Hands.

‘…sitting at the border between subject and object, the hand undergoes sensory experience before transcribing that experience from a liminal hinterland. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), a work perceptibly influenced by modernist literature as well as contemporaneous thinkers such as Heidegger, the protagonist Roquentin’s first experience of nascent existential nausea or angst occurs in his hand: “I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding the doorknob”. Shortly after this scene, a pebble asserts itself against Roquentin’s hand (despite his outrage that “objects ought not to touch since they are not alive”), which he describes as a “sweet disgust” passing from the pebble to his hands; “a sort of nausea of the hands”.  — Aimee Gasston: ‘Phenomenology Begins at Home: The Presence of Things in the Short Fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf’, Journal of New Zealand Literature, 32:2, 2014, pp.31-51.

Moholy
Lucia Moholy

 

moholy hands
Lucia Moholy

 

schiele hands
Egon Schiele

 

Advertisements

Marks on the page.

Back in December, on a grey, overcast day spent in transit on trains, I opened Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling. As I read, I noticed that the compact blocks of texts were, in places, framed by delicate lines of pencil.

img_3998

I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to the areas of text that this previous reader was alerting me to. These strokes established a relationship between us, silently and subtly, but steadily, guiding me. But who was this person? What project or interests brought them here? What were they doing now? I longed to speak with them, but that connection would forever remain unfulfilled: all I had was a trace, a powerful paradox of absence and presence.

Annotations and assorted markings in loaned books are a common sight. They come in various forms: lines, brackets, notes and asterisk form a catalogue that we instinctively choose from when reading. Everyone has their own method, following a specific system of code or impulsively inscribing what strikes them as important in any which way. Sometimes they can be disrespectful or disruptive to reading, as garish neon highlighter and sharp biro rip through the typeface or bruise the surrounding blank space. Once, during my time at Sussex University, I read a library copy of Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending that had a full-blown feud raging within the silent confines of the margins.

c02d437c-3fb8-44ac-a10f-20aaa71d5aa4

These comments and responses established an alternative narrative, a dialogue rivalling Kermode’s author(itative) voice. Although mostly negative or critical, even petty in their premise, these inscriptions struck a tangible connection between readers. They were a highly visible sign of the book’s history, the various hands it has found itself in. What would it be like if these people got together; what heated debate might ensue? These various remains of previous readers’ experiences and thoughts serve as a reminder: in reading a text, albeit a solitary act, you can form part of a community, a community of disparate readers linked by a single object.

The destination of that train journey was Copenhagen and subsequently Glasgow; waiting for me there was another means of musing on this topic. After feeling so drawn to the lines in the Kosofosky book, I vowed to pay more attention to such dots and dashes, and at the Glasgow Women’s Library, a truly inspiring place with a vibrant collection and exhibition space, I came across a postcard version of Shauna Mcmullan’s 2012 work 165 Stars, Found in GWL Lending Library. The reverse of the postcard explains the artist’s process:

Shauna combed the lending library, collecting marginalia and specifically the asterisk and starred items from the margins of hundreds of the donated volumes. The resulting work is composed of the marks made by women in the books that have ended up as part of Glasgow Women’s Library collection.

shauna-mcmullan-165-stars-found-in-gwl-lending-library-2012

By taking these signs out of the context of the books they were found in and bringing them together, the small, supposedly unassuming asterisk becomes a powerful bond between women. These crosses and stars reflect active, participatory reading, but they are also individual: it is completely by chance that they have “ended up” on the shelves of the same library. Such symbols overcome time and space, stitching invisible threads of acquaintance. The piece also becomes representative of the library itself, a place that endeavours to unite people, both with others and with literature, that they might not otherwise encounter.

Found markings in texts, whether made by ourselves or others, speak volumes. They are a visible manifestation of the Derridean trace, as they remind us that our current reading of a text, and location of meaning within it, is always influenced by something that has come before: “experience as the experience of the present is never a simple experience of something present over and against me, right before my eyes as in an intuition; there is always another agency there…The present therefore is always complicated by non-presence.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida/)

Women Photographers.

