Anatomy of Photography: Extracts 1982-2004

In the first publication of this work celebrated writer and critic Julian Stallabrass shows extracted text and images, taken from a much longer project intended to make sense of a photographer’s relation to the world. The piece was originally conceived as a book but has also been shown as a projection of photographs with a voice-over.

Anatomy of Photography: Extracts 1982-2004

The latent image that formed the basis for these words was first imprinted on my mind at a time of illness. Running a high fever for weeks, the heat of the blood had scrambled memories, dreams, thoughts and imaginings so that they became present all at once, like images etched on overlapping panes of glass.

Still Life

How much is the fascination with photography caused by qualities which closely mirror the play of persistent illusions under capitalism? If people are treated like things, and things take on the liveliness and character of people, if people’s liveliness is constantly sacrificed to the production of things, then the action of photography is an ever-present metaphor for this process. Similarly, in lives governed by the invisible (by the rise and fall of stock, for example, where, to put it at its most material, the flow of electrons governs the ability of bodies to sustain themselves), photography’s equation of shade and substance seems fitting. So often in pictures people appear as zombies, unaware of each other, each driven by some single, basic principle to feed or shop. Whatever moves in photographs is pinned down within their frames, and what of its own accord can never move looks as if it might. Dancers are seized with instant rigor mortis but wooden tables may at any second begin to caper.

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Yet, despite decades of commercial mining of this effect, a remnant of the disturbance persists, and gives the impression that, with the slightest turn, the seductive could become sinister, that models could suddenly appear not as the living angels of the product but as Hoffmann’s creature, Olympia, an almost perfectly natural doll whose dead eyes are animated only by human attention. The source for that disturbance, especially if it is to be sustained, must come from outside photography; it must be a force that once more makes Capital itself appear arbitrary and alien.

Memory

Normally, the brain functions like an efficient enough computer. Since it takes resources to store information, the things used most are stored in the most accessible places.

Dreams and fever do strange things to the mind, though, letting it run free, cycling through and scrambling the lesser used parts of the memory and kneading it into present thought. Against that organic memory, patterned with myriad associations and affections, discrete periods collapsing into a single plane, shifting and flickering like the shadows of leaves in a breeze, how violent and arbitrary is the photograph, an immobile slice of the present.

Yet what extraordinary memories we have for these still, dumb pictures. Researchers tried to find out how many images people could recognise, after being shown them briefly once. The mind’s capacity outran the researchers’ patience—the proportion of mistakes the subjects made in recognising which pictures they had seen before was no different at 100 images than it was at 10,000. These images, crude though they may be, nestle in the brain’s branches like flocks of birds, ready to take wing at the slightest prompting.

The memory for images is only unlimited for recognition, not cold, unprompted recall. Does this go some way to explaining the ceaseless wandering of photographers? There is a character of Kundera’s who says that if you want to remember, you can’t stay in one place, waiting for the memories to come to you: memories are scattered all over the world, and it takes travelling to uncover them.

If it takes wandering to recover memories, this is because different places (even within the same city) are living in different times (or, more exactly, that each place contains many different times telescoped together in different configurations, a state-of-the-art factory amid cardboard dwellings), and that in walking from one to another, the processes of history can be a little uncovered each time. That concatenation of past and present in an environment is ideally suited to being illumined by photography.

London Winter

With little money and little prospect of getting more, the end of summer feels like a prison term as the costless joys of sunlit ambling and lounging are slowly withdrawn, and shabby interiors close in. There are few places more conducive to misery than Haringey in winter. The shuttered shop fronts and metal grilles over the doors and windows of abandoned houses are symbols of that confinement. Damp penetrates the skin; sidling up to gas fires, at a certain distance they burn, and barely further out do not heat at all, and their fumes make the temples ache and the brain slouch along.

Outside, disconsolate wandering about grimy streets, soaked with rain and trash, darkened further by winter skies; in my hands the absolute order of the camera, that sleek black box, drawing into itself the unformed matter of the street—plastic torn and muddied, newspapers become sludge, chewing gum, spittle and smudged cigarette ends. I am sick from months of inefficient exposure at low light, of reading 15th second at 1.7 in the viewfinder. Sometimes I see large rats loping along, hugging the gutters, at dusk.

Melancholia

Melancholia and photography have an affinity, I read somewhere, and it strikes a chord: I remember that as an adolescent I made a deliberate attempt, in the interests of self-preservation, to turn my destructive inward-looking mental forces outwards. First to detailed observation of the things about me, and later having picked up a camera more or less by accident (drawing attracted me more then) finding its indiscriminate recording and transformation of the world highly suited to my ongoing campaign against myself. The outer world became fiercely illuminated with the arc lights of the consciousness but that light emanated from within an enclosure which remained light-tight, except to flood itself intermittently with focused rays from outside.

Now when I remember those times—scarred by circumstance, those of mine and others, some of whom I hardly knew—it is very hard to call back the atmosphere, the dull misery of it, though photographs I took then bring me close to its borders, and I hold back from crossing. The fluid of that time, in which events breathed like fish, has been sucked away, leaving only memories of incidents flapping on the shore. I ask myself what it means to interrogate myself, to think things out and seek new things to think out—like walking with a camera, hunting images.

