Resembles life what once was held of light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute self? an element ungrounded?
All, that we see, all colours of all shade
By encroach of darkness made?
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath
A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?
The poison known as sepia may not be the primary bane of photographers today, but there's no question that the cuttlefish is on the march, and the human skin tone is its primary target. It's the extract of that mollusk which first enabled this grisly fashion to take squidlike hold of images, in watercolour even before photo alchemy. That said, the admonition never to confuse the image for the thing still clangs platonically from despots of abstraction, and compounds regret with humiliation. But the eye's an intractably sentimental organ, and I wonder if it's the purpose of an education to change it, or enable it.
The enablement of the eye is literally a moral question on both sides of the perceptive act. Photographer and viewer negotiate their rapport upon the evidence of art, and that's pretty much that. With computers, both can have their way, although what merriment there is in the alienation of their personalities, others may bother to evaluate. Never before, has the subject been reduced to such a consumable (and there is great risk of loss in that). Still, the manipulation of images feels different from tweaking the tone controls of an audio pre-amplifier, as an act of passing judgment.
The way out is rather plain. It's to accept the colouration of the field as homologous with mutual intention, artist and viewer accepting their engagement in the same space. If this solution shortens the list of acceptable images, one needs to be prepared to say that is the prerogative of each personality in the first place. I give you a traveller's study of an agrarian staircase in the Veneto, in which a diffusion of hue is unmistakeable. If it seems intrusive - as it does not, to me - then the quality of that intrusion must engage one's judgment as it will.
If, by the same token, the quality of illumination in the field is vitally central to one's opinion, then we're well advised to identify artists who share this intention. I return to this photograph repeatedly, with uneducated, enabled gratitude. I'm acquainted with a hunger for a delight I didn't know I valued. Here I have not only the gift for composition in the staircase drawing (an ostensibly verbatim document), I have luminosity at its most urgently explored and signifyingly distributed.
Moreover, I have a celebration of effusive responsiveness in silver halide emulsion, which quite supersedes any verisimilitude the despots allege we crave in a photo image, and rescues the implications of everything we see, and things we don't see, in a new language. We identify with this language's gift for delineation, among other things, which is anathema to the cuttlefish.
Travesty lays a poor claim to inviolability, and we suffer no compunction against reclaiming a profile inherently worthy of contemplation, in an expression owing much to being flushed with the expenditure of energy. The cuttlefish cannot give us qualities the figure embodies. We are here to investigate and learn from such things. Film images can assist us in that.
Isn't that terrible? Yes, it calls for almost too much humility.
What is Life, S.T. Coleridge, 1804
Profile portrait in sepia, web source unknown
Academic project drawing, Douglas Campbell, gift to Laurent
Monochrome photograph, Valéry Lorenzo ©