Tropes in Mind

Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Roger Mayne, Goalie, Brindley Road, off Harrow Road, 1956

Every so often, I publish a piece here that was published originally elsewhere.  This is a case in point, republished to coincide with the opening of David Campany’s exhibition A Handful of Dust at the Whitechapel Gallery in London ( June 2017).  It was originally published on Various Small Fires and is republished here with the permission of the editor of that site, Thierry Bal.

It’s called Tropes in Mind in echo of Trouble in Mind, the old blues song, best sung by Big Bill Broonzy, in accordance with a thought I have that tropes stay in one’s mind like music, there even when not actually playing.


 

A long time ago I wrote a book about goalkeeping. I tried to persuade the publisher to put on the cover one of the number of Roger Mayne’s street pictures which so eloquently describes the business of keeping goal in games of street football. The publisher refused, saying that something more like the commercial experience of watching sport in a stadium would sell more copies, but still allowed me to put one of Mayne’s on the back cover of the hardback issue[i].

Mayne’s pictures would fall comfortably into a number of the categorizations of photography. They are street photographs, documentary photographs, sports photographs, photographs of childhood… They have historical interest, social interest, a certain ethnographic or anthropological quality. If one were keywording for a picture library, they would also be filed by the superficial descriptions of the people within them, street names and the wider district, the date, perhaps the type of camera or film used. These overlapping descriptions would place them in a context of other pictures, more or less similar, more or less connected. We are used to this kind of external classification of photographs and use versions of it all the time. That’s how we search on Google, order our hard drives, label archives. It’s completely standard and while individual classifiers don’t always agree, the system itself is beyond question, like the Dewey decimal system for libraries or the SI units.

People write of ‘tropes’ in photography and that seems an extension of the same filing system. The tropes are external categorizations of pictures, even where they are expected (or analyzed) to have an internal, emotional effect. So, for a single example from something I was reading recently in another context, Marta Zarzycka discusses the functioning of visual tropes in regard to a particular picture by Samuel Aranda which won the World Press Photo Picture of the Year award in 2011 [ii]. The picture conforms to a Pietà-like pattern of a grieving or mourning mother holding a son and Zarzycka follows the general usage of the phrase when she writes that “Aranda’s image thus exemplifies the fact that photographic tropes, circulated as evidence of a common perspective or ideal shared by many, may force certain associations and prohibit others, neutralizing the local and the particular into the global.”

Since the trope is sometimes used to describe very broad patterns and sometimes very small ones, I often wonder whether it isn’t a word that might better be replaced by different ones according to the context. Trope sometimes means no more than a shared subject of a number of pictures, sometimes a ‘type’ of picture and sometimes a manner of photographing. It is even sometimes used interchangeably with the word ‘cliché.’ But a word which can be used equally in phrases like “the visual trope of the white UN Land Rover” [iii], and “She [Dorothea Lange] photographed African Americans with the same visual tropes she used with whites, representing them as equally hardy salt-of-the-earth farmers—part of the American yeomanry [iv]” is maybe not isolating a specific phenomenon with any great clarity.

But even if we can arrive at clear language to use, I find myself thinking that this isn’t the way we store photographs in memory and access them for use.

I believe that in addition to a substantial vocabulary of remembered photographs, filed somehow and accessible by their relevant file-tags, most of us also hold within our minds an architecture of access to those photographs which is the reverse of that familiar external system of classification.

There is no difficulty in the more usual system. If I need to recall a picture, say, of great achievement against long odds, I can effortlessly search my mental filing cabinets and come up with Sherpa Tenzing on top of Everest [v], or one of the versions of Khaldei’s view of the Russian soldier on the Reichstag [vi].

But that’s reducing photography, as it has so often been reduced in the past, to its role as illustrating tool. I think it’s much more. I think we actually think in photographs. At least some of the time, the tropes are not types or patterns of photographs so much as types or patterns of thoughts that we hold in photographs.

I was, in the past, a goalkeeper. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I was not at all good, but I was sufficiently committed to think like one. I still get into trouble at football matches for applauding the ‘other’ goalkeeper when I see a fine stop, even when all those near me are hoping to see a goal. I admire the athleticism and judgment of goalkeepers, their individuality. I have learnt to some extent to live by the negative scoring whereby a goalkeeper who does something of fearsome difficulty and skill has nothing at all to show for it on the score-sheet and can have it instantly wiped out. I acknowledge the whole complex of this peculiar sport within a sport. As a result, there are large numbers of situations which have nothing to do with goalkeeping that I understand in the terms derived from it.   Got to drive a sick child to hospital?   Want to make a ticklish presentation to a difficult audience? You’re briefly a goalkeeper, and anything less than utter success is total failure.   Member of a group, but not conformable to it? Goalkeeper.

Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd, Harrow Road 1957

Roger Mayne, Footballer Jumping, Brindley Rd., Harrow Road, 1957

Footballer & Shadow 1956

Roger Mayne, Footballer and Shadow, 1956

Football, Addison Pl North Kensingtion 1956

Roger Mayne, Football, Addison Place, North Kensington, 1956

Gerry Cranham - John Hollowbread 1964

Gerry Cranham, John Hollowbread, 1964

But I don’t think of these things in terms of the words I’ve just written. I certainly don’t think of goalkeeping as furnishing a kind of super-metaphor for many circumstances. I think more in terms of a lexicon of pictures which add up to the metaphorical place that goalkeeping holds in my head.   At the centre of that lexicon will be actual pictures of the business itself: Gerry Cranham’s astonishing study of Tottenham goalkeeper John Hollowbread leaping all alone in the murk at White Hart Lane in 1964, Munkacsi’s various studies, the Roger Mayne series. A circle beyond those would be images that help me articulate my view that the world is understandable in goalkeeping terms. These would include studies of movement and grace, but also of despair and disappointment, self-possession, reliability, calculation, membership of a particular subculture, and so on. There is, in another words, not so much a trope of goalkeeping pictures in my head. There is a trope about goalkeeping which governs a certain amount of my thought and can be expressed in pictures.The point is that I don’t think I’m alone in this. The great difference in Barthes’ formulation of the studium and the punctum, after all, is that the studium is really public and the punctum is really private. We see a picture clearly on a subject or depicting a scene. But we react to it sometimes for reasons which the photographer could not have predicted, often encapsulated in a detail which means something to nobody but ourselves. The public subject and manner of the image, and its membership of a public type of similar images, are given meaning by the private framework into which it lands.

I find some version of this in many different places. David Bate, for example, blends to great effect his personal associations with the public ones in a discussion of Fox Talbot’s 1844 picture of the construction of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square and its effects upon him as a viewer[vii]. In effect he’s describing the insertion of the Fox Talbot image into a pre-existing complex of ideas of his own, and that I think is exactly what happens. To take another and much more elaborate example, David Campany’s A Handful of Dust [viii] is both a brilliantly exciting and unexpected collection of pictures which could only possibly be connected by that one individual through his own private resources; and at the same time a pleasing ballade through some of the best-known and most-discussed theoretical positions in twentieth-century photography. It would be grotesque to look for the entire intellectual contents of Campany’s magisterial exhibition and book in a glossary under the index-word Dust. Yet the process that Campany put himself through — of identifying a host of unmatched thoughts and experiences, many of them wholly personal, then ‘fitting’ them to the more public history and ontology of photography — is in effect the indexing of that section of the contents of his mind. The whole rich mess of ideas which I think of as the trope became, under his careful self-scrutiny, catalogued under Dust as its cipher.

Campany chose to open A Handful of Dust with this epigraph from W.G. Sebald: “A photograph is like something lying on the floor and accumulating dust, you know, where these clumps of dust get caught, and it steadily becomes a bigger ball. Eventually you can pull out strings. That’s roughly how it is. ”

So I’m complaining here that the word trope is sufficiently imprecisely used to mean not very much in photography (or at least to demand care in its handling), and yet I am adding in the same few lines still another meaning to the bundle. That’s absurd. As I wrote further up, I think that a trope is in effect the complex architecture of access to thoughts that individuals hold in memory in pictorial form. It is rarely articulated in words precisely because those words tend to make supple and fluid globs of feeling and memory rather more rigid. To thoroughly articulate a trope in words is to make the effort that Campany made in A Handful of Dust, impractical for most conventional references to the pictures in one’s head, even if not beyond the abilities of most. It’s like the phenomenon of the mental caption: when one can reduce a photograph to a single one-liner, a caption in mind, it becomes increasingly hard to remember the detail of the picture, since it is so much easier to file words in one’s head than pictures. Without a caption, we’re forced to keep the picture ‘live’ in memory, subject to re-evaluation and under constant challenge from the other ideas and pictures it comes up against. So the tropes that make up so much of our visual lexicon of the world. They exist. All of us have a number of them. Yet the minute they are indexed into clumsy single words, they lose their lovely flexibility and strength, and become planks or bricks — useful enough, but necessitating accumulation along predictable angles and lines.

