The Eye Cannot Take Unless It Gives
There is an inevitability to my sister's photographs, a kind of stillness, a staticity that universalizes the image printed on the paper, captured at a moment. This stability of the image universalizes its content: it is odd to look at photographs of loved ones and to find in them universal statements upon human relations, human being-in-the-world, but that is what happens when I look at Dafna's photographs. That is what she aims for, I think, an erasure of the subject as specific individual, to be transformed, instead, into an iconic fragment of humanness.
Somehow this inevitability links to that aspect of photography which has been its cry to arms, and that of its enemies against it, since its beginnings as a form of record. Photographs, which simultaneously bring eternal life and instant death to the subject: eternal life in the eternity of record, proof of evidence: this existed. This was. And look how momentary the moment was, see how an action is captured mid-motion, mid-meaning. The ability to lift a moment out of the endless flow of time, which takes all things, and to preserve it, forever.
But to preserve it in what form? In the forms of stillness. Because life is precisely that which photography is not. Life is never still, like photographs, never peggable, never so wholly one thing or another. It is the multiplicity of life, the multi-strandedness and constant motility of everything that lives, that photography destroys, with its selection of the moment. That is what people have always spoken of, I think, when, confronted with the camera for the first time, and then with their image from it, they said that it stole their souls.
But this is not quite true, this singularity of the image, for photographs, like life, can evoke multiple readings, and thus multiple beings, in themselves. And something about the staticity of my sister's compositions achieves this. The frame, which so solidly contains the image within, forces the viewer into eternal circles of viewing. Like Las Meninas, perhaps the most successful image of all time in its forcing of the viewer's gaze into an eternal instability, a never-settling-down of viewpoint or center, my sister's images force my gaze to move in a similar way. I think it is because the face is so seldom revealed, and it is the face we turn to in our readings of people.
For the sociological significance of the eye has special reference to the expression of the face as the first object of vision between man and man. It is seldom clearly understood to what an extent even our practical relations depend upon mutual recognition, not only in the sense of all external characteristics ... of the other, but what we know or intuitively perceive of his life, of his inner nature, of the immutability of his being...In the face is deposited what has been precipitated from past experience as the substratum of his life, which has become crystallized into the permanent features of his face. ...The face as a medium of expression is entirely theoretical organ; it does not act, as the hand, the foot, the whole body; it transacts none of the internal or practical relations of the man, it only tells about him. The peculiar and important sociological act of "knowing" transmitted by the eye is determined by the fact that the countenance is the essential object of inter-individual sight (Simmel 1924: 302).
What happens when we bring Simmel's thought into dialogue with Dafna's photographs? First one must know, whose are the faces that we see? And do we see them, really? In much of Dafna's work, the face is either hidden, or transparent. It is either a wall, or an opening. It is seldom itself, seldom an object upon which the gaze can stop and take hold. In these images of herself and our grandfather, such is the case.
In the Dead Sea self-portrait, I encounter the familiar absence of my sister's face, an absence which to me has always been a development of Simmel's contrast between the face and other parts of the body. For in the absence of the face, the eye seeks out other organs of knowing; it jumps from place to place, covering the body, looking for a piece of person, here, on the curve of the neck which turns the head away, there on the hands tensely lying in the lap, or on the particular way the foot is held by its shoe...somewhere, the eye wants to believe, somewhere on the body can be found that which has been "deposited, what has been precipitated from past experience as the substratum of his life, which has become crystallized into the permanent features of his face..." The body becomes the organ for the eye's knowing. But Simmel is right in the end, and it is this failure to find the person in the body which leads to the lack of closure in the glance, which never finds its place of rest, of peaceful co-knowing, and hence must continue its jumpy voyage across the plane of the image it has been barred from.
Her face is blocked from our view, and his, his evades us, looks beyond us, like the princess in Las Meninas who, though she looks in our direction, is not looking at us, but beyond us, behind us, into some other plane, some other world, some other reality of which we are not a part.
To view Las Meninas is to momentarily experience reality as a multiplicity of planes. To view the old man in these photographs is to have those planes suddenly eradicated, made inconsequential. In the text accompanying this work, my sister writes of my grandfather, "Even though it might seem he is looking straight at the viewer his gaze actually goes straight through the camera. For what seems to be going on is a self-contemplation. ...It seems he is more busy 'looking' at himself than at us." Everything that exists outside (between) this man and what he sees (himself) compresses, becomes immaterial.
It is now necessary to speak a little of my grandfather, of who he was, of what his face can tell us, as Simmel claims it can, simply as a repository of his past, despite this glance which refuses to meet ours, and thus makes us invisible, and makes his face a hole. For this mutual glance between persons, in distinction from the simple sight or observation of the other, signifies a wholly new and unique union between them. ...By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives" (Simmel 1924: 302).
An entire literature on the gaze, and the inequality of the viewer and the object of gaze in art, could be evoked here. So too could we state the obvious: my grandfather does not really exist, it is only his image we confront; hence we are real and he is not. This of course is true, completely true in fact, since my grandfather is dead, and really is no more, and these photographs are what photographs have always been, liftings of moments out of time, preservations, eternal life.
But this too must be complicated, because my grandfather was gone while he was still here too, and because another ritual, that which the photographs record, was also about freezing time in place. That is what rituals are claimed to be about, after all, the lifting of moments out of the instability of human time, the desperate maintenance of the same, the ongoing attempt to make things permanent in the face of time, and the death and change time brings.
I saw him days before he died, and wrote this of that moment:
We were in his place, his non-place, where he is now, waiting, in a haze, which allows some thoughts to bubble up now and then, I think, through the focus on keeping the pain at bay. Everyone else wanted him to talk, and sit, and open his eyes. My mother and I wanted him to sleep. And I just wanted to touch him. It was when I touched him that it was real, the loss of him, when I stroked his arm, the bone thinly covered with translucent, papery, white skin. When I touched him, he was still in this world, and I knew the space his presence filled, and would leave empty. When my touch provoked his glance, which it did at times, it was different. His eyes would lift, to find mine, somehow knowing where mine were, and in that shared glance-space, we were no longer in this world. We were where he was, and he was already gone.
Going further back in time, to a time when he was still fully here, something I as a viewer can do, because to me he is not universal, but very much himself--to me this unavailability of his glance is familiar, and does reflect, as Simmel claims it must, "his life, his inner nature, the immutability of his being." My sister is right--it is a self-contemplation. My grandfather was a very self-contemplative man, a highly self-aware man, a perfect subject for photography, because, again as I wrote upon his death, "How much of you lives in the watery reflections in others’ eyes."
But it was always himself he looked for, and this brings us back to that inequality between living viewer and photographed viewed I discussed earlier. In Las Meninas, and in these images, the inequality is reversed. It is we who are not real, who are not seen. We would offer ourselves to the gaze of the other, if we could.
Perhaps the people were wrong; perhaps the photograph does not only steal the soul of the imaged, but also of those who are viewing. To be confronted by a set of eyes which do not see us...maybe that is the particular magic of photographs. To be denied the "new and unique union" the mutual glance provides... My grandfather's gaze is not preoccupied with knowing the observed, unless the observed is himself, and hence he does not surrender himself "to be understood by the observer." To paraphrase Simmel, the eye cannot give unless at the same time it takes.
Therein the multiplicity of these images, which simultaneously evoke, for me, not a single moment but a series of clashing time-spaces, each enframing the next: my grandfather kissing my sister's neck for the first time, the many repetitions of this act which made it ritual, the moment of recording, the final goodbye this moment is pre-echo of, and battle against, both in its iteration as an original act and in its photographic reiteration of that act...and of the surreal protractedness of that goodbye: his absence in the final years as his gaze turned increasingly inward, that motion away encountered in his glance when he looked at me as he was dying, and his somewhat final, finite absence now that he is gone, yet still looks out at himself from these images, which are so familiar, and yet so defamiliarizing, in their evocation of a place I know so well.
That room, which he hated so much, as it symbolized everything that no longer was. Another brilliant thinker, George Herbert Mead, once said that human beings live in a world of objects, and that their activities are formed around objects, and that objects are "human constructs and not self-existing entities with intrinsic natures. Their nature is dependent on the orientation and action of people toward them" (Blumer 287).
I never met anyone who could encrust objects so well as my grandfather. His objects developed an aura, a thick ongoing layering of things unsaid, things meant and symbolized, which colored common things, transforming them into something altogether different.
In the poetic image narrowly conceived, all activity--the dynamics of the image-as-word
--is completely exhausted by the play between the word (with all its aspects) and the object (in all its aspects). The word plunges into the inexhaustible wealth and contradictory multiplicity of the object itself, with its "virginal," still "unuttered" nature; therefore it presumes nothing beyond its own context (Bakhtin 1982: 278).
My grandfather was an unintentional poet. His word plunged into the inexhaustible wealth of the objects around him, and surrounded their virginal multiplicity with an aura all his own. And I finally find the words to describe the image. It is a vibrating stillness which is there, not living, not dead, but somewhere in between.
Ruti Talmor, New York, 2000
Bakhtin, M.M. 1981 "Discourse in the novel", pp. 259-452 in Michael Holquist (ed.), The Dialogic Imagination. Routledge.
Blumer, H. 1970 "Sociological implications of the thought of George Herbert Mead" , pp. 282-293 in Stone & Faberman (eds.), Social Psychology Through Symbolic Interaction. Ginn-Blaisdell.
Simmel, G. 1970 "On visual interaction" , pp. 300-303 in Stone & Faberman (eds.), Social Psychology Through Symbolic Interaction. Ginn-Blaisdell.