Writer Susan Sontag places the photograph in the past, its viewing always about the past. We know when holding a photography when the photograph was taken -before now- and that the subjects in the photograph are past, their representation in the photograph over now.
I was going through boxes of old prints. Taking up a photograph and looking at it immediately transported me to another time. Some were family prints. I was surprised to see my sister as this young woman. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her that way. At the time the photograph when both she and I were young, she was the person I knew. But now from our advanced years, knowing the sister I know now, the photograph has the effect of looking at someone I don’t know, well never saw in the way I am. I’m looking at a young person, as I would look at a young person now, as an old man looking at a young person, so my sister becomes to me a young person I look at as an old person.
It’s why I don’t recognize her I guess, am surprised at her youth. Well I recognize her but am not familiar with the person I see for I never saw her the way I see her now. My imagination is filled with a different perspective; I see her in another way. I am looking into the past because I am the age I am now, and she is the age she was. That perspective is unlike the perspective I had when I was back then living with her.
Not only is my imagination filled with a new perspective in seeing her but also now in seeing myself, a new perspective of myself brought from of the past to now. While I am seeing my sister anew, I also see myself anew, that is, to wonder who I am over that time as I realize I too was young and someone else than I am now, my perspective on the world at that time seen now from this vantage point, to wonder what I was thinking about myself and about life, about the choices I had made between the perspective then and the perspective now. I look on that person with the knowledge I have today, knowing how it all turned out for that youth I see, and that enlightens me, the memory of the past depicted in the photograph being my guide.
I wonder what I was thinking, what my sister was thinking back then, more innocently than now. This person in the past who is me or my sister, how much was ahead of us that we had no idea of. What became of our life? How did we get on the track we did, come to the place we are? Was there but one life for us? If something was different in a passing, a alternate meeting with another, a change in circumstance, a commitment realized better, a recognition we didn’t follow but could have. How would that viewing of the photograph be something else entirely, another perspective.
As Ms Sontag suggests, the photograph is about the past from the moment just past to as far as the moment of the photograph takes me. What does it mean for us to see in a photograph the past, the viewing to see the past with new eyes? What becomes of us? Does it change us? So while we view the past, he viewing is about now, about us the viewer now.
Anne took out from the library a large photo book of the work of Francois Halard, a photographer of interiors, a more personal selection of his work. At first blush I might say I found the work stunning, but I don’t think that’s the best word. It suggests too much sensation or some kind of property of beauty. For me the experience is more some kind of immediacy, some kind of recognition of what I do not know about myself, that is some possibility in self I was not aware of, that is some dimension of my own self that is who I am but behind the veil, seemingly about to be disclosed, disclosing something I’ve never conidered about my own self. These are photographs of interiors! What moves me is the compositional juxtaposition of shapes of the objects and the objects’ identification, the perspective of the chosen lens, the scale captured by the type of camera used, the angle of view taken, the capture of light and shadow, the colour tones drawn out of the paper.
The photographs do not tell me about any past I know. I have no knowledge of the subject, a back story to contextualize the interiors as to their style, their designer, their owner. The photographs appeal to me as they are: particular shapes and density of colour and light in the context of a place, a living space. The subject of the photograph is relevant to the effect only in that I have a deep love for houses and homes, certain ones. For their dimensions and construction. My deepest dreams that seem to tour my inner psyche are dreams of a house space where I wander through basements and corridors and back staircases and endless rooms and at times step through a door that opens out to an outside balcony or terrace.
So it would seem these photographs are not about the past. Or are they? Don’t seem to be, as much as dreams are not about the past. These photographs are very much living in me in the present moment. The actual subject of any particular interior photographed means little to me. The image means a lot to me as it awakens something within me that I have yet to understand.
I have always had a hard time speaking of photographs as art, fine art as many photographers like to claim for their work, except in this case. I would call these fine art but I doubt Francois Halard would claim the himself. I think photographs are about the past, about a bit of beauty or history, surprise or shock that strikes me as time before, makes me think perhaps or feel something, long for something, be upset for something, learn something and so bring the past into the now, but not as art for me, not in that way. But surprise of all surprises, these photographs of Halard’s interiors seen in the book, touch me as great art would.
I don’t think I’d want to hang any of the photos on the wall. I much more want to have them in this big book I hold and turn the pages. It’s not just one photograph, but all of them, even tough only some of them move me. They are all taken from the same vision of the photographer, and it’s very clear, the vision that produces the images is a whole, a unity. Looking at them I am in the same space, it goes to a place in my psyche and explores it from many different views, the different images that all speak to one thing. I don’t know what that one thing is, however. that is the conundrum of art, to move me to a place I don’t recognize as my own. The photos open me to something in myself I have no idea of; I am so stirred by the images, in the way I can be caught up in a book, but in the reading or in the viewing of these images, have yet to pull back the curtain. There is something in the dark shadow of my own humanity, yet something of that person I am that I have never before known. Just there behind the photograph. It is not some trait, I would think. It is some force of character, some pureness, uncontaminated reflection of my being, some truth we might say, that is beneath the corruption of life experience and circumstance, the contingencies and compensations we construct and access to manage our ways through life events. Something else and the same.
In my own work, I have come to regard the idea of soul not as something in me, my soul, but rather imagine me living in soul, the soul of the world. Discovery of self is a discovery of the world, what it has to teach me about my own being ‘of the world.’
It’s fascinating that photographs for the first time have become for me as a painting or sculpture or story. As Anne has taught me, a photograph is a surface, a copy even, where a painting is paint, is something of its own that I experience. Halard’s book of photographs for me has crossed the line, has become a thing of its own, the book too, in my hands, a thing of its own, not simply a copy on a surface.
I’m just considering the purchase of a printer. I had one but it gave up. Now I’m thinking what will I be doing when I print. Why spend all the money and time. I’m looking at my work and thinking what is worth printing. What could I print that would be no more than a wash on the surface of the paper?
As I set out with this blog piece I planned to write a paragraph about photos as the past. I was going to then write about theatre as the present, performance being the only art form that is immediate. And then write about liturgy as future.
I have to think about all this, about what the images of Halard are revealing.
Theatre has always been the means I’ve understood and processed my life experience, has been the one frame through which I get to see my psyche, my soul world, learn who I am, and what life is for me. Theatre is all about the space in the immediate moment, the space between actors, what goes on between the stage characters which the audience witnesses. It’s about that moment, in the expression of a word, or a sentence, a text, of a voice, or a time removed in a black box or in the fantasy of an outdoor happening. It is the moment as it is, as it happens, not available to recording or preservation, but truly only available now, as true in as much as the actors and audience bring themselves to that particular moment.
I began my theatre exploration from the culture I was born into, that of the Anglican rectory. And while I travelled through the world I was given, liturgy is not theatre. My life became this moving through liturgy, and then in the wish to discover more how liturgy could be a healing experience, I found theatre as a language to understand liturgy and weigh its efficacy.
Yes, in my opinion, liturgists today could do better with some of the sensitivities of a theatre performer, not performer as I’ve heard the clergy decry as they don’t know of what they speak. Clergy would do better to understand, would be helped to know how a theatre performer makes real what is not real. Clergy in their lack of sensitivity to their liturgical work make what is real into a fiction, a bombast, the worst idea of performance. I say it rather bluntly for I have said it gently and compellingly in conversation with a number of bishops over many years, but they had no idea, all along assuming they knew so much better even as their churches were emptying all around them.
However, there is another sense to liturgy that does not belong to theatre which I have seen only once really, in a catholic church in Dublin. There you go! Of all the liturgies I’ve witnessed, but one. And I went back a second Sunday and again, it was there. A good work. And I came to appreciate in that moment that my call was not to liturgy but to theatre. My focus in my church work was to preaching, to being particular with the moment of liturgy or the Lenten series talks or such.
The difference between liturgy and theatre is the repeatability, in theatre to a new audience each night, and in liturgy to the same audience year after year. Liturgy I feel is about the future, not the present, is a representation of salvation time, is about anticipation and hope and safeguarding oneself for the future, be that future the next minute, death at the end of life and all between. It’s an act that we do now, that is a practice that becomes us, and as that booming, so we are of a certain order to receive the future. It is in the mystics’ and monks’ language, a discipline, a rule of life, an order, a shaping of the instrument that will embrace what is to come. It is about wholeness and beauty, to be a means for healing, not of the past but the future, for bringing wholeness and beauty, the objective of healing, to what is to come.
