leo photophile

Through a glass darkly

Seeing blind

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. 

 Lost property Lost property, 1966 (from Mysterioso)

And all the time something else may be happening, something to do with blindness, with lack of direction, as a route to realisation.

Affliction Affliction, 1993

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. 

 Four potatoes Four potatoes, 2006

 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.

Free fall Free fall (on the Northern Line) 2006

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.  

Bench Bench, Seville, 1984

November 11, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment