In Black and White: Pictures from the Camera Obscura

By | 1 February 2021

When yours is the hand that holds the camera, it’s easy to go blind. Fog photographed risks the picturesque, a form of looking that prefers to avert its gaze from unbeautiful truths.

The prints on my walls are black and white (which also means grey). It’s true that two are bold enough to venture into a small region of blue, but even these are predominantly black and white. It has always puzzled me that, despite my lifelong disinterest in portraits, nine of the ten prints in this modest collection include people. Admittedly one is a skeleton, two others are skulls, a third has a face entirely obscured by vegetation, a fourth has her back to the camera, the fifth shows a man’s face divided in half by a blowpipe, the sixth is confined upside down within the outline of a forearm and hand, and the seventh has a face completely blank, while in the eighth the two faces that meet the viewer’s gaze are more puppets than people. And then there is the small square painting, black white and grey, that represents a moon’s face and behind it the dense black drop-shadow of a free-floating eclipse. Only one of the printed figures looks directly at the viewer without guile or disguise, and she is called The Little Witch.

I still have that edition of the Tao Te Ching. When I open it for the first time in decades, the spine releases its hold on some of the pages with a gentle sigh.

Verso: Tendrils of black calligraphy trail down a blank white sky above the summits of two grassy hills.
Recto: Branches in fog between two rocky outcrops. Roman alphabet.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

I see now that Lao Tsu gave me some of my first lessons in poetry, lessons more about sitting quietly within the cave of perception than about marks on the page.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.

My induction into the tribe of not-knowing.

Self-portrait as white cube with black marks. Self-portrait as the habit of turning away. Self-portrait in kimono and blank face. Self-portrait as eclipse. Self-portrait as bonework.

I met Keats and his negative capability for the first time in the Zen years, but it would be decades before I encountered those other warriors of not-knowing, Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley.

the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do. Paley: one of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts such a specialist about – and that is life.

When you’re young, the world projects its shifting images on you. Is this what I am, you think, or this? As you get older, the images become more fixed, but I try not to take a developed image for an answer. I will always stand up for the fog you stand in, its damp hand on your skin, its cold alertness to nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. Its mind of winter. Its willingness to disappear.

Self-portrait as figure with nikau. Taken at an east coast beach, the photograph is printed in sepia, a self-consciously retro step that doesn’t quite arrive at black. The figure standing on the beach holds the broad base of the nikau frond upright in front of his face, and the stem ascends to a tassel of dried leaves high above. I realise now it reminds me of the huge masks of Papua New Guinea and Africa, masks that transform the wearers into spirits or ancestors or animals, masks that gave birth to new art forms when they arrived in Western museums. On one side, cliffs, and in the background a low tide, Rangitoto’s volcanic cone on the horizon.

[A former writing teacher once observed that I was, to a remarkable degree, not present in my writing.]

Self-portrait as double skull print. Not entirely black and white either. Below, a black-and-white skull overlaid on a black quatrefoil, heraldic; above, a blue skull imprinted straight onto the paper. Infinite jest. Death aesthetic. Lipless, lidless grin. Deep blue the eye sockets, and deep black. The paper is distressed silver with, in one corner, the words Artistico Fabriano reversed out in white. Looking again, I am reminded that the image also contains a watermark of secret colour: if the light and your eye coincide at the right angle, a rainbow swirl emerges on the bone, like petrol sheen on a puddle, like sunlit washing-up liquid. Meditatio? But no, I don’t want to think about it. Not ready yet, not ready yet, not ready.

Looking now at the black and white cover of the Tao, I see the Chinese characters are printed in the dark blue ink of fountain pens.

Before exercising the privilege of not-knowing, it is essential to know. My language is both implicated in and suspicious of the world.

Barthelme again:

Quickly, now, quickly – when you hear the phrase ‘our vital interests’ do you stop to wonder whether you were invited to the den, Zen, Klan or coven meeting at which these were defined? Did you speak?

I love the swaggering certainties of a manifesto, but try not to assent too fully to any of them. Art is the country of universal citizenship: no border guards, birth the only passport, a place from which even death cannot deport you. One of art’s modest proposals: keep the borders open, especially to those whom it might at times appear to exclude. Some days sanctuary looks like a child tucked in a quiet corner with a book, other times it’s a big noisy squabble around a dinner table.

Self-portrait as the moon and its shadow. The shining mirror and its dark backing. The opera mask and the eyes behind. The body that hides behind the earth sometimes so the sun can’t see it.

During the pandemic, I am invited to contribute to a collective poem of self-isolation. The lines immediately before mine, written by a French poet, are close to the mood of the illustrated Tao. No people in the streets, and all the time in the world for birds and trees before the material conditions collapse. Is the tree alone / with its shadow cast by the moon on the humming earth? … The silence between two thoughts … the empty balcony …

Lydia Davis on Joan Mitchell:

paired nouns juxtapose themselves and demand consideration or reconsideration in Mitchell’s work – order and disorder, mess and clarity; dark paint in a rosy canvas; dark paint and dark mood, black as a joyous colour, white as a dark colour.

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