Transmission Hospitality 2010
Can the photographic image constitute a common space between you and me?
In order to think about this question I am going to talk about a photograph of a man walking away. I will ask you to read a description of it and also to listen to a voice narrating the description you have just read. In photographing a man walking away I am wondering about the position of the photograph between you and me and him. Is he taking the image with him? Does it remain within the moment of its making or is it taking shape here between us? I am doing this in order to think about what it means to encounter a photographic image and what the significance of that encounter is. I will turn to Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing on Community, particularly his notion of the Clinamen as an important influence on my thinking about the photograph. I hope this will provoke some discussion around the role on the photographic image in encountering and describing relationships and the meaning of them.
I would now like to ask you to read the description in front of you.
(man walking away)
A man is walking away. He has his back turned and is heading towards the entrance of Iceland. Another man is crossing in the foreground and a lady in a white sun hat is walking out of the frame towards the right. A woman is walking towards the man who is walking away. The man is centrally located with a large bollard to the left and a traffic cone to the right. His ears protrude slightly on each side of his head and his hair is thick and dark. There is a lightness on the top and patches above the neck that suggest grey. The collar of a mid grey shirt curves down and touches the sloping and equally proportioned downwards curve of his shoulders. This momentum continues through to the arms. The left arm hangs down by the side just separate from the top of the left thigh. The sleeve is rolled up to the elbow. The right arm is tucked under holding a black jacket, which is bulky and falls downwards. There is a crease under the right arm that starts at a convergent point between the upper arm and the torso. The crease folds outwards, fanning slightly with a lightening tone and gives way to a muffled surface of fabric that follows the shape of the arm. From the darkest point inside and underneath the arm pit a crease of fabric falls above the folded and tucked coat. The shape of his back is defined by the shirt that sticks to it in places due to large patches of sweat, particularly down the centre. This distorts the fall of the fabric causing it to sway sideways in deep swathes towards the base of the back; creases fold away from damp patches billowing out slightly before being tucked into his jeans. The jeans are black, they absorb the light; only the stitching can be seen on the back trouser pocket. The left leg is slightly bent and the foot raised backwards with the leather shoe hovering in the air above a small misshapen shadow
The photograph I am showing you comes from an ongoing series of passers by. They are influenced by the spirit of Walker Evans, and particularly by his series of photographs shot in 1946 for Fortune Magazine: ‘Labour Anonymous’. Evans said ‘Fine Photography is literature…’ and in following the footsteps of Flaubert and Baudelaire their descriptive tones echo in the economy and precision of his images. As Evans aspired to literature I too am drawn to the relationship between the photograph and the written word…
Through taking these photographs I am interested in the experience of passing, or being passed by, in that it calls to account an essential relation in space and time with others. I am asking what it means to encounter an image, and how an image can structure and determine that encounter. It seems to me that there is always another in relation to the photographic image, be that the subject, the viewer or the photographer and that the relationship between them is uncertain. We each potentially occupy other positions: the viewer almost occupies the position of the photographer, who almost becomes a subject; the subject becomes a potential viewer as the photographer views the subject. The possibility of adopting another position is invoked through looking at a photograph. I want to draw out these relationships and uncertainties through thinking about the image as a marker of phenomenological experience. In taking photographs I feel that the relationship between beings, things and images are equivalences that draw from each other and are in a state of tension. I propose that the photograph can draw us out of our usual positions and ask whether in doing so it could constitute a common space.
In order to make photographs I work with an analogue camera in series. I separate myself from my camera, either by holding it at waist height, or by identifying an object within space that will act as a shutter release. There is a relation between myself, an object, a camera and a passer by and the coming together of these relations form a photograph. Once made, I project the photographs and look at them. This re-projection relates them back to their inception. It invokes the moment of their making. Through projection I spend time with the photograph, looking. I start to describe, writing down extensive descriptions of what I can see, drawing out details. I then make recordings of these descriptions and present them in place of the photograph. Through this I am attempting to exhaust the origin of the image, to see whether anything can be left of it.
The photograph I am showing you today was made outside the entrance to Iceland on Brixton High Street. I return to this location because it is a space I pass through regularly. In a sense it is a space where I could pass myself my. I stand on the corner of the street, near a bus stop and the entrance to the tube, near the entrance to the supermarket ‘Iceland’, beyond which is a street market. I spend time working out what the photographs will be. I am concerned that I do not want to become an obstruction, and yet I also do not want to be a voyeur, I want to be visible. I find a position within the space, sometimes I step back and fixate on a bollard or patch on the pavement and wait for people to pass in front. Sometimes I stand within the space waiting for people to pass me by, taking a photograph when they feel like they are just on the point of receding and not being a subject any more.
