Baskets of photographs in a Spanish flea market. I look like the boy in front of the Christmas tree; on the high chair surrounded by chubby aunts; held in the air by a grinning father on some suburban driveway. Mustard-yellow Volvo, patio furniture. Fractured sunlight dancing on a picnic blanket. What is that food they are eating? I imagine these are my memories.
Where is he now, that double of me? He lived my whole life decades before me. I am him at the moment of death, replaying his story. A basket of photos in a flea market.
When making love you said you saw colours. I saw colours too. And a whole cosmos was there revealed in the evaporation of our bodies. Like happening upon a backstage to the world, a river under the floorboards. When we talked about it, we thought it a constant. One hand holding, the other dipped in matter. I was inside you, all of me pressing against you and when I closed my eyes, I fell in that stream. When I opened them: your face, your collar-bones.
I wanted to photograph you. Not as a trophy. There was nothing there to do with covet and lust. But, because I knew that this was real and I wanted to hold onto it. I wanted to fasten down that moment. Your lips, your mouth slightly open, your eyes shut tight. Those things are only then.
When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me an SLR camera and took me to the park and told me to photograph trees. I have those images somewhere, catalogued in a binder with notes on f stops and focal lengths, the name of the species of each tree.
The camera on my phone functions differently. I take hundreds of photographs but rarely value the images. Usually blurry, grainy documents act as stamp marks in time. Notes to myself that something happened that felt worthy of a memory. With social media, some of them are “shared”. These have a certain code.
In, Ways of Seeing, Berger says:
The means of reproduction are used politically and commercially to disguise or deny what their existence makes possible. But sometimes individuals use them differently.
Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board, all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums.
I remember when my grandfather died, sitting in his empty apartment at the top of our house. It still smelled like him. It was always cold up there. There was the giant patterned carpet he had salvaged from my great-grandmother. It spread out over raw floorboards. Across the carpet, like a stage, his possessions: A pyramid of stacked boxes. His table and chairs. A clothes rail with a tangled war of wire hangers. Framed drawings. Photographs of Capestang. All of his cookbooks. On the mantelpiece was a codex of small objects. A porcelain bowl of trilobites. Little owl totems, Chinese figurines. A model of a traditional Japanese house inside a little glass box. A tobacco tin containing a fragment of 35mm negative depicting the shore of the Aran Islands (men in woolen sweaters pulling a curragh). along narrow sea-shell, an odd green life-size bronze bust an artist had made of him. Coins stacked in order. A white marble Buddha. Small pocketbooks of equations, shopping lists, and notes to self. On one page it said, “Milk, Fish-Sauce, Love Conquers Entropy.”
The room felt like it was holding its breath. Soon it will exhale and all these objects will disperse. Particles to ether. For then they held the form of my grandfather. They are part of the world of him. On the bed in the other room, a twisted blanket.
A short segment about his funeral was broadcast on national television. It was snowing and you can see us carrying the coffin out of the house. My cousin, Jonathan, crying. I’m there. My mother’s voice on top, cut off abruptly. For several months after, I watched that clip over and over. It’s traveled with me, on external hard-drives, email attachments. My family made a website as a memorial to my grandfather and I posted it there. After a while, the website was abandoned, almost purposefully. Something to do with a new stage of grief. Links on the site became broken, comments pages filled with spam, corrupted images and empty HTML frames, an echo, like the ruined shell of a house.
Critic Ben Davis notes:
Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.)
A photograph offers irrefutable evidence that someone once existed. It arrests the flow of time. All photographs are the past, yet in them, an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike the lived past, it can never lead to the present. Every photograph contains a shock of discontinuity. Between the moment recorded and the moment looking, there is an abyss. We are so used to that abyss, we never notice it. Unless the image depicts someone or something we once loved that is now gone. Lovers know this. Sex and death are twins. Each photograph contains the grief of knowing you cannot hold anything.
Published in Desire: A Revision from the 20th Century to the Digital Age, (2019) IMMA ︎