Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Photographs and writing

I've been thinking about photographs and writing - mine, and other people's - and not very much else. SLV has a copy of the Ariella Azoulay book that Sarah Sentilles wrote about and talked about and I went in to look at it for a while. It is very long and I didn't get very far. It was extremely difficult to skim an hour out of the day to spend in the library. Well, I suppose in truth I could have spent a chunk of Saturday in the library instead of getting a haircut and trying to fix the big problem in my life, but I always really enjoy my infrequent visits my hairdresser and the haircut itself is not a disaster. I also found this useful essay of Sentille's.

Anyway, I read enough to begin to understand a little bit more about what is being proposed and to begin to recognise that the problem I am continually running up against as a writer - what exactly is one doing when one makes and attends to representations of other people, and if one avoids that altogether, what is left? - is also implicated in this thinking. I've been reflecting a little on everyday photography and whether it presents the same challenges and confers the same obligations on the viewer as the horrific pictures described by these writers. They talk about the possibilities of photographs as documents of the photographer's and / or the subject's expectations that the viewer will do something as a result of sharing in and accessing that otherwise removed and inaccessible visual field. The obligation becomes serious when the photo is of something terrible but as I looked at the ordinary photos I see every day, especially on social media, I noticed that there were almost no photographs that had been shared with me where it was not apparent that some sort of response or reaction - action - from me was sought. I know this is kind of obvious. The photographs that interested me most were those where the nature of the challenge was strongly felt but hard to define, and the very small number of photos which did not seem to have been made with any response expected.

I started on this inquiry because of some questions that have been posed recently at work (well, they're ongoing questions but there have been some developments that indicate they're becoming shared questions of some urgency as opposed to just things that a few of us discuss more or less privately from time to time) but I did come to the realisation that if I'm going to get anywhere with my writing project I need to think through what I am doing when I write about others. And indeed when I write about myself.

A few weeks ago, Lenny asked if he could have a box of grey lead pencils like one that I'd temporarily brought home from the work stationery cupboard. So we went off on a Saturday to fulfil this highly charming request. And the expedition reminded me of this essay of Virginia Woolf's, Street Haunting, which I hadn't read for years. So I read it and felt as if I had caught a peripheral glimpse of a glimmering of the sublime, and I also thought, I have to lift my game. The way Woolf writes organises the experience of living in such a fashion that it does not look very constructed but it shimmers with a legibility that's mostly absent from actually being alive, which increasingly I think is a meaningless condition.

Now: You, dear reader, are remarkably well placed to know that I write about almost nothing but what I make of the little things that happen in everyday life, and I write about them a lot and in a scattershot kind of manner. There are reasons for this and I have thought plenty about them, but perhaps I haven't thought about them as critically as I could, or should. First, there's the dim reflected glory associated with this subject matter via the transcendent work built from it by writers like Woolf, who made it everything - but emphatically not by just pumping out a mess of raw experience. That's what I do, and one important reason why I do it that way is that I am usually a fairly horrid combination of exhausted and frustrated by the time I get to sit down at the end of the day and write.
(Like, today: I got up at 5:40am, went to the gym, rode to work, worked like a fucking dervish because the Anzac Day seasonal insanity is kicking off, rode home, got Len from school, did the washing and cooked dinner, fed him, washed him, played with him, and now I'm sitting with him in his room while he winds down and eventually goes to sleep.) These long screeds are a kind of revenge on the world for not making my life just a little less draining. And then there is a small collection of ideas about making art which I've gleaned here and there. You heard about Henry James already. I've heard that Denis Johnson once told a struggling novice writer to "just lower your standards, man!" - what beautiful advice. Long ago at art school I read that Henry Moore said the continual practice of life drawing guarantees that everyone will produce a good, truthful drawing from time to time. It is necessary for me to work in ways that preclude the indulgence of perfectionist tendencies. But I think I've been a bit cowardly about testing myself out a little. I reckon I could do just a little bit of rethinking and structuring without it becoming a ridiculous interminable big deal. I've already lowered my standards as far as they'll go.

So, I write here in the way that I do, and I've not generally been displeased about the process or the results, but it's not an approach that will work for any other production I may or may not be engaged upon. I think there are ethical as well as aesthetic reasons why it won't. If Virginia Woolf is the Virginia Woolf of writing about what it is like to be alive and be a self int he world, then I am the Tom Cruise in Rain Man of doing that, and what I do is throw a whole lot of matches on the floor and the absolute very best you can do with that, my dear reader, is to go a bit crosseyed and mutter "82, 82, 82, 256!" I think you might deserve a little more to work with.


Fyodor said...

"I thought I had it there a while ago, you know. It was looking alright. But like an eejit I keep banging away."
"You're a perfectionist, Ted, you know."

The only problem with your writing is that there isn't more of it. But, like, no pressure.

lucy tartan said...

oh my god Fyodor....straight to the pool room. I'm picturing that car. (and thank you.)