Mapping

It used to be that I could look at any of the thousands of slides that I had taken and map it onto a mental image of that area of city or countryside. The pictures would assemble themselves along the route I had taken, like the memory images of old in which people wanting to memorise elaborate speeches would arrange mnemonic symbols at intervals in an imaginary building or street. Photography was for me a memory of particular spaces and their interconnection along routes covered on foot. In this way, my photography seemed oriented towards completeness, a classifying project that mapped the passing environment and my place within it.

Now that unerring sense of direction has faded a little. The streets surprise me. Sometimes I find that I am not heading in the direction I thought or I stumble into some new area of a place and cannot immediately relate it to the parts I do know. I even become afraid of losing my way, a fear I haven’t known since childhood. Even in places I‘ve been before, memory proffers only clues and hunches, less often explicit directions. As I took more and more photographs, thousands of rolls eventually, the complexity of the map overwhelmed me. Now I look at slides and cannot place them at all, sometimes not to a city, never mind a street. These unplaced pictures are disturbing, scraps of myself that I have mislaid (we all shed parts of our identity along the way; occasionally the child that still wanders lost within our adult frame draws us up short at certain points, astonished at the people we have become and the things that we have become capable of doing). Yet, though these unplaced pictures trouble me, I don’t want completeness any longer. To want it is to resist change, I tell myself, to desire only the dead skin that the photographs peels whole from each visage it records.

The Beach

Memories within memories: it’s the middle of the day and almost everything lies still in the thick heat. Most people have made it to the beach by now, nursing the results of last night’s indulgences behind their shades, and the strip of sand has become an unbroken checkerboard pattern of sand, towelling and flesh. Very little moves. A few children splash, a limb dangles here and there in the air.

The sun is so bright that it outruns the speed of my little camera. Slowly, it turns in the sky and the still flesh changes colour. I pick my way among the bodies, greeted with a few suspicious glances, since most movement is up and down the beach, rather than along it.

This small silver camera is conspicuously bright. It takes pictures, without fiddling, in a time just longer than an instant, as the lens adjusts. I photograph strangers piled up on the beach. That stuff on which they lie, sand, and the rocks and glass I see, it’s mostly silicon, isn’t it? Under the hard sun, one can imagine that some terrible disaster has overcome them, and here they are, struck down, under the weight of that light, so burnt by it that they have become husks of themselves, bright simulacra of living beings.

But they do respond, these creatures, and the suspicion of the beach’s inhabitants is not ungrounded. I tell myself to concentrate on pulling those shapes and colours into structures that make pictorial sense so that composition and gesture and meaning come together. But among those bodies, all equal before that task, my eye tends to wander towards firm female flesh, so that the checkerboard pattern is overlaid with a network of desire that lays down pathways for my footsteps and glances. There are pictures I have which, when I look at them now, were obviously pretexts for capturing the shade of some unattainable beauty, snatching from her a portion of her light. While I may feel compelled to take them at the time, even at that moment I know that they will be inadequate records of my attraction to some mysterious presence, expressed in a stance, the way of holding a head, the curve of flesh in an arm, the flickering of muscles across a slender back—love at last sight, as one poet tartly put it.

Dreams and Stories

Dreams about photography: A succession of visual wonders passes before my bemused eyes; people in the street arrange themselves in striking compositions, ‘history paintings’ of the present in which every gesture is laden with profound if, for the time being, unfathomable meaning; light falls sweetly, raking the facade of some ancient factory, picking out the most significant details, and those alone; the sun suddenly cuts through lifting mist, revealing a green swathe of some heart-rending landscape sloping into a glittering sea; or objects tossed onto the pavement collude to gather in geometric combinations of poignant significance.

Sometimes before these marvels, I search for my camera but fail to find it. Or I find it but forget how to use it, remembering just enough to know that I have messed up every frame. Or the camera has become covered in damp sand, fine grains fatally insinuating themselves into its mechanical crevices so that the dials grind rather than glide. Or I remember well enough how to use the camera, but as I go to push a lever or turn a dial, the machine comes apart in my hand, the base-plate falling off, the wind-on lever limply refusing to advance the film, the lens hanging from the body, the film exposed.

On my convalescent walks on the common, the clouds fly, the wind blows against the trees—a concerted breath—the leaves hiss, and the sun revolves. All this goes on regardless, naturally, of my presence. I take a few odd photographs—of bare tree trunks struck by the cold sun—and, yes, I am still able to pitch the insides of that black box against time, to seize and fix time, with the violent cutting of shutter blades. Use Kodachrome because its colours are known to last at least fifty years without fading. But now that act alone seems futile, now that I fully understand that I can fade, while all else carries on—and those thousands upon thousands of slides that I have taken and hoarded, what would happen to them? Faded or not, tipped into some landfill site, littering it with their white frames, in their momentary flight fluttering like gulls. So I begin to see why I have noted down these thoughts, memories and dreams, and why they have circled about photography. What is important is not to grasp moment alone but movement, and for that collage, construction, story-telling, art are needed. Photography is hardly adequate in itself, the less so in an environment which is hostile, intellectually, commercially and politically. Without the telling of such stories, though, we are trash ourselves, borne along by the current without consciousness and carried, individually or collectively, to the inevitable falls.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 4, 2005 – Anatomy of Photography: Extracts 1982-2004
Commissioned by Photoworks

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