Photography has come a long way since Nicéphore Niépce made the first photogravure etching in 1822 and thus created an industry.
When I last visited his birthplace and the Musée de Châlon Sur Saone nearly forty years ago it was possible to take a sheet of sensitized paper from a drawer, and develop it into a replica of that first ‘magical’ image.
Fashions wax and wane in photography, but I fancy that first image was never deliberately composed yet, stylistically, it resembles something from the Cubist method for representing a mechanistic fragmented world that would soon unfold.
Instead I want to look at how some images have the ‘creepy’ ability to foretell the future.
Who could doubt that the image, (above), by Jaques Henri-Lartique must have been taken by a mischievous eight year old?
But look closer, and it becomes apparent that there is something absurd about the bourgeois life depicted with its restrictive long skirts, peacock feathers, and whalebone corsets. In a very few years they disappeared from fashion forever.
Lartique caught this, (below), when he was just a few years older. Taken in 1912 it is emblematic of the twenties and thirties, because it celebrates the power of that forthcoming benzene driven age.
Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote in 1952:
“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression”.
Even before knowing anything of Zen Cartier-Bresson was working from another philosophy, and one that was augmented, rather than diminished, by Zen.
He was a surrealist.
The surrealists believe that just beyond our range of common perception life is pregnant with a far richer depth of meaning. Sometimes we catch glimpses of this. Psychoanalysts claim that dreams reveal such alternate worlds. Physicists, such as David Bohm, claim that there is an implicate order – a potential – beyond the explicable that is revealed to us.
Artists attempt to convey something of this by creating works that arrest the mind causing it to refocus and momentarily bring forth an alternate reality.
Sometimes a photograph has the power to do so.
In 1933 at the Gare Saint-Lazarre station, in Paris, Cartier Bresson saw that something remarkable was about to happen and pointed his Leica through the wire fence surrounding the station. Then he snapped this.
Some photographers consider this to be the greatest photograph of the twentieth century, not simply because it shows something of what we’ve all done at some time in our lives, but because of what else is in the frame. It is a portent of a global disaster.
The man of course, somewhat, resembles the Joker in a card deck – more specifically ‘The Fool’ from the mysterious Tarot Pack.
The Fool is considered to be the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us. In recent decks he is depicted as someone about to walk off the edge of a cliff.
Now lest you think that suggesting a man puddle-jumping is a far cry from the Joker about to jump a cliff into an abyss that is the future I must warn you that many consider ‘Behind Gare Saint-Lazarre’ to contain even more than this.
In the background a poster reads: ‘Railowski’, an almost generic name that could be invented to describe a Jewish rail transportee. On the foreground there is a broken hoop, perhaps symbolising the greatest calamity that may befall what was for centuries the world’s most useful mechanical object, the wheel.
The wheel also appears in the Tarot deck. It symbolises fortune, and appears exactly half way through the court cards at the point where Psyche, symbolised by ‘The Fool’ begins to experience the vagaries, and seasons of fortune.
It is written of ‘The Wheel’: ‘A common aspect to most interpretations of this card within a reading is to introduce an element of change in the querent’s life, such change being in station, position or fortune: such as the rich becoming poor, or the poor becoming rich.’
The open hoop protrudes above the water, symbolising the unconscious potentia and points to the reflection to the man’s reflection on its surface.
Could this really be a portent of changes of fortune things to come? The image was taken the year in which Hitler came to power.
Fanciful? Maybe . . . but Cartier-Bresson had a remarkable facility with fortune. As a boy a gypsy predicted many events that were to become true in his life. She predicted his marriages; their outcomes; the birth of his daughter as well as other significant matters that were to befall him.
Generations of photographers have been influenced by Cartier-Bresson. I’ve written about him elsewhere and, when he read my words, he was gracious enough to send me a message, which I found not simply helpful but also portentous.
One such individual is the mysterious Mr. William Eggleston of Houston, Texas. Perhaps more than any other photographer he has the ability to see through the American Dream, whilst still preserving a reverence for beauty.
It’s not that he’s an aesthete, far from it. But I do believe him to also be a surrealist. His pictures illuminate something beyond what is obvious, and indeed in photographing everyday scenes and objects, as they appear before him, he claims to take pictures ‘democratically’ and to be ‘at war with the obvious’.
You can see something of Eggleston’s democratic eye in this image of his uncle and a manservant. A black man in a white jacket strikes an identical posture to that of a white man in a black jacket.
This was taken at a time when the South was segregated, and so says something beyond the fact that these two men shared access to similar objects in their day to day lives. It’s not just that they’re in rapport – it simultaneously indicates a difference in station whilst pointing to a, soon to be, equality in rights unprecedented in modern American, and recent South African, history.
It was taken at a funeral. Could it be the funeral of male white dominance?
Perhaps the creepiest of Eggleston’s prophetic images is this one.
In it we see a blood red ceiling savagely cut by the white electric cables. In the centre is an electrical fitting, once ornate it now lacks a shade.
The only other features of the room are the top of a door, and some pop art poster renditions of the Karma Sutra. There is something beautiful about the depth of colour in it, yet few would want to hang it on a wall in their front room.
It could be the kind of room where a murder has taken place – a crime scene?
Eggleston took it whilst laying on a bed with the room’s incumbents a couple who were his friends. He just saw something, pointed the camera at the ceiling and . . .
The house is no longer there. It was burned down with his friend in it. He had first been murdered with an axe.
A note on the copyright images included from the Cartier-Bresson Foundation; the Jacques-Henri Lartigue Foundation; and the Willian Eggleston Trust.
Fair Use Rational:
1. Used in an scholarly article about the artist. 2. Is a historically significant work that could not be conveyed in words. 3. Inclusion is for information, education and analysis only. 4. Its inclusion in the article adds significantly to the article because it shows the subject, or the work of the subject, of the article.5. The image is a low resolution copy of the original work and would be unlikely to impact sales of prints or be usable as a desktop backdrop. 6. An equivalent free image is not available and cannot be made.
This article was first published on ‘Blokes on the Blog’, as ‘For Grown Up Photographers Only’, February 13, 2012. The topics expressed here were subsequently expanded into two volumes: Photography and Psychoanalysis: The Development of Emotional Persuasion in Image Making, and Photography and Zen: Discovering your true nature through photography. These are available paper bound and as Kindle publications.