To Tell a Story.

In a 1983 episode of Channel 4’s series Voices, perfectly preserved in the digital archive of YouTube, two renowned twentieth-century thinkers and writers sit opposite each other. The eyes of Susan Sontag and John Berger meet across a table, their bodies mirrored: their reflective positions become emblematic of their similarities as practitioners of literary observation, writers of fiction and essays, and theorists of visual culture, such as the medium of photography. As Berger’s gentle and engaging opening remarks reveal, the two of them have many reasons to agree; however, on this particular occasion, a discussion about the act of storytelling, the interlocutors differ greatly.

For Berger, stories can be symbolized by ‘a group of people huddled together’: ‘maybe they are huddled against a wall’, or perhaps ‘they are around a fire’. Either way, what is important for Berger is that ‘in the very idea of story’ is the notion of ‘shelter’. A ‘voyager’, ‘traveler’ or ‘soldier’ has ‘survived’, ‘lived to tell the story’: the story symbolizes a ‘physical sense of shelter’, a form of ‘habitation’ or coming ‘home’. Berger continues: ‘inside the story is another kind of shelter’, because what it ‘narrates and tells is sheltered within the story from oblivion, forgetfulness and daily indifference’ (Sontag and Berger 0.00-3.09). The world we inhabit is strange and absurd, and the story acts as a ‘rescuing operation’ against the ‘restless, terrifying space in which we live’ (Sontag and Berger 30.10-30.20).

In her response to Berger’s opening comments, Sontag swiftly severs his warm, lulling image of protection:

You’re talking about stories in a very remote kind of society that is quite different from ours because surely story telling is much more diversified in the societies that we know…We experience stories mediated through images as in television and movies, we read stories in print…This most archaic definition of stories…does not tell us…what challenge of what story telling is now. (Sontag and Berger 03.09-03.55)

As their discussion unfolds, a binary between oral and written story begins to emerge: for Berger, something of the oral origin of storytelling is still of primary importance. Stories should be recited: if printed, they should always be read as if spoken. For Sontag, however, stories are an essentially literary phenomenon. They come to life through their being read on the printed page, are something invented by the storyteller: they do not necessarily have to be about a life lived. Issues of time and place seem to lie at the heart of their polarized understandings of story: Berger’s notion is rooted in the isolated communities of southern France where he was living at the time, Sontag’s in the metropolis (Sontag and Berger 03.55-20.48). The former, in its seclusion and quiet, still allows for collectivity and community; the latter is the setting of the isolated individual, lost in the crowd.

Reverberating in the definitions and complexities of storytelling that Sontag and Berger put forward are the ideas of German-born critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin. In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, Benjamin is highly sensitive to the ways in which the symptoms of modernity were, at the beginning of the twentieth century, dramatically changing the nature of storytelling: ‘familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 362). As Sontag states, ‘once people began to write stories, they told different kinds of stories’ (Sontag and Berger 21.50-21.53): her observation echoes Benjamin’s awareness of how the advent of the novel dramatically altered the nature of storytelling. Previously, it was ‘experience…passed from mouth to mouth’ that was ‘the source from which all storytellers [drew]’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 362): these pliable oral stories could be told and retold, change their shape throughout time and had human experience at their core. Printed matter, however, does not necessarily allow ‘that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings’ (368): it does not need a human voice to keep it alive, is a fixed entity. For Benjamin, this includes the short story form, which is reliant on, and complicit with, the information age of magazines and newspapers and thus another cultural product of modernity, rather than associated with an essential oral tradition (368).

The roots of the arguments made by Sontag and Berger are therefore found deep in the soil of Benjamin’s ideas. He is an unsurprising predecessor, but what many readers of Benjamin’s theoretical works do not know is that he also wrote fiction, the English translations of which have now been collected together for the first time under the title The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness (Berger is in fact quoted on the cover). Given the title of Benjamin’s seminal essay, such a choice for his collected fiction is loaded: it subsequently raises the question as to how Benjamin’s lesser-known fictions might act as a possible site of experimentation for the themes he would explore in his critical writings.

