An elective encounter

Aubergine  Photographic print

Aubergine Photographic print

The photographer arrives at the operating theatre as an object on a gurney, immobilised by 20 ml of anaesthetic administered by hypodermic needle on several points at the front of his ankle and between the toes. The podiatric surgeon spared him the injection whereby electric charge is sent down the veins to verify - before plunging - that the numbing liquid reaches the part of the foot that is being operated on. This was not the case for patients on either side of the photographer’s cubicle. The good doctor’s confidence did not wholly eliminate the photographer’s anxiety that the joint would not numb, but the foot tingled and grew warm and become an appendage, something not completely part of him, like Guston’s paintings of feet, although not as monstrous (or livid red and steel grey).


The P.O.V. looking up as a succession of square ceiling lights pass above him, the slow (sometimes jerky) start of the film etc, is over-familiar, but not the entry into the theatre, somehow. There is that sense of centrifugal arrangement whereby all the equipment and instruments and staff are dispersed around the edges of the very clean and brightly lit space. New. And there are quite a few staff and why does he think of the Formula One pit where they change the wet tires to dry or vice versa? In the ward there was, despite the always surprising giving up of self and consensual pain (and the dementia patient ranting at the placating nurses, overspill the surgeon explained, complaining that the concept of ring-fencing was ill-understood), a certain informality. Here is business. Three mushroom lights of differing diameters hang from the ceiling in a tight cluster – beauty dishes in studio parlance. He is positioned below these, his feet facing the main group of medical operatives, including the surgeon. The numb appendage with the long arrow drawn by marker from the front of the ankle to the offending toe joint – again, Guston - is loosely covered by an absorbent cloth lightly blood-stained from the piercings. The top of the marker line is just visible.


The podiatrist that he spoke to before the operation, the pre-op consultation, the young woman with the slightly nervous laugh who is married to another doctor, they live in the North but she works here and sometimes gets to see him, slides on the ubiquitous blood-pressure sleeve over his right bicep, and slips a small rubber cap over his right forefinger. The sleeve inflates and grips tight before deflating, like deep, deep breathing. Are you allergic to anything, well this sleeve will give me a rash, but he just thinks this. The surgeon lifts the foot and loosely paints iodine all over it, nicotine yellow and burnt almost black umber.


He hasn’t noticed two poles either side of the middle of the gurney. A nurse in loose fitting green scrubs places a darker, olive green screen over his knees. She then lifts the left corner up to the top of the left hand pole (which is level with her eye line). She then pushes what is now apparent as coarse and fibrous paper, the stuff that looks crosshatched when backlit, through the tip of the pole, ripping a small hole, which furs around its edges. She wanders round the back of the gurney and affixes the right corner. He can now see little of the theatre, just small sections to his right and left.


Can we have some light over here? The light is everywhere apart from the foot. He thinks of his own studio, moving a metre square softbox on a boom arm to hang over the paper-covered table to light the still life he is working on. At the other end of the boom, taped with silver gaffer, is a bag of sharp-sand from the garden centre to counter-balance the light. Paper backgrounds unspooled from rolls down and then over the table to form a simple cove or infinity curve, creased and held at the front with large spring-loaded market stall tarpaulin clips. People find these difficult to squeeze open, but it’s just confidence. Through the cardboard tubes that the paper unspools from are those torqued and rusty steel poles they use to reinforce concrete.  The poles need to be hauled up and into the bottom set of background paper triple hooks. The hooks are three flat metal strips in a vertical line, 30, 20 then 10cm long at the top; they come as a pair (naturally). Towards the outer end of each strip a forty-five degree lozenge-shape is cut, so that the pole slips in and then forward where it rests, secured by gravity. There are three rolls of coloured paper suspended from these brackets normally.


He thinks about the bleached coral he has recently photographed, and muses on whether the construction or build up of this skeleton in the reef is similar to the arthritic accretion of calcite or calcium carbonate (whatever it is, precisely) in his toe joint.