I will now play you a description of a passer by.
Man walking away
Community is at least the clinamen of the individual
In order to theorise my intuition of the photographic image as a ‘common space’ I turn to Jean-Luc Nancy’s writing, in particular his notion of the ‘clinamen’ as a defining characteristic of community. Although Nancy speaks about it as a philosopher I find his thinking helpful in trying to articulate my questions about the photographic image. His thinking also informs my method and approach to making photographs. I draw this towards my practice and through it enact a response. In ‘The In-Operative Community’ Nancy re-thinks the idea of community in the light of its loss. In various ways he reconstructs community in place of its absence; supposing that if a common ground between beings and things has disappeared that we need to think about that absence as something common, that our common sense of meaning is constructed through separation. I am interested in what the photographic image might contribute to this enquiry in asking whether there is a common space of the image.
In defining community and the individual Nancy introduces the notion of the clinamen. Clinamen is a Latin name given by Lucretius to the unpredictable swerve of atoms drawn from the atomic doctrine of Epicurus. He writes:
‘When the atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places they swerve ever so little from their course, just so much that you can call it a change of direction. If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards like raindrops through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom on atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything’
Clinamen, as a term describes elemental production. It has been used in various different contemporary contexts. Gilles Deleuze reflects on its nature in Difference and Repetition. Francis Ponge’s collection of writing ‘The nature of Things’ enact its possibility through observation and words, building on Lucretius’ metaphor of rain drops. Nancy uses it to describe an essential being in common of things:
‘Still, one cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen. There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other’
In this sense Nancy uses the notion of the clinamen to suggest a movement: turning, reaching, inclining: a relation. This does not enable union, rather it exposes separation and it is this dynamic I understand that Nancy claims to be the basis of community. It is here that Nancy situates and characterises community. I feel that through the paradigm of the clinamen he depicts. He aims to move beyond the metaphor of its interpretation towards an exposure of its movement. This brings into question a thinking of positions and relationships that can be related to the photographic process and leads me to ask whether the photographic image could be conceived as a kind of clinamen.
The analogue photograph exposes the edges of one singularity to another, through space, time and light. It sets up a three way dynamic between subject, viewer and photographer. This effects an ocular reaching that is constantly frustrated by its awkwardness of relations. Elements incline towards each other. I incline towards my subject. The viewer inclines towards the photograph. Yet, through the experience of viewing one is constantly separated: from the photographic moment, from the subject as viewer, from the viewer as subject, the photographer as viewer, the photographer as subject… The still image presents an abundance of visual characteristics and connections that act as a barrier exposing the limits of visual comprehension. In doing so the photographic image presents excess and uncertainty. It presents limits.
Within this uncertainty the clinamen is an important fissure; an element that connects these separate components of the image. Nancy claims it has never been thought. He states that no one has ever done anything more than coat, paste over the individual – subject relation.
‘They never inclined it, outside itself, over that edge that opens up it’s being – in – common.’
I am not quite sure what this means or whether it is possible, but I am drawn to it as a notion, to the idea of inclining relations. The edge that Nancy is delineating is the space of community: inclination, a characteristic of the individual. I wonder whether the clinamen as inclination could be thought of in terms of a photograph? Is it possible to identify processes that enable this inclination and exposure to occur? Is it possible for the photographic image to articulate these relations? Can looking, writing and marking the photographic image touch on elements of them? Can the photograph invoke exposure, separation and through them community?
I don’t propose to offer any conclusion today. But by bringing together these ideas I am attempting to bring together thinking about relations between beings and between beings and images. In doing so I am thinking about what it is to be with an image.
 J L Nancy, The Inoperative Community, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p.4
 Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. R.E.Latham, revised John Godwin, Penguin Calssics, London 1994, line 292
 G Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Athlone Press, London, 1994
 F Ponge, The Nature of Things, trans. L. Fahnestock, Red Dust, New York, 2000
 ‘In the courtyard where I watch it fall / the rain is coming down in widely varied measure. / A films discontinuous screen (or tracery) at the centre / it’s an unrelenting shower / relatively slow but rather sparse…
 J L Nancy, The Inoperative Community, p.3
 J L Nancy, The Inoperative Community, p.4