on the texture of things:
touching the limits of the photographic image
depth and surface of space
There is a way of seeing that explores in depth, penetrating ruthlessly the skin of objects. A way of seeing that does not hesitate as a surgeon's scalpel to cut into the body of things to explore the entrails. This way of seeing has always provided the photographer with a direction, a purpose which bred photographic themes, photographs. Or is it that the discovery of photography turned a particular way of seeing from an adventure of the eye to an object derived from a mechanical process? We could perhaps claim that this kind of observation found its absolute expression and at the same time its ideal objectification in photography, ensuring its role in the field of knowledge and its ability to demonstrate facts. Photography was able to capture and freeze the fleeting images which such a way of seeing - whether behind a magnifying glass or not - encounters in its exploratory wondering.
The photographic images which this incisive eye creates are these of details and fragments. The logic of this penetrating dissection often gives to the part, the disjointed fragment, the value of a deeper reality. From such an image one can extract conclusions or impressions which can characterize an absent whole. Thus, the object is better described through the exposure of its innermost sides that through the imprint of its overall figure.
Elevating the fragment through magnification is in a way an inherent characteristic of the photographic technique. Photography can create pictures out of pictures, A small part of a frame can become a self-contained theme. Isn't this treatment of the image's depth, which is becoming more precise due to continuous technical developments the most substantial affirmation of this surgical way of seeing1? Within the depths of the photographic image there might nestle a hidden truth. The picture itself may have captured a depth which we are unaware of. From the dramatized pursuit of the killer in the frame of a chance snapshot in Antonioni's "Blow up", to the modern spy-satellite's photographs revealing through enormous magnification every detail of the enemy's ground, photographic technique appears to support in every way the conclusion that the photographic image hides within itself the invisible, often inaccessible depth of things. A depth which gradually becomes the depth of photographic representation.
There is a way of seeing which rather than observe by cutting down, it embraces by unifying. A way of seeing which discerns in the horizon the aura of a self-contained world, where everything has its place, wondrous in its detail and its relationship with its surroundings. This way of seeing is not fascinated by depth but rather draws calm pleasure in the discovery of unity and self - sufficiency. It draws comfort from the revelation of a rich, orderly universe.
This way of seeing usually finds itsexpression in landscape pictures, self sufficientimages where everything appears to be in its place and nothing seems tohave an independent form orinherent value. Thisway of seeingmay find superficial satisfactionin tourist postcards sent fromall overthe world2. “Aerial viewsofcities or buildingssummarize in an image a whole world, as miniaturesoffering in a handfulwhat the lens managed toencompass in oneindividual picture; too much to be thoroughlyobserved,too small and almost invisible. The frame becomes a new horizon providingthe impression of a unified landscape.
Diametrically opposed to the penetrating dissecting magnification is anall-embracing integrating miniature. Wheremagnifying photography tearsthe objectapart to reveal the detail or the fragment, miniaturizingphotography distances itself inorder toencompass a completeand self-sufficient world, a world which is nonetheless finelyworked out like an elaborate artifact3.
Both photographic approaches arebased onthe same conviction: whatever isprinted on the filmis the result of therelationshipsof things “outthere”. The lens, like an all- powerful whirlpool swallowswhatever it meets.No matter howhard we try tocheckits power which is connected to factors like lighting, quality of film and cameratechnology, there will always besome details inthe picture whichwent unnoticed at the time of shooting. In this sense there is always something in the depths of the imagewhichhas notbeen mediated by the human representational will,some sort of autonomy of themechanical representation which makesthe image more real, more objective.
Are the pictures besieged by this text the outcome of a magnifying or a miniaturizing way of seeing? They certainly are the outcome of a plunge into the depth of the surface of materials - if one can use such a contradictory expression (can surface have depth?) Every pore of the plaster, every crease of a sheet-iron, every rusty stain, trace of paint, chiseling or writing, every scratch of the material, emerges naked in its most realistic representation. The lens seems ruthless, not sparing a single fault, not even a mark. Or is it, as we shall see, that these “accidental” flaws are its very theme?
These pictures seem to be trophies of a photographic expedition, in which the explorer, equipped with a telephoto lens, discovers in the body of materials and objects thedeeper substratum of form. This kind of photography, by definition fragmentary and dissecting, does not care to inform us about the origin of the detail. Which is the object, how big is it (therefore, how intense the magnification), how common or how rare: is it lost in an exotic rubbish dump or is it next to us, on the wall of our house?
