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A Mystery unto Himself, David Campany

Preface of the book Oh Man, Lise Sarfati, 2016

The sim­plest or the strongest of these beings has been so designed upon by his expe­ri­ence that he has a wound and a naked­ness to con­ceal, and guards and dis­guises by which he con­ceals it. Scarcely ever, in the whole of his liv­ing, are these guards down. Before every other human being, in no mat­ter what inti­mate trust, in no mat­ter what apa­thy, some­thing of the mask is there; before every mir­ror, it is hard at work, sav­ing the crea­ture who cringes behind it from the sight which might destroy it. Only in sleep (and not fully there); or only in cer­tain wak­ing moments of sus­pen­sion, of quiet, of soli­tude, are these guards down: and these moments are only rarely to be seen by the per­son him­self, or by any other human being.” James Agee, 1940

A neo-​clas­si­cal col­umn, round and fluted, stands upright. It car­ries some of the weight of the struc­ture above it, but not as much as the non­de­script square pil­lar stand­ing at its side, cov­ered in neo-baroque plas­ter­work, chipped and unloved. Behind this prag­matic part­ner­ship are shop fronts, their metal shut­ters down. Every sur­face sweats a thin film of grease, grime or gum. Weak day­light per­mits flu­o­res­cent tubes to glow dimly. The air is thick and heavy, ren­dered in shades of muted grey. If the clas­si­cal col­umn was, and per­haps still is, the sym­bol of the high­est ideals of archi­tec­ture, of man and civil­i­sa­tion” this is, surely, a scene of insulted majesty. 

Lise Sarfati steps into the pierc­ing sun­light of col­or­ful morn­ing. She sets up her tri­pod and cam­era. Various men are also step­ping into that light. This is down­town Los Angeles. Skid Row. Maybe you thought skid row was an old-​fash­ioned term for hard times” or home­less­ness”. That is true, but it is also a real place, a place with cap­i­tal let­ters. A place where the author­i­ties have insti­tu­tion­al­ized the mar­gins of soci­ety they helped to cre­ate in the first place. Skid Row is offi­cial, the place where des­ti­tu­tion is accepted with the unimag­i­na­tive inevitabil­ity of fast food or bil­lion­aires. Skid Row is a fact and a metaphor. 

A pho­to­graph is a fact and a metaphor. So is a pho­tog­ra­pher. And so is a stranger. All are made up of the specifics of their being and the abstract gen­er­al­i­ties they embody for oth­ers. Fact and metaphor co-exist but they are dif­fer­ent. The dis­junc­tion leads to slip­page and mis­un­der­stand­ing, pre­sump­tion and guess­work. What are these pho­tographs?

Sarfati frames her street scenes with the pre­ci­sion of an archi­tec­tural pho­tog­ra­pher, giv­ing form and pur­pose to side­walks and build­ings that had no expec­ta­tion of being doc­u­mented. She waits until into her view comes a man with equally lit­tle pre­sump­tion, and an equally prag­matic facade. As he passes or pauses, the camera’s shut­ter is released. In one way or another each man mir­rors his set­ting, the col­ors and pat­terns of his clothes affirmed by the walls; the tex­ture of skin-​some­times light, some­times dark-​con­tin­u­ous with the patina of paint­work and con­crete.

A cam­era has a way of turn­ing things into signs of them­selves. Enigmatic signs, of course, because what the cam­era lays bare with ease it is unable to explain. It turns spaces into stages, fig­ures into play­ers, facts into metaphors. It makes the world the­atri­cal and dra­matic but in ways that sig­nal that the­atre is never all, and never enough. In a pho­to­graph mere fact may put itself for­ward as the propo­si­tion of a sym­bolic whole, only to slip back into mere fact, a col­lec­tion of observ­able details.

We know the spaces we make are not really stages. We know the peo­ple we see are sym­bols of noth­ing but them­selves. But a photographer’s height­ened per­cep­tion may encour­age us to heighten our own per­cep­tion. This is why the drama of rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be more com­pelling and more pro­found than any rep­re­sen­ta­tion of drama. The drama of rep­re­sen­ta­tion does not rely upon ges­ture, or the lost moments before and after the moment of expo­sure. Depiction is drama enough.

Strip your Louis Quatorze of his king gear, and there is left noth­ing but a poor forked radish with a head fan­tas­ti­cally carved.” Thomas Carlyle, 1846

The light that cre­ates these scenes is intense. The glar­ing sun and plung­ing shad­ows are uncom­pro­mis­ing. To me this light sug­gests that expe­ri­ence of light that comes when we emerge from the dark­ness of a movie the­atre and it is still day­time. The eyes adjust soon enough but the mind takes a lit­tle longer to make the tran­si­tion from one world to another. The motion of the film falls away, and your relaxed limbs must stiffen for walk­ing. You squint into the bright­ness and what you see in those moments is lucid but dis­jointed, like the par­tial rem­nants of the film you have just expe­ri­enced.