Benjamin certainly expresses an admiration for oral, collective modes of communication: such stories, perhaps in the form of tale or proverb, are laced with wisdom and counsel, some kind of truth. In an earlier essay from 1933,“Experience and Poverty”, Benjamin also notes how the destructive nature of the First World War’s technological conflict silenced such modes of oral communication even further:

Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body. (Benjamin, “Experience”, 731-2)

Benjamin’s image of vulnerable, exposed human flesh again anticipates Berger’s emphasis on the physical presence of the storyteller and the importance of human life in stories. In the machine age, the human mind and body, and the experiences they live through, are scattered and fragmented, resulting in what Benjamin calls a ‘poverty of experience…not merely on the personal level, but poverty of human experience in general. Hence, a new kind of barbarism’ (Benjamin, “Experience”, 732). However, this barbarism is also ‘positive’, a pathway to something new: ‘for what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start from scratch; to begin with a little and build up further, looking neither left nor right’ (732). When tradition can no longer resist the changing course of history and subsequently breaks down, new possibilities emerge: the storyteller must reconfigure a means of communication that can bear the flux of modernity.

As Benjamin writes of the Bauhaus figure Paul Klee, ‘he is an artist who ‘reject[s] the traditional, solemn, noble image of man, festooned with all the sacrificial offerings of the past’; instead, Klee turns ‘to the naked man of the contemporary world who lies screaming like a newborn babe in the dirty diapers of the present (733). He also praises Paul Scheerbart, who he sees as interested in:

…how our telescopes, our airplanes, our rockets can transform human beings as they have been up to now into completely new, lovable, and interesting creatures. Moreover, these creatures talk in a completely new language. And what is crucial about this language is its arbitrary, constructed nature in contrast to organic language.’ (733)

Simply lamenting the fading of old forms is not productive. Benjamin is certainly frustrated by the fact that ‘every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories’ (Benjamin, “Leskov”, 365), but he is not just wistful for outworn oral means of interaction to return. As Andreas Huyssen notes, ‘Benjamin’s suggestion that the age of storytelling had ended has nothing to do with…nostalgia’; rather, his experiments with ‘the modernist miniature’ can be seen as a ‘specific mode of writing [that] may indeed be more central to the new in literary modernism than the novel or poetry’ (Huyssen 28-9). Indeed, ‘the obsolescence of these forms becomes the condition of their critical function…What Benjamin attempts to re-imagine…is the communicability of experience in spite of itself…These stories create layered worlds of citations, enigmas and perspectives.’ (Dolbear xi)

In “Sketched into Mobile Dust”, there is essentially a frame narrative, an oral act of telling performed between friends. However, as it draws to a close, ‘the story seemed to escape him…and the undying verse wandered majestically through the arch of this story as if through a gate.’ (Benjamin, “Sketched”, 97). Returning to Sontag and Berger, the latter believes that in fiction ‘there is nothing that does not have a signification’ or meaning: meaning is always created through a story being ‘related’ (Sontag and Berger 27.40-31.40). Sontag disagrees, insisting also on the telling of stories that are not directly interpretable in terms of meaning. Such a shift, she argues, is ‘freer’, engenders expansion and introduces the reader ‘to the absurd’, rather than just sheltering them from it; it encompasses more kinds of experience and moves the focus from meaning to ‘restoring…the intensity of feeling’ (Sontag and Berger 33.50-44.30). In “Sketched into Mobile Dust”, the story becomes personified, and is in fact only kept alive and able to continue on its journey due to its state of incompletion. A tension of liminality, rather than full, tangible meaning, is conjured up, a tension that is left to fester on a threshold, left unresolved. Such forms resist the complete, pre-determined end of oral stories that employ experience as function, but should nevertheless be welcomed into an understanding of story, one that casts spotlight on the unknown, unpredictable journey, not just the anticipated homecoming.

The subtitle of the collection of Benjamin’s short fictions is Tales out of Loneliness. Loneliness is a key marker of modern experience, the direct opposite of the collectivity that should bond storyteller and audience together. This is especially the case, although not at all limited to, the experience of the city, which is one of the collection’s thematic foci. “The Aviator” (written as early as 1911-12), begins with one Günter Morland ‘sat in front of a café’, berating himself for seemingly having lost his virginity to a prostitute (Benjamin, “The Aviator”, 77). In this cityscape, though, bodies are spectral and intimacy seems impossible. Morland thinks the neck [of an old woman] ‘could have twisted off…that’s how thin she was’, and he can only grasp traces of perfume, or glimpse ‘the hair of a slender blonde’ lit up by the ‘hiss’ or ‘an arc lamp’; bodies brush past him, ‘making him hot’ (78). There is an inversion of collectivity, as unidentifiable people are bunched together in groups: ‘well-dressed men’, ‘newsboys’, ‘women’, are together and apart simultaneously (78). Morland ‘steered clear of other people and yet kept an eye on them’ (78). In the final scene, touch and the sexual gaze, even kinds of communal looking, override the importance of listening, but they too are limited:

At around eleven at night, he found himself in a square and noticed a crowd of people with upturned heads looking at the sky. In a circle of light above the city there drifted an aeroplane, black and jagged in the pinkish mist. It seemed as it one could hear its quiet rumbling, but the aviator remained invisible. He steered an even course, almost without accelerating. The black wing hovered sedately in the sky.

When he turned, Gunter had to sharpen his gaze to make out the prostitute he had slept with. She did not notice the look in his childlike eyes as he took her by the arm assuredly. (79)

It is only the first section of the collection that is entitled “Dreamworlds”, and yet in this vignette the metropolis becomes a site of mystery. Everything is slightly out of sight and focus, bathed in ‘milky brown’ skies and ‘pinkish mist’ (78-9). In this piece Benjamin begins to observe the seductive nature of the commodity: ‘the doorways to the amusement halls were dazzling’ and he is ‘spellbound by the jewelers’ shops…For a minute at a time he observed the hats at the milliner’s shop and imagined them on the heads of women in full make up’ (78).

The inclusion of shop facades in Benjamin’s fiction forecasts his major yet unfinished work The Arcades Project. As T.J. Clark states, ‘the point of reading The Arcades Project, then, is being prepared to lose one’s way’ (Clark para. 12), a sentiment I suggest applies to Benjamin’s fiction more broadly too. As the first and final sections of the collection demonstrate, Benjamin advocates play and fantasy, encouraging constant changes in perception. The willingness to get lost, to investigate process and resist linearity are artistic aims made more possible by working with short fiction. The collection itself thus becomes a space in which to veer off course, rather than follow a pre-destined path to one meaning: what his fictions demonstrate is that when the ‘red thread of experience’ is cut (Benjamin, “Sketched”, 90), the two ends can be grasped again, fused and fashioned into an alternative.

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Experience and Poverty”. Selected Writings: Volume II 1927-1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, The Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 731-736.

Benjamin, Walter. “Sketched into Mobile Dust”. The Storyteller, trans. and ed. Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, Verso, 2016, pp. 89-97.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Aviator”. The Storyteller, trans. and ed. Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski, Verso, 2016, pp. 77-79.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”. The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, ed. Dorothy J. Hale, Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 361-378.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Modernist Miniatures: Literary Snapshots of Urban Spaces”. PMLA, vol. 122, no. 1, 2007, pp. 27-42.

Clark, T.J. “Reservations of the Marvelous”. LRB, vol. 22, no. 12, June 2000, pp. 3-9, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n12/tj-clark/reservations-of-the-marvellous.

 Dolbear, Sam et. al. “Introduction”. The Storyteller, Verso, 2016, pp. ix-xxxii.

Sontag, Susan and Berger, John. “To Tell a Story, 1983”. YouTube, uploaded by Everything has its first time, 3 Feb 2017, https://youtu.be/MoHCR8nshe8.

 

 

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tricycle, 1970.
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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.