As the limitsof the absent whole become vague,as we are becomingnot sure that what we perceive is actuallya detail of a specific object, the image assumes the characteristics of a self-sufficient totality. A strangeinversion takes place as we familiarize ourselves withthese pictures. Theeye nowlooks at the photograph froma distance interpreting it as a miniature. Thefragment suddenly becomes a landscape. A whole territory, a city, a rocky scenery isborn from the cracks ofa piece of wood. Whereas previously theimagewas the trace of a missing object, now every small detail is part of a complete universe unfolding itselfbefore thespectator.
Perhaps this maneuvering of the eye cannot be effective because it doesn't offer an unambiguous interpretative solution. Trapped in a continuous oscillation between magnification and miniaturization the eye is forced to distance itself only to plunge again to the depth of the image. This movement of the eye gives to the image the impression of movement. As if the folds of the substance quiver forming mythical landscapes, as if fleeting shadows trace figures which vanish in instantaneous flashes. An interpretative - aesthetic eruption?
A futile question: are these pictures abstract or representational? They could have been abstract paintings, but they are photographs and they affirm it in every way, Because they are products of an almost surgical photographic technique they are absolutely specific. Nothing has been touched, staged or altered. The realistic coarseness of texture is present everywhere. And yet, at the same time, the way of seeing that distances itself concentrates on structural shapes, areas of color, tonal intensities or illusory volumes. which we would usually describe as non-representational. This contradiction brings out an intensity in these pictures. These landscapes, abstract enough for the imagination to inhabit them, using impressions stored in the individual or the collective memory'1 are landscapes madeout of palpable recognizable materials. Could thisbe accomplished by a painting? We could perhaps claim that such ways of photographing reveal photography’s independent potential without imitating equivalent experiments in painting.
time’s depth and surface
Modern photographs are produced in minimal time. A fraction of a second is usually enough for a scene to be captured. It hasn't always been so. In early photography the model often had to pose for quite long periods of time.
The instantaneous imprint changed photography’s horizons. One can capture in a picture an event that evolves in a few seconds. Very soon the limits of human perception were crossed. Photography can now reveal that which the eye is unable to see. It can capture an infinitesimal moment hitherto non existent in human consciousness5.
Is this not a plunge into the depths of time, revealing the fragment, in this case the fragment of time, in much the same way as magnification focuses on the detail, and, like magnification, revealing a deeper truth hidden in the invisible side of things? Like the penetrating magnifying gaze, the instantaneous impression interrupts the continuity of time and dissects it while simultaneously capturing it.
This potential of photography has led photographers to a frantic search for the instant. Obviously it wasn't only technical advances that caused the flood of snapshots in magazines, newspapers and family albums. A civilization that perceives the flow of time as a frenzied succession of instants; a civilization of instantaneous communication, live broadcasting, automated production, electronic stock-market and super-fast transportation, gives rise to the impression that time is split into infinite moments, moments which simply heap up while remaining distinct (collected as they are in fragmentary images6.) The snapshot has now become both an aim and a trophy. The captured "special" moment is the proof of the event, its climax, its mark.
It is possible however that a photographic image, no matter how quickly taken, implies a situation with more permanent characteristics. Although the photograph always conveys a sense of the temporal or the transient, the image itself may give the impression of a time not captured but still, an eternal moment.
Images such as these have been created long before the invention of photography, for example in 17th century Dutch still life painting. Images that through the obsessive depiction of every minute detail of the object's external appearance denied the fleeting moment, expressing instead a calm order of things, a uniform structure, a way of life7.
The photographic “still life”, therefore, is an image that, even though it is born out of time's flow, refuses to accept its passing, expressing permanence, a persistence, eventually describing a world in which time has literally stopped. These images have something of the aura of the old photographic portrait, where the prolonged immobility during the exposure is reflected in the patient gaze on the faces of the sitters. These photographs remind us of painted landscapes and they often are landscape photographs, urban or rural. Even when they are photographs of objects the objects are presented to us as if we were gazing at a landscape.
Are the photographs in this book snapshots or still lives? The gaze pausing for a moment on a trace of paint is of a fleeting nature. Momentarily one's attention was attracted by an unexpected color, a surprising relationship of outlines, a shadow, a glint of light. Perhaps rain had just stopped, perhaps the sun had just come out, perhaps the air or some passing hand had just torn off the edge of a poster, a finger nail had just scratched the plaster, somebody had thrown a piece of litter or had just kicked a barrel leaving its ripped side exposed. Light seems to have marked the character of the moment, a passing light.
These pictures were able to capture such a fleeting moment. An instant image and at the same time an instant's image. The trace of time on the film is particularly convincing. The snapshot declares emphatically: «This has existed"8. Something as trivial as the meeting of a glance with the detail of a material's texture took place, it is over and done with. These photographs are no more than the remains of a chance meeting, the outcome of circumstance.
