Looking

September 19, 2017

Pati Smith writes in her recent book "Devotion" of the origins of creativity. She speaks of being overcome by "an unexpected though familiar giddiness" and of "an intensification of the abstract" as accompanying an urge to start writing her experience. Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in similar terms about the origins of thought in bodily feeling; in the gestures of a human body expressing its experience. Teju Cole takes consideration of genesis into the realm of photography in his book "Blindspot". He speaks of a photograph sitting in the "ante-chamber of language", inhabiting those moments before thoughts and words emerge to give greater definition to experience.

 

Writings such as these have stimulated reflections on my own relationship with photography, including those momentary feelings of desire and urgency that lead me to raise my camera to frame a picture. In the case of the picture above I remember feeling strongly drawn towards the lustrous pied beauty of the blue and orange chairs peeping over the table top, which I now think led me on to notice the rhythmic arrangement of phones and notebooks. This tumble of meaning is of course already beyond the moment when it was briefly suspended amidst a host of visual possibilities - that moment in the "ante-chamber of language". Nevertheless the narrative of creation is having a lingering significance in how I direct my camera and, overtime, in how I am coming to look at the world.

 

Most immediately the developing narrative of change and creation affected the post processing of of this picture. I deliberately intensified the saturation of the blue and orange chairs to make them even more vivid. This is an unusual step for me. Ever since my daughter Alice's death my preferred tonalities have been around a more lambent light. A dispersed opalescence that I have associated with an obsession over the continuing presence of her absence. The colours of a haunted love. Such a preference has been associated with a certain deflective vagueness in relation to how I have looked at the world - in short I have looked away.

 

Now I find myself staring hard at these chairs, vivifying them, and composing a scene around them. Granting a more iridescent polychromy suggests going beyond or over (sur) a reality the chairs might have been expected to stay below (drawing on Teju Coles' discussion of surrealism here). For example their assertive presence tends to ruin the picture as a portrait, because it helps push the human subject further to the margins of the frame and undermine the possibility of the human as figure to the chair's ground. But there again pictures often reveal more than the photographer intended or expected. What we expect can be the product of a prophecy based on the patterns formed by life experience. What we get can be quite different and this is the source of photography's ambiguous relationship with reality. In this sense photography is a natural tool of the surreal and the photographer should expect to be surprised and to work with this surprise. It hardly gives credit for the photographer to boldly claim to have got what was expected.

 

A concept begins to form around re-learning to look at the world. Something to guide my inquiry and my camera. If my grief response to Alice's death was withdrawal is my camera, ten years on, helping me back into the world? And if one returns after a long absence might one see things never seen before? In my case might I be seeing freshly the objects produced by human beings - the consequences of human creativity. We take chairs for granted, but doesn't something uncanny begin to emerge once we are encouraged to really look? And is the uncanny not a portal into the sublime?  

 

The conceptual frame fortifies me and re-commits me to my work. I feel it as a kind of birthing, but not quite of conception. In terms of the genesis of something "concept" might be a misnaming, because it refers to an event that takes place in thought and language, while the conception proper predated the birth and arose from the coupling of my daring to look at the world with a new intensity. The picture takes us back nearer to this mystery.

 

Teju Cole (2017) Blind Spot, with Foreword by Siri Hustvedt, Faber and Faber; 

Pati Smith (2017) Devotion, Yale University Press;

 

 

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