 

[i] Hodgson, F., Only the Goalkeeper to Beat, Macmillan, 1998

[ii] Zarzycka, Marta, The World Press Photo contest and visual tropes, Photographies Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2013

[iii] Smirl, L., Building the other, constructing ourselves: spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response. International Political Sociology, 2(3), 2008.

[iv] Gordon, Linda; Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist. Journal of American History vol. 93, issue 3, 2006;

[v] The picture, by Sir Edmund Hillary, is credited to the Royal Geographic Society

[vi] I discussed this picture a little once for Bonhams magazine: Bonhams Magazine, Issue 41, Winter 2014, Page 38. Many other scholars have discussed it at greater length.

[vii] Bate, David, The Memory of Photography, Photographies, vol. 3, Issue 2, 2010

[viii] Campany, David, A Handful of Dust, MACK/Le Bal, Paris (and London), 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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Edgelands

This is a non-review of a show which may be good or bad, but which contains some things I like very much and which Londoners don’t get to see all that often.

It’s not a review partly because so very much photography, for a hundred years and more, has been about marginal spaces and marginal experiences.

Eugène Atget. People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Eugène Atget.
People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Atget was working in La Zone – the area cleared in front of the fortifications of Paris originally to give an open field of fire, in which a mixed and poor population lived at the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – at least a hundred years ago. Photography has loved the margins of society, and still does.

Still.  I don’t have to review something to enjoy it.

So:

Catherine Opie Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

Catherine Opie
Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

A couple of platinum prints from Catherine Opie’s Freeways (1994). Beautiful little exercises in a very traditional kind of modernism, surprising for the artist. The fact that they are small pictures is important. So, too, the way they look like pictures of monuments which have lost their function. Photographed like this, you can’t see how to get up to these things, nor any cars, nor any real purpose. They’re like Stonehenge, obviously for something, but it’s not clear what. If form needs perfectly to follow function, then motorway flyovers do that to a T.

I saw recently another collection of pictures of bunkers of the war of 1939 (by Marc Wilson, from his series The Last Stand); almost indestructible concrete structures, but built in a hurry on cheap foundations. By now, still intact, they’re toppling quietly over. There are lots of photographs on this general theme, of the relationship between the structures we make and the lives we lead. Catherine Opie’s flyovers are still in use, but it’s never too early to ask what on earth we were thinking of. Look at that little gable, in the middle at the bottom. That little bit is the only bit at human scale.

Keith Arnatt From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty), 1982-1985

Keith Arnatt
From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-1985

Five pictures from Keith Arnatt’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These were brilliant things, made in the early 1980s, much influenced by US photography, itself much influenced by a certain kind of environmental thinking. Arnatt was a conceptual artist at the time: but he wasn’t simply ironizing in the Wye Valley near where he lived. It’s not just that we dump garbage in beautiful places, or build wire mesh fences. It’s not even that we make a mockery of the whole history of the sublime, of the ‘green and pleasant land. Arnatt was making the point that sometimes it takes a photograph to see stuff. Just as photography showed years ago that it could expand vision by enlarging greatly or by slowing time, so more recently it has been shown to expand the consciousness that lies within vision. Arnatt saw a lost little tree – isolated from the bigger trees beyond like a sad animal in a zoo –  in the corner of a tarmac car-park, hemmed in by cheap kerbstones. He saw the doorway coarsely breeze-blocked closed, in overt insult to the subtler material of the old vernacular wall around. And he saw that black bird (I daren’t write blackbird, because I don’t think it is) high on the wall, as symbolic as Masahisa Fukase’s terrifying crows from another place and another time. We don’t see any of this stuff until a photographer freezes it for us, on the microscope slide of light sensitive paper.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Ralph Eugene Meatyard
LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Five various pictures (of about 1970) by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, late-flowering American Surrealist, an optician from Lexington, Kentucky. What to make of Meatyard’s saga of LucyBelle Crater whose gaudy horror mask contrasts so strongly with the friendly all-American life she leads? It’s standard to talk of Meatyard almost as an outsider artist, self-taught, unconnected, uninfluenced by the currents of art history. I happen to think that doesn’t hold water, for a specific reason: Meatyard’s photo buddy at the Lexington camera club was Van Deren Coke, a hugely influential historian and teacher of photography, director of the San Francisco Museum’s department of photographs from 1979 to 1987, and before that head of the school of photography at the University of New Mexico, at Albuquerque. Whatever else Meatyard was, with a friend like that, he was not a naïve photographer. LucyBelle is a Diane Arbus heroine if you like. She’s connected to all sorts of work with dolls and masks, from Hans Bellmer to Cindy Sherman. There’s plenty of writing on Meatyard’s influences, to him and from him. But maybe LucyBelle is just like all of us: there’s stuff in her expression which she doesn’t control, and stuff behind it that we don’t see.