It is strange though: the theme is always a material in decay, with evidence of intense use, destruction and disintegration. These trivial incidents, appearing as totally insignificant events of texture, seem to narrate a more profound tragedy. What can the images of decay show, other than, in a most ruthless way, the consequences of the passage of time? What is the meaning of those smaller or larger alterations which seem to beemerging directly from the core of the material as rust does, or taking on the form of successive layers covering things as dust covers forgotten objects and neglected places? Do not these insignificant events represent a general situation, a condition, a result, or, more dramatically, an end? Can't a moment of shooting represent a complete and finished situation where nothing is happening any more and nothing is about to happen? Aren't these snapshots almost literally "nature morte”?
In these images there is the calm immobility of an eternal pose, the tranquility of a landscape. Not a landscape after the storm or after the sunset but a landscape that appears to be eternal in its frozen stillness.
However, something prevents the absolute crystallization of time in these pictures. It is the very way they were created. We are not presented with an arrangement of objects or a scene, nor a still life in the sense of an ordered universe of objects, as in Dutch 17th century painting.
The human figure as an actor or victim of the circumstances does not evidence the snapshot character of the image. There are only materials, surfaces, scratches, creases of texture and color. And on them time clings precariously. Is time caught on the texture of the objects affecting temporarily their appearance or does it mark them permanently? Is what is actually seen in these pictures as fleeting as time or as permanent as time's effects?
Do these pictures, metaphorically speaking, describe or narrate? Do they, in their own way, recount the passage of time, or do they suggest what eventually exists beyond time? There is here surely a contradiction. Something is aimed which is by definition impossible: to depict decay. However, decay ceases as soon as it is depicted. Photography in a sense is a rescuing from time, a bringing of time to a standstill, a suspending of time’s action. An instant of decay, a snapshot of decay is at the same time the whole drama of decay, decay as a situation, decay as it essentially is.
One couldn't perhaps find a sharper way to carry out the impossible task of photographing decay, than this plunge into the texture of materials. Not because decay is more apparent at the surface, but because the more complete it appears, the more it creates the sense that it may be characterizing an aspect, an edge, a detail, an accident. At the same time, the more the gaze generalizes, considering a fragment of time and space to be a general condition, a status quo, the more it looses itself in the details, the more it is seduced by a circumstance. If we assume that a “still life" has the power to confirm the end of time which, in a way, evokes a sense of death (no matter how calm a death scene may be), then the snapshot has the power to manifest the momentary which perhaps evokes the extreme density of life, the sense of the ephemeral. Is the brightness of the ephemeral a resistance to the absoluteness of the end? Who knows? Nevertheless, the photographs in this book struggle with this aporia producing out of it an aesthetic experience, connecting impressions to thoughts.
texture of image
No matter how close the eye gets to the object, there will always remain a distance that allows for the creation of the image and establishes the potential and the limits of vision. However deeply the eye penetrates, however deeply it probes and examines, it will always survey, and always place the object before it.
Nevertheless, these photographs appear to attempt to supersede the limits of a fixed gaze. They appear to defy the spectator's recognition and instead elicit the participation of touch. An elusive target indeed. The hand, feeling the glossy surface of the pictures does not meet any worrying or enigmatic obstacle that might require interpretation. The realistic texture looses its credibility. But suppose there is a sense that could be termed "conceptual touch". When we feel the coldness of marble as we walk through an imposing entrance of a building, when we feel the warmth of a carpet that we only see but do not step on, when in our reflective mind we hide underneath a wooden staircase or enter a steamy bathroom, our sense of touch is aroused with impressions fed upon memories of past experiences,experiences, that are being reworked, revalued and reborn in the tension of the moment9. If this conceptual touch» is instigated by a gaze and a disposition to relate with the environment in a given circumstance, then why can not a photograph provoke this sense of touch especially when it offers another aspect of reality and an invitation to relate with objects? Can these photographs perhaps be considered as proofs of a tactile experience rather than as trophies of an investigating reflective look?
Touch presupposes contact, therefore it inevitably brings about an entanglement in the world of objects. Even slight changes like the ones caused by the sweat and natural grease of a palm on a hard surface are enough proof of an intervention in the texture of things.
