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