Today I took just two photographs as I was out and about, on and off the bike, visiting an old friend. Very often I do not think to take any photographs at all, even though the things I am looking at may be exceptional. At other times, I do not know where to stop, in a flow of ordinary events. Placing the camera before a thing or a someone, may have less to do with the need for an image of that thing or someone, and more to do with the act of winking a shutter, holding up a third eye at the world, as a sort of nod or gesture of acknowledgement. Other times it takes up where the image, that part of the world in focus, flows well beyond the capacity of the casual gaze, and beyond the capacity words to make sense of its emotional charge.
I have a friend who occasionally calls to tell me about a single photograph he has taken, or even one he has not yet made, but is thinking about. He may call again a week or two weeks later to talk about that picture again, having not yet made up his mind about it, considering some small alteration, or doing away with the idea altogether. Sometimes he will talk about an image idea so thoroughly, that I am left with the conviction that I have already seen it, an impression as sure as the print. The shutter moves very cautiously for this friend, and his passion for the slow image has recently got him involved in pinhole photography where half an hour or half a day may be what it takes to soak a receptive film with enough light to render the patient landscape. During this time, things that fall within the pinhole’s frame move and change at various rates. Heightened events, however, dissipate in the same solvent of time as the ordinary, so that the only things that stand out are those which do nothing at all, reversing the logic that action rather than stasis, makes the difference.
This position that he takes, of careful image making, is a legacy of the age of film, which he declares is on the rise, and anathema to the liberty, and the appetite, not to mention the nonchalance that the digital camera has afforded us to amass endless pictorial documents. In some ways, this technology has recast the world as an opportunity for images, rather than the image as an opportunity to bear witness to the world. While it is possible that amidst the habitual recording of every passing event, it may occur one day, quite by accident, that something unexpected and extraordinary or terrible falls into the frame, it is more likely that the particularising of a moment, in the urge to make it special, gives rise to the very banality that capture seeks to defy. But in any case, today I took just two pictures, so that when I look at them again now, and when I look at them again in the future, I am compelled to ask myself, not only “why this picture?” and “why that one?”, but more mysteriously “why these two pictures?” as image brackets to the day I spent with my friend.
The first photograph is of a child’s table setting I glimpsed through the fly screen of the kitchen window, at my friend’s house. It is a small kitchen, in a small house, with a small sink and over the sink, a small window, with the frame painted blue. My friend is a large person, and in this kitchen, and over this sink, he bends and moves with the the easy awareness of a child who has perfected the knowledge of her tree house, and knows how to tread softly and to reach across the room without going there, and handle things gently, but does not need to think about it. Very likely I have looked from this window many times, but not really thought much about what I saw, or even so much as seen what I saw, because when I noticed it today, I could tell that the child’s table setting had been there longer than time itself.
This little place, this little partitioned wedge of the garden that the kitchen window gives onto, presses in close to the boundary fence whose palings are painted in a series of cheerful pastel colours. The place seemed to me removed, far away in time and involved with its own history and its own moment in an unsell conscious way. That is, it looked to be acting out its heyday with the same commitment that the present seems to apply to itself. It was still playing, long after the child had outgrown its opportunity for pleasures and imaginings. You could still, theoretically, wander into this space, though when I went out there to get a closer look, I found that the meagre barrier of a wire gate, was enough to keep me on the side of the present, in no uncertain terms.
The partitioning was emphasised by the grass that had grown long and the tangle of weeds that lapped up against the green chair legs, and merged easily with them. And the chairs, too big for the table, ought to have had a look of abandonment, but instead they appeared as if they had been left to be themselves, and faced each other as expressively as if they had been inhabited by poets. When did the child last sit here? When were biscuits last served? When were talking cats in attendance, and guinea pigs welcome to tea? On the table, forks and spoons with severely bent handles arched across the surface and hung over the edge; one fork was bent backwards over an upturned rusted bowl in the centre. A creeper showed some interest in the ensemble and was making its way across the furniture, in the early stages, perhaps, of binding it all together. An aged mulberry tree hung its meagre leaves over the setting, offering thin shade. Who had dined with this difficult equipment, what laughter erupted as arthritic spoons failed to do their work? Such liveliness in this image, that held its place out there, day and night, rain and drought! As people slept in their beds, twisted cutlery maintained its constant and disinterested invitation to laughter and amusement, and from time to time, someone might notice, and then, in delight and curiosity, unsure what to say, respond in a way that demands no reflection and offers no insights, by taking a photograph. Yet what I saw was something that already was in the act of becoming a photograph, inhabiting the realm of memory, which is the same as the realm of forgetting. For the lasting picture blurs its surrounds, other allied events and images, and takes charge of the past.
