Engelmann[Paul Engelmann, Wittgenstein’s close friend and faithful correspondent] told me that when he rummages round at home in a drawer full of his own manuscripts, they strike him as so glorious that he thinks they would be worth presenting to other people. (He said, it’s the same when he is reading through letters from his dead relations) But when he imagines a selection of them published he said, the whole business loses its charm & value & becomes impossible. I said this case was like the following one: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes, – surely, this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seing life itself. – But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us!
True enough, but we don’t see it from _that_ point of view. – Similarly, when E. looks at his writings and finds them splendid(even though he would not care to publish any of the pieces individually), he is seeing his life as God’s work of art, & as such it is certainly worth contemplating, as is every life & everything whatever. But only the artist can represent the individual thing[_das Einzelne_] so that it appears to us as a work of art; those manuscripts rightly lose their value if we contemplate them singly & in any case without _prejudice_, i.e. without being enthusiastic about them in the advcance. The work of art compels us – as one might say – to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object [_der Gegenstand_] is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that _we_ may exalt through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.)
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie aeterni. It is – as I believe – the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.
— L. Wittgenstein, in: Culture and Value, cited from Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before
Yes, but shouldn’t I have a clear coherent theme, surely I have to know what I’m doing first? That would be nice, but I doubt Robert Frank knew what it all meant when he started, or for that matter Cindy Sherman or Robert Mapplethorpe or Atget or… so you shouldn’t expect it. The more preplanned it is the less room for surprise, for the world to talk back, for the idea to find itself, allowing ambivalence and ambiguity to seep in, and sometimes those are more important than certainty and clarity. The work often says more than the artist knows.
— Paul Graham, Photography Is Easy, Photography Is Difficult
[..] the image tool is no longer an end in itself, it enables the identification of the cracks and fault lines that open the door to a cryptic reality, to slip inside, to reformulate one’s interdependency with the world and to discover new uses for it; define the territories suitable for a ferocious struggle that pits the subtle forces of abstraction against chaos and the mechanics of the flesh at every instant; […]
— Antoine D’Agata
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— William Blake
I am still recovering from a workshop with Antoine D’Agata. Still don’t know, what all this was about. In his attempt to be modern, he is a renaissance man: very romantic, very gentle, very calm, or at least approaching calmness, very different from what his images suggest. Only tired. He arrived late on the second day and I am angry with myself for being on time, trying to be a good pupil.
One of the students said: “Antoine, everything started with you and now everything continues with you.” He was thinking about letting his camera go for good. It sometimes feels as if we’re all part of a strange ritual. This is how you become addicted, this is how you enter a strange cult, this is how you get into a sect and give all of us two years and we’re either fading away or committing mass suicide.
There were quarrels about not being treated fair. We talked about pictures not there. The picture we have not shot but we wanted to. We knew how they would look like.
We use photos for memory, for hanging on to things, he uses them to fade away, to let things go. A kind of excorcism.
“I wanted the book to be only grids. Only grids. tack tack tack. I feel like I am fading away in these grids, slowly, getting smaller and smaller until phew there is nothing left.”
What he teaches: Align your life with your pictures. You have to decide what you want to do with your life. If you don’t decide: this also is a decision. He mentioned Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, where a guy accidentally slips into another man’s life and is driven by decisions of another person and dies for reasons he never understands. At moments, I feel like I’m in a new-age seminar. Everything is both profound and absolutely banal. I want to get out. I stay anyway. I am tired, it’s like his tiredness has rubbed off on me, but no, it is my own, I made it my own.
I failed to make an impression on anybody with the pictures I selected. Lesson 1a for workshops: The less pictures you bring, the more relevant the critique will be. Everybody is tired of images. He is tired of looking. He tries not to show it. Sometimes a bold enthusiasm returns, but there is much fatigue in looking. We all have already seen to much. No idea, why we still hang in and can’t get enough and keep going and still want more and not everybody wants to go blind to get some peace from this image-producing moloch we have created. So bring less pictures. Bring two. Bring one. And bring a bad one.
I brought too much. And still, there is not this one image in there that is really good. Don’t expect others to find it for you. Everybody is tired of looking. Everybody is aroused and tired at the same time: We can’t see anymore and still we keep looking. So what, I brought is too much. I made a mess of colors and shapes on the table. Everybody looked at me as if I did something indecent. Still, everybody was sympathetic. The day dragged on…
I wondered: What good were the last two years? Education is at best, a circular motion: It sometimes brings you dangerously close to where you started and it sometimes looked as if you haven’t moved at all. And worse: as if on the way you have lost all innocence and all the joy of seeing the world, and the desire to make “good picture” drags you down. It’s not like your getting better at all.
“You are all over the place.”
I had heard that one before.
“You don’t know what you want to show.”
Heard that one.
“You have to push harder.”
I had heard that one, too. Usually from people that are way better photographers than I am and I asked myself: Push where? Push what? And Am I not pushing? Is this not pushing what I am doing? I shoot some more.
“Here is your excercise: The Hole In The Middle.”
If we were in a seshin, he would have probably slapped me with a stick to make his point. I have no idea what to do.
Instead of doing our homework, three of us went grabbing a bite and drinking. Why, if I don’t get anything out of this workshop, at least, we can have a good time. We talked for hours, we cursed, we didn’t know what to do. After we split, I went out shooting. I almost got punched in the face when I was photographing in the red light district of Frankfurt. I met a guy who told me he did not want to be photographed, as he was coming from a prostitute and he has a wife and two kids and he does not want to lose them when they see where he was. And the prostitute stole his money and he needs to get back to Darmstadt. I know, that the story is not true, but I give him money anyway. I shoot some bad pictures of him where he smiles and thumbs-up into the camera. I am being played, I like to pretend I have some kind of street-smartness, but I don’t. I’m happy to get out of there.
I am drawn to shady characters not because they are different, just because they are very banal and very similar to me: One slip and I end up on the street, hustling for some money for drugs or to give it to a prostitute. Is this the story I tell to make myself more interesting? A bourgeois life in the late capitalism is always on the brink of madness… D’Agata is right: Whoever is inside of capitalism leads the more dangerous life…
After only a day, D’Agata has grown men stripping and posing for their camera in the attempt to “take a risk”. Is this really you or is this you posing as someone who is actually taking a risk? And does the image show this way or the other?
The group is split in half: The one half are devoted followers, hanging on to his lips. The other half feels badly misunderstood, left out, the whole two days a nuisance. an insult to their struggles. I feel both. A workshop is always a stage: If you go there to be “discovered”, you are in a for a nasty surprise. D’Agata is very conscious about where photography is located today: Dead, or almost. People, even good people, struggling to be seen. It is not even about producing good work any more. It is about working the system. He does not care. He wants to get out, or at least resists to be dragged in. Is this only a pose? He would like to earn more money. Money to finish his film. Money to live, money to buy drugs from, money to allow him to get out of the photography-business. Everybody else wants to get in. Again, so is this only a pose?
There is this guy who shoots dummys in shopping windows. He has a complex relation to his mother, I have forgotten why. Dummys are easy to approach. He is struggling. He is struggling with his english, he is an art teacher. I suspect, that the kids make fun of him. He draws sketches of people in the subway, their absent gaze. His project is now: Draw people in the subway and then try to mimic their expressions and make a photo of it. He barely talks the first day, on the second day he blurts out with this project. Of course, D’Agata loves it. The rest of us feel ashamed. At least I feel ashamed for my photos: Front and center is the will to photograph, a futile, furious, stupid will for art. What to photograph is only an afterthought. The fear, that I have absolutely nothing to say haunts me every day. Now suddenly here is someone who does not actually care about photography, who is just grappling for things to help him express emotions, any kind of emotion. He has a natural feeling that photography is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I consider dropping the camera for good.
On the evening of the first day, after the third beer, I argue: This is an outdated position towards art. We’ve all heard that. Art derived from pain, suffering, transforming your life into a piece of art, yada yada, very sentimental, very romantic. And then again, you can write a story about adultery without ever having cheated on your wife. There are other positions, more complex positions. There are subtler topics than a seemingly endless parade of long-exposure prostitutes in pain or ecstasy, drugged. I’m hurt and angry, that nothing of what I did left any impression. Although it is obviously true, my judgement is also clouded. And then again, he is with Magnum, so what do I know?!
I edit pictures till late at night. People look like ghosts drifting through the lights of shopping windows and street lamps. I have turned on the TV and the TV shows a movie about a man who is cheating on his wife as she is dying on cancer. It’s about love and death and the impossibility of nearness and it is very kitschy and I edit the images until three o’clock while the woman dies on screen and her husband falls apart. I’m too tired too sleep.
-Yesterday Muhammad Ali died, you know how they say he boxed?
-Float like butterfly, sting like a bee.
-This is how photography on the street needs to be. I can see the floating here, but there is not much stinging.
At six, I rush out of the room: He hugs me and I say, It was really an experience to meet you. And he: it was good to meet you too, good luck. And I try to take nothing personal, not the critique, not the superficial words of praise or affection. If you want to get anything out of a workshop, you have to get a thick skin.
At one point I said: Photography is a thing about life and death and he agreed, although he knew that I did not really mean it. I have no idea what to make of these two days. Aligning your life with your pictures? Whatever this means. We don’t do that, we are more complex, now we do things that we think are not right, because we know nothing is right but you have to pretend that something is, just to be able to get on. I can make fun of Agata, because he hurt me, but life is more convoluted than that. We make fun of Rilke, although we know he was right, you have to change your life…
Archaïscher Torso Apollos
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
that are about the failure of the representational paradigm of thinking. As there is always a surplus and excess of meaning because each rendering differs from its origin. Finally it finds out that there is no such thing as pure representation as art always renders its object with a difference, a differance.
A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthesize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give job to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serves these needs and strengthens them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle(for masses) and as an object of surveillance(for rulers).
– Susan Sontag, The Image World, 1973