Scenes from Silence
by Joanna Cresswell
Written for MiniClick talk
Time has a quality of intangibility, a fleeting half-life, emitting its duration-particles only in the passing or transformation of objects and events, thus erasing itself as such while it opens itself to movement and change. It has an evanescence, a fleeting or shimmering, highly precarious ‘identity’ that resists concretisation, indication or direct representation. Time is more intangible than any other ‘thing’, less able to be grasped, conceptually or physically. – Elizabeth A. Grosz
The fundamental debate regarding the inextricable relationship between time and the photographic image can take many avenues; narration in the image, the process between the beholder and the image, and the time that is connected to the construction of the image. Throughout the history of traditional photographic theory there has always been the deduction that the photograph is a static object – a frozen moment in time. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once offered the idea that time (in its fleeting and shimmering evanescence) can be seen as running parallel to prevailing ideas about photography’s relationship to instantaneity and to the idea of the photograph as a record of a transitory moment in time. Such infamous books as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, with it’s emphasis on the indexical value of the photograph as an uncontainable trace of the real, highlight the perplexing temporal conundrum that the photograph confronts us with when we try to grapple with what it means to have an image that quite literally freezes time and then preserves it indefinitely.
The photograph is an object associated with permanence, stability and immutability, and as a result, it is often used as a way of trying to preserve events with a nature of impermanence, and instability. The flux of boundaries between the individual and space, presence and absence, object and subject, physical and neurological can all be contained within the photographic frame. Photographers have long been concerned with distilling the essence of time within the photographic frame, and using the medium to understand, extend and preserve that which we cannot control in everyday consciousness. It has been widely acknowledged that through the photograph we can explore the nature of suspended states – freeze transitory moments and temporality in points where our physical or mental states are altered. Personal suspensions of consciousness and of physicality are particularly important in art photographic practice because the extent of their duration is so beyond our control – suspended states we can enter for only limited periods of time; sleep, being underwater, meditation, unconsciousness and even holding one’s breath become intriguing.
An endless list of contemporary photographers and filmmakers have employed the medium to explore such areas, with Hiroshi Sugimoto, David Williams, Antoine D’Agata, Susan Trangmar and Bill Viola being just a small section of that inventory. The lucidity, the transience and the ephemeral and ever-changing nature of these states often mean that one theme can slip silently into another as the flux between the real and the imagined, the conscious and unconscious perpetuates. The allure of fixing fleeting moments indefinitely is what makes photography such a powerful tool – it offers us a way to look back upon ourselves, and we are perplexed. As a result, photographers will often make work that pushes to find the very peripheries of the camera’s limitations and in using the medium to explore the limitations of the medium itself, we can in turn explore the limitations of ourselves, our bodies and of our understanding of our time here. The relief felt through containing something within the condensed image is absolute.
Barthes said that within the photograph, “Time is engorged, it contains an enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest“. It is in these ideas that we can find a way of understanding the inextricable link. The physicality of the photographic print offers a conduit through which these in-between threshold states can endure, making it the most powerful tool with which to align the intangible, ungraspable and unattainable within a material terrain. In collapsing the spatio-temporal boundaries of such physical and mental states, and translating them indefinitely into the photographic space, we are able to encapsulate these ephemeral moments in a form that we are able to hold on to, like with no other medium. “The photographic act implies not only a sign of break in the continuity of reality but also the idea of a passage, a crossing irreducible.” The photographic image, through its intervention into the flow of time, reduces the event to a form of absolute spatiality, and inside the photograph lingering, meditative spaces can be built.
The ‘optical unconscious’ is defined as the ability that photography holds to illuminate spaces that previously only existed within the terrain of dreams. Somewhere between asleep and awake, conscious and unconscious, water and air a certain form of pictorial consciousness emerges. In photographing ourselves or those around us in states that will not last, in states that can be found at the very core of our psyche and our senses, and that we cannot grasp onto, we can extend the wonder of these moments and allow ourselves a prolonged experience of looking. To immortalize these scenes from silence is what drives us forward. Whether we’ve seen them or not, or even experienced them consciously at all matters not. Through the photograph breaths and bodies, dreams and memories are suspended, frozen, crystallized in a still and silent space where a tangible version of the true event – liminal or otherwise – is preserved.
Ultimately, the phenomenon of altering ones state can relate back directly to our inherent understanding of photography. The desire to fix time and space indefinitely is inherent within us all, and our collective magnetism to the photographic image endures through the promised chance of immortalizing in print that which we cannot keep from disappearing and dissolving before our very eyes.