One solitary day during the summer, I was walking around the public library. The library in Aarhus, Dokk1, is sleek and spacious, a wonderful place for just walking aimlessly. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just browsing the stacks in the hope of discovery.

Stumbling across a thick volume entitled Women Photographers, I immediately slipped it off of the shelf, checked it out and took it home, but as so often happens with library books, life gets in the way and they end up in a longing, wistful pile. Three months later, upon finally opening it, I discovered this picture by Ellen Auerbach.

auerbach

Ellen Auerbach, ‘Kurfursterstr’, 1931. Constance Sullivan, Women Photographers, p. 93.

The play with, and juxtaposition of, calignosity and illumination in this picture is dazzlingly suggestive. The bowler hat and umbrella, although positioned in the area that is glowing and refulgent, are rendered in an almost solid black that corresponds with the lurking shadows on the opposite side of the room. The umbrella is in fact pointing to this tenebrosity. The hat and the umbrella perform: they act out a human outline, are a trace left behind. Perhaps the door stands open because that someone has just walked through it and into the abyss. The door that is bathed in light is closed, an end; the door of obscurity is, on the other hand, open. The combination of openness and darkness in this picture spoke to me because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about endings of all kinds, especially narrative ones. The contrast here is symbolic of the paradox of endings: the aphotic depths of the unknown are in fact radiant with possibility.

 

 

 

National Poetry Day (should be everyday).

Despite having lived in Denmark for almost a year, I still feel like I’m straddling the North Sea: my feet are on Scandinavian ground, but my head and heart are still firmly in the U.K. This confused state of existence, encouraged by the way that social media shrinks space and enables connection, naturally led me to pay attention to National Poetry Day on Thursday 6th October.

Days dedicated to literary genres are certainly a positive incentive. They bring the written word into the public eye, celebrate and disseminate it through events, readings and, of course, the obligatory hashtags and shares. Upon returning to my office and discovering that it was National Poetry Day, I whipped through the Norton Anthologies that I use for teaching and found some my favourites: Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson. I read, I tweeted, was re-tweeted.

Later that evening, after reading some glorious Sappho with a friend over the phone, I finally got around to reading the collection Guld (Gold) by young Danish poet Victor Boy Lindholm.

b2z51m2iaaa853h

http://jegkiggerpaamaanenogsigervadsaa.dk/

Reading Danish verse on a day of poetic celebration back home allowed my two cultural spheres to fuse. In encouraging me to pick up this collection, read aloud and listen to the swing and lilt of a language that is gradually becoming less alien, National Poetry Day actually helped me to achieve something worthwhile.

I ended the evening thinking about how all that poetry-induced social media activity was sort of superficial and indulgent. We snap pics of poems, post them, forget about it all by the next morning: there’ll be another day of dedication soon enough. If we’re going to have these days celebrating literature and the arts, they should ignite ongoing action, engagement and appreciation on ordinary days, too.

 

 

 

William Eggleston.

This week I’ve been slowly working through the new Salt short story anthology edited by Nicholas Royle, the annual Best British Short Stories. The 2016 edition doesn’t disappoint: Royle has carefully selected stories from a variety of sources, so the anthology is a wonderful way to engage with both new and established writers.

9781784630638_grande

There’s plenty to say about the stories themselves, but one of them struck a chord with something else I’ve been thinking about recently. As so often happens when reading literature, doors are opened to contemplations about other forms of art and representation.

In David Gaffney’s story ‘The Staring Man’, the builder of a 3D architectural model for a park refurbishment is presented with a photograph by a stranger:

“I thought this might help with the consultation,” he said, handing her a sheet of A4 paper. It was a print-out of a black and white photograph of a young couple dangling a baby’s feet in the water of the original paddling pool.

He prodded the image. “That’s me. That’s my wife Dorothy, and that’s Heather. She’s three there – 1958.”

The couple looked innocently happy, their small trim frames somehow weightless, as if in those days there had been less gravity.

David Gaffney, ‘The Staring Man’, Best British Short Stories 2016, ed. Nicholas Royle (Cromer: Salt Publishing, 2016), pp. 139-144 (p. 139).