He is sufficiently distracted not to imagine the slice of the surgeon’s knife through the skin tightly stretched across the lumpy bone nodules; the paper-thin line slowly engorged with dark alizarin crimson liquid that overflows and pools, catching a perfect highlight. He considers the net-like structure of the ivory white coral, it’s brittleness as it falls off the table and out of the light and one of the branches snaps off. You’ll feel some vibration now and here’s the sounds of some kind of drill. Everyone has migrated to the side behind the screen, and it occurs to him that he is on the wrong side of a still life, not behind the camera but behind the background, and thinks of cutting slits and feeding wires through the paper, their presence hidden by the objects they are attached to. The grinding of the bone the grinding of the coral the something that he can only imagine happening to his bone in his foot then a splash of liquid it can’t be blood the cold clammy everything brighter overexposed erm, I’m feeling a bit faint. Ok, I’m just going to lower the bed so that his head goes back, here’s some oxygen put the straps over your head breathe through the nose exhale through the mouth. Why wasn’t anyone talking to me taking my mind off it he again thinks but doesn’t blurt out, just I didn’t get to eat much this morning, it being so early. The surgeon is saying keep moving your right leg, that’s what the guardsmen do even though they look like they’re very still, they’re constantly moving. He’s nearly finished now. Suture – stitching – sewing up? Does this happen a lot? The young woman with the slightly nervous laugh, because it is quite pronounced, even though she doesn’t seem at all nervous, yes it’s quite common, you should have had porridge like me, because I never know when I’m going to get out of theatre. I had a colleague that used to say to people just as they passed out did you have breakfast you really should have. And no, that wasn’t blood, I should have told you that, we’re just washing the wound, there’s very little blood in this operation.


On reflection

black mirror.jpg


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane…[1]


The protagonist of Richard Prince’s short story, “The Perfect Tense”, has an aversion not just to mirrors, but any reflective surfaces that might make him confront his own reflected image. He has no mirrors in his apartment, and ditches any objects that can’t be rendered dull. He is careful to avoid even the darkened glass of windows. This eisoptrophobia is not generated by the possible reminder of ugliness or deformity, quite the opposite, in fact. For he is the ideal man incarnate, and as such, he literally “stops traffic.” He is an image made real, a model reminiscent of Prince’s own appropriated men: upright, flanked by submissive women, looking determinedly into the middle distance. The constant whispers, pointing etc, make him feel vulnerable, “fearing a possible lynch mob free-for-all.”

How tormented, then, would this character feel in the nighttime incarnation of Philip Johnson’s glass house? By day the house has the double effect of fulfilling a desire for closeness to nature and the absorbed contemplation of it. The occupant can both admire the view rendered picturesque by the frame of the huge glass walls, and contemplate their status of being able to survey this landscape as their property (particularly the scale that such a ‘public’ property demands to retain ‘privacy’.) They are free from prying eyes. But by night artificial light renders the walls mirror-like, and any attempt to view the exterior is masked by the occupant’s self-reflection.

Jeff Wall (in “Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel”) draws out an implicit vampiric resonance of such a scenario. For during the day, the sole occupant (the house was designed for one) is rendered virtually invisible by the reflective exterior of the glass wall (and, of course, by the tree-lined boundary of the property). Whereas at night, when the house is artificially lit, the occupant becomes the isolated figure of a stage-set-like scenario, constantly confronted by reflective surfaces that obscure the view and engender vulnerability to irrational fears of the dark and possible assault on the property. The glass house, Wall attests, with its necessary seclusion and consequent ‘power-protected’ openness, has parallels with aristocratic retreats, but also evokes the “abandoned crypts of Gothic tales.”

The myth of the vampire symbolizes the excess generated by a society dedicated to transparency through science and rationality, i.e. one dedicated to total ‘understanding’ without recourse to ‘magical’ thinking, and also an anxiety that the feudal system of the old order has refused to die and that modernity is built around an ‘evil’ core.

Take the symbol of corporate power, the glass skyscraper. It is an inversion of its architects’ original intent: a monument to the modern, open society, as opposed to the opaque aristocratic and religious societies of old. Its re-evaluation in the light of revolutionary collapse reveals it to be a monument to technological and hierarchical control, particularly lacking in the old architectural symbols of power that might give one confronted by it some purchase on its function. It rises up vertiginously and impersonally, physically and mentally dominating ‘the-man-in-the-street.’ There is no transparency, only reflection. The executive, high up in his glass box, is as invisible as his alter ego in the glass house and can survey the city in a form of panoptic surveillance (the two-way mirror) that is the age-old privilege of power.

The glass skyscraper is, of course, home to the corporation. The corporation is as inscrutable as its home and its implication in nefarious activities, as part of the military-industrial complex, intensifies conspiratorial associations that have bloomed from the late fifties. The executive, unlike in hereditary or holy orders, is expendable, and of course, metaphorically faceless.

And what of Prince’s anxious ideal man? His true state is photographic (a consciously contrived reflection), which is why his incarnation is so problematic. As a model without context, he lacks subjectivity, he is the ideal stand-in or extra. Like the vampire, he is a fiction, a symptom of malaise. His function is to induce desire, but he is empty, soulless. (Polarising sunglasses would have assuaged his anxieties, at least in combating the possibility of being ambushed by reflections in those darkened windows).


