carry a disturbing and penetrating force: training a gaze looking always into rooms whose inaccessibility manifests as cognate with the limits of language, Woodman’s photographs force their claim to inhabit and sustain an untranslatable visual realm.

 

But are Woodman’s photographic images evil demons in the Baudrrillardian sense? Maybe or maybe not. Precisely what Woodman’s photographs do not do is negate the imaginary; they propel the imaginary so far forward as to compel our acceptance of the white space around the photograph, that is, compel us to reach and see the end of the photograph. In the same way that Agamben shows that the poem is always about its own ending, so also Woodman’s most accomplished photographs tell us to look away.

 

In the Polka Dots photograph, Woodman’s thumb is in her mouth, partly a play on infantile regression, but also a literal play on words: the thumb suppressing speech forces us to look to the open dress, with its a sword-shall pierce-your-own-side-also turn of flesh. Language moves from words to code, here, from the words the thumb suppresses in the mouth, to the code of geometrically regressive interiority by which the image stakes its claim. Not an interiority that is manifestly sexual but rather ontological, an interiority of the wound of the eye, the wound of the embodied gaze. The palpable metaphor for the eye here is the polka dots themselves.

 

The wound that is the eye, the image tells us, grants and is harmed by the force of sight, the room we cannot choose but to inhabit is the room we see. As in dreams we inhabit not the spaces of the demonic but spaces of force when we look at Woodman’s more successful images. While one could of course interpret this “eye” along Bataille’s sexualized terms, I think the challenge in reading Woodman’s photography is that to see the force of the images is to divest oneself of the pathologizing gaze of looking at Woodman as the troubled teen, a bad girl. It is harder but more tallied to the images to see in Woodman’s best photographs the tension of the forms’ harness not of mortal time but fatal space, the body as space in space, a ceaseless and terrifying emergence.

September 28th, 2013

 

 

Graham MacIndoe’s Missing Persons, and All In

On Graham MacIndoe’s Missing Persons images

 

These photographs test with severity and brilliance Barthes’ dictum that the photograph is the emblem of mortal time. Each image is a photograph of a photograph—showing the faces of missing persons for whom someone made a poster and posted it not on-line but in real space and time, in industrial and urban landscapes. This real space and time aspect of the images, that they show the boundary between life, social death, and real death, connects them thematically to Barthes’ concern with the photographic image as the clock for seeing. The images’ sensitivity to form and metaphor yields photographs that brilliantly bring home to us the vulnerability of the human body displaced on to the vulnerability of the photographic image—the face on a piece of paper, stationed to appear where passersby might remember and seek the real face. The disturbing theme of this series of photographs of missing persons posters is balanced by MacIndoe’s images’ exquisite formal turns.

 

The first image in the series, as displayed on MacIndoe’s website (http://grahammacindoe.com/missing/1/) is structured by parallel lines and symmetry so rigorous as to count as a kind of violence: the lines of the railing on the bridge echo the industrial silos in the background, which are in turn echoed by their own reflection in the still canal water. The pollution and desolateness of the industrial landscape are quietly brought forward by the lack of people in the image. The only human face is that of the missing person. This image of the missing person is dead center in MacIndoe’s photograph and also illegible, only the word MISSING written above the face of the missing man/woman is clear. The paper is torn and the railing dented, framing the image of the missing with damage. Evocatively choosing bridges, cross-walks, places of crossing, to position his photographs of photographs of missing persons, MacIndoe thematizes their between life and death status: the photographs powerfully juxtapose the between life and death status of the living with the between life and death status of the photograph-as-object.

 

An extraordinary quietness attends these images, almost prayerful, as each of MacIndoe’s photographs contains the earlier photograph of the missing person, trace upon trace, the fragility of the human body articulated through images that transparently show the fragility of the photographic image. As the photograph acts as a stop-time, holding on to the lost, MacIndoe’s series delicately but surely explores how the stop-gap of photography also gets lost. There is a mis-en-abyme structure to these images, each fold containing the depth of the negative space in the photograph, that is, the absence of the thing shown, an absence signified by the photograph, but also of course in MacIndoe’s Missing Persons series this absence is doubled, signifying the absence of the missing person. The structural movement of the project places the viewer in a liminal place not only by engaging the disappeared—those who are not known to be either alive or dead—and not only by invoking spaces of liminality—cross-walks, bridges, the unattended corners of cities from which cars and buses drive away, and roads and railroads—but also by placing the viewer towards the vanishing point. The images are structured by the vanishing point and its ever present metaphor of disappearance. For example, an image showing a young girl’s face, and words written below it a mother’s plea for her to come home if she can, is dominated structurally by a narrow road that pulls the viewer past the girl, as indeed life and movement seems to be moving past her face suspended in the moment of the photograph that signifies the “before”, before the disappearance, before the rupture of the bond expressed in the missing persons poster.