This notion, of a photograph (or other visual medium) influencing our understanding of how we think the past might have looked or been to experience, has been on my mind since visiting the William Eggleston show the the National Portrait Gallery in London a couple of weeks ago. I’ve always loved Eggleston’s images (who doesn’t?!) and thought it was so refreshing to focus the spotlight solely on his portraiture.

Eggleston is renowned for his spontaneous approach to photography, derived from the master of the snapshot Henri Cartier-Bresson. He focused his lens on trivial objects and landscapes, both urban and natural, sensitively locating a profound beauty and majesty in the mundanity of the everyday.

15-eggleston_memphistricycle
Tricycle, 1970.
10-eggleston_untitled73
Untitled, 1973.

Bresson’s off-centre approach is also translated into Eggleston’s portrait photography. This particular black and white image struck me for a number of reasons, some of which I’m still trying to figure out…The female figure here looks almost sculptural, as the wash of the flash renders her limbs in smooth marble and suspends her movements. But it also feels very charged, very sensual. Her curvaceous, supple neck; her open and inviting arms, welcoming the viewer; the fertile biota of her dress: her body becomes landscaped by the shaping shadows of the camera’s flash, her face a delicate series of peaks and valleys, her hair the shimmering surface of a river. Does her face tell of euphoria or distress? She seems at the threshold of an intended movement, but it is the liminality of the way she has been captured that makes the photograph so intriguing.

The model featured in the above image, Marcia Hare, is also the subject of one of Eggleston’s most famous portraits, Untitled 1975.

14.-eggleston_untitled1975
Untitled, 1975.

I stood in front of this photograph for a long time, taking care to examine each splendid centimetre of softness and shifting focus. It is an image of perfect compositional harmony, with details constantly in dialogue with one another. The Kodak Brownie camera in the far right is modest, a subtle reminder that it is not just the subject, but also the medium of photography specifically, which make this image such a success.

It was these vivid colour photographs that were still blazing in memory upon leaving the exhibition. This is of course partly due to the detail, or Benjaminian aura, that is always lost in online and print reproductions, but I also learned that Eggleston was in fact a real innovator when it came to colour technology. He introduced the printing method of dye-transfer, which was otherwise only used in advertising or commercial work, to his skill set as an art photographer. Subsequently, his 1976 MOMA exhibition is considered a turning point in this history of colour photography as art, although it was mostly criticised at the time.

In dye-transfer printing, the printer separates the original image into three negatives – red, yellow and blue. These are then printed separately onto transfer films, called matrices, dyed cyan, magenta and yellow. These are then printed one on top of the other in perfect registration to build up the final, full-colour image (Source: NPG exhibition information).

What these startlingly high quality images made me realise was that when I think about the past, quite often the picture created in my mind is highly influenced by the popular media of the time. For instance, when I think of the 50s and 60s, I think in hazy, black and white squares, in the format of the photographs I’ve seen of my parents’ childhood. The 70s is in colour, but always washed out, bleached by the sun. These Eggleston images reminded me that through the eyes of a period’s inhabitants, the world was composed of the same rainbow as it is now.

90c663e940617e5f9a9da2b3f4f56b96
Untitled, 1973-4.

Thinking about how I construct images of the past got me thinking about how our perception of the present is also constantly shaped by changing media and new technologies. The most contemporary manifestation of this involves social media, a topic discussed by Jacob Silverman in his book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection (some ideas from which were condensed for a very good Guardian long read):

The social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson describes users as developing “a ‘Facebook Eye’: our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes’.” We might feel this phenomenon in different ways, depending on which networks you use and which activities constitute your day.

In terms of photography, our eyes have now become conditioned to look through Snapchat frames and Instagram filters, filters that actually mimic older photographic technologies that practitioners such as Eggleston were trying to move beyond. When we look back from the future, how will it all look?

Why study literature?

