Photograph of a
After a photograph by Li Ya Ning/ 李亚宁.
Some photographs demand that we address their spell over us. How is it that this image and not others exercises such an immediate and alert fascination; whence this bewitchment, this designation, swiftly perceived, of a photograph with classic properties? For if the recognition is swift, almost timeless, yet the answer to the question, ‘How?’ - how is this effect achieved - will require time.
This is not a road that leads anywhere (or rather, if it does, then this is not what this photograph is about). Its space is what this picture is about (or rather, what there is in this space, something we cannot see… perhaps not even something… but some place…) the place it shows is something we cannot see. But it is what we feel… what we feel is the sense of place. The ghost that haunts the picture is the place that it may once have been or that we would like to have seen there. The ghost that haunts the picture is a grove.
A grove of trees. Darkness on a white ground; the white planes of city architecture. Unclear mystery in the midst of rational space. A clear eruption of nature in the heart of urban culture (so our first impression is of an image riven by the nature/culture opposition, a rift, or opening, pictured as an encirclement, as culture surrounds nature). Also erupting is a kind of space which declares its character of apartness, of being framed, set aside, space become place; exchanging utility for mood, quantitative measures for a qualitative experience (and pointless to ask whether it is the gift of the place to us that brings about such things or if the advent of place is our gift to the world). Mystery as a mode of value, as a means of perpetuating value. Dark on white. A grove of trees.
For a grove, by definition, is a framing of itself, itself framed with its own lining, which is also its feature, which feature also frames its inner space, the ‘room’ within, marked out from ordinary space. Leaving us with the sense of a question: whose room? What resides here, what manner of being, spirit of the place, ‘genius loci’? Yet it is we ourselves that live there: in answer to the question, who, whose space, we ourselves answer; for we already know the answer: what resides there is that part of ourselves which we would hold apart, that part of ourselves which recognizes its debt to the sky and the stars, that part of ourselves which forever, dreams of forever, finding in eternity the guarantee for its strivings, guarantor of value, the value of place, ‘this’ special place, as the place of its abode, its origin and home, its final justification. The quality- or value-bestowing faculty of human beings that powers religion, but transcends its structures, still wanting, still waiting, to re-enchant the world. Even if only within the frame of the photograph.
Over and above the above, the laws of black and white photography and time apply: the step removed from presence of the absence of colour, the past as again present, honestly presented as lacking in the vividness of colour, a past valued enough to be preserved, the meaning of the means of expression: and then the meanings of the content (addressed above). Addressing what is above, above our daily lives (yet supporting them), above our commonplace world (yet still of it), a value that finds in this record a trace of the eternity which transfigures all things and which constitutes humanity’s greatest illusion.
Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk