I don’t take many photographs. It’s been a long time since I picked up a movie or video camera with anything like serious intent. Even when I did regularly take photographs, I pretty much only used a Polaroid SX-70. That camera is still in a drawer and I still miss the lavish, lurid colours of the pictures it produced. But I became increasingly disappointed by the way Polaroids fade. There’s one Blu-Tacked to the wall above my desk. Even in the room’s northern light, it is fading to white.
What I miss even more, though, is the Polaroid’s implacable demandingness. It frightened and energised me with the knowledge that every time I pressed the button it would cost me a pound. I loved that. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing, save the hangman’s noose, concentrates the mind like an SX-70. Generally, I took the same picture again and again. Well, the same kind of picture. It’s what we do; all of us. Even when we don’t think we are; probably, particularly when we don’t think we are. To cast some psychoanalytic thought on it: there are no images, only projections.
These days I don’t even own a camera. I use my phone, and that’s nothing special either. It’s three, maybe four years old; a 3.2 megapixel one with a scratched-up body and – as I discovered when I checked it just now – a lens smeared by time and the contents of my pocket. Mostly, I use it for reference – a kind of visual notebook – recording aide-mémoires for things like colours or objects that ruffle my desire. The only ‘serious’ pictures I seem to take these days are landscapes; or rather, seascapes. (You can see some on my blog, www.petersilverton.blogspot.com.) Sometimes they include figures, but mostly they don’t.
Generally, they are just three horizontal stripes – nothing more – of sand, sea and sky. Some are at dusk; some in the full bright of the day – but always the three stripes; generally with the horizon sitting in its traditional art-historical place, at a point just below the mid-line. Occasionally, I print them quite large and stick them on a wall, for a bit. Not out of self-admiration – well, only partly – but to think about them; more particularly, about why I take them. It’s not as if I’m the only one who makes this kind of severely restricted photograph or moving image, either. It’s there in Gursky’s work. It’s the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when Peter O’Toole and his camel emerge from the land ocean of the desert. It’s Rothko, too; and that’s where I think I began to think effectively about them. Clearly, there is something primal about their appeal. It’s not just any old stuff or matter in them, but the real, deep thing of elements. They offer us a trilogy of existence, of the stuff of life, of matter; in both its physical and metaphorical senses.
Earth, water, air: the sea we came from, the air we live in, the earth to which we all find our way back, one way or another. Over time, I’ve come to decide that they also offer some kind of metaphor for the way a visual image – a photograph, a film – finds its meaning for us. My theory starts from the view that visual images are echoic for us because they are external representations of widely shared internal states; we are all brothers and sisters below the skin of consciousness. Well, partly anyway. By and large, we share our internal states with others – and ourselves – by turning those states into words. But there is a problem with words. For all their strengths – without them, no language, no society, etc., etc. – there is a limit to what words can do. As we all know, meaning can be found not just in words but skulking in the gaps between them. Visual images are our favoured way round that problem. They turn our insides outside.
They smuggle inchoate meaning through the membrane between our unconscious and conscious selves; from down there to up here. And that’s where I find my theory about the seascape image. I think it’s a visual representation of that very process. From the unconscious – which, despite its evident depths and powers, remains directly unknowable to us, even when it’s our own – up into the light of consciousness. From the private to the public. From the earth and the sea into the sky; via the horizon. And the horizon, of course, is not an object. It’s not matter but process; a spatial-visual thing. Earth, sky and sea are all real stuff. The horizon, though, is merely a relationship between them, and us. Two people, two horizons. Four if they’ve both got binocular vision and close one eye at a time; or move. The horizon of an image is an external equivalent of the boundary of consciousness; the place where the unknowable somehow turns into the graspable.
As the Styx is to the underworld of the afterlife, so a horizon in a picture – a word that we use, after all, for paintings, photographs, films; all of them – is to the underworld of our inner life. It’s a metaphor for the link – and inherently tragic disjunction – between the two; a transfer point between down there and up here. It’s a representation of representation; or perhaps, more precisely, a representation of the process of representation; the way the unknowable becomes knowable. And we take great delight in that, it seems; to know about knowing. And what do we learn from this knowing about knowing? Loss.
To look at a horizon in a picture is to know loss. Really know it. To see loss for what it is – both the past that can never return and the futures that will never be. As they say in Latin, ‘Et in Arcadia ego’. Or, to put it in more contemporary terms: ‘Oh, death, where is thy Stingo?’
© Peter Silverton 2012