Thursday, October 11, 2012
Lady Grinning Soul
I am in Istanbul, for the first time, with no fixed agenda. As so, I am using this as an opportunity to get back to business, and write everyday, something which the success and excesses of the previous year have prevented me from doing almost entirely. Behold! My Istanbul diary, presented as a series of immediate sketches, written up each day, an important exercise for me, hopefully vaguely diverting for you.
Since I have arrived in Istanbul (since September in fact, when I was gifted with an iPod touch) I have being taking constant snapshots of detritus, tabloid puns and beautiful architectural fragments. I don’t consider myself a photographer, but I like to keep scrapbooks – I think of this blog as a scrapbook in fact, albeit a semi-public one. Being in such a madly photographed city as I am, a place whose vistas, monuments and marketplaces were known to me long before I deplaned (albeit, not its beauty), I feel conflicted about taking pictures here. Local people walk nonchalantly past the most outrageous Ottoman palaces and staggering Byzantine mosques, whilst visitors grin inanely in front of every photographable nook at every one of their predetermined visiting spots. The endless clicking of cameras, and the unenviable reams of holiday snaps shot in the most badly lit corners of indescribably beautiful locations, produced by the kilometer everyday, is something I am not desperate to be a part of.
I mean, does anyone ever see a picture of an amazing panorama on facebook, or an incredible skyscape on a friend’s phone, and say “Wow! I simply must go there!” – I doubt it. Rather one thinks, “Very nice dear, good for you,” and checks it off the list of things to see and do, feeling that the experience has been had by proxy, that “seeing” it via the personal reproduction of a pal is enough.
I suppose this is what dear old Susan Sontag was prophesizing, when she warned against the dangers of experiencing beautiful moments via the camera, when she told us we were in fact missing out on the experience of being there by cataloguing the experience of being there. And with such constant visual stimulation, as we are all (qualify this as necessary) now afflicted with, we have managed to not only eviscerate the experience for ourselves but for those who encounter the Amazon, London Bridge, Ho Chi Minh City or Dietrich’s grave through our photographic records.
Thomas Ruff said something which really resonates, “Photography can only reproduce the surface of things. What people see, eventually, is what is already inside of them.” We are perhaps guided to see what we already know, to use what we encounter to affirm that things are how we believe them to be, we are viewing selfishly, we don’t want to go to those places we see in photos because if we are drawn to them it is because we feel we already know them. Those vistas across the Golden Horn I had googled, and those photographs of the Hagia Sophia I had seen back in school, stayed with me until I arrived in Istanbul because they represented a narrative I had invested in, that’s why I sought them out. Only now do they reveal themselves as fraudulent.
Likewise, when I take pictures, and disseminate them, I am working within that same narrative and weaving my life (or how I wish it to be perceived) into it. I become a denizen of Istanbul and Istanbul becomes a part of my life story, we confer onto each other a mutual contextualization for our audience; Istanbul makes me worldly, glamorous and adventurous, I make Istanbul accommodating, lustrous and contemporary. My presence here rescues Istanbul from its reputation as repressive, badly dressed and decrepit, Istanbul rescues me from my reputation of being Eurocentric, uptight, and uncultured. (I am talking here of a process which happens for myself, not to say I or my emerging relationship with Istanbul is any kind of symbolic act for a generation). But, when I am taking photographs here, or indeed being photographed here, I have to wonder what it is I am destroying by presenting these images.
In Werner Herzog’s film “White Diamonds” (disappointingly not a documentary about Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume line) there is a scene in which a former tribal leader in Guyana talks about what his people believe to be behind a particularly impenetrable waterfall, something nobody has ever actually seen, so impossible is it to enter the falls. Herzog tells him that a camera man on his team has actually lowered himself down the rockface and filmed inside of the cave, prompting the leader to state his belief quite firmly that that footage should never be shown. It would he said, destroy his people’s entire culture. This is an extreme example perhaps, but I am beginning to think that anybody’s dorky holiday snaps have such a power (though at a lower voltage) of reducing rather than increasing the viewer's desire to be there themselves. By spelling out myths, compounding them and simultaneously devaluing them, the desire to seek out is degraded – our work is apparently done for us.
And so I restrict myself to taking pictures of obscure corners and cats in doorways, and mosaics seen peeping over misplaced balconies, shots taken out of windows, images of rooftops; in short enigmatic details which are loaded for me with significance and seize a moment, without attempting to capture the magnificence of the horizon or the immensity of a monument. I can look back on them, humorously maybe, and they will be a secret pictorial history, without discouraging anyone I might share them with from seeking out the sights for themselves. I have always taken pictures like this, of my little sisters in the soft drink aisle at Tesco (which caused us to be thrown out, thank you very much), of garbage trucks with misspelt environmental slogans, of my shoes casting shadows. Each image has the power to remind me of some precise happening, without being strictly representational of that happening. Those random fragments, become some Proustian memory joggers, that jolt me into remembering how beautiful it was to be in Vienna in by looking over a photo of the light diffracting through glasses on a table top, or to reflect on what a weird time I had in Gran Canaria by looking at the image of a disembodied, slightly out of focus neon octopus looming somewhere in the darkness.
I am put in mind of the work of Leyla Gediz, some of which I saw this week at Istanbul Modern. The gallery text spoke of how she created the strange spaces in her work, recognizable yes, but most definitely off, in which to house her psychic experiences. The text referred to her work as not being an expression of her feelings or emotions, but rather a way to get rid of them, to offload them. I think this is a helpful structure for the tourist photographer in me too, that in taking these innocuous pictures I am freeing myself from the urge to take the sightseer’s pictures, but resisting the urge to catalogue the experience in a “useful” way. I love Gediz’s work because I want to go to the places she paints, although I have no idea where they are, and to be honest a lot of their charm lies in the fact that the idea of going there frightens me. They are witty too of course, not ruthless, but the challenge of accepting the invitation to step into these impossible spaces, implies getting entirely lost in them, or rather in what I am projecting them to be. Looking at the paintings I am aware of my own precarious mental state, Gediz just throws the door open.
Coincidentally, I am reading “Bodies” by Susie Orbach, in which she talks about the psychotherapeautic side effect of countertransference, in which the therapist themselves can experience strong changes in how they feel towards themselves in the presence of certain patients. Orbach talks about her clients downloading their feelings about their bodies (for better of for worse) onto her body, that she can become an ersatz second body for them, perhaps something closer to the real body they have lost contact with. It is interesting to consider Gediz’s downloading in the context of Orbach’s, in the context of holiday snaps. That uncomfortable desire to catalogue oneself to prove that one exists, to take the picture and throw it at the viewer as evidence. Many people find being photographed terribly uncomfortable, but will put themselves through the discomfort to say, "I was there then," to insist they inhabited a specific, unique physicality, in a specific, unique moment.
There is even something aggressive, violent about this deliberate offloading, inflicting the experience on other people once we have failed to really experience it ourselves. And for whom are we posing when we stand with the Eiffel Tower bisected above our heads? Whom are we smiling at with Niagara Falls out of focus in the background? Our parents, perhaps? Is it an attempt to say, “Look! I amounted to something!” to live their dreams for them? Our friends maybe? Is it an attempt to signpost how sophisticated we are, to keep up with well-traveled pals or even show off a little? Is it for posterity? Are we trying to keep a historical record of how cute and suntanned we were, how we were such romantic travelers? Perhaps, it is a chore. That the pictures are an obligation, a necessity to prove we got up out of our sedentary lives, that we pulled ourselves away from gayromeo, stepped out of our virtual, flatscreen worlds, that we are still capable of experiencing the world without the interface of a laptop. Perhaps there is even something resentful then in taking these pictures, something which says, “There! ME! Acropolis! Happy now?” Thomas Ruff's thinking posits that photography itself points out the stark fact that we can never experience the world through photography. Maybe a more abstract, personal, less staged, more obscure photography can prompt a more engaged and exciting audience response. Here’s hoping that it can provide inspiration enough for us to power down and take a walk.