My friend, the photographer Karoline Schneider, had begun experimenting with a technique called wet-plate collodion photography – an attempt to look back at the origins of photography in a time of digital inundation –, and asked me if I would volunteer to model for her. Her primary focus was, and – if I am not mistaken – remains portraiture. I agreed, and what followed were weeks of irregular, informal sessions at her apartment, in a room which had been adapted to serve as a studio. Since the purpose of this essay is not to delve into the technical intricacies of wet-plate collodion photography, and especially since my knowledge of it is less than zero on a scale of one to ten, I will spare the reader all misrepresentations of this technique. Suffice it to say that the process is extremely fragile and time-consuming, requiring meticulous care and attention on the part of both photographer and model; the final image appears on a metal plate that needs to be prepared first with specific chemicals before being inserted into the old-fashioned camera apparatus, and after the shot, the plate has to be developed immediately, through a careful and successive pouring of different chemical fluids over it, and then immersed in water. The photographer used her bathroom and tub for this, which had to be completely darkened beforehand obviously. The model is required to be absolutely still, and I mean absolutely, for a duration that could range from eight to twelve seconds – which feels like an eternity, in which every itch and twitch and pain in the body makes itself felt with acute intensity. Through trial-and- error, Karoline had eventually constructed a contraption out of wood to prop against one wall of her studio, which had a brace into which the back of your neck could fit, to reduce the possibility of involuntary movement of the model’s head. The sessions were long because it took about thirty minutes to make one photograph. And she had accessories, and elements of costume, that she would introduce into each session. As an artist, she probably knew where she was headed; or if she didn’t know where she was headed, she at least had an instinct for what she was looking to find. Later, in the collection of portraits of various friends and acquaintances that comprised her first exhibition, a very original world had been created – saturated with melancholy and solitude, perhaps even pain, but also full of mystery and wonder. This writer for one was struck by the experience of regarding himself through her lens. He had never seen himself like this before – not in the existing photographs of himself, not in the million mirrors he has gazed into in his life, not in the films and television serials he had acted in, not in the photographs and videos of the plays in which he had performed. What follows is an attempt on my part to understand how this came to pass; or perhaps an attempt to understand what happens when one is being photographed.
Because the photographic model trusts the photographer, and believes implicitly that she is an artist, he places himself at the service of the photographer. He sees his role in the process as that of being a servant of Art. He does not know what the result will be, nor is he aware of the artist’s agenda. He doesn’t need to know. He sees his function as an act of surrender – an abdication of the Will. He becomes an element in the artist’s mise en scène. The photographer places the subject very precisely and specifically within a setting, and directs his posture, his gesture, even his gaze. She clothes him in a costume, and arranges accessories around him. The subject then freezes in this pose for the duration of the exposure. But in this freeze, there is no emotion or other mental state. In fact, one is not to perform; what is being aimed for is neutrality.
The subject thus becomes object – pure body. The subjective ego is perforce relinquished. One is an element among others within the total frame.
When one looks at Karoline Schneider’s portraits, however, the strongest impression that the observer has is that of pure presence! Presence leaps out at us from the frame – alive and palpable. The portraits reveal human beings with histories, with stories, with life and soul filling up the face from within, and leaping out into the space of the exhibition room. But where is the “self” in this pure presence? If we consider the concrete facts of the photographic instant, we are reminded that the model surrenders, abdicates his will and his subjective ego in the service of the photographer’s design. Could one thus postulate that this intense presence is in fact achieved precisely because of an Absence? ... of the subjective ego? ... of the Self? Could one introduce that much- maligned concept of selflessness into the equation?
In the actual process – in the moment of being photographed – there is no self as performer, actor, doer; which brings us back to the aforementioned sense of complete surrender.
This act of surrender is an intimate act. Through the implicit trust and its consequent surrender, an intimacy is established within the workspace – an intimacy that is however operating on a level way over and beyond any involvement of the subjective ego. One opens. One is being penetrated. (This sense of being penetrated is all the more accentuated by the physical fact of the enormous and shamelessly indiscreet dimensions of the photographic apparatus, with its gigantic lens and balanced as it is on a massive tripod.) Surrendering, opening, being penetrated ... these are feminine qualities (no, I am not being sexist; gender-activists, I beg you please not to take offence!), and yet the portraits – here I’m referring to mine, of course – radiate an intensely masculine energy.
