Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Vanishings


© Lorenzo Armendáriz

"The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues, are as fugitive, alas, as the years." (Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past)

The force of this statement was brought home to me a few years ago when I suffered a brief bout of amnesia while bedridden with a nasty illness -- I allowed myself to become dehydrated and as a result my brain apparently short circuited. In the middle of cooking some red sauce (inspired by watching The Godfather) I simply forgot where I was and what I was doing. I lay back down in bed and the crisis eventually passed, but that very night I took out all the family albums, with pictures going back to the 19th century, and forced myself to name every person and every place in each photo. My long-term memory was intact, but bits and pieces of my recent history continued to elude my grasp for some time after. What I once thought was so secure, so sure, the keystone of my entire existence -- that is, my very self -- I now realize is entirely tangential, a gift that I receive anew every time I open my eyes -- and every time I close them I say a little prayer to ward off the worrisome thought that I might not again enjoy that grace.

I now religiously drink eight glasses of water a day.

Of course this was an unsettling experience, because it struck at the heart of one's very identity and brought home as almost nothing else can the fragility of experience and the structures that make us who we are. And yet it was also, if viewed with some detachment, a very instructive and interesting experience because it compelled me to reflect on the nature of identity, of memory, of time, and ultimately of photography itself. We tend to think of our past as a place we can visit at will, either by reflection or by physically revisiting a particular locale, but the truth is that our past is past, it is lost somewhere in the drift of time, and its presence is as fugitive and contingent as the synaptic sparks that leap from neuron to neuron in the fatty tissue we call our brains. Science tells us that we are ninety percent water; we are just water flowing in a river that is never really ever the same at any given point. You can never go home again, and if you do what you are really visiting is not an unchanging and permanently defined place, but a series of associations evoked by the physical experience of being there.

If it is true that we are essentially what we tell ourselves, that we know ourselves and our world through the collection of stories we grew up with and which are continually reinforced or adumbrated by the master narratives of our society, then it is just as certain that each individual story is a mere chain of images and we are all of us photographers clutching with perhaps an unwitting desperation the album containing the Kodak moments that collectively make up our identities. Our other senses collude in this conspiracy of delusion and reality -- the taste of a madeleine carried Marcel with convincing presence to the Sunday mornings spent in the house of his aunt in Combray; the sense of smell was for Roland Barthes the most seductive of the gang -- but ultimately what we find at the end of the nostalgic journey is an image, a visual reality, its colors tinged by the longing or repulsion we feel for its content. And we all know just how real such images can appear to be. I once woke from a dream in which I owned a beautiful Triumph TR6 -- I got out of bed and, still in the grip of this illusion, went to the garage, cursing softly while I searched for the keys that I would never find.

Which brings us to the essence of what we do as photographers. In the words of that greatest of essayists, Michel de Montaigne, we "do not portray being; (we) portray passing. . . . If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial." That last word is a pointed pun on the underlying meaning of "essay": to try. Essays are nothing more than trials, tests, that assay the value and meaning of life. Life is so tenuous, our understanding of it inherently provisional, that we can do no more than test its contradictory propositions and accept their transience. We live today by one credo and tomorrow by another. We are, by virtue of this cold war with reality, double agents, unwitting traitors to our own virtually unshakeable belief that things are fixed and solid, while even the granite of this flying ball we call earth is melting away before our eyes.

But every once in a while we catch ourselves in the midst of the pitch along whose trajectory we have been hurled by the ineffable forces to which we ingenuously ascribe some anthropomorphic purpose, and we are astonished by the enormity of the processes by which we are buffeted as well as by our pathethic inconsequentiality. Inevitably such wisdom costs us dearly. Like Oedipus we purchase it with some horrible mutilation, with a pound of flesh, or worse a few ounces of that precious animating spirit that buoyed us with an optimistic belief in our immortality and the providence of our journey through time. It is at once terrifying and supremely comical. God's own Absurdist theater.

It would seem that as photographers we cannot help but be elegists, creating dirges for what once was and will never be again. So many photographic projects overtly allude to this passing of time -- Milton Rogovin's triptychs from Buffalo are a notable example, but even sociologically oriented work such as August Sander's can be said to be as much about time and history as about social types, because after all the baker that Sander shot is not at all like the baker that Harvey Wang captures in his book of New York portraits. This paradox of change and fixity that photography embodies, perhaps better than any other aesthetic medium, is what gives it its unique character and poignancy. The banal family album achieves some measure of distinction when one considers the drama of evanescence and stubborn presence that is recorded there.

But it is not all about arresting moments from the flow of forgetfulness -- there is a contrary impulse of discovery and wonder. Each new moment carries with it the possibility of revelation and surprise -- The BBC reported that a Pole woke up from a coma that had lasted 19 years: his awakening was miraculous -- the drab communist regime disappeared in a flash for this man, and in its place he found a brave new world of consumerism and astonishing wealth. "What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning," said Mr Grzebski. "I've got nothing to complain about." Maybe it is only when we are deprived of things we take for granted that we appreciate their value and our good fortune -- and maybe we must have each moment torn from us in order to be alerted to what each new moment has to offer.

Eduardo Galeano recounts an episode from a Louise Erdrich novel in which a senile grandmother, who has lost her memory, smiles down at her great granddaughter, recently born, who smiles back at her because as yet she has no memory. “La felicidad perfecta. Yo no la quiero.” Nor does Mr Grzebski, I wager. Nor do I. So I keep shooting, piling up the memories as a dam against time, etching a very sketchy history.