What is not unusual

I often think about this passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

… we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

But sometimes we – I – do hear the grass grow. We notice something, maybe something that has been there for a while. But now, in an instant, we notice it and we can’t ‘un-notice’ it.

Often I ‘hear the grass grow’ only later, especially when I look at the photographs I have taken and I see what in fact I have captured. When I think about what I want to draw, I spend a lot of time looking at photographs, looking at what I have already seen, to understand what is there.

The Serbian artist Breda Beban talked about the editing of her films and photographs as being ‘a process of trying to make sense out of the material generated’ and how this only happened when she saw on the monitor what had been captured (1). During her flight to the UK in the 1990s, she made a series of 36 photographs of places where she and her partner stayed. Each set of four consists of images of the bed, the window, the view from the window and a blown up detail from the view. But that fourth image came from finding after the event, only when Beban was preparing to exhibit the photographs, a detail that had been captured without her being aware of it (2).

In the context of Beban’s traumatic flight, one critic has suggested that this fourth image is a kind of flashback, an attempt ‘to master what was never fully grasped in the first place’ (3). But even without that context, finding something in an image on a later viewing seems to me quite common, when something already there collides with a new ability to recognise it.

We are always changing so we bring a changed self to any subsequent viewing. Whatever preoccupies us in that moment will shape what we see.

And as Roland Barthes argues, there is always more in a photograph than the mere subject matter. He proposed that there were two elements that created interest in a photograph, the studium, the actual information content, and the punctum, the element that leaps out and pierces the viewer. He even suggested that this punctum ‘is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so … ‘ (4) He describes it as ‘a kind of subtle beyond‘.

I think this implies that making a photograph or drawing involves both intention – something attracts us to make that image – and inattention – there is also space for something we did not immediately see or attend to.

In making work like my recent series On the Wings of the Morning, I’m attending to things overlooked, or thought of as unremarkable, which represent for me a glimpse of Eliot’s ‘other side of silence’, of the uncountable miracles of ordinary human life.

(1)  Jankowicz, M (2008) Interview with Breda Beban Available at: https://medium.com/@miajankowicz/interview-with-breda-beban-ef0d442548cc (Accessed: 29 June 2017)

(2)  Darke, C (2000) ‘After Effect’ in Beban, B Still Sheffield: Site Gallery pp 37-39, at p38

(3)  Betterton, R (2004) ‘Spaces of Memory: Photographic Practices of Home and Exile in the Work of Breda Beban’ in n.Paradoxa vol 13, pp22-28, at p26

(4)  Barthes, R (2000) Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books at p47


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