 

 

Poignantly, the theme of trash and detritus works through the images, as one face is photographed where it stares out at the viewer from beside a pile of trash, while another face is photographed where it stares out above a trashcan, while the final image of the series shows a missing persons flyer that has fallen onto the ground next to a dilapidated fence. The image of the missing person has literally become detritus. MacIndoe invokes an almost nineteenth century sense of the magic of the photograph, the capacity of the photograph to contain the soul of the subject, forcing an eerie connection between the missing person whose photograph he photographs and the viewer, as if we saw the erosion of the soul of the person, as if we witnessed in his photographs not the moment of a disappearance but the gradual slow erosion of a person, a social death.

 

If Barthes says of the photograph “a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” MacIndoe’s Missing Persons series makes us see the facticity of the photograph, makes us contemplate the strangeness of the object that is the photograph, not just its capacity to haunt us—which is all too clear in the images of missing persons—but rather also its queerness in the world of things, its always liminal status in the world of rooms, bridges, trash, roads, and telephones (to name a few objects in combination with which MacIndoe captures the images of the missing). MacIndoe’s photographs are not staged. They are honest discoveries, painstakingly found, of the places where missing persons posters end up.

 

The Missing Persons series are brilliant in their exploration of what a photograph is, as an object, what it can do in real space and time, in the social world. Their formal perfections bring forward the tragedy of the subject in a way that is quiet and kind. A small deliverance of justice for those whom fate has delivered to the purgatory of the missing.

 

September 6th, 2013

On Graham MacIndoe’s series of photographs: All In

 For Barthes, the photograph has to hurt, at least a little, to work: if the image works, the photograph’s punctum wounds you. And in the extremity of Barthes’ theory of the punctum, the place in the photograph that pricks one viewer by no means will be the detail that pricks another viewer; indeed Barthes defines the punctum as that which categorically cannot be planned or planted by the photographer. This definition of the photograph’s relationship to private pain is evocatively true of Graham MacIndoe’s All In series, in which the punctum, where the image wounds, for the former addict traces places on the body. And yet these photographs chart damage so delicately you could almost miss it, almost ignore what happens to the body in addiction. 

 The translucent membranes of the glassine envelopes are on display as if in a museum of the natural history of self-destruction. Carefully set, each of these former conveyances of heroin, all now emptied and pressed like Sunday shirts, stand in blank fields. The utterance of the series, what it tells, speaks by skin, as Barthes argues the photograph functions as a kind of relic, the mark where light bounced off the solid and transient object. But the memento mori objects of All In are double markers. Not just the photographs but also the baggies are memento mori, preserved for mnemonic record. The images are placed as markers, in their fragile gravestone shapes, of the parts of the self that are given away in addiction—glassine, spectral, riddled with language promising both the best and the worst of fates.

 The series format empresses the knowledge of repeated purchases, repeated use, and also acts like a deck of cards, inviting the viewer to pick up the game, but not the game of addiction itself, rather the game of a kind of ascetic self-disavowal, the artifacts of one’s closest calls. Most of MacIndoe’s audience, I believe, will come to the series not as former addicts but even so all of us have lost time and tried to hold time in the realm of objects. Of course that is the traction of photography, the photograph holds time in an object, a thing flatly distanced from the kind of use that erodes objects not created solely for being seen. In ways that I will try to explain, the images in All In evoke the postcard. Sontag’s injunction that photography makes of us all tourists of the most shallow sort ignores the intensity with which postcards act, as images that are better than mirrors because they are so indirect.

 MacIndoe’s All In series reads like postcards sent from a country most of us would not be able to visit and survive. The photographs function as atonements of a rather private sort. Here, the drug is gone, though of course there must be traces of it in the baggies, and the violence that the drug did to the body also mostly gone, though there must be traces of its harm. But the emptiness of the baggies is what catches me; that is the punctum of the series for me. The hollow Sunday afternoon light that emanates from the glassine, a space annealed, emptied, small violent words and gone stashes sealed behind glass frames.

 Barthes, quoting Kafka, argues that “’We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds,’” and maybe this series that records addiction could be read as motivated by the desire to drive from the photographer’s mind the memory of each moment of acquisition marked by the baggies, the vertiginous pleasure of going all in. The photographs also query the connection of this pleasure of addiction with the pleasure of the aesthetic moment, the sublime hit. “Ultimately, or at the limit, in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes” Barthes argues before introducing Kafka’s above quote. The act of looking away is built into the images of All In. The series is devoutly quiet. All In protects its audience from the pain of confession, sublimating instead luminous skins.

 One draws from Barthes’ description of photographs generally, “they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” in looking at All In. The heroin baggies are arrayed carefully centered, clean and absolved of their potent contents. Small particular damages to the skins of the baggies become personalized, as if mirroring our own damages, the relic folds still showing in the pressed flat bags, in scientific precision. Here the touch of the photographer’s hand almost seems to outweigh the putative ‘eye’ of the photographer, the haptic gloss of the material made immanently visible, and the pathetic force of the language printed on the baggies— invoking among other themes love, Christmas, candy, sin, death, and wealth— both belies and reveals such thin desires of which the words printed on the baggies speak.

 All In manifests the trappings of desire in its most potently hollow formal turn. The “butterflies” in MacIndoe’s series of photographs carry forward a quality of grief pinned down to its locus, the baggies translators of human touch, between dealer and buyer, and also between user and recovered addict taking the images. The photographs come to stand for this most fragile boundary not only, as might betoken a series opening with the words “Kiss of Death,” the boundary between life and death, but more than that the boundary between skin and light, between past self and present self. They are photographs of the liminal, a held ritual of gazing, never courting the poignancy they earn.

December 30th, 2013

 

Citizen Ghosts

On Citizen Ghosts: The Un-Americans

 For a while, when I was still teaching for the Studies in Women and Gender Program, a program at that time headed by anthropologist Kath Weston, I taught a course on women and ghosts. The premise of the course was to use feminist theory to look at the many different ways that women in America, in the 20th century and into the 21st century, get culturally erased. The course started out heavily influenced by queer theory and the idea of the lesbian as the ghostliest figure in American letters, and widened its scope over time. It was by far the most pleasurable class I’ve taught at UVa. The students, and almost always the students who signed up for the class were female students, and I got tremendously interested in looking at the multiple patterns of social ghosting as they surface in books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, visual works like Rebecca Belmore’s The Named and the Unnamed, and in Sociological discourse, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters.

From teaching this class I started noticing, as one will notice obsessively phenomena of which one has become aware, other kinds of social ghosting. And I started to notice that this social ghosting is by no means always inscribed along gender lines. Incarcerated men are the most counted and invisible of American ghosts. Photographer Graham MacIndoe, whose work uncannily brings glossy magazine quality polish to raw and painful subjects, has begun a project of photographing ghosts in America titled “The Un-Americans: Detained, Deported, and Divided,” producing photographs of people who inhabit this space of the United States but are not counted, quite, as people. Instead, theirs is a no-man’s land, a zone interdicted, shown by markings of the citizen/non citizen divide. These people are among America’s citizen ghosts.

 

 Philippine-Immigrant-takes-Sanctuary-in-Church-after-removal-order.-NJ-2013

 

MacIndoe’s evocative images of the families in “The Un-Americans: Detained, Deported, and Divided,” show a kind of milieu of stoical despair. Here, the victims who fear or who have survived deportation interact with the camera without guile, trusting the documentary force of that machine of vision, the camera. The photographs’ purpose is avowedly humanitarian, supported by a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and yet any photographic image is a space of conflicted and haunting signifiers; as Barthes points out in Mythologies, the codes by which we read images are multiple. MacIndoe’s work, then, should not be read as only journalist activism. Although certainly the work is journalism, of the best kind, produced in conjunction with Susan Stellin’s lucid and compelling descriptions. But, the photographs are also a kind of art, cutting under the surface to get the image that haunts.

Referencing Robert Frank’s The Americans, and possibly also alluding to The Family of Man exhibit, “The Un-Americans” evokes a counter space, where family does not secure one’s place but instead is suspended in an unclaimed and unclaimable cultural zone. That is, both those who ‘count’ as citizens as well as those whose interdicted identities, as incomplete citizens, detained, vulnerable and subject to deportation, implicitly question the nature of how claim on the social space of the American is granted. MacIndoe’s photographs center around family groups, and the stories of families torn apart: the quiet and pensive faces of children are the sharpest points of these photographs. Where Sally Mann in the nineteen-eighties photographed her immediate family in rural America, children whose nakedness and vulnerability could be freely offered by their mother precisely because no one in Mann’s audience really had access to touch those children, the children in MacIndoe’s series are utterly vulnerable. His camera handles them with a tact and distance recalling seventeenth-century paintings. The children are not encroached upon by the photographs, nor are they indulged.

 

Eschewing indulgence, and demarcating a political space for private grief, MacIndoe’s images in this on-going project “The Un-Americans” participate in the aesthetic of the neutral, that Roland Barthes was working toward theorizing just before this death. The neutral “resists paradigm” and is the aesthetic space of the a-chromatic, not literally colorless, but rather that register of the visual, or the written, text that to the greatest extent possible does not pose for itself. Barthes called it “Adamic.” The images in “The Un-Americans” do not imagine their own beauty, just as the people in them cannot entirely imagine themselves outside their ghosted social space, Americans who are the haunted mirror of liberal citizenship. The images do not pose for themselves. The photograph is the space in which all is seen—it fills the sight by force, argues Barthes. The photograph shows us the optical unconscious, as Walter Benjamin long ago pointed out. The photographs in “The Un-Americans” are doubly representative of the optical unconscious: they show not just what we do not see on a day to day basis because our gaze cannot hold still the way the photograph holds still. The photographs also show the optical unconscious because we turn away from those with insecure citizenship. Who are the Americans, then, in this era that produces the haunting, Adamic images and stories of “The Un-Americans”?