Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, October 07, 2005

Photography, spilling into language

As I read, the Moleskine notebook is ready beside me. Too often I read without heeding the impulse to note things down. If the notebook isn’t there, I read on, headlong. I won’t note things down.

I’m reading Murat Nemet-Nejat’s beautiful little book The Peripheral Space of Photography, discovered in a remaindered shop last week. It's an edition so small that it won’t peek out of your back pocket (if you put it there). This also means recovering the desired quotation won’t take so long. For instance, ‘Photography is … a medium of reflection (reflection as image and as thought), intimately related to language’. That’s on page 10. But this was in fact noted down. I felt that it might lead me to understand why photography as an art form compels my interest. Some, like Roger Scruton, would argue that it isn’t an art form. Yet this uncertainty is perhaps precisely why it seems vital.

A chapter on light in 19th century photographs is particularly good. Nemet-Nejat says it is that each photograph from this era seems, from our perspective of technical mastery, slightly overexposed. So why do they have a power signally lacking (I believe) in 19th century literature? ‘The glow is a combination of lack and excess, lack because the reflection from the medium (the negative) is not perfect, and excess, the excess of light glow, trapped in, emanating from the print.’ The glow is, then, ‘a sign of the insufficiency of the medium. This insufficiency defines it.’

Insufficiency. Hardly what we expect from a powerful work of art! Few people would call Dickens’ representation of the same world insufficient. Yet perhaps this is where it lacks. The insufficiency of the medium is masked rather than revealed by an excess. It’s what Kafka called the ‘heartlessness behind [Dickens’] sentimentally overflowing style’. Without his ‘rude characterisations which are artificially stamped on everyone’, the great writer ‘would not be able to get on with his story even for a moment’ (Diaries, 8th October 1917). One can easily be seduced by this style, but only because it is the seduction of solipsism.

Nemet-Nejat says the excess of light in 19th Century photographs, over which the photographers had limited control, is their ‘constant source of power’. The glow is something ‘the medium can not completely hold or integrate’. The glow causes ‘a blurring, a failure creating an excess of sadness, turning the photographic object, a piece of paper, like a bottle, holding the light of a hundred years ago, into an object of meditation on time, on mortality, the sadness of light surviving the object from which it emanated, the image, in this production of excess, turning, spilling into language.’ This from pages 47 and 48.

If I hadn’t have noted these quotations in my Moleskine, I might well have forgotten them. The book, once devoured, would have been returned to the pile of other books waiting to be read and re-read, and I would have only this vague recollection of having been moved and impressed by an idea, soon forgotton, that spurred me on, helping me to say what I need to say, still unsaid.

Yet also, I feel that the notebook slows me down, defeats the apparent pleasure of reading, which is to read, to move forward today unhindered by questions, by doubts and by a third thing for rhetoric’s sake. Thinking, reflecting, writing, are perhaps excesses of reading. It spills into more language.

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