Experimental photography asks questions: What is it? What process was used? But most importantly, what is a photograph?
Some of the first responses to photography spoke of the magical powers of the photograph to capture traces of the world with unbelievable accuracy. Something of the divine seemed to appear in the first photographs, and early accounts speak of nature reproducing itself. Beginning with these first examples, we expect photographs to look like the things placed before the lens of the camera, to render the things in detail and clarity. We expect photographs to tell us what they are: a family gathered together, a mother and her daughters, a child beside their bicycle, a father in his business suit. When photographs don’t tell us what they are we become uncomfortable, even angry. Why are we wasting our time with a photograph that we don’t understand or don’t know what it represents? Why is the photograph playing tricks on me?
While traveling in India, I stepped into an antique shop in Varanasi not expecting to buy anything. And there, right by the front door, in a metal washing tub were stacks of photographs. Most of the photographs were small silver gelatin black and white prints, and all of them framed: old family photographs, mothers and babies, proud men and woman standing in dhotis, silk sari and well-tailored suits.
In this metal tub, and not far into the stack of photographs I found a striking example which asks the question what is a photograph? With a small wooden frame and an ornate matt, the gelatin emulsion of the print was decayed by the intense humidity of India beyond recognition, far beyond the ability of the decayed organic layers of photosensitive emulsion of the photograph to tell us who or what stood before the lens. All that is left of the photograph were grey and brownish yellow swirls of silver particles that appeared like clouds. The person or place or things placed before the lens of the camera could only be guessed at by the general subject of the photographs in the tub and then with no certainty.
Why the photograph was not discarded was also a mystery, still I thanked my good fortune and walked out the front door with the photograph in a small white plastic bag. Later, I wondered if the photograph was saved for the frame or for the brown embossed paper matt that surround the once recognizable subject. Did shopkeeper find the haunting and fragility of the surface to be as remarkable as I did? Was he also fascinated with the ambiguities of photographic representation? Still, I am thankful for the shopkeeper who saved this photograph and placed the photograph up for sale. His actions suggest that that he understood the inherent curiosities of photographs as well as the unstoppable forces of time and decay.
Yes, all things fade away.
David Arnold, 2019.