After finishing my BA in English a few years ago, I took a year out to work, think and travel. In an attempt to save money, I worked at a dire, isolated call centre and (somewhat more triumphantly) as a private tutor, but also thought carefully about where to study for my Masters degree. With a place on an MA course all settled for the forthcoming academic year, three of my best friends and I set off to see the world: we travelled from Sri Lanka to Fiji, stopping in China, Cambodia, Singapore and New Zealand along the way, soaking up a myriad of experiences, all a far cry from the South Wales call centre with its telephone ring of infinity.

When meeting people on our journey, either natives of the country we were in or other backpackers, conversation inevitably turned to the hum-drum of daily life back home. What did we study? What did we do for work? Being recent graduates, we were all on the cusp of something new, so our answers varied: trainee accountant-to-be, retail manager trainee-to-be, lawyer-to-be…and then there was me. Despite having recently finished with school, I was going right back to study for my MA in English. Whilst my friends bound for graduate schemes in the city all received congratulations for their employment prospects and success, my answer was not greeted with such enthusiasm.

“What are you going to do with that?” I’d be asked, implying that such a degree was essentially pointless. What indeed! That was kind of the whole point: a Masters course would enable me to continue studying a subject that I loved and provide a stimulating environment where those big life and career decisions could ripen organically. A Masters would also, in theory, help me to further develop a broad range of essential skills. What’s more, it would just be interesting. It would be an opportunity to read, write, engage in discussion, broaden my mind…Why did that need justification?  Why are the only things worth doing in life the ones with a specified, determined outcome?

My choice to study English at BA level had always been commended and respected, but looking back, this was probably because the point of taking a degree is, essentially, to get a job. Any further study after this, unless specifically career-focused, is seen as somewhat indulgent, even regressive. I was going to pay to study more, rather than make my studies pay me back in the form of a healthy graduate salary. Furthermore, this was an arts degree we were talking about: people didn’t see it as an opportunity to grow, but as a waste of time, a delay in the start of the rat race. Even now, years later, with that supposedly useless degree actually coming in very handy, I sometimes still feel that encroaching wave of self-doubt wash over me when I have to explain my choices.

Having lived in Denmark for almost a year now, I have become far more aware of how pushy and rushed the U.K. education system is. In Britain, young people who choose to follow the higher education pathway are usually finished with university by 21 or 22 and in jobs within the same year, give or take some time depending on gap years or time spent studying abroad. In Denmark, many students take a year out at both 16 and 19; due to the fact that (2 year!) Masters degrees are considered almost essential, they are then in university until they are 25 or 26. Perhaps this is too long: the Danish government is certainly working on ways to reduce students’ ability to overstay their welcome in the education system, but I do find merit in the system (students have time for a minor subject, for example). Perhaps a productive middle ground between the need to attain employment and actually just enjoy the experience of learning without worrying why you’re doing it can eventually be occupied.

A vast difference is of course glaringly apparent between Denmark and the U.K.: in one country education is a luxury commodity, in the other it is free and accessible to all, even if you aren’t Danish. However, there is still the problem of the stingingly negative opinions that often buzz around the choice to study literature beyond the required level. Such judgements will never cease, but perhaps they, along with those lingering feelings of self-doubt, can be utilised instead as an opportunity to wax lyrical about how worthwhile studying literature actually is. Literature students should feel glowing pride about their subject. It is more than just worthwhile, it is essential. Prof. Rick Rylance puts it well:

I believe that the mode of knowledge with which we engage when we discuss literature – open, discursive, provisional, revisable, intersubjective – is emblematic of the way values should operate in societies like our own. I also believe in the importance of clear, successful communication and, in a rather Orwellian way, that it is a political and ethical imperative to spread this as widely as possible.

As a student of literature (in any language) you are an academic chameleon, simultaneously a student of philosophy, history, art history, cultural studies, media, linguistics and theory. It is such a deliciously pliable subject, bending to fit your wider interests and opening up doors to new ones. Studying literature is a catalyst for the discussion of countless important social, political and ethical issues, as well helping us to think and act more creatively: it encourages us to engage with the world that we inhabit, rather than just pass through it blindly. A melting pot of so many key ingredients, I certainly hope it is the sustenance that keeps me alive for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

Danmarks Fotomuseum.