Touch, while knowing or, more correctly, recognizing, leaves marks on whatever it approaches. At the same time touch is itself a tracing out, as when we feel our way in the dark. This dual relation of touch and trace seems to be evoked in a peculiar way by these photographs. They present images of mental tactile tracing as they evoke haptic experiences. Simultaneously these pictures become tokens of a human relationship with the texture of things, tracing as they do the passing of human hand over materials. For it is not the aging and death of natural objects that is presented in these images of decay. They present objects, surfacesand materials that are products of the human hand, processed with intentional or accidental human interventions, molded by human life. If the passing of time has altered their surface, it is the passing of human time. It is always about the ravages of use or neglect. Whatever the case, any change was caused either intentionally or because it could not have been prevented, in spite of desperate efforts, by human hand. The drama of decay, that these pictures offer, therefore, is not a drama of natural decay as with the rock weathering on a beach, but a drama of historic decay.
A photograph that exhorts a visual or haptic tracing, a photograph that highlights texture's appearance as trace, can perhaps generate reflections on the trace's relation with time. Isn't photographic picture itself a product of time, time that has left its mark on the sensitive surface of film? Aren't the traces of objects or persons that appeared before the lens caught on this light sensitive surface in the same way as wet soil traps a fugitive's footprint? And if photograph itself is a trace10, if photograph is born as a trace and thus has the power to assert that it is a trace, is not a photographic tracking on the surface of things that reveals the tension behind photography's relation with time? Such an image constitutes a trace of time and simultaneously records the traces of time in the decay of materials. Such animage resides on the film surface and reaches our eyes as a moment embalmed, while at the same time pointing to the passage of time as it is measured by its traces, by the furrows that it creates while nesting in the wrinkles of things. And these wrinkles are not only measured by the eye but also recognized by a conceptual touch while recollecting past experiences. This means that in this parallel tracing where time marks things, and simultaneously the birth of the picture capturing those marks, a bodily relationship with the image is born, where vision and touch grope reflexively at the passage of time. And here perhaps lies a tension that characterizes these pictures. At the limits of a visual and tactile (although mentally mediated) relation with the skin of the object world, at the limits of a relation with time, oscillating between a momentary experience and a permanent situation, at the limits of a plunge into the fragment that simultaneously reveals self-sufficient worlds, an experience of history is indeed born. It is as if the real is created by the depositions of human culture on the environment, depositions that partially hide but also partially reveal earlier layers, depositions that are either formed slowly or born in the intensity of volcanic eruptions.
Photography balances on the edge of nature and history as it can register human events but in a natural way (as natural as light's influence on the film's sensitive surface). Photographic pictures that insist on probing in the undulations of matter rather than seeking human events or attempting to capture human expression, appear in fact to trace the chronicle of a "natural" history. However, it is the tension of their relation with time and space, the tension of their relation with the reflexive experience, visual and tactile, that connects them to human time, to history as a transcendence of nature's time.
A photograph cannot by itself narrate anything. We perceive a picture all at once, its form not being changed throughout a sequence of time. We can observe a snapshot attributing to it a meaning, supposing what happened before and guessing at what will follow11, but the picture itself does not unfold its meaning in narrative time as a novel or a filmic sequence.
As photography is not a narrative art, it cannot, while representing a historic event,restore the nature of historic time. On the other hand, a narration (with images or words) because it takes place in time, assumes historical meaning, i.e. relates to the actions of humans providing them with an interpreting structure12.
Perhaps, the photographs in this book although they do not depict events strictly speaking, can represent the texture of historic time. They achieve this, because they create for the viewer a kind of interpretative perplexity that makes him confront the limits of photography's pictorial certainty. Without the image being able to assume narrative form it is actually drawn into a vortex: Forced to pose the problem of time captured, the image is both forced to speak about time and break away from time. Although the image was born out of time's impact, it aims simultaneously to speak about the generalized effect of time that we call decay, as though the image can be excluded from this. This tension, discernible as it is in the depths of the image, can recreate the sense of historic time perhaps because it can show that this tension is the product of the relationship between a perceiving subject and the perceived objects, between the events and a viewer who integrates them in an interpretative sequence.
We have always thought that pictures can bewitch. They can influence the world not only because they can simulate it with an unprecedented accuracy, but also because they are an outcome of the form of objects, derived from the relation of objects with light, a relation that equally defines the way we are able to see.
There are two basic forms of sympathetic magic; one that aims to influence a being manipulating its created effigy, and one that counts on the influence exercised through contact, attempting to affect a being by practicing on something that used to be a part of it13. Both these forms appear to interweave in photography. A picture is an effigy, but at the same time a part of things, born out of things themselves. When as children we used to pierce the eyes of a photographic portrait, we wanted to harm the person depicted, so, in our way, we were interfering with a copy to affect an original. When we tear off a wedding picture we aim to nullify an event, to obliterate all of its traces, to change things by manipulating one of the consequences of the event.
