On Travel, Cities, and Ghosts

Travel makes cities. As people, goods, and ideas flow in and out, a series of arrivals and departures allows traces to form and aggregate – the ephemeral gives birth to a site of geographical permanence.  It is this, the motion of travel as well as its sites, the ephemeral in the city, which Charles Harbutt succeeds in capturing in his book of photographs: Departures and Arrivals. [1]
Harbutt once described the photograph as a ‘blink’ in human perception[2]. In this book he turns his artificial blinking eye on traces and textures in the city. He captures travel itself. The camera examines interiors and exteriors of modes of transport: trains, carts, and automobiles. Harbutt also photographs the in-between spaces associated with travel, places of liminality and flux: doorways, vacated chairs, road crossings, stairways, and (with a wry smile) the interior of a funeral parlour – a photograph I will return to in more detail below.
Many of the images are out-of-focus, grainy texture-scapes, or photographs of people and places mirrored in reflective surfaces. They are photographs of ghosts. One particularly remarkable image (entitled Englishtown, New Jersey, 1987) [3]looks like a superimposition of a human shadow on a landscape distorted by motion-blur.[4]
Harbutt photographs that which, in the moment immediately after the close of the shutter, and possibly even during its blink, is already barely there, elusive, escaping, gone. Perhaps paradoxically, by capturing journeys, Harbutt hints at permanence. And he does this precisely by dwelling on that which is ephemeral. Each image is a tightrope walk between death and immortality.
The photograph in the book which most powerfully expresses this concern with passage and permanence – and evokes an intriguing reading of the urban condition – is an image of a funeral service. The caption in the book’s image index labels it: Italy, 1989.[5] The photograph is developed as a kind of enlarged contact sheet. It consists of three individual shots or (to put it in more Harbuttian terms) three stages in one photographic journey. The first image depicts two out-of-focus, empty chairs in the interior of a funeral parlour, further blurred by burnt-out artefacts on the film and a curious light pattern that flows across the frame-divide into the next shot. Here we see an open casket. An elderly man mourns an elderly woman. The third and final shot is a close-up of the body in the casket. The focus is on a bouquet beside the coffin. The body of the deceased is blurry and soft – an impression, a wisp rather than a cadaver.  The blurring and light artefacts that Harbutt has taken care to retain in the final image may have come about as a result of the film development process or they may have occurred in-camera. However they came to be there, they hint at the movement of light – they are visual ghosts, literally haunting the final image. One early use of the photographic medium was the attempt to capture evidence of ghostly presences in haunted houses. When combined with Harbutt’s subject – a death, a passing – the presence of smoky chimeras on the photographic paper seems to deliberately allude to this history. The visual ghosts are a clear reference to death and the metaphysical. However, less literally and more importantly, they allow the viewer to think of the photograph itself as the point of permanence in the exchange between the human being and the capture of reality. The image is not the ghost: we are. The shot is the material proof we leave behind of our existence.
We have previously in this blog mentioned the salt photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot. For Talbot, the photograph was a ghostly reminder of the real. In a lecture he gave at the NYU in 1970, Harbutt recalled Talbot’s description of photographs as ‘…fairy images, creations of a moment, destined to fade away…’[6] For Harbutt, however, the very opposite of this is true. [7] The photographs themselves are lasting. They are the afterimages of passing that remain. In the same speech, Harbutt cited the words of Talbot’s wife, describing the camera as a ‘mousetrap’. ‘Photographers’, he said, expanding on this idea, ‘are trappers – reality trappers.’[8]
Reading the city through Harbutt’s images by way of this notion, we can think of the urban space itself as a kind of photograph. At the same time, we can read the city in motion as a camera, a reality trap. Harbutt’s focus on texture and surface when he shoots hotel vitrines in Mexico, brick walls in New Jersey, or the concrete flatness of a parking lot in Merida, Yucatán, invites us to think of the metropolis as a light-sensitive emulsion on which we leave behind the traces of our trajectories through time. The city is both a photograph and a camera – a mousetrap for ghostly voyages, literal and metaphorical. When describing the cities that we inhabit, we often speak of our usual ‘haunts’. When Harbutt describes the city as an image, he captures this haunting.

P.S. Sadly, Charles Harbutt passed away on the 30th of June this year. As I look through this album of spectral departures and arrivals, in cities around the world – the remains of a presence now gone – I mentally wish him bon voyage.