Last week I boarded a train from Aarhus to a small town called Herning. After some serious delays, several buses, getting back on the train and an Entitled Opinions podcast (marry me Robert Harrison), I finally reached my destination: Danmarks Fotomuseum.

I have a strange relationship with photography. As a teenager, taking pictures was a major hobby, but as I got older it sort of fizzled out. I wound my way through countless disposable cameras and compiled albums of film photographs at university, but I wasn’t using a camera in the same way. Despite not taking pictures, my interest in the medium as an art form didn’t waver: rather than taking pictures, I began to read about them instead.

“I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs, but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and John Berger.” – Geoff Dyer. 

In my final year of university, my mind was filled with photography as I worked on my thesis, which was about the impact of the medium on modernist literature. Reading about photography introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about what happens when we make photographs, encounter them, hold them; what they mean ontologically and epistemologically (how does photography change the way people engage with the world around them at different points in history?). I taught myself the history of the medium, and basically fell head over heels in love with it again, just in a different, more theoretical way.

What started that year has transfixed me ever since. Photography also formed the backbone of my MA thesis, a project about the violence and aggression of the medium (both metaphorically and physically). Next month, I’ll be giving my first conference paper at the European Network for Short Fiction Research conference in Liverpool. My topic focuses on the history of flash photography and how it relates to ideas of sight and knowledge in both image and text. Therefore, as soon as I found out about the collection of flash equipment in the Herning museum, I made an appointment to meet the curator.

IMG_9634

When writing my thesis last summer, I spent months researching flash, both as a theoretical concept and as a material technology (magnesium powder, foil, bulbs, flash guns…the works). Many happy hours were filled reading photography books in the draughty Art Library at the V&A and the tranquil reading rooms at the British Library, or simply at my best friend’s side in our university library in Brighton. Having never had/made the chance to visit the National Media Museum in Bradford, this was my first time seeing these objects and talking to a professional about them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The collection of early flash equipment is extensive, including original bottles of Agfa Blitzlicht powder, flashguns and magnesium ribbon, amongst other things. Unfortunately there were no pistol shaped flashguns, my absolute favourite piece of kit that I am yet to see in the flesh. Flash powder was used by photographic pioneers such as Jacob Riis to illuminate dark spaces, but it was not without its consequences.

IMG_9667

Early forms of flash technology burned very intensely and were therefore highly hazardous, as the stains and burns on the fabric in the photo above demonstrate. I was very excited by this dirty old rag. The caption reads “Indretning til afbrænding af magnesium (kraftig blitzlys) med røg og støvfanger.” Rough translation: “Device for the burning of magnesium (heavy duty strobe light) with smoke and dust trap.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here we have the evolution of the flash bulb, an invention that contained the explosion inside a glass envelope. However, this containment did not completely negate the hazards of flash, as bulbs often shattered, sending shards of glass flying in all directions. Hazard-free flash only came with the later introduction of electric flash.

Note that delightful Vacublitz typography. I love how dynamic it is, almost coming off the surface of the card, pushing forward like the light that would surge out of the product. Sometimes the literature that accompanies old technologies, such as manuals and advertising campaigns, is just as intriguing.

Besides the marvellous flash equipment, the museum boasted a wealth of other curiosities, including stereoscopes, umpteen cartes de visite, a Victorian album with a built-in music box and some of the cutest cameras I’ve ever seen (that gold Rollei!).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The museum also had a mock-up of a nineteenth century photographic studio. I’d read about the neck vices that were used to keep people still for the long exposure times, but I didn’t know that there were also chairs with holes in the back: a parent could put a hand through this hole and get a grip on their child’s clothing, forcing them to sit tight for a clear image. Yet another example of the constant aggression and artifice that is knotted so tightly together with a medium that is supposed to be authentic.

