Herve Guibert, Ghost Image

Posted by on Mar 4, 2010 in Bernard Yenelouis | One Comment

Herve Guibert’s L’Image fantome was published initially in 1982. The English translation, Ghost Image, by Robert Bononno, I have came out in 1996, from Sun & Moon Press, and is available currently from Green Integer Press. The book is comprised of short written pieces which were published originally in Le Monde. A posthumous volume, La Photo, inéluctablement, was published in 1999, which has not yet appeared in English.

Guibert, known primarily for his books, also photographed. Several years ago I saw an exhibition of his photos at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, on upper Fifth Ave., just below the Met, & I have a book published by Schirmer/Mosel. From 1993! (It seems so not so long ago).

The pieces in Ghost Image are short, some the length of a paragraph. Although notable photographers are mentioned (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, August Sander), the pieces discuss photography in the everyday: Family photos, identity photos, album covers, film stills, etc., as well as the acts of photographing, the tensions & disappointments of it. I enjoyed particularly an account of an adolescent infatuation with a still of Terence Stamp in the Fellini film Toby Dammit (in which Guibert mistakenly refers to the Stamp character as the devil, when in fact Stamp is more a Swinging London version of Faust, who has sold his soul). There is a diaristic aspect to the writing – family episodes are recounted, memory is intertwined with photography – and it is public and brief, in a form that is perhaps more familiar to blog readers of today. Truly, it seems prescient of so much web writing now, although with a much more delirious perversity and greater powers of observation:

. . . I recall an incident that made a great impression on me when I was 8 or 9 years old. My sister was 12 or 13 at the time, and her breasts were just beginning to develop; high and firm, we had already seen them at the beach the year before, but that was the last time, because the following year they were covered up by a bra. That morning, it must have been a Sunday, my sister was locked in the bathroom. My father was at the door, camera in hand, trying to get in. He said, without hiding his intention, that he wanted to photograph his daughter’s breasts, because at that age, the moment of their initial formation, they are at the height of their beauty, and if they weren’t photographed then, that state of perfection would be lost. That was the extent of his argument. At the time, he sadly renounced his failed attempt at appropriation through the image and fought against that limit; he wanted to push back by a notch the phase of abandonment, of renunciation and at the same time, extend his role as a father in order to assume that of a lover within the conventions of voyeurism, for between the father and the lover, desire was probably not very different. . . “Inventory of a Box of Photographs”

Photography, in Guibert’s book, is a multiplicity of effects. It is a technological reinforcement of morbid curiosities, it facilitates social controls, it supplants memories, dreams and perceptions, replacing them with its own mediated Olympus of illusions.In “Photographic Writing” Guibert finds photographic aspects in descriptive writings by Goethe and Kafka – looking backward from the perspective of the technological present to a pre-photography concealed in language. Without any direct quotations, I find traces of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes in Guibert’s considerations of the social aspects of photography. Barthes makes an appearance as “R.B.” in “The Photograph, As Close to Death as Possible” which is an account of Guibert approaching R.B. to photograph him with his ailing mother, who in the interim, died. Guibert presents his own lust for photographing in equivocal terms: it is morbid, it is fetishistic, it is selfish. & the compulsion can be sweet as well.

Written with almost aphoristic brevity, these episodes of photography seem both exceedingly particular & also informed with much larger ideas. To continue with photographic metaphors, these vignettes are like snapshots, fragments which indicate a much larger whole. I last read the book in what must have been 1996-1997, when the translation was published. Rereading it has been as stimulating as I can recall it to have been, with what seems new finds:

A Japanese dancer from the Sankai Juku group dances with a peacock. His entire body is very white, powdered with white clay, and his head is shaved. He wears nothing but a plain linen loincloth tied around his waist and stands out in relief against a wooden backdrop to which varnished fishtails and enormous fins from some cetacean have been attached. He embraces the peacock like a woman in a swoon, and the pattern on the bird’s plumage extends his loincloth with a gold-flecked train. We can see that the peacock’s thighs and feet are very muscular, like an ostrich, but the dancer keeps them bent, broken at the joints, and immobilized in his left hand, pressed against his side. His right hand encircles the peacock’s neck, stretches it, plays with it as if it were a delicate instrument, squeezes it almost to the point of strangling it. Everything is limited to a few contractions, and to the flow of blood, which he must feel and control with his palm: the Japanese dances a kind of slow-motion tango with the peacock, he dances with the peacock’s fear, with its vital fear of death. It really is an extraordinary moment, one of great tension, great beauty. But when the dancer releases the terrified peacock, we no longer know where to look, and our eye, which wanders between the dancer and the bird, loses its orientation. The peacock is nothing but a big terrified fowl who scratches around stupidly and snares itself in the cord that restrains its feet. The dancer is nothing but a dancer gesturing slowly. Our fascination has worn off, and rather than be deceived, we prefer to divert our gaze to the empty space between them, where the magic was created, the site of a latent photograph. Morever, when the Sankai Juko group came to Paris, many people, many photographers, returned to the performance with their cameras mounted on tripods. They bought seats in the front row and waited for the appearance of the peacock. They fired away – they were guaranteed beauty. That eminently photographic image, however, doesn’t belong to them (what is it that eludes photography here, except the infintesimal movements of contraction of the peacock’s neck, which are essential to the dance?), it belongs to the dancer, and he has decided that this will be a dance and not a photograph. And we might reiterate that beauty, like theater, is tied to the ephemeral, and to loss, and can’t be captured. Only I would prefer that photographers put more dance (or theater, or cinema) into their pictures, just as the dancer had put photography into his dance. – “Dance”

Herve Guibert, L'ombre de l'oiseau, 1982

Herve Guibert, L'ombre de l'oiseau, 1982

Herve Guibert, St. Tarcisius, 1990

Herve Guibert, St. Tarcisius, 1990

Backwards and Forwards to Now

Posted by on Nov 8, 2009 in Bernard Yenelouis | One Comment
Anna Atkins, 1843

Anna Atkins, 1843

Louis S. Davidson, 1940s

Louis S. Davidson, 1940s

In two current shows in New York, Still Life, curated by Jon Feinstein, at the Camera Club, November 5 – December 19, and Surface Tension: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, curated by Mia Fineman, at the Metropolitan Museum, I am struck by the insertion of historical work placed in proximity to contemporary images.

The title Still Life is a pun: still life as an artistic term is meant to be arrangements of things, often humble and domestic, such as Dutch 17th century painted floral studies or tabletop displays. The French term, nature morte, is even more explicit in a tacit understanding of that which is viewed being wrenched from the world of the living to a static collection of some sort. In Jon Feinstein’s show, the work is all portraiture, which in conventional terms is the antithesis of the still life: the portraits are presented as a series of masks, as formal, technological constructions. The title “Still Life” also alludes to the stilling of life, which reminds me of the panic of the portraitist in the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Oval Portrait” in which the finished portrait enacts an occult death of the model, to the horror of the artist. Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859, about the stereograph, “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it.” There is also a Barthesian sadness to the title, as it alludes to the morbidity of the photograph – all we see in a photograph no longer exists as such.

Still Life includes studio work by two former members of the Camera Club, Louis S. Davidson and John Hutchins. Davidson was also a former president of the CCNY. Hutchins was also a dramatic coach who had worked with Cary Grant, Genger Rogers, Tallulah Bankhead and Lauren Bacall. He also lectured on photography through the US.

Working with models and elaborate studio lighting represented refined skill sets and photographic knowledge at its acme when these images were made in the 1940s. In hindsight, what we see now are images of great plasticity but adrift from any context beyond their surfaces. Sixty-some years does not necessarily represent much on a time line but in terms of the contexts we need to sustain meaning in photographs, it is apparent how simple and easy it is for such armature to disappear. What we are left with is the aesthetic experience of a mask, as a cipher to what had been.

A sense of future archaeological inquiry informs the selection of the contemporary work, of the portrait as a mysterious other, which can be confirmed in its formal arrangements, but otherwise evades our prying eyes.

At the Metropolitan, the show Surface Tension brings together mostly contemporary photographic artistic work which explores the “thingness” of the photograph, it’s intersections with that which it records or traces. This can include a 1:1 replica, such as a digitally stitched image of pavement (by Matthew Coolidge), physical actions upon the photographic paper by hand (Marco Breuer) or light (photograms by Adam Fuss), or light leaks which disturb a conventional image but which make it a unique thing (Wolfgang Tillmans). The show makes a case for looking at some contemporary practices, with their meta-consciousness of forms, as echoes of earlier photographic forms.

This is done with a remarkable vitrine in which there is a copy of the first photographic book, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae – Cyanotype Impressions, self-published in 1843, which predates William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, published in 1844. Atkins’ images are all photograms – the algae specimens are identified by their forms, which are seen in negative on the blue field of the treated paper. The images circulated loosely & were bound by their recipients. There are less than 20 known copies of the book. What I find so resourceful & simple to the book is that the images constitute the pages. Atkins was a botanist and amateur photographer – such an elegant solution to bookmaking.

Also in the show is a remarkable salt print facsimile of a medieval religious text, by Roger Fenton. Both Atkins & Fenton used “originals” to trace something which then be reproduced. One can’t help but see this as an aspect to a lost “golden age” (or perhaps more appropriately “silver”) of photography when it existed as a new technology and as such could be used in a remarkably fluid manner.