Colin Graham Essay
21 September 2013

Disappearing Opacity
Essay by Colin Graham

From the book ‘Still’, by Patrick Hogan.

[…’Still’ contains the vestiges and promises of a ‘whole’ life and a self which lives that life, in a particular, knowable place, with friends and relations who are, equally, themselves. But that promise is out of reach, and the fascination and beauty of this series of images comes from their gaze, which sees past the immediacy of the world’s surfaces and into underlying patterns. In ‘Still’ events and people exist in shifting dialectical relations, with each moment, place and face looking for its position in the never-fulfilled schema of things. As an aesthetic strategy this is ‘relational’ in a very profound sense. The images take on a variety of proportions and sizes, as if they are temporarily adopting locales within the psychogeography of a vision. As if they are attempting to mean in terms of every other image in ‘Still’. This process will always be ongoing, connections will go on being made. ‘Still’ is just a moment in that process.

‘Still’ does not see things perfectly. There are blurs. There are photographs which are quotidian, but which offer to take on vast meanings. There are things seen quickly and things seen very slowly. ‘Still’ suggests that it is through others, and through our place in an ever-changing world, which we inhabit but do not own, that we exist and mean. The philosopher Judith Butler, in a book in which she considers the urge to narrate the self, asks us to finally acknowledge the ‘primary opacity to the self’ – that is, that we are a mystery to ourselves. Butler argues that we should turn from the search for ‘thine own self’ within our one self and recognize that ‘relations to others are the venue for one’s ethical responsibility’. Deriving her argument partly from the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas, Butler suggests that, because the self never comes first and never precedes the other, it needs the other, as a precursor, for its own, eventual meaningful existence. To look into one’s self for meaning is to see nothing. To look outside, to relations with people and things, is to become meaningful, but only on the continuing understanding that the self will never achieve clarity: ‘it is precisely by virtue of one’s relations to others that one is opaque to oneself’.

‘Still’ is such a hard-won series of opaque images which reveals, superficially, the fragmentation of the self and the ways in which a life can seem to offer coherence of vision and then withdraw it, just as all is about to mean as a whole. But ‘Still’ is much more than this. It sees people, acquaintances, a lover, landscapes. It refuses to wash the palette of the world with the same colour, for the sake of visual and metaphysical coherence. Instead it perceives moments at which the sense of being is formed through the act of seeing, and it knows and accepts that these moments will appear incoherent, even broken. The dead flesh of the deer is a thematic underlining of the ultimate point to which our brokenness takes us all. ‘Still’ captures becoming, not fully formed being; it includes a sense of a self which is always alive to the places it exists in, and those places as having a life outside and before the perceiver. The self in this work sees other people as those who have enabled the self’s existence by their very presence. Levinas describes is thus:

Multiplicity in being, which refuses totalization but takes form as fraternity and discourse, is situated in a ‘space’ essentially asymmetrical.

‘Still’ is such an asymmetrical space. Just as the portrait of Herschel by Cameron tips the weight of the photograph towards the sitter’s personhood (and away, for example, from Herschel’s social status), so ‘Still’, an apparently autobiographical piece of art, refuses the totalization of the artistic vision, that overbearing sense of a controlling self who sees wisely. Instead, with a true multiplicity of being, through fraternity with others and through spaces that take on their own dimensions, ‘Still’ comforts us in our fragmentation. ‘Still’ inverts egoism and urges us to stay still in order to see and to keep perceiving, so that we are still seeing, and always evolving, in asymmetry with others. ‘Still’, finally, celebrates the opacity of photography as the corollary of the opacity of the self…]

– end