BirTH

Birmingham Transmedia Hub

Trace Elements


Time, place and unfinished lives

“If reason showed rules in cities, it is better certainly for great souls to inhabit small houses than for mere slaves to lurk in magnificent mansions”
Alexander Wedderburne, Town Clerk, Dundee (Dundee’s Lockit Book circa 1600)

Our perception of the urban environment is never simply a question of processing spatial data or having an A-Z knowledge of the area, but of our awareness of the human condition and our innate propenstity to make judgements upon it. It would be no different if we were to memorise the ordinance survey, wax lyrical from a glider high on the therms above the town or tramp from pub to corner shop daily in an attempt to come to terms with this little arc of earth. Some form of mental mapping takes place, a filtering and coding of the information not subject to the topography, but to impressions, assumptions, incomplete prior knowledge. In our search for a bigger picture, there will always be more than enough leads to follow, yet it is impossible for the human brain to comprehend total reality; we select what we can manage at any one time, personal landmarks which we assume will remain constant. Thus, when change takes place, it is far more acutely observed at a distance.

In ‘mono 68’ we have what might pass at first hand for an enquiry of sorts, perhaps a personal reaction rather than a dispassionate documenting of the times. Yet the camera is particular. Its range is assured, its timing perfect. In these intimate images, in the telling of the story now, there is every reason to imagine great souls inhabiting small houses, no matter how many centuries have passed - with the spirit of the town carried in the faces and fabric as the year came to an end.

These images are in effect, their reality, the unconscious lived experience which gives rise to our conjecture in the present, to the conscious, constructed facts we assume. We might regard the old photograph as our own reality enclave, connecting what we see with who we are, yet denying us the moment before, the moment after. It is this denial which raises the stakes. The historian and anthropologist, with hindsight, explain the context and shape our thinking, but it is left to us to piece it all together, sleuth-like and doggedly creating our own interpretation on what we encounter. Jean Baudrillard’s analogy succinctly identifies the viewer as victim in this:

“Every photographed object is merely the trace left behind by the disappearance of all the rest. It is an almost perfect crime, an almost total resolution of the world, which merely leaves the illusion of a particular object shining forth, the image of which becomes an impenetrable enigma.”

Several decades have passed since this work was made and with them a certain kind of Dundee which some of us would like to think we know. It is the kind of faux familiarity which in the detail, mistakes Dundee for Glasgow or Edinburgh or any small industrial habitation of its time; key features which locate the area in a wider appreciation of progress in town and country planning. To its credit, it has been said that while some cities just grow older, Dundee has always aspired to grow younger. This places these images in a key position within its history.

Ascribing the word ‘old’ to a photograph is inherently problematic if ‘old’ is to have any significance, for taking account of the moment of origin lays down the kind of marker we would hardly afford a selfie these days, as if there is an obliga- tion to take longer over it, make comparisons, locate the time, space and object in our known world. We are reminded of what we know of other cultures, choosing to immerse ourselves in the event, the narrative, the action we assume is taking place on other people’s journeys, on what shaped their experience of the world. This act of viewing posits the notion that every photograph is in itself a hypothe- sis, with old photographs having the potential to offer a more mysterious, if limited number of options on how they can be read. Susan Sontag leans towards this when she observes that

“The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer – a scribe, not a poet. But nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what is there but of what an individual sees, not just a record, but an evaluation of the world.”

This evaluation is for us to make here and now, yet it is neatly framed by Jean Baudrillard’s paradox of ‘the magical eccentricity of the perpetual photographic detail’ and ‘the world’s refusal to yield up its meaning in photographs’ – which suggest that we add in a significant amount of our own meaning. The appeal of these photographs may be in our ownership of the moment, our attempt to inhabit the space, what we know about the past, our immersion in the event, the time and the action alluded to in the image. We are bound to make assumptions and construct a narrative which suits our own purposes, touching, even tangentially, on our susceptibility to nostalgia, rather than any forensic understanding of history. It seems impossible to separate ourselves, then, from the temptation to think ‘thank God it wasn’t me’ or ‘life was far better then’ as the process of looking becomes registering and the art of seeing becomes understanding. Most of the time we are not conscious that it is happening as we browse and take in the information.

Is it possible, then, that the ‘contemporary’ photograph communicates ina different way? Empathy with the content is more likely if it is current or if we ourselves are the action, the person photographed, the subject, providing the information; that is, living our life right now and making sense of it as it happens. Connecting with the ‘oldness’ is complicated by the fact that there is less information which can be experienced and corroborated. When reading photographs from another era, our current experience is already in place, persistently ‘in the way’ of new realities – a perceived realm of say, history, truth, romance. The inference is that with a contemporary photograph, we have more to go on – and with an old photograph, more to get in the way. In the viewing, in the interpretation, we live our lives vicariously and have difficulty in making sense of what has happened. The likelihood is that we make a lot of it up. We should be comfortable with the invention. Either it has something to do with a suspension of disbelief or an insistence on facts (whatever they turn out to be) – though neither seem particularly satisfactory.

When faced with a collection of images from a bye-gone era, we may prefer to regard them as not simply of their time, but about their time – less new, yetno less the ens reale of our journey of the imagination. For imagining is our only recourse to context. That suspended moment is an incomplete picture, as mysterious and elusive as the title of a photograph which contradicts what we see in it; the slow shutter speed which ‘loses’ a bustling High Street of crowds of people, trams and transactions in 1908 and leaves us looking at empty cobblestones and two standing figures by a horse and cart. The caption ‘Busy High Street’ is neutral, descriptive, innocent. The street was heaving. Life was being lived. Yet the technology, the science, the desire, renders the scene less than what it was. And therein lies the fiction.

To achieve these results meant twin-lens reflex, film, wet process, darkroom, enlarger and a careful, deliberate form of communication, for – even within a year of walking on the moon - the mechanics of the camera had yet to surrender tothe binary code. It would have made no difference. With any form of photography, there are still smells, textures, tastes, sounds to trace in the viewing. We have the opportunity to engage all our senses. Mono 68 is an evocation of a living, breath- ing time and place and the histories which go with it - Alexander Wedderburne’s ‘great souls who inhabit small houses’. Those are the unfinished lives whose story we continue to piece together – as, in time, no doubt others will do with ours.

Phil Thomson, January 2015
© Phil Thomson 2015


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BirTH is part of The School of Visual Communication at Birmingham City University