Friday, July 24, 2009

Two shapes, part 2

Yes, it was vainglorious. In the first part of this post, I entered one of my own photographs in competition with an image by Bill Brandt. For that I can plead only education. In the context of my page on my blog, Brandt's picture of a gull seems to be a disinterested nature study: something to be seen by means of the pleasure-granting discipline of the eye that the ideological photographer Robert Adams disparagingly calls "icily aesthetic." In the context that Brandt gave it, however -- the context of a picture book about the British class system called London in the Thirties -- his gull belongs to the political ecology of a human empire.

[Source for the Adams quote: see my July 18 post "Body language."]

So Bill Brandt would probably have found Robert Adams companionable on that bridge over the Thames. You can train your eye to a didactic way of seeing Brandt's bird soar toward you through a cloudy dawn -- and for all I know, you can alert yourself to spot the teaching moments in my image too. I thought I was only taking a picture of a raindrop on a flower, but flowers and raindrops have connotations beyond my control, and so do I. The flower I photographed is an introduced species, for instance: an alien in Hawaii's fragile island ecology. My ideologically minded colleagues at the University of Hawaii turn biological data like that into political parables about colonialism. I don't. But after all, why did I take my apparently trivial, apparently merely pretty picture? In the nature of what it means to be human, I don't know my own motives. My life governs itself by an unwritten politics to which my language has no access. The curve and color of a petal share their mute citizenship with my eye in a domain on which my consciousness can never be more than a blundering tourist.

But what if I take my political tour in a world that has now been emptied of all its original meaning? A world that can now speak only to tourists like me, and only in our own tourist pidgin? A world, for instance, that died more than 3000 years ago?

(Joan Aruz et al., Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and 
Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Image from TLS 24 July 2009: 10)

"Who," as an old document educationally asks us, "are these coming to the sacrifice?" I see the image in an illustration provided to me by Yale University Press, a part of my culture; but I have no way of seeing within the image's own culture. I don't know what ritual significance the worshiper's hat and clothes are intended to communicate, for instance: their shape, their color. And the labor of archaeologists may be able to attach a name to the image's object of worship, but the only sense of adoration that the image can communicate to me now originates in its namelessness: the man's or woman's eyes, the gesture of the hand before the unspeaking mouth.

And what is it that covers the mouth? A beard, a chain, a garland?

In the unknowable I have to come to a stop. To react by saying something engagé such as, "The moral is, The looting of the National Museum of Iraq was a crime!" seems to me to overlook a tract of the void which the image has vouchsafed to open for us: a tract which (if it were open to exploration by words) might bear a sign bearing the fascinating warning, "Meaning inaccessible beyond this point." On that ground, all we can do is look at the curve of the idol's arm -- just look; and be grateful for its existence, since if it had disappeared it would have disappeared without a trace in memory; and then, if we can, love it.

And then, strengthened by love, go in search of another idol, one which may (if we're lucky) be sited just on our side of the border of unmeaning. For instance:

Bill Brandt, "Doss-house in South London."  
London in the Thirties, image 35. Click to enlarge.

The chamber pot in the lower left corner of this image is clean. Once, too, somebody in a factory stamped the curve of its outer wall with a small design. Almost exactly halfway along the diagonal from lower left to upper right, wrapped like an item of expensive charcuterie in a black box, lies a man's head above a startlingly white (night?)shirt. The whiteness, no doubt, is an artifact of Brandt's high-contrast print. Above the shirt we see the whorl and flange of the sleeping man's ear, and his hair, and then something else startlingly white: the wrinkled tonsure of his bald scalp.

When this picture was first published, in a magazine in 1939, it accompanied an article called "Unchanging London" which paired Brandt's image with Gustave Doré's "Scripture Reader in a Night Refuge," an engraving from 1872 (Haworth-Booth, introduction to London in the Thirties). The political information generated by that juxtaposition is obvious. For that matter, it could be generated just as easily now, seventy years past 1939.

Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold, London: A Pilgrimage
(1872; rpt. New York: Dover, 1970) 143

But the formal qualities of the two images are different. Like London in the Thirties, London: A Pilgrimage is a book about the extremes of wealth and poverty. Doré's engravings, however, luxuriate in a wealth of tonal range, regardless of their subject. For Bill Brandt in his last years, seeing was a matter of desperate extremes, all black or all white and little in between. To imagine a colored print of Doré's engraving is easy, but it's horrifying to think of the white scalp of Brandt's victim in the shade that Crayola used to call Flesh. Brandt, who was introduced to his teacher Man Ray by Ezra Pound, is an artist of the twentieth century: the era when photography first liberated painting from the idea that a picture has to be a picture of, and then liberated itself. The important thing about that scalp isn't the life circulating through it, out of the picture's ambiance; it's its pallor and wrinkled texture. So far as the picture is concerned, the man is only a scalp, and the scalp is only a thing to be sensed through the organ of sight.

Of course there's an icy horror in that icy aestheticism. As a human being, Bill Brandt, the great British documentarist of World War II, was so sensitive to social nuance that after he moved to England from his native Germany in 1931, he tried to make people believe he was a native Englishman. (Mark Haworth-Booth, "European Background" and "The English at Home." Bill Brandt Behind the Camera: Photographs 1928-1983 [Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1985] 8, 12.) But finally the shape of the man's head in his image is only that: a shape. Inside the shape there's no more meaning than there is in the desert which once swallowed and then yielded up a Babylonian image. What didn't resurface with the idol was the words it was intended to evoke. Our recovered treasure is only the geometry of the worshiper's hand and extended figure, gesturing before a mute mouth.

But that's a kind of treasure which not even Sotheby's can value. This treasure has its place in our own chests, in the surge that grows as we wait for the gull in Brandt's image to come to us.