Perhaps today, when a magical relation with the world appears so remote in the western civilization, at the very heart of the media news images assume their effectiveness in influencing reality by a kind of magical radiance. This radiance is intentionally and secretly kindled by a civilization that aims to control collective behaviors by manipulating the persuasive power of pictures. News images want to appear like exact copies of reality, idols formed on the television screen, simulacrums. At the same time, they present themselves convincingly as traces of reality, reality's imprints born as they are at the same time with the events they claim to represent. This image's ability to influence reality, its power to actually create reality, is based on photography’s double nature, a copy and a trace at the same time. News images can exert their magical influence on events not only forcing real life to be similar to its constructed idol14 but also contaminating reality through contact, at the very moment of the instantaneous birth of both the event and the image.
The photographs in this book, however, were also born out of a relation of contiguity with the world of things. A representational aim, willing to record reality with the immediacy of a documentary, attributes to them at the same time a powerful realistic harshness. What modifies then their relation with the real, what are the limits of their own distinct magic?
At the very opposite perhaps of news images, these pictures highlight the strain between similarity and contiguity. Their representational sheen is stained by doubt: details or landscapes, snapshots or still lives? On the other hand, their contiguity with their object is excessive. As every photographic picture, they were born as traces of things, but they equally draw attention to the traces human intervention leaves on things. Traces of traces?
If news images combine the persuasive power of the simulacrum with the immediacy of the trace in order to be able to manipulate reality, the pictures in this book stir the tension betrween simulcarum and trace, a wounded simulacrum and an excessive tace. Out of this tension a doubt is born concerning photography’s representational authority. A doubt about what is shown and what is evoked. A doubt about the ability of vision to recognize the texture of the world. It is as if the texture of the image presents and undermines equally the texture of things, as if the texture of things creates and destroys equally the texture of the image. It is as if conceptual touch, this hybrid assimilation of touch by vision, creates relations with images beyond the visual, relations that lead to interpretative adventures and irresolution.
Perhaps, with this photographic divination of matter on the skin of the world, the depth of space and time is felt, a depth that always eludes from a complete, definitive and clear photographic representation. Can these photographs then, balanced on the margins of thought and illusion, hint, through the tension of a representational crisis at what in the very depths of the image is not representable?15
1. W. Benjamin compares the cameraman to the surgeon who "penetrates deeply into [reality's] web». ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, London, Fontana Press, 1992, p. 227.
2. S. Stewart, On Longing, London, Duke University Press, 1993, p. 138-9.
3. The role of the dialectic between magnification-miniaturization in the manipulation of photographic images in advertising is discussed at length in S. Stavrides, Advertising and the Meaning of Space, Athens, Stachi Editions, 1996, p. 25-58.
4. J.P. Sartre in his work L 'Imaginaire described how an accidental stain may activate our imagination assuming representational content (Greek edition, Athens, Arsenidis Editions, p. 78).
5. A. Scharf, Art and Photography, London, Pelican Books, 1975, p. 181.
6. For an overall assessment of the contemporary civilization of instant communication and instantaneous time see: P. Virilio, The Lost Dimension, New York, Semiotext (e), 1991.
7. According to E. Bloch «The objects of bourgeois comfort manifest themselves quietly". (The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, MIT Press, 1989, p. 280) According to S. Alpers this “art of describing" aims to present the objects exposing every detail of their surface (p. 83). A knowledge of the world based on vision and possession, in the service of those who had«... a tremendous pride in possessions". (The Art of Describing –Dutch Art in the 17" Century, London, J. Murray, 1983, p. 100).
8. R.Barthes, La Chambre Claire, Paris, Cahiers du Cinema, Gallimard, Seuil, 1980, p. 148.
9. For an extended exploration of the symbolism of texture and of the relation between vision and touch here defined as "conceptual touch" see S. Stavrides, The Symbolic Relation with Space, Athens, Calvos Editions, 1990, p. 173-186.
10. J. Berger, On Looking, London, Writers and Readers, 1980, p. 50.
11. E.H. Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, Oxford, Phaidon, 1986, p. 51,
12. P. Ricoeur refers to the temporal features of action that call for narration («Life in Quest of a Narrative", On Paul Ricoeur, London, Routledge, 1991, p. 29).
13. See J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, London, Macmillan Press, 1987, chapter 3 p. 11 and on.
14. See J. Baudrillard, Simulations, NewYork, Semiotext(e) 1983, p. 116.
15. Thus extending to photography Lyotard's aphorism: "When the point is to try to present that there is something that is not presentable, you have to make presentation suffer" (The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1991, p. 125).
S. Stavrides, E. Kotsou 1996, The Texture of Things, (bilingual edition), Athens: Irida Editions