The 1001th Word

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow.
-Italo Calvino, The Adventure of a Photographer (printed in Art On Paper March/April 2008, pg 43)

IMG_0905I brought my eleven year old son to help me process some film the other day. He was sorry that he had missed the opportunity to wear his beloved lab coat, but loved the scientific air of it all and took his job of watching the clock and calling out the thirty second intervals very seriously. In the wonderful short story, The Adventure of a Photographer by Italo Calvino, the seriousness of the question, why is photography so popular? becomes a quest to expose the conceit of the art, while in the end drawing a clearer line around the meaning of it all.

“What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporal slices, the thickness of a second? (44)

I think I have fallen in love with that sentence. I’m a sucker, of course, for virtuoso verbosity, but “temporal slices, the thickness of a second” has got to be the most accurate and wonderful description of the mechanical aspect of photography ever committed to paper. In the Calvino story the protagonist, a “non-photographer,” jeremiading, philosopher nearly loses his mind in the pinhole of the process of his quixotic episode. The significance of his status as the lone bachelor  among his peers who have all married and had children is multi-tiered, but one obvious tier is what first puts a camera in his hands- he is the natural choice to take photos of all the happy families and couples. There are elements of loneliness built into art.

His intention was to lend the use of his finger as docile instrument of the collective wish, but also to exploit his temporary position of privilege to admonish both photographers and their subjects as to the significance of their actions. (43)

His philosophical position is that if we are going to stop action to “capture” the moment in lieu of simply experiencing the moment, then we should at least be consistent- photograph every moment. Why stop? he asks.

This is the point: to make explicit the relationship with the world that each of us bears within himself, and which today we tend to hide, to make unconscious, believing that in this way it disappears, whereas…(45)

Calvino’s style of writing is entertaining, twisted and deep. We follow his character down the rabbit hole of his photographic obsession. He begins in ernest when he falls in love. He wants to photograph what he sees as truly her. He tries with the portrait- a cold analyses of the surface, pose, posture, angle, set, and costume but he can not get to her. He then feverishly tries to get to the absolute inner truth by obsessively photographing her at every moment- waking, sleeping, and most importantly when she is unawares. But in the end, he is not really trying to take her image, he is trying to make a visual account of the inexplicable- his love. Lost in the labyrinth of his mind, he ends up with nothing, and must even photograph that. If he can no longer photograph love, he will photograph the absence of love.

He folded the corners of the newspaper into a huge bundle to be thrown into the trash, but first he wanted to photograph it. (47)

As I become more familiar with the processes that are involved in the art of photography, I think about not just what I’m looking at, but how I am looking, and why. Everything is within a frame. Maybe that is inescapable- what is the difference between the frames of our psychological outlook and the manifested visual outlook? One informs the other. When I make the decision to take the picture, I already know that what I am really trying to show are the unshowable parts of who I am.

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17 responses to “The 1001th Word

  1. Very exciting! I am inspired to read the book but also reminded of first “being introduced” to real visual photography as a youngish art student…and noting how you bring such a different level of intellectual consciousness to the experience…I was simply alight with the sheer visual excitement!

  2. I must correct my comment to say “the short story” rather than the “book”

  3. wow! i’ve gotta get on this one! thanks!

  4. One of Calvino’s that I have never heard of. Must track it down. I think the magic of photography is that it can stop time, something that is of course impossible. It allows us to compare now with the past, or the now that we were with the now that is our children.

  5. “There are elements of loneliness built into art.” Absolute truth.

    It sounds like Calvino was obsessive; with trying to photography something that he was never mean to capture on film but that he was meant to simply experience if he let himself. People tend to do things like this to ourselves so often. It always to our detriment, especially if it costs us the contact we should have with someone special to us.

  6. Wonderful writing. Thank you for leading me to The Adventure.

  7. Your calvino quote is much like a doorman who wont let me enter if I can’t understand, but there is subtly, nascent point to be had which forces one to ruminate. Quotes can be like foyers, a place to remove your coat before entering the said domicile. If I have not entered within the hour, could you peak in on me and maybe provide a clue? or better yet a bit of tea? Or simply the company of your eyes?

  8. speaking of snipping and intervals – Dr. Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen

  9. Always loved photography…have friends who are pros…who are aware; I am less so…enjoyed this elucidation.

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