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[1] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, Damiani, Bologna: 2012.
[2] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer”, speech given at NYU, Spring 1970, transcript, Visura Magazine, http://www.visuramagazine.com/charles-harbutt-unconcerned, accessed 17 August 2015.
[3] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 90.
[4] I believe the superimposition is not a photographer’s trick but that it was captured in-camera, a reflection on the glass surface of a train window.
[5] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 87.
[6] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”
[7] Mara Arts has made the observation that, while both Talbot and Harbutt were working with photography, Talbot’s salt photographs really did fade with time. The difference between their views of photography is thus more than a conceptual quirk – it is one resulting from a changing medium, photography itself in flux.
[8] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”



The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column


Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.

Vivian Maier’s Junk Shop Photograph (New York, 1954) and a Plea for Urban Treasure Hunts

Vivian Maier might be the greatest visual arts discovery in recent years. Her immense body of urban street photography began to surface in 2007 after author John Maloof first found sections of it during a minor auction in Chicago. Maier’s pictures have since become the centre of exhibitions, media coverage, and the Oscar-nominated documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013) that takes us on Maloof’s journey of retracing who Maier was.[1]

Maier’s repository includes the 1954 photograph of a New York junk shop interior and its presumed owner.[2] The viewer can tell that it is a junk shop by the characteristic arrangement of objects in space (or lack thereof). Retail stores selling new wares physically partition off product displays from areas for customer movement by means of counters, aisles, and shelves. Such spatial orchestration guarantees that the product does not encounter unnecessary contact with passing, disinterested customers and that it is left as untouched as possible for purchase. In these stores, you shop with your eyes before you buy with your hands. The interior space in Maier’s photograph foregoes this physical separation. Items in second-hand and junk shops have by definition passed through other hands. The junk shop’s deliberate negation of conventional shopping choreography imparts two messages: first, the objects are used, show traces of that usage, and are thus cheaper than new wares. Second, and more significantly, this room is a larger-than-life treasure trove abounding in lived history. The product display invites us to enter and embark on a spatial, tactile, and emotional treasure hunt. You have to be right in the middle of the items, move through them with your body and hands. You cannot shop with your eyes by throwing a glance inside from the secluded vantage point at the entrance since you cannot see what treasures are hidden under the piles of objects. The photograph offers a perspective from this very viewpoint in, or close to, the entrance area. Visual representation doubles the shop’s spatial invitation to an exploration rich in effort and surprising rewards. The junk shop image operates as a synecdoche for how Maier’s own discoverer and, thanks to him and recently his film, the rest of the world have come to access her vast photographic treasure trove. Therefore, the picture offers an entry point for exploring Maier’s larger body of work.

The owner, or vendor, in the photograph is seated in front of the main bulk of items, to the right of the frame but nevertheless prominent in the photograph. He is the gate keeper, the treasurer, of this repository. He does not block the entrance but the visitor has to pass by him first. Looking straight into the camera, his gaze is as rich as it is ambiguous. It is proud and challenges the visitor entering the owner’s handmade realm. The traces of dirt on his pants suggest that he has put physical effort into the store. The way the assortment is presently assembled is the result of his work which enables and shapes the customers’ subsequent experiences. At the same time, his face and hands are tense, betraying that he is unaccustomed to the camera’s attention. This interplay of emotions reflected in the vendor’s physical appearance endows the image and the space it portrays with a sense of honesty. This is no advertisement. The shop is what it is. You yourselves have to value the products.

The notions of a treasure chest and treasurer leave us with the question of what the treasure, or junk, of 1954 might be. The photograph displays lamp shades and light bulbs, frames and furniture. These objects are less ephemeral in their materiality than in their trendiness. The junk shop picture illustrates that, when urban fashion changes, the entire city does not immediately change with it. Commodities might vanish from the major retail stores but they are relayed to other spaces in the cityscape. This shift system calls for the treasure hunt on an urban scale. You cannot find outmoded objects in any of the interchangeable department stores and you might have to search through many of the different, dispersed junk stores to find an item comparable to what you had in mind. But you are likely to find many unexpected pieces of day-to-day history along the way. The story that this photograph evokes, along with the meta-story of Maier’s oeuvre, invites us to think about the logistics of urban treasure hunting.


[1] The information is based on: http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/history/Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof / Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013); http://oscar.go.com/nominees.
[2] www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-2/#slide-41.