Photographers (particularly studio photographers) find reflective surfaces problematic. They have the potential to reveal the construction of the image, its fictional status. But reflective surfaces are the sirens of the commodity image, and a vast range of products is made or finished with them. In the past, photographers have resorted, like Prince’s protagonist, to rendering surfaces matt (in the photographers’ case, using dulling spray) but such a technique changed the nature of the product and could no longer be considered an accurate depiction (e.g. a stainless steel product may come in both brushed and chrome finish, and the use of dulling spray would render the chrome brushed). Photographers had to embrace the challenge and came up with ingenious ways of combining the bright rectangular reflection of the softbox with the blackness of the studio and the polystyrene or card reflectors, to produce pleasingly graphic shapes that delineated the volume of the object. There was (and is) a pleasure in the production of such reflections that reveal the construction of the image, but in a manner that is, to the untrained eye, essentially indecipherable, abstract.

The other problem with reflective surfaces is that any mark or flaw on their surface is highlighted. Such imperfections detract from the commodity’s newness. Narrative in advertising is strictly controlled, and requires the blank slate of newness. The breaching of these conditions allowed Ernst Hedler to politically charge his images of East German products in the Taschen volume “Stunning Eastern Design.” For the highlights on the bottles of wine, jam and sauce revealed fingerprints and drew the eye towards torn and badly printed labels. The book itself played on its ambiguous status as somewhere between anthropological document and product catalogue. The closeness in content in “Stunning Eastern Design” to a typical western catalogue exposed the lack in sophistication in the products of the GDR. This was compounded by the anachronistic presentation: products were placed on paper backgrounds reminiscent of the 50s and 60s, and harshly lit. Some backgrounds were divided diagonally, in a not-so-subtle invocation of constructivism.  These photographs imply that the failure of the country was prefigured in its products.


Consider the mirror, particularly the round bathroom mirror, the ne plus ultra of reflective surfaces. Reflecting the dark studio, it is a black circle in the picture. It is a faintly chilling image as it is evidence that there is nothing outside the image, again, that the image is a fiction. It also invokes the vampire and his soulless inability to be seen in mirrors, and, of course, the absence that is death. But one could read this absence as a return of the transcendent blackness in the work of the Spanish still life painter and lay Carthusian monk, Juan Sánchez Cotán. His most famous painting, “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” (1602), depicts the eponymous comestibles hanging by strings in a chilled pantry. Hanging them separately suspended the onset of decay, but also allowed Cotán to describe a three dimensional parabola with their forms. For not only did he want to suggest that God can be found in the contemplation of these items’ quotidian nature, but also in the sublime consideration of heavenly geometry in their positioning before the black infinity of the background. The transcendent opportunity evoked by Cotán’s still lives is typical of Catholic painting, and stands in contrast to the later Dutch vanitas, which paradoxically celebrate wordly goods whilst moralising on the inevitability of death and its leveling characteristics. There is no transcendence afforded in these works, for, as Calvin pronounced: “We are all condemned by the Fall and our depravity to inhabit a material world that can never be transcended; and images will not help us escape this fate.”

At the heart of Dutch still life painting of this period is a very modern anxiety concerning consumption. The pre-industrial cycle of scarcity and plenty according to the seasons was replaced by a year round surplus supplied by a proto-capitalist trade. In the early to mid 17th C, the Dutch became the wealthiest nation on earth, but lacked the rapacious appetite of the ancien régime. Still lives by Willem Claesz Heda depicted knocked-over pitchers and spilled and smashed glasses, the debris of half-consumed food lies scattered on plates precariously close to the edge of the table.  The quality of craftsmanship of the tableware contrasts with the indiscriminate and avaricious consumption; only the beautifully produced painting can restore the balance of the delicately wrought items. 

The glass house can be seen as the epitome of modern[ist] reaction to the embarrassment of overproduction and its counterpart, consumption, which capitalist industrialisation inaugurated. Unlike the Wunderkammer that was the Victorian abode, for example, the glass house is stripped, “carving out from the general profusion a secluded emptiness that marks an escape from the teeming and seething pool of commodities.[2] The occupant of the glass house has a disdain for the outcome of the ideology of perpetual growth.

To the contemporary product photographer, the generating of such associations is verboten. The standard convention in depicting the bathroom mirror (which, in the glass house, is situated in the private area, screened from the glass walls) is to contrive a reflection that is a spectral grey graduation. However, in the 1968 Möbel furniture catalogue, the mirror in the set for bedroom model “Birgit” is completely black, apart from the reflection of an orange vase directly in front of it.


[1] (from Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabakov)


[2] From Norman Bryson’s book on still life painting: “Looking at the Overlooked”.