Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Enigmatic Photographs


The above is a photograph that fell out of a book, or perhaps that was lying in a bookdrop, in the library where I work. I don't think I'm invading anyone's privacy scanning it and posting it, since part of its appeal to me is that there's no way of knowing who's in the picture or where they are. (Besides, if they cared so much, they shouldn't have lost it. If it belongs to you, send me an email and I might give it back to you.)

I have this photograph on my desk now (along with more personal souvenirs, I hasten to add, in case I sound like Robin Williams's creepy character in One Hour Photo).

I have a fascination with enigmatic photographs like this. You may say it's not very enigmatic; just a couple of people standing in a snowy landscape. No mystery there. It's not like a photo of a face looking out the window of a ruined house. Or a man in pyjamas standing in a busy street. Or a picture of someone looking horrified at something off-camera. I grant you, all of those with be most picturesquely enigmatic.

But, in its own way, I'm just as fond of this more workaday enigma-- a picture of nothing in particular, a picture of people caught off guard.

I wrote a post about a similar picture, that I took myself, of a beach on a cold day with a figure walking in the distance. In that post I wrote:

Nothing is haunting and evocative in quite the same way as photographs can be. And yet most of the photographs we take are too posed and stereotyped to really capture this special magic. In fact, the more artful the photo, the less likely it is that the magic will happen.

What I really value in photographs is usually what crept in by accident; the faraway look in the subject's eyes; the face in the background, not meant to be in the photo at all, rather spookily staring straight into the camera; the air of
event, or non-event; the billboard in the background advertising a discontinued product.

I think the reason I prize such photographs is because they heighten a characteristic which I think haunts all human life; a sense of its deep ambiguity. I wrote about this in my recent post about dreams, too.

"What's going on?" is a question that all of us might be asking at any time. It sometimes intrigues me to look at some scene-- let's say, a busy street-- and think of the multiplicity of things that might be said to be "going on" in that scene. It might be taken as a scene of life on the planet Earth. Or life in Ireland. Or life in Dublin. Or a scene of capitalism, or peace-time, or the public versus the private, or winter-time, or afternoon. We could be looking at the clothes of the figures, or the cars on the road, or the symbolism of the colours, or the architecture, or any number of things. You could fill a book with the amount of things that are 'going on' in that scene.

The same is true about life in general. What is life about? There is such a plurality of answers to that question that, to me, the amazing thing is that any kind of consensus emerges. But the fact that, for instance, great works of art retain their popularity through the ages shows that it does. (Of course, they don't always retain their popularity. Sometimes a poem or a play or a novel that has been popular for centuries passes into obscurity. I often wonder is this because our priorities, or view of what is important in life, has simply changed.)

The existence of any kind of consensus, of course, should not hide the fact that there is also a chaos of disagreement-- if you can even call something so disparate "disagreement". One example that springs to mind is one of the discussions that took place when Pope Francis began his pontificate. The new Pope, in his first communications, seemed to be emphasising God's grace and forgiveness and the availability of redemption. I heard some European commentators wondering if his South American background made him emphasise this, since the modern European does not really feel any need for redemption, or any great awareness of sin. I include myself in this. Many factors drew me towards the Catholic Church, but a sense of being oppressed by my sins was not one of them. (To quote the great Samuel Johnson, I am well aware that this was not "great fortitude of mind", but rather, "stark insensibility".)

Up until recently, however, Europeans did seem to feel this need. Hence people would say things like: "Poetry won't save us", or "Art won't save us", and the idea of redemption seemed a common idea, even outside Christian discourse. People still say these things, but less frequently. The need for salvation-- which was obviously present in early Christianity, and which seems to have been present in our own society-- seems to have at least receded into our subconscious. At least, this is an example of what I'm talking about.

In brief; the reason I like enigmatic photographs is because they seem to bring me face-to-face with the enigma that hovers over all human life; an enigma which, like horror, can be both pleasant unpleasant in different moods, and different circumstances.

I often wish to collect such photos, but don't know how to go about it. If you have any that you don't mind parting with, and you are kind enough to splash out on postage, feel free to send them to:

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

Client Services
James Joyce Library
Belfield
University College Dublin
Dublin 4
Ireland.

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