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.
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.
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.
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.
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?