March 29, 2007

Going Under: Six-Feet High and Rising

What verb would carry the tension of moving across the streets of Cairo, Illinois? It isn't a space you can simply drive through, pass through, or site-see since the sites are enough to singe your sight; the cliche about seared images finds its truth in that modern catastrophic space. Route 51, neglected, takes you into there, past the waves of social and political abandonment. Gas stations are closed if not rusted, lots lie in rot, and there is one busy liquor store with barred windows. The warehouses and brick structures close to the river are large, towering, crumbling. Poised between the Mississippi and Ohio, whose commercial life has by-passed it, the landscape is a surreal mix of lush land, rural decline, and the aftermath of late-sixties race riots, as if Watts had been set down in the middle of Kansas in 1965 and left, all but forgotten. The difference is that the race war in Cairo, the last segregated city in Illinois, and already all-but left to its fate, lasted years.

Beyond the broken remains of the race-madness nightmare, the scale of the town that should hold 20,000 and now has a population only 2,000, makes it impossible to comprehend initially. It is rare that in America a traveler has to construct a narrative for what is encountered. We've become accustomed to so much sameness, readily apprehending the smallest degrees of difference in an eye's reach. The only word that comes to mind in the context of Cairo is: plague.

Still, those 2000 people do live there. You see them clearly against that vast backdrop of broken brick structures. Boys are playing basketball on grass-invested asphalt; a man in his 40s walks with purpose; families sit on their porches in the day's dimming sun; teens gather in the liquor store parking lot; a windowless building named "Club 51" promises dancers, and you can only think of the pretty girls in that parking lot and what it is they might otherwise do way out there in the middle of farmland and swamped by those huge rivers.

And how long before the following occurs:

To enter the city you pass through a tunnel that goes under the railroad. Hanging above the entrance to the tunnel is a huge blue steel gate. The land outside of town (mostly farm land) is also protected by levees. But, should the pressure on the Cairo levees become too great, the city drops the gate at the back end of town and then dynamites either the Ohio or Mississippi levee further up. This drastic action allows the flood water to pour out over thousands of acres of farm land and so relieve the pressure on the city levee. At that point Cairo becomes a sunken island surrounded on all sides by nearly sixty feet of water. The scheme of a lunatic no doubt. Some day the rivers will win.
We have our own Old Testament tales to borrow from if need be. After reading the scenario above, how not to reach for a post-Tsunami image from Taryn Simon (above)? Or one of her post-Katrina images (below)?

A cataclysmic exposure saturates and spills over the imagination, starting a process of absorbing the future encounters with misery and the dreadful, lending some sense in the wake of the troubling and troubled passage through a landscape of floods past and future. But if there is another haunting in making some claim to having been haunted by what we witness, it is the sensation that the images overlaid and the meanings lent are insufficient, our confluence of the two a wrongful cultivation. The metaphors of flood and destruction and the dire consequences of poverty are temptations better laid aside.

The goal then is to hold at once to the unknowing bewilderment and anguish of the original seeing and the discovery of a language and analysis that will do justice.

March 18, 2007

More than the Eye Can See

Explaining why she shoots in 4x5 negatives, photographer Taryn Simon says that those large, now antiquated, light-sensitive membranes capture more than the eye can see. Light passes onto the film only to be pushed back through in the dark room. This breathing of light births a "reality" beyond that which was apprehended at the time of the shutter's release. Thus we encounter more than could have otherwise been seen and Simon explains that such luminous expressions ideally lead to large prints on a museum's white walls (her new work is currently at the Whitney). Removed from the political and purposeful, she says, the images are, as art.

Given the meticulous preparation required while working with a bellows camera, as a matter of ethos Simon eschews the contemporary digital habit of preserving all manner of shapes, textures, and moments. I've never stolen an image, she says. She is referring not only to the kind of pictures that are flooding onto Flickr (almost always some 2,000 a minute) but also to the long tradition of the street photographer whose lightweight (Leica) apparatus is always at the ready, poised for the quick-click gesture that seizes a moment's composition.

Simon's subjects are therefore not seized, but co-authors in her work (like the men who at long last were proven innocent of crimes wrongly attributed to them by the force of surveillance and photographic evidence).

If the spaces of her current project (An American Index to the Hidden and Unfamiliar) are remote, obscure, and otherwise unseen realms, this is no Farm Security Administration documentary project intent on bringing facts to light. Her entries into zones that are out of sight are always accommodations. She works her way in and creates. And yet there is an abundance of vision to be found through her large negatives--rendering something beyond the reality she thought she finds, the art of the image breathed into being.

While she claims that craft and removal from ideological "use" constitute her work as art, the fragile excess of the negative surely suggests something of the archive's spirit for interested knowing. Here art feeds history. Traces of the imperceptible forge the tentative alliance between past and present as meaning waits to be discovered. The images are thus proximate as images, bringing their subject matter close and imbued with affect, but also moving away, as if holding their essence in reserve.

