This image is from the promotional brochure for the launch of Giovanni Boggeri’s avantgarde Studio Boggeri in Milan in 1933. I have captioned it Erect Egg to hint at my adopting it as a mnemic image or screen memory.
A screen memory is an enigmatic memory whose fascination seems out of proportion with its ostensible content. Its psychic power contrasts with the trivial seeming content. The term was introduced by Sigmund Freud in an early paper (1899). He described a screen memory as one that stands in for either a prior or a subsequent disturbing memory. It disguises the original shocking memory, while the persisting vividness of the screen memory (and thus does Freud argue) indicates the importance of keeping the experience alive in the psyche. He wanted to be able to explain ‘the occurrence of these mnemic images, whose innocence makes them so mysterious’ (Freud, 1899 in Standard Edition 3, p.307).
Certain photographers and painters are able to present a relatively everyday arrangement which vibrates with darker undertones and which can reach disturbing levels in the viewer more directly than an obviously shocking picture. Bill Brandt is one such. He can present an ordinary scene in an unsettling light which is far removed from the melodramatic devices of the film noire. Bill Brandt’s 1937 photograph of Halifax or the well known shot of Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill are good examples of this, but above all, for me, Top Withens, 1945.
In his metaphysical paintings Giorgio De Chirico used unexpected juxtapositions of elements from classical architecture and the paraphernalia of the designer’s studio (hardly everyday!) to create a tenor of loneliness and anxiety like his Song of Love (1914) or The Melancholy of Departure (1916).
‘The term metaphysical represented to de Chirico a search for the essential meaning behind the surface of objects. He beieved that objects acquire various meanings when imbued with the memory of their viewer. If that which de Chirico called ‘the chain of memories’ is broken the objects acquire a new and disquieting guise, “a ghostly and metaphysical aspect that only a few individuals can see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphical abstraction”‘ (Jose Maria Faerna, 1995 De Chirico, New York: Abrams). With names like The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon, The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street the paintings seem to me to be workings and reworkings of a screen memory. Thus they seem to be about both being left behind and an unknown destination. It reminds me of Freud’s statement ‘that two psychical forces are concerned in bringing about memories of this sort. One of these forces takes the importance of the experience as a motive for seeking to remember it, while the other – a resistance – tries to prevent any such preference from being shown. These two opposing forces do not cancel each other out. Instead a compromise is brought about… What is recorded as a mnemic image is not the relevant experience itself – in this respect the resistance gets its way; what is recorded is another psychic element closely associated with the objectionable one – and in this respect the first principle shows its strength, the principle which endeavours to fix important impressions by establishing reproducible mnemic images’ (op.cit. p.307).
An example of such an image Freud mentions in this paper, someone’s earliest memory dating back to the ages of 3 or 4: ‘a table laid for a meal and on it a basin of ice’ (p.306). The psychoanalyst aims to demythologise the screen memory; the artist to exalt it; he deals in tags and their untoward force. A comment about the works of De Chirico I discovered in a blog: ‘des oeuvres, parce que j’adorais deja sans le savoir’ expresses the latter view – I adored them without understanding. But it is the aggravation these images cause that brings them close to being screen memories.
I took this picture on an oil rig in the Fortes Field. I don’t know what it means; I think for me it is a screen memory and stands in for something I haven’t much hope of bringing to mind. Whether of not it speaks to anyone else in this way (as an engaging enigma) may determine its value as art.
I married Isis on the fifth day of May,/ But I could not hold on to her very long./ So I cut my hair and I rode straight
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless./How she told me we would meet again,/ And things would be different the next time we wed./ If I only could hang on and just be her friend./ I still can’t remember all the best things she said./Bob Dylan: Isis (Desire)
Well my heart’s in the Highlands, gentle and fair/ Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air/ Bluebells blazing where the Aberdeen waters flow/ Well my heart’s in the Highlands/ I’m gonna go there when I feel good enough to go. Bob Dylan: Highlands (Time Out Of Mind)
And all the time, something else may be happening, something to do with blindness, with lack of direction, as a route to realisation.
I took the picture in the Gorbals around 1966. I have just discovered the negative, which I don’t think I ever printed. It was probably disregarded as of little interest. But now I see it in a very different light. For me this image has magic.
I don’t recall my state of mind when I took the picture. I think it was probably the girl on crutches that was the subject because I have some close-ups of her playing hopscotch, which were printed. Those prints, however, are nothing compared with the one I overlooked.