Helen Levitt New York, c.1940.

Helen Levitt
New York, c.1940.

Two prints by Helen Levitt, from New York in 1940. Three children dance in a circle in winter. The giant staircase they’re on was not built for human strides: they have to fly to get off it, and they can. There’s a human-scale staircase attached, though, and a little line of laundry high in the corner of the picture reminds us that people keep on getting by, even when they can’t fly. This gorgeous composition matches all the great instances of movement in photography. If Cartier Bresson’s Aquila Degli Abruzzi is a stately minuet, then Levitt made a Ring of Roses. I keep having to blink to stop seeing it as a time-lapse, in which it would be the same child seen three times whirling around. Every other picture here I’d seen before. But this one I think not. I find it hard to imagine I could forget it. Grubby urban dust and brick and rubble, obvious poverty and hardship, not merely cheered but enlivened to a perfect symbolic demonstration of hope and promise. There are other such pictures. I offer you Roger Mayne’s great series of goalkeepers leaping about in the streets of North Kensington. It’s not a contest. There are no points. But this little Helen Levitt is a miracle by any standards.

All of these things come from just one section of an exhibition, called Edgelands, curated by Ben Rivers at the Camden Arts Centre and on show until 29th November 2015. The show contains much else, notably Rivers’ own films. It is good or bad. But it contains some little photographs which you’d be mad not to take the chance to see.

Edwin van der Sar and Roger Mayne

Years ago, I wrote a book about goalkeepers and goalkeeping (Only the Goalkeeper To Beat, Macmillan, 1998) which was more about attitudes than about particular techniques.  There was something of a boom in football writing in the UK after the publication of Pete Davies’ excellent book about the England team at the World Cup in Italy in 1990 (All Played Out, Heinemann, 1990) and I benefited from that. 

I still think goalkeeping is a glorious sport-within-a-sport, and I still get into trouble for being wholly unable to restrain loud appreciation when the opposing goalkeeper does something fine. Goalkeeping remains under-appreciated, and as far as I am aware, under-discusssed.  I write ‘as far as I’m aware’ because there may well be, for all I know, the most engaging blog somewhere devoted to goalkeeping, which I’ve simply missed.  I come late to a pleasant blog called More Than Mind Games which may be a likely place to find good stuff.

Goalkeeping moves on, as all sport does.  The great Edwin van der Sar is coming to the end of his career, and somehow, even though he’s not by any means disrespected, the levels of admiration are lower for him, as they always are for a goalkeeper than for even a tolerably gifted outfield player.  It’s an odd imbalance whereby we persist in regarding goalkeepers as strange aliens within the game when they routinely have the most outstanding combination of athletic and intellectual abilities.  You don’t get to hear of van der Sar behaving eccentrically, either.  He is routinely described as a ‘model professional’.  But no matter how sober the behaviour of goalkeeping leaders like him, the mythological wildness and madness persist.  What an athlete.  What a leader.  What rare skills to excel at such a high level for so long.  Edwin van der Sar, still playing faultlessly at 40 years old for Manchester United against hungry and determined top-class opposition every game.  His record is like that of the great hurdler Ed Moses – it’s not just the longevity. It’s the unimpeachable quality. 

When my book was about to come out, I asked it if it could have one of Roger Mayne’s pictures on the cover. Mayne is not so well known outside Britain, but he made in the late 1950s in West London a series of street photographs fully the equal of Helen Levitt or anybody else.  One of the things that he was repeatedly drawn to was the informal street sport which was possible at the time before the motor car barged everybody out the way.  “Has to be in colour to attract in a bookshop”, said one voice at my publisher.  “Has to be a famous player to attract kids”, said another.  No Roger Mayne on the front cover for me. I still got one of these onto the back cover, though, and  when I had copies lying around, I always left them that side up. 

Not many people really understand goalkeeping.  Roger Mayne probably didn’t give it a moment’s thought as anything particular in its own right.  But, as photographers sometimes do, he got pretty close to explaining all in a few glances.  These are for Edwin van der Sar, with thanks.