Unlike Simon's precise compositions, the Flickr phenomenon suggests something monstrous with its vast excesses. There, instead of the fine (artistic) vision of the discerning look, we enter an accumulating archive: images in an ever-heaping presentation. They come in a constant wave: cats and babies, post-industrial settings and graffiti, self-portraits, proms, party poses, and the odd, forgotten objects. Trolling through this proliferation, it is easy to think of Susan Sontag's On Photography and her call therein for an economy of the image. She wanted to slow down the desperate need to mark experience with its banal, touristy traces.

But what is striking in much of the current photography circulating is the degree to which it announces the experience itself. It is not a placeholder of some "time," but it is. And what it is, at the same moment, is deeply formulaic. The pictures posted and shared, whether in the irrepressible smooth clarity of the those using Canon cameras or the muted, aged quality of the Polaroid compositions--often coupled in evocative diptychs--is evidence that we are drawn to seeing the world in a particular way; our sight, like some expression of collective memory, moving along well worn lines, waiting for the history to emerge from the abundance and grant a glimpse of the excessive and elusive meaning.

March 3, 2007

The Look a Line Contains

Not simply re-reading, but reading as remembrance, with a sense of the inherited layers: measuring the difference between working through W. H. Auden’s canonical poem about “suffering” reduced to “some untidy spot” today and the first time those words were found, twenty years ago. Then it was there to be read precisely because of its canonical status. Still, it immediately struck a nerve of sense. Done with Donne, the romantic bramble cut through, all of Pound’s impossible allusions cast aside, none of Bishop’s demanding banality. Half of a page in the middle of the introductory anthology, it stood plain, clear, and contained.

A boy falls from the sky and the ship sails on. The world’s living textures were all so imaginable—the waxen wings gone and the bare boy legs just there in the boat’s white wake.
It was read then on a campus in Santa Barbara, probably in between classes, and there in the plaza outside the library, all around the pavement radiated back the warmth of the slow sunny afternoon. It is easy to recollect such days; the lightness of a backpack, the easy pace, wearing the ratty Converse, a Madness t-shirt, a small, discrete band of leather around the wrist instead of a watch. That talisman was brought back as a gift from Colombia by a girl named Booker whose father was Dutch and mother from South America. (There is a way of inquiring into the transatlantic paths that brought such people together but I didn't know anything about that then.)
Sitting in the sun on a wide campus, the textures of daily life were more important than text itself, and certainly more important than figuring out what it might mean that Auden was showing something essential in the citing of Breughel, or what it might mean for him to be in Brussels in 1938: where and when one could buy a postcard of King Leopold III as a pilot adventurer; when the war was coming over the horizon, just a month after Kristallnacht had burned its warning into the Jews of Germany; where and when Paul de Man was himself just a restless student earning a degree in chemistry, two years before he would write collaborationist pieces for Le Soir promoting the rigors of a scientific treatment of literature, and long before he would create the textual alchemy that tried to make history, even his own, disappear into impossible translation.

Auden felt clear then, and he feels right now. The failure of apprehension is common enough, more so when the sun shines or the business at hand turns the eye from other recognitions. So it was that
the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy failing out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Now that it is a colder time, another life being lived, it is easier to hear how such poems gather memories upon them. The words carry their meanings but also the strange and uncanny affects of all those other times, places, and ways of encountering them. Instead of the anthology with its decontextualized, sterilized and fossilized exhibit, now “Musée des Beaux Arts” is seen in its rightful place. It is needed to make sense of the cold currents through which the expensive and delicate sail. So spurred by a reference in another work, one is lead to the volume of collected Auden, where the tale of Icarus is adjacent to a poem called grounded in the date and season of its creation, “Brussels in Winter”:
Wandering through cold streets tangled like old string,
Coming on fountains rigid in the frost,
The certainty that constitutes a thing.

Only the old, the hungry and the humbled
Keep at this temperature a sense of place,
And in their misery are all assembled;
The winter holds them like an Opera-House

Ridges of rich apartments loom to-night
Where isolated windows glow like farms,
A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,

A look contains the history of man,
And fifty francs will earn a stranger right
To take the shuddering city in his arms.
W. G. Sebald instills such lessons of looking for that history, of looking for the history of man in each look out and back. The past is continually there in both the obvious traces of the photographs he so often uses, but it also saturates his works in the form of other works inherited, absorbed until they form a filter of seeing.

It is common to think of the memories of reading held in marginalia or annotations; underlinings making declarations. The richer sense of the past's return comes through the accreted associations with the words themselves, or the way we create the stories for pictures or the pictures for the stories and then take notice of the world, staring meaning into it.

This kind of memory is necessary, Sebald says, because “it is hard to discover / the winged vertebrates of prehistory / embedded in tablets of slate.” Unlike the absent fossil of the natural world, man’s history is written in a thousand carved scars of the earth, or in each tiny cringe before the self-mutilating memory. It can be seen and felt. It is in the dream of Icarus before that fall, “sailing in the midst of / the currents of light.” Earthbound, it is the great hoping “perhaps” that mirrors his flight, the possibility “you’ll see a golden coast / a land veneered with rain or / a schoolboy on his way home / over a beautiful meadow.” It is likewise in this passage’s echo of Auden; a memory that the suffering is hidden in those brief spells of necessary recovery, which is the mind’s work itself, a small, tentative flight waiting to be hatched.