Here we have two paradoxes:
– Vivid presence achieved through absence (of the self);
– Pure masculinity achieved through feminine qualities.
How do we reconcile these paradoxes? Do they need to be reconciled, or can they co-exist side by side?6.
Much has been said and written about the inherent eroticism of giving oneself up to the Other’s gaze – the photographer’s gaze, the gaze of the audience. But in the case of these portraits created through an act of surrender, through the abdication of the will, in an atmosphere of intimacy, who is the self that is being given up to the gaze of the Other?
That which is on offer for the observer has not been organised by the Self.
The observing subject and the observed (selfless) object enter into a relationship that has been orchestrated by the photographer.
And when I am the observer regarding these portraits of “me”:
– I do not recognise myself.
– Yet I learn to see myself in new ways.
– These, too, are “me”.
Thus the artist extracts and brings to light other selves (or other aspects of the one Self) that remain invisible to the subjective eye that looks into mirrors.
The reader can have a look at some of Karoline Schneider’s art on http://www.karolineschneider.de
Thoughts provoked by A MAN IN LOVE: VOLUME 2 OF MY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Fiction nauseates him. It is everywhere and multiplying at an inexorable rate. What Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel called “graphomania” has snowballed into a planetary tidal wave and Mr. Knausgaard is sickened by it. He maintains that it is not only in the realm of publishing that fiction is mushrooming out of proportion, but cites film and television, the internet and even reportage and documentaries. If I have understood him correctly, what he means is that all of these forms have become subservient to an overriding and compulsive need to structure the work as a “narrative”. We narrate ourselves, we narrate events, and the narrative demands its own logic of dramatic exposition and dénouement. We have fictionalised ourselves so that our relationship with the world – and by extension, with life – has become fictional, in the sense of disconnected from reality. What is he to do? He is, after all, a writer, obedient to what Samuel Beckett so succinctly calls the hypothetical imperative. And thus his alternative is to try and regain reality.
“I wanted to get as close to my life as possible,” says the narrator of My Struggle.
Much has been written about Mr. Knausgaard’s daily preoccupation with changing diapers, shopping, cooking and pushing a buggy around with three children on the streets of Stockholm and Malmö. Some have gone so far as to (almost) accuse him of self- aggrandisement. But all of this detracts from his actual endeavour and achievement. So what does he achieve?
To begin with, this reader is of the opinion that Mr. Knausgaard actually does transcend any narrative imperative. His big book does not at any point suggest that it is driving towards a conclusion predestined by the omnipotent author. There is no future. There is neither rounding-off nor summing-up. In fact, reading him, one is thrown back time and again into the here-and-now, albeit a here-and-now that can – and does – contain memory, ruminations about memory and speculations as to what may come. But there is no sense of a future. In other words, there is no trace of an inner drive or momentum towards something.
And this is extraordinary. The sheer length and detail of apparently banal events leads one sooner or later to ask oneself, But where the f*** is this leading to? Only to realise: nowhere. And that is the point. It does not lead up to anywhere. This nowhere is neither a negation nor an absence. If anything, I dare say it is truth. Knausgaard is nothing if not honest. He succeeds triumphantly in escaping the force, the pressure of two solid centuries of the European novel that inherently contains a drive, a thrust towards a conclusion. In this, he can deservedly be compared to Musil, Proust, or Beckett. Reading Knausgaard becomes an exercise in being, an experience of the here-and-now. There is no future, there is no conclusion.
Consciousness is. And cannot know its own conclusion. The last nanosecond before death is still consciousness, therefore still life. Consciousness cannot know its own conclusion. Thus Beckett’s last volume of the trilogy comprising of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable ends with “... you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on ...” which is no end but a continuation – of consciousness itself.
This is what Karl Ove Knausgaard really achieves, according to this reader. How we partake of it remains our choice.
“I wanted to get as close to my life as possible,” he says. Does he? The reader cannot be a judge of that. For, outside of the writer himself, who is to know? How can it be known? I, as reader, was made witness to a life. And for this reader, it did not matter if it was an accurate, or honest, description of the man Karl Ove Knausgaard, or of his life. That remains a matter for the author’s conscience, if at all. Jeanette Winterson in Art & Lies writes, “There is no autobiography. There is Art. And lies.” The experience of reading A Man In Love: My Struggle Volume2 brought this reader incredibly close to, and confronted him with, his own life. Is that not an ideal that Art aspires to?
(c) Kenneth Philip George, Berlin. June 17, 2014.