4b31a24b0e0939c7c92387422d270be8

Although this isn’t Denmark’s primary photography museum or collection, it’s important to give institutions outside of a country’s capital a bit of attention, don’t you think? However, the very fact that this little gem of a museum will be closing later in the year (due to its loss of Kommune funding) is an example of how society on the whole is failing to cast its net of attention wide enough. The situation here in Denmark reminds me of the current U.K. issue between Bradford’s National Media Museum and London’s V&A over the movement of around 400,000 photographic objects from north the south. Photography, albeit the most democratic of visual mediums, is here a primary example of how seemingly impossible it is to pry art and metropolitanism away from one another, especially when culture holds hands so very tightly with wealth and privilege. Cultural capital should be spread around a country and benefit its entire population, rather than being concentrated in a metropolitan bubble, and yet the impending closure of DFM and the near closure of the NMM in Bradford in 2013 demonstrate that this principle is far from being achieved in practice.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/02/bradford-photography-collection-move-vanda-reviled-vandalism?CMP=twt_a-culture_b-gdnculture

When Danmarks Fotomuseum closes in October 2016, the objects in the collection will be sold, given away, or returned to those who donated them in the first place. Whilst this temple devoted to the development of today’s most ubiquitous visual culture is dismantled, a new pedestrian street, composed of slick slabs of stone in a geometric design, is being built in Herning town centre; not only does it look ghastly, but it symbolises the diversion of essential funds from matters of substance to trivial superficiality.

Museum website: http://fotomuseum.dk/

Online archive of Danish photography: http://www.danskebilleder.dk/db/#1462014609406_0 

Dansk Fotohistorisk Selskab: http://objektiv.dk/nyhome/

 

Daisuke Yokota.

During my internet wanderings, there is a particular photographer I keep coming back to: Daisuke Yokota. Born in Saitama in 1983, he upholds a noticeable trend amongst Japanese photographers to work in black and white (think Kohei Yoshiyuki, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki).

In Araki’s seminal series Erotos, the erotic is found to be located in the everyday. The use of a monochrome aesthetic allows texture to dominate: light and dark are exaggerated in their juxtaposition and flashed surfaces glisten, heightening the sensual suggestion. We want to inspect more closely, touch and taste the forbidden fruits that are offered to us.

larger

Nobuyoshi Araki, Erotos #8

Texture is also crucial in Yokota’s monochrome work: the supposedly smooth, flat photographic surface becomes riddled with imprints, burns, cuts and markings, all matter of traces from both the photographic and post-production processes.

yokota

03

Daisuke Yokota, Nocturnes

However, if the absence of colour in work such as Araki’s results in a greater focus on the sexual charge that he is purposefully trying to make us find in these forms, there is an absence of specific meaning in Yokota’s work. There is nothing forceful, but rather many hazy, grainy layers that must be discovered and probed one by one. Appropriately, Yokota’s cites artists such as Aphex Twin and David Lynch as primary influences:

“First, Aphex Twin has a lot of aliases, so his work is less about seeing his real name as some kind of symbol, and more about the songs themselves. There’s a sense that you can’t really see him, and this kind of confusion is interesting to me. Then, to speak about his music, there’s a lot of experimentation with delay, reverb and echo, which is playing with the way that you perceive time. Of course there’s no time in a photograph, but I thought about how to apply this kind of effect, or filter, to photography. I was definitely influenced by the idea of ‘ambience.’ David Lynch is probably the same for me, in the way that he works with time and perception.”

Full interview: http://www.americanphotomag.com/shoot-print-repeat-interview-daisuke-yokota?image=10

Thus, like an Aphex Twin track, certain visual currents in these images rise and fall to prominence, coming together to create a whole that is mesmerising due to its many distinct parts and consistencies.

Finally, the Fossil series is especially intriguing. Images are printed onto fragile paper and subsequently scrunched and torn, another form of assault on the glossy photo finish we anticipate. The eye is drawn to the folds and gaps in the paper, like cracks in a rock’s surface, adding a further tactile layer to the already indistinct forms that occupy the images.

fossil_05

fossil_06

Daisuke Yokota, Fossil

This series is a reminder that printed photographs are a kind of fossil. As Yokota himself highlights, “there’s no time in a photograph”: photographs freeze time, preserve it in a casing for rediscovery in the future. The moment will be arrested, but the objects they live in will be weathered and changed by age, circumstance and the touch of countless curious fingers.