Photo of a gate

February 11, 2018 0 Comments

On the wall almost opposite the foot of the bed, my home for a few days last week, was a thick frame containing a mounted colour photograph.  Since it was one of the few unnecessary objects in the room, and the only occupant of its wall, I found myself giving it my full attention several times a day.  I could raise the top part of the bed mechanically to give myself a better view of it. 

On the face of it, the photo looked anything but special.  Later on, when I was able to walk down the corridor outside, I saw that it literally wasn’t special: there were other copies of the same picture on the walls, along with similar pictures, probably by the same photographer.  As far as I could tell, the photographer was anonymous.  None of the framed pictures had captions, and I wasn’t bold enough to angle any of them away from the wall to see if the back revealed a name.

There was nothing special about the photo’s content, either.  An upland landscape.  A fence, with an old gate, not quite closed, in the middle.  Beyond, an empty moor, with no figures in sight, human or animal.  A sunny blue sky with a few slight clouds and a thinner haze below them.

As a rank amateur I was in no position to judge the technical standard of the photo.  I’d have guessed it was at least competent – a good deal better than I could have managed with my raw skills and ageing digital SLR – but maybe not outstanding.

So, if it was so unexceptional, what was it about this picture that drew me to it?  To begin