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)
I 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.