THE ART OF STARING
In front of me I have a smallish print of a photograph by Dan Holdsworth. A landscape taken at night, it is one of his early pictures and one of the very first I became acquainted with as I was introduced to his work around 1997. It had an immediate impact on me and as an image it has since continued to resonate in my mind. Although Holdsworth has produced further images which, in their appearance, might be considered more striking or assured in some way, this particular photograph continues to hold the key to what I believe is one of the defining qualities of his work.
Looking at the print, the top part of the image, the sky - which amounts to over two-thirds of the image area - is a very deep, rich and even ‘black’. By somewhat stark contrast, running across the bottom of the picture, within the lower third, runs a wall of rather bright yellowish-green foliage. The vibrancy of this greenery appears to be due to this area being illuminated by artificial light. The exact source, however, is unclear, but from my calculation it must emanate from an elevated position somewhere behind the camera. This greenery seems to form a backdrop to something that has yet to happen or has happened. It lays some fifty to a hundred metres in front of the camera, and consists mostly of trees, although, certainly to an untrained eye like mine, there are no distinguishing shapes to identify their type. Towards the back, however, is a line of tall thin trees, less illuminated than the others, that do remind me of Cypresses.
What most aroused my curiosity about this image was that it looked like a photograph of a place familiar to me but I could not quite identify the location. There is something that suggested it could have been taken in a warm, perhaps tropical climate. Maybe this is because of the apparent warmth of light reflecting off the greenery? Perhaps it is simply the idea of Cypress trees suggesting nights spent outdoors somewhere in the Mediterranean (but is this a private fantasy of mine? I am not sure if I have ever actually spent such evenings in that region).
Alternatively, reaching as they do across the picture from one side to the other, these trees could have reminded me of another exotic place which I have certainly not visited, although this one would be more menacing. However, these aren’t palm trees and, thankfully, there are no explosions or helicopters buzzing around. Anyway, the opening sequence to Apocalypse Now was filmed during the day. To imagine this as the edge of a ‘Conrad-esque’ jungle would be another fantasy. Yet, within the image, there remains very little that can tell me what purpose, if any, these trees might serve, or help me identify where exactly they are.
Looking more closely at the print there are further clues to the possible identity of this place. Stretching across the image in front of the trees are a number of faint lines. They look a little like suspended power cables, except they are not. For one thing there is no visible means of support, and these lines are a coloured combination of red and amber. But more importantly they are translucent. These are the traces of lights. While this image was establishing itself on the plate negative in the camera, something (or things) was passing by in a direction perpendicular to the view of the camera. What exactly, however, remains unknown.
I have just spent a good deal of time attempting to describe this photograph in some detail and in the process I have become aware that it is an image that never quite reveals itself. It is awkward, it draws you in but immediately begins to make things difficult to identify or locate. It is not that the image is difficult to comprehend, on the contrary, as a whole it is quite compelling. Rather, just as the image may generate a familiarity, its true identity will remain fugitive. It is as if a story is not being fully told, yet, like all good mysteries, enough information is provided to keep one engaged and guessing.
A certain sense of the uncanny runs consistently throughout Holdsworth’s work, and while this particular image is possibly one of the more extreme examples, his photographs do invite us to spend an amount of time with them not normally accorded to photographs. We could say they invite our contemplation. But, by contemplation I don’t necessarily mean in the romantic sense of a reflection upon the self in front of the image. While clearly this photograph could be considered very much a subjective image and, indeed, there may be a mystery of nature reflected in it, I am referring here to something far more objective. I am thinking about a necessary intent on the part of the viewer to examine what the image is actually showing.
This process of examination is, at least for me, a slightly ponderous exercise; looking, thinking and looking again in an attempt to articulate what is occurring in the image. In fact, it has been quite unlike the fast and often single instantaneous experience that is more commonly associated with the realisation of photographs and the ease with which they are usually absorbed into one’s consciousness. What has made this process of articulation more intriguing and more difficult is that a duration of time, as opposed to the ‘decisive moment’, is bound up in this picture, and that, in itself, is particularly important to our understanding of it and indeed to the understanding of many other photographs that Holdsworth has produced.
Most people would recognise that any landscape photograph taken at night is made with a long exposure. We are all familiar with the usual evidence; stars and aircraft tracing lines across the sky, or rivers of vehicle headlights flowing down a motorway. Clearly, the world is never still. Even seen from a desert, the world and the objects within it are constantly moving. What is interesting about the Holdsworth photograph I am discussing is that, but for a few hardly noticeable instances, the night sky is clean of those telltale signs. It appears to be very still. Again, there is a sense that something that would otherwise help pin down the image - and in this instance offer a means by which we can measure how long it was exposed - is missing from the evidence it lays before us.
The lengthy exposure occupies a position that is, physically, one of photography’s most extreme. It tests not only the photographer, but also the equipment and the chemical characteristics of film. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s film theatre photographs, for example, are all exposed according to the duration of the film that is being screened in the otherwise empty theatre. The photograph witnesses the entire film, yet all we see is a bleached out screen, our only - ghostly - indication that time has actually passed. Speaking about the relationship between painting and film, Gerhard Richter once suggested that when we look at a painting, for example a still life, although we may have little or no idea of the actual time taken to paint it we instinctively recognise the importance that time played in the painting’s existence - the many observations made by the artist which, like frames in a film , accumulate to form an image. This is one reason why paintings are so compelling, even if we appear to only glance at them for brief moments in a museum.
While most photography may comprise the record of very brief moments, which we subsequently look at as much or as little as we choose, some photographs are the result of more than a glance or the recording of a specific ‘event’. Such photographs would include the work of Andeas Gursky or wildlife photographers; for both, their pictures are made at the end of a long period of observation. Much more than a lengthy observation, however, the Holdsworth photograph in front of me is the result of fixing the gaze in a particular physical, ontological, manner; it is an act of staring. In its long exposure the camera hasn’t simply become an open receptacle, attracting whatever occurrences of light might happen to pass through the lens. Rather, the camera is looking very long and hard at what is in front of it, determining what certain things are, where they may start and where they finish. In fact, in this case, the camera is staring so hard at some trees that its powerful gaze obliterates other things that have been passing in front of the lens. Unlike the more usual instantaneous gathering process of photography, of information fleetingly fixing itself on the surface of the recording material, looking at this photograph I can sense both a filtering and real saturation of the negative, as what distilled information there is becomes slowly absorbed into it.
The kind of intensity of image I have been describing here makes me think of much earlier photography, when long exposures were usually a necessity. A similar obliteration of information occurred when photography’s pioneers attempted to record busy Victorian streets. Unless people and vehicles were kept unnaturally still, the time required to expose the image of surrounding buildings would, more often than not, render the street absent of any people or activity. Photographs made in the nineteenth century often have this sense that they are - to steal a phrase more associated with painting - ‘hard won’ images, not least because of the technical and logistical challenge they often presented. Moreover, these early images somehow contain the feeling that during their exposure they would have generated a great sense of anticipation and unknowing on the part of the photographer who would probably have little way of predicting the end result. Here I often think of Fox Talbot’s very early, and now celebrated, Study of a Tree (c.1840-4S). If there was ever a case of a tree being stared at, this was it. After making his photograph Fox Talbot would have witnessed this tree as never seen before. Seeing things anew remains a motivating force behind photography today, but ironically photography itself has led to the limitation of entirely ‘new’ experiences. Everywhere and everything has already been photographed before we come to it, and all this prior information conditions our expectation. If we visit a place for the first time, we have, in a sense, already been there.
So, it is not so much about finding new places to visit, new things to look at and to photograph, but how we actually look. Dan Holdsworth’s camera stares. It stares at trees. It also stares at other things; it stares along a road or into the corner of a sterile looking room; it stares at a mountainside or across a barren lunarlike landscape into simply nothing. These mayor may not be familiar places to us but Holdsworth pictures them in a way not quite seen before. We might ‘know’ of these places in some way because we have passed through them or we may recognise them from other pictures, but we have probably never been in them as Holdsworth has. Like Fox Talbot and his tree, Holdsworth can make even the most familiar, commonplace thing seem unfamiliar, as though we were seeing it for the first time.
Originally conceived as part of a triptych, the photograph I have been describing first came to my acquaintance as one of a number that Dan Holdsworth first showed me in a small portfolio. (Groupings of pictures, such as triptychs, can often be flexible and this particular image, along with the other two that accompanied it, has also been presented individually.) Significantly though, this portfolio presentation meant that, at first, I did not see the other two images to which this one related. Included in this portfolio were a number of images of places for which I had some degree of recognition. These included motorway overpasses and car parks. The print that followed the one in question was all too familiar to me. It was a view across the car park at London Gateway Services just at the beginning of the Ml motorway. And, there before me was the clue I had been looking for. It was now apparent that the streaks of light I had seen in the previous print were generated by the sidelights of high-sided vehicles; an example of which was sitting in the Gateway Services car park.