We tell our­selves we go to the movies for the plea­sures of the film as it unfolds. But what if we accepted that the unfold­ing is merely the pre­lude to the inevitable work of mem­ory, with its unruly con­den­sa­tions and dis­place­ments (as Freud put it)? What if we accepted that the task of cin­ema is to leave us with vivid and dis­jointed moments? What if a two-hour movie is the booster rocket that falls away once it has put into our orbit just a sin­gle impres­sion, indeli­ble and inex­plic­a­ble? Well, that would be more than enough. After all, most films are entirely for­get­table. And what if a pho­tog­ra­pher, whose medium can only ever deal with the vivid and dis­jointed, accepted this and worked with it? 

Walker Evans (a man who knew a thing or two about pho­tograph­ing peo­ple on the street in bright light) once described Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye as a mar­velous bunch of pho­tog­ra­phy”. It’s a movie about men expelled from the noir-ish pro­tec­tion offered by the shad­owy past into the cruel sun of con­tem­po­rary Los Angeles. There is nowhere to hide. Is mys­tique of man” is exposed for what it is? When Evans pho­tographed men on the street he wrote: Sometimes his hat is a hat, and some­times he has molded it into a sort of defi­ant sig­na­ture.” Sometimes a fact is a fact, and some­times it’s a metaphor. We can­not know for sure, because the life that would explain these details is miss­ing. In pho­tog­ra­phy we only have clues. 

Lise Sarfati has spo­ken of the influ­ence of film­mak­ers on her still pho­tog­ra­phy, notably Robert Bresson and Jean Eustache. But it will do you no good to look for any­thing obvi­ously cin­e­matic in her pic­tures. It is no use pon­der­ing whether these pho­tos were set up” (isn’t all pho­tog­ra­phy both a set-up and a doc­u­ment?) There’s noth­ing to be gained from pro­ject­ing nar­ra­tives onto these mys­te­ri­ous epipha­nies. No enlight­en­ment will come from the forced con­struc­tion imag­i­nary biogra­phies for these men. No. Sarfati’s rela­tion to cin­ema has more to do with those residues that movies can leave behind. A pho­tog­ra­pher can work with those impres­sions that insist on mark­ing us for rea­sons we can­not quite under­stand. Feelings that come mys­te­ri­ously from chance con­fig­u­ra­tions of con­tent and form within in a frame; visions that become their own invol­un­tary uni­verse. If all pho­tographs now have a trace of the film still in them it is because they stand in this resid­ual, mnemonic rela­tion to the cin­e­matic back­ground of all mod­ern expe­ri­ence.

But we need not over­state this. All the arts are related to each other and each has its own qual­i­ties. Those qual­i­ties shape its dia­logue to the other arts. How could pho­tog­ra­phy not have a con­nec­tion to cin­ema, the­atre and paint­ing; to lit­er­a­ture, sculp­ture and archi­tec­ture? And how could it not have its own char­ac­ter­is­tics?

Lise Sarfati’s pic­tures seem thor­oughly pho­to­graphic to me, but not defen­sively so. In adher­ing to some of those things pho­tog­ra­phy is so good at-​fram­ing, stop­ping, trans­lat­ing three dimen­sions into two, describ­ing in great detail, evok­ing the specifics of time and place, sug­gest­ing rela­tions between peo­ple and sur­round­ings – a gen­er­ous door is held open to the other arts. But just as impor­tantly the door is held open to the world itself. The pho­tog­ra­pher stands and the edge of that door­way and says look at it this way”. 

Depiction is, at heart, an act of affec­tion and empa­thy. This may seem an unlikely claim to make in our era of auto­mated sur­veil­lance and shop-soiled vision. But to make an image pro­found a pho­tog­ra­pher must look care­fully and intensely. And in look­ing they must close the gap between self and other, while know­ing that the gap will reassert itself in the for­mal­ity of the final image. The viewer is then con­fronted with this gap. If it feels pro­found it is because the gap is under­stood as a sin­cere invi­ta­tion to respond.

Back to shades of grey, the color has gone. Metal shut­ter again, this time dap­pled by light fil­ter­ing through the leaves of a wel­come tree. A man stands (a woman stands watch­ing him). Hooded he looks away. Above him is a shop sign N.A.B Sounds. The pic­ture is as mute as it is still. His back is straight. He is alert to some­thing. Something beyond the frame. We will never know what it is. We do not need to know. There is more than enough to con­tem­plate in the vis­i­ble world.

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