As a piece of photojournalism, it records a way of life and has a certain pathos. The street is the only playground these children have. They live in tenements, or closies, and wear hand-me-down clothes. The close-mouth probably stank of cats’ piss. The street is also the everyday setting for women in coats and headscarves and shopping bags, hurrying to the corner shop run by an elderly couple or an eccentric old maid.
But this image is something else besides. It has, however, to be seen much enlarged to be appreciated, for then the grain takes over and the secrets begin to creep out of the dark and swim together. The distortion of the 28mm lens contributes to the mystery of the space.
Two things strike me then. The first thing is how the identifiable figures in the image become unknown- seen for the first time. But more curious is the merging of animate and inanimate objects that takes place. The sense is of arrested movement (not just stopped by the speed of the shutter), so that the plane of the photograph becomes a tableau.
I get the same eerie sense I get from a particular painting by Balthus: La rue, from 1933-35, and also sensed, if my memory serves me, in the slow- motion footage of Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphee. The archetypal aura of Raymond Mason’s marvellous bas relais: Carrefour de l’Odeon is also around.
The accentuated grain turns the tableau into tapestry in which the waste paper in the gutter has as much value as the little waifs standing in the middle of the road, or the gloomy immemorial buildings, like the inn in the top left corner. All this was unwitting, not consciously present at the time I took the picture; present, I choose to believe, to the inner eye, an example of seeing blind.
In the end, I don’t know what I am seeing here. In the Mandaka Upanishad it is written – gnaw the knot of ignorance. For spirit, according to Hinduism, is to be found in the cavern.
Is it such a contradiction? I think of the expression: flying blind – when you can’t see where you are going and rely for direction solely on your instruments. But even so, sight is implied – you can see your instruments. And it is also implicit in being the author of a photograph. Even were you to point a camera blindfold, the product must be viewed in order to exist in a way other than a thought or a piece of paper.
Milton’s poem On His Blindness begins: When I consider how my light is spent.. By derivation the word photography means the act of drawing with light. Yet seeing blind has a metaphoric value which approaches the aspect of photography that has always intrigued me without my being able to understand exactly why. What does it mean to be blind and to see? In the account of the healing of the blind man in the New Testament the two are sequential – once I was blind now I see – while in its metaphoric sense the states are brought much closer together so that they inhabit one another to create the paradox of realisation.
Often, moving around, and it was ever so, I see things that make me regret not having my camera with me – arriving for work early on a late summer morning to be confronted by the marvel of Victoria Street against the molten light reflecting off a thousand tilting panes – or the ethnic mix on a crowded bus, the perfect design achieved for a split second by two or three people engaged in heated argument or the moment when relatives meet again in the arrivals lounge at the airport – the forms of anger, grief, love, lust or playfulness evident in the language of the body individually or collectively, or some enigma. Even if I’d had my camera at the ready it would still be hit or miss whether I’d capture it.
And all the time something else may be happening, something to do with blindness, with lack of direction, as a route to realisation.
Taking pictures is not just about seeing; it is also making. In the Scots tongue, the word for a poet is makar. A photograph, if it is not simply facsimile, is the attempt to create poetry with light. What matters first and foremost, then, is having an eye, an expression for imagination where the eye is that of the seer. Wordsworth talks about the inward eye that is the bliss of solitude. This is not simply memory he refers to, but what the original sight has become. A photograph can be said to exist upon the inward eye, blind at the point of exposure.
Shinji Aoyama’s film Eureka is hugely successful in this regard. Apart from the grey half-light, much of the action takes place in the brilliant dark and this format of not seeing chimes with the story of post traumatic stress in a deeply poetic way.
Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ writes that the eye is not satisfied with seeing. He is referring, of course, to temptation: that looking leads to the desire for fuller intercourse with the object, physically and in fantasy. Here I am appropriating his statement to point to what draws the eye and may, perhaps unwittingly, in the process, and in time satisfy the soul. And I am implying thereby a state of not knowing, or blindness. In his Sketch for a reconstruction of Freudian unconscious, Andries Gouws writes: Metaphors of visibility and invisibility, being out in the open or hidden, tend to govern our conceptions of consciousness and the unconscious.