I wish to explain myself more having heard the questions of a friend as we talked about these notions of time. I should like to explain use of the language. In effect there is only one time, and that is the time of now. we are really only what we experience in a sense of our existing. However, I would suggest, we appropriate that sense of our existing now through time, through the past, the fire and yes, the present. So when we look at a photograph we are, yes, having that experience now, but that experience now is through the past, the memory of a time conjured by the photograph. When in the theatre we are living a now in ourselves but through the very moment we are in, through the space we sense, the present – all that is happening in the space between actor and actor in the characters of the play at the very time of its happening. We join the actors there when it is good theatre. We are in the now of our own sense of existence but through the experience of the present.
Liturgy is a future time. This needs more explanation. By liturgy, I really wish to refer to any crossing of liminal space, not simply ceremony or religious activity. Hemingway sharpened twenty pencils before he sat down to write. It was a way, a commitment day in and day out, sharpening the pencils, like a liturgy, to take him across a liminal space into his writing. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing are ways people use, activities they commit to, activities that transport them across the liminal into the future. However, it’s a future experienced in the now, if we can get our heads around that language. We are in the experience of now but with anticipation, with intent to arrive in a place, with the repetition that builds resilience and constructs order and dimension to life. These crossings in various forms, that liturgy is but one simulation, are about healing, which is possibility of what is good and whole. For Hemingway it was into the place where he could write, where was his wholeness of being, a healing, a separation from the storm, a refuge, anticipated as the future, following the sharpening, but to exist also as he sharpened the pencils, the future in the very moment that is, the anticipation realized in the anticipating act. It is the bowing of the head in reverence to be oneself in reverence as one bows the head.
My own life journey brought me from the culture of church that I was born into and indemnified with, the boat I was put in, and over the years rowing in the boat, through the wise intervention of my muse, to find more of who I am witnessed in theatre. I never joined the church or left it. It was a life I was imbued with, third generation clergy, and I worked through what I was given, and it still remains the only world I really know. But behind all that was my own self, and like so many, I grew up in a family that cared not for my own self, loved me, but had no thought for me or my life or my future. My father never once said anything I did was of any good. At fourteen he took me aside and told me he wasn’t going to pay for me any longer. I was on my own. I lived in the house but I bought my own toothpaste, and anything else I needed, and I paid him room and board. That is something I have lived with all my life; like many others, I spent my life searching for the blessing that should have been my father’s. My journey through life, at the inspiration of a Celtic guardian angel walking step by step by my side, hat journey took me back home, to the self I recognize me being, to the theatre. Not as a career or a profession. It wasn’t what came of it all. It was my study, my language, my teacher, my healer. I journeyed from a study of making the transcendent present (the sanctuary) to making the present transcendent (the stage).
And now a new adventure suggested in the turning of the pages in a book of photographs of interiors by Francois Halard looms before me, upsets all the assuredness of my having arrived at any explanation for how life can be read. It is still, even in the last years of my life, a new beginning. The muse has always surprised me, delighted me with what I could never have expected, always come up with a new twist, a new orientation. I can only imagine my muse rollicking about in laughter with each prick knocking me for a loop, contradicting all that I hold dear, egging me on with a prod to disrupt any assuredness I have in my own command of what this thing I live is all is about. Once more I tip over the edge and fall into the abyss, leave certainty behind, and at the bottom, like Gloucester in King Lear, be in one piece having just imagined the fall, all the while only lying on my stomach. And there certain that just beyond my hearing, the laughing uncontrollably, but lovingly so, I imagine the muse enjoying. The muse taking delight as I am knocked about turn after turn thinking I’ve figured it out and finding out I know nothing really, having my serious examination of my life be just another puff of smoke in a long line of smoke puffs, all of it being just an ever shifting mirage of what is. And hence my joy with life, my delight with the mess of what is. The ‘What is’ of life is something else I can’t begin to imagine, wisps on the periphery of my vision calling me sword a beauty, a love, as the wind calls, as the branch of the tree or its trunk has so much to say to me if I would but listen and attend.
Life exists just here before me, all that is only what I am now, only now as I hear the rain against the window, that’s all it is, not before, not to come, not present but now, in an every shifting effervescence, for there is no time at all, no past, no present, no future – just ‘what is’ and what is shown me of myself, my being imbued of the soul of all things, its soul, myself there found in the soul of life itself.