For Jean Baudrillard, photography gave access to the inherent magic that is the silence of objects, outside the cacophony of interpretation, and meaning. “The photographic act consists of entering this space of intimate complicity, not to master it, but to play along with it and to demonstrate that nothing has been decided yet”. (Baudrillard, 2000, my italics. http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=126). I like that – nothing decided yet, because it goes counter to the expectation that photography provides a documentary reliability, a final word. Although I would probably be judged guilty of imposing a narrative on top of innocent objects – though it seems some narratives inevitably break through the secrecy of things, or things reveal them, not sequentially, but as a sort of narrative state (after all, Baudrillard said “nothing has been decided yet” hinting that it may be sooner or later – the rest of Baudrillard’s defense of the photographic act suits me well: that it is a way of accessing the silent centre of things. Although Baudrillard’s pursuit of a picture, in all its formal consideration, is more sophisticated by far than my own, it is in the identification of silence, as germane to the atmosphere of both object and picture, that my reckless little composition concurs with Baudrillard’s project. Perhaps I frame too much to resist the narrative that nudges through, but that is because, in spying on these things from the kitchen window, I encounter them as objects-spied-upon. Short of respectfully avoiding them altogether, tip toing away as if I had stumbled upon a secret ceremony in a forest clearing, I cannot resist their muted whispers delivered in a vaguely familiar language.
The second photograph I made that day was a view down the length of a tree lined estuary, running through the parklands that connect a series of older city suburbs. We were on our bikes, traversing the backways that I had never known before, and enchantment folded upon enchantment, as we followed the course of the waterways and mangrove banks. Early on in the ride, we raced across a wooden bridge and my friend called over his shoulder that Jumbo used to live on a boat in that part of the estuary. The story gripped me; I wanted to learn some more and became eager to know this place that hid its best secrets from view. Because, up until that moment, I had not even noticed that behind that thicket of green, ran a tidal watercourse. I want to take a photograph, I shouted. We turned back and peered over a high fence at the other side of the foot bridge, from which projected the broken, decayed upper half of an old hull, with the faded name, Lady Rose painted in fading cursive, inside the upper cabin. Behind her, deep and dark, the tidal stream curved in behind the arching mangroves and cotton leaf trees, so dense they hid the water completely from view, until you were on the bridge, and could gaze down her lovely way. So the famous Jumbo, of whom I had heard only enough to know that nothing about him could be contained in a precise frame, had inhabited this place once, had held fast in a small craft on this night black course. I imagined a boat too small to contain him for long, and wondered whether he was idle here, for the estuary seemed a still and lazy place, close though it was to the city. Like the table setting in the other photograph, this place was set aside for the habitation of other worldly beings. Children with fishing baskets and crab pots; adventurers seeking repose; old women with memories longer than time. And in the background, you could still hear the train signal and the traffic, and the shouts of players on the oval that lay open in the sunshine on the other side.
So I took a photograph. For the same reason I took the picture of the table setting in the small yard, because I could grasp at no words that would bring me closer, or help to understand, or explain this ancient, stirring feeling that these places caused. I did not take these photographs to guarantee a memory or eye witness, or to make a good composition, or to ensure the integrity of objects, or even because I thought they had something to say about the times we live in. In fact, the “we” of our times is distinctly absent from these images, these places. There is no moment, no epiphany, nothing to be said about a social condition. Nothing to be said, either, about photography or images, either their proliferation or their specificity. Two moments bracketed the afternoon with my friend, on the bikes, pushing up impossible hills and watching the perspiration saturate your shirt and arms and face, and your complete insouciance to the discomfort. Two moments of coming upon places outside of all time, fragile places, not ecologically, although the estuary probably is, but poetically, mythically. And that is how these images come to be the ones that represent not only that afternoon in your good company, but half a lifetime, of basking in the poetic and tireless zeal of your great spirit.