The other day, at 7.30 in the morning, as the bus I was on reached the end of Oxford Street at Marble Arch and was turning into Park Lane, I caught a momentary glimpse of the bus turning down behind us from the west, and, sprawled across the steamed up front windows of its top deck, the figure of a man leaning across to steady himself as he got up to go down the stairs to get off. What was so momentous about that?! What I saw was a blurred figure in free fall through thin air.
Interest changes and develops; an underlying process is at work. What caught the eye previously in the touched proof somehow fails to come to life. Previously there seemed a magic. But then the inner conjunction is gone. I always wanted to achieve the most acute definition, and chose my apparatus accordingly. But all the time in the back of my mind I held a preference for wide aperture and narrow depth of field. My dissatisfaction with such meticulously rendered images came to me as a gradual realisation, what I call the unthought known. Clear focus throughout is tantamount to saying that there is nothing in the plane of the photograph that is not known, all is defined and simply replicated. So blindness stands not only for darkness and lack of focus. It typifies the position of exploration in which vagary is opposed by the linear. Isherwood’s entitled his luminous memories of youth: I am a Camera. What takes me by surprise may flash upon the inward eye, but not necessarily at the moment I press the shutter; I have to wait as it gestates in a dark container. The darkness of the soul may be illuminated by the image darkly forming in the camera obscura, a transitional space.
Even so, the illumination is only so in a qualified sense, and has to be contrasted with preconception. The exploration is of the unknown, but not to make it known as in reportage. The aspect of photography that engages me is a celebration of the fact that the ratio of the known to the unknown is vastly weighted towards the latter.
Oh dark dark dark, wrote Eliot, they all go into the dark?
It all begins with failing eyesight and the impact of metaphors of fading light – Out out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow.
And I am old, Father William.
Or hasn’t it always been a kind of love of the dark with me? – low lights, sitting in the dark by the light of one small candle, the darkened theatre, never drawing the curtains to keep out the night, and, in recent years, night sailing when we passed through a dark deserted world of unsleeping sea that I would otherwise never know, yet dream of.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, I believe, defined “authentic” human being as a permanent state of “being-towards death”.
I took this next picture during a south easterly gale in the Cornish village of St Mawes on 8 October 2006. It was at springs and that month the tides were predicted to be exceptionally high; at full flood the sea was breaking over the street and overflowing the harbour. The forceful moon was hidden. The wind had been freshening all day and by nightfall had reached its full force, gusting to force 8 straight at the village. In the dark and rain-swept harbour it was hard to see to set my old Nikon F. At first I went for sharpness in the distance and then, in the almost imperceptible foreground. I took maybe ten shots and this is the one that satisfied me.
Lucem demonstrat umbra – the darkness shows forth the light.
Rilke ends his Elegies thus:
But if the endless dead woke a symbol in us,/ see they would point perhaps to the catkins/ hanging from bare hazels/ or they would intend the rain, falling on dark soil in spring-time. Rainer Maria Rilke: Tenth Elegy, Duino Elegies
But, as far as I know, this is not about death. Bion, the psychoanalyst, has much to say about being without memory and desire, but in a very specialised context, namely in his receptivity to the unconscious psychic events in the analytical couple. Here is the point at issue:
This is the dark spot that must be illuminated by blindness. Memory and desire are illuminations that destroy the value of the analyst’s capacity for observation as a leakage of light into a camera might destroy the value of the film being exposed. W.R.Bion: Attention and Interpretation.
It is that phrase: illuminated by blindness (where blindness is used paradoxically as both that which conceals and that which reveals) that strikes a chord for me as a photographer. Calanit Schachner has a series called Seeing Blind. There are two images of the West Pier, Brighton in there, which have particular appeal for me.
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T.S.Eliot: East Coker
So something lies in wait. To be discovered. Ah but, the intrigue is not always there. All anyone can do is wait or half-heartedly try to push through. But no, not even then does it happen. All unsuspecting, however, I may catch the scent on the breeze and desire kindles.
A year or two back, I had the urge to reread a book I read for the first time over thirty years ago. I recalled nothing about it except for a girl with an exotic name that figured somehow or other; the only impression she left on me was of someone standing in a doorway dressed in something silvery. That’s it. Even her name I couldn’t remember. And leaving through a secondhand copy I found – there it was between those unturned pages still -Sharon (not Rose of Sharon like in The Grapes of Wrath) Kincaid. Sharon Kincaid was the name. It sounded too plain now, not showbiz like then. I remembered the title of the book. Of course, I did.
So I started to read and as early as page 7, this:
This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search.. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something.
An immense curiosity!
What is the nature of the search? This is page 9.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me: so simple it is easily overlooked.
This is Binx Bolling.
The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighbourhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
To think my eyes had passed over these words before without registering, at least not consciously. It must have been the bit before it that set up the bookmark, and which, with the passage of time, had become planted in my mind as being about Miss Kincaid. Such are the mysterious processes of memory! Here it is:
This is page 8:
The idea of a search comes to me again as I am riding the Gentilly bus down Elysian Fields… Directly next to me, on the first cross seat, is a vey fine-looking girl. She is a strapping girl but by no means too big, done up head to toe in cellophane, the hood pushed back to show a helmet of glossy black hair… As the bus ascends the overpass, I discover that I am frowning and gazing at a noble young calf clad in gun-metal nylon. Now beyond question she is aware of me: she gives her raincoat a sharp tug and gives me a look of annoyance – or do I imagine this? I must make sure, so I lift my hat and smile at her. But it is no use. I have lost her forever. She flounces out of the bus in a loud rustle of cellophane.
Then it is the idea of the search occurs to me. I become absorbed and for a moment or so forget about the girl.
This is in fact not Sharon Kincaid. She turned up later on.
I felt on to something the moment I stepped into 12th Century priory church of St Bartholomew The Great, and returning with an air of high expectation I found there the shot I wanted.
When I was much younger than I am now I came across a book of black and white photographs, I don’t remember where, possibly in a secondhand bookshop or stall, or maybe someone was throwing it out. Anyway, it was a Swedish publication: Ur STF’s bildskord 1955/6 Swedish Pictures of the Year 1955, published by The Swedish Touring Club. The title, which I have by heart, was Årets Bilder (pronounced ore–ets – with the little circle above the Å). I haven’t seen the book in years.
Coming across this unlikely publication in the fifties was one of those chance occurrences that feels just right. Thematically the photographs would now seem dated – mountain landscapes, healthy walkers in national dress, elderly worshippers – yet they had a quality which fascinated me then and I suspect still would. It was the particular balance of dark and light these photographs possessed that drew me, together with an elusive focus which must have been characteristic of the lenses of the time. It is the type of picture I find myself going after today.
This is a bronze by the late Clifford Benjamin Cundy, 1925 – 1992. Here is his obituary in The Independent, 16 Apr 1992.
Sculptor in bronze, painter in oils. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, London and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and commercial galleries worldwide. Member of the Sketch Club. Member of the National Society of Painters. Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford to study engineering but spent more of his time studying art at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford and did not graduate. Friend of the Scottish sculptor, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, CBE, RA. He returned to England from Iran with the intention of becoming a monk, perhaps influenced by C.S. Lewis who was a don at Magdalen at the time, but instead met his lifelong muse, Hazel, who was to become his wife, so he gave up his intention. Clifford made all his own tools and equipment and did most of his own casting and finishing at Richmond, Surrey, England where he lived. His ancestor was Andreas Kunde, from Pommern, Prussia, born before 1762, who married Anna Clara Klatten auf dem Kutzenhufken also from Pommern, Prussia. Otto von Bismarck, the ‘iron chancellor’, had an estate in the same place.
My picture is in the remembered spirit of Arets Bilder.
Perhaps there are different influences at work here, however.
Wilderness has at least two meanings and both are present in this photograph from my series Men of the Road, taken in Glasgow in the sixties. First there is the wilderness of the slums, within a year or two of their demolition, and secondly, the wilderness that seems to inhabit the man engaged in the serious business of lighting up.
Figure and setting could be said to be in accord, but only, I think, in a facile sense. For the old wall and pilasters have a beauty of texture which for me is the seductive potential of the grain of black and white film.
By contrast, the inner wilderness of the man is likely to be inveterate.
This figure evinces paranoid anxiety, which differs from depressive anxiety in that it is concerned to cast the dead objects into outer darkness; it is a defensive position where objects are perceived as alien and hostile and are cursed with an instant ferocity.
In religious thought, for example in the writing of the Christian mystic Thomas Merton or in Harry Williams’ The True Wilderness, enduring the wilderness is understood as necessary to the refinement of the soul and a stage in the soul’s journey. There is something of this is what the medieval Christian ascetics called The Dark Night of the Soul, though here the witholding of grace was not dependent on the destructive urges of the individual, though this in itself is a moot point, but rather an initiative of God to test the person’s faith.
Yet is it not close to Klein’s depressive anxiety. Whereas wilderness in the monastic tradition placed its faith in emergence into a permanent state of blessedness, Klein uses the word position and means by it that a person can only visit the experience of reparation and restoration – progression and regression are permanently taking place in the maturing individual (a somewhat different take on the bleak Calvinistic verdict on back-sliding!)
And in Melanie Klein’s thinking on the depressive position contrasts with the embattled paranoid position which holds to alienation as a matter of life and death and may petrify into a state.
But notice the look of anxiety in the other eye, his left.
So what is the true wilderness?
This is not about a marriage of mine; nor is it, as in the title of Ingmar Bergman’s television series of the above name, any particular marriage, though inevitably partakes of both; mainly it is a way of bracketing some of my photographs taken over forty years. So this category comprises pictures which create for me an unexplored sense which lies behind the meaning of the word marriage. Here is the phtograph which recently gave rise to the idea. It was taken in the late sixties. My then wife was an accomplished dressmaker.
This next picture represents the period immediately following a row when it feels as though something has been irrevocably destroyed. Objects with which one lived in harmony have become estranged and the dread is that this has come about through one’s own actions. For what is spoiled to become vital again would seem to require a miracle. In such a wasteland one either defends one’s corner or prays for a resurrection. It is the latter position that Melanie Klein recognizes as a depressive anxiety. Whether my slanting image does convey the sense of disenchanted objects, I am unsure; I may simply be reading into it. But I am conscious of not wishing to resort to a pathetic fallacy and use conventional symbols of a wasteland. My photographs of the Gorbals presents a wasteland but within which there rises a vital spark.
The next picture expresses a sense of prevention. In a recent discussion here is how the state of ennui was described to me:
“Ennui is a rich word, and describes a way of seeing beyond that of most people coupled with a disregard for the humdrum and a fascination with the miniscule or un-noticed scenes. Ennui is a state of boredom but different. A glazedness or malaise brought about by lack of stimulation and leading to a disdain or weariness for all things.”
Compare this with the quote from Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit in my First Post
The next picture expresses that part of the self that is untouched by relationship and remains an exile within marriage. It symbolises the thing in one that, despite being known, is of its nature solitary and remains isolated throughout. Then the other is not experienced as being there and is only there should they choose to stay.
And this one speaks for itself or, as Rab Noakes (1972) put it:
I believed at first that Gaston Bachelard was a postman, in the same way as Kafka was a clerk. I thought of him riding round the French countryside on his bicycle in a dark tunic with red flashes. Now when I think of him, the wind rattles the slates, mice run in the rafters and the timbers crack in the grip of the ice, and, by that very consequence, I am snug within. “Great passions,” he wrote, “are prepared by great reveries.” I wonder now if my nature is longing – because I have named my picture thus:
The year was 1976 and later that year my younger daughter was born. When the news of her mother’s pregnancy came over the ship’s radio, I was in the company of roustabouts, roughnecks and Mexican welders, even an Oxford graduate. I was called an aged hippy and likened to Lee Marvin in Cat Balou. I chose to be flattered by that, but still I have not seen the movie! It felt like a liberation from a false self, but did not touch the deeper condition of distance.
There were some lovely guys out there. Many were from Mexico. One young cook’s assistant was always stationed like a gracious host as we filed into the comidor for our meals. He always greeted me with the same question: “Are you angry, Sor?” Of course I always denied it – until eventuallly I realised why he always looked a bit crestfallen by my reply – hungry it was he was saying.
Bachelard in his work The Poetics of Reverie (1960) poses the position of arriving at one’s imaginative self in words that make a man the author of his solitude. It sounds to me like the achievement of a lifetime that: to be able to grasp the full intent of that phrase of his; and certainly in 1976, exactly 30 years ago, I was far from any such blessed state, whether now I am any nearer. And, of course, poets die young, don’t they. But anyone who knows the writing of Melanie Klein will know that a position is not a state, and, although dependent on capacity, is always temporary and reached only from time to time. The depth of imagination must be like this, and the camera, therefore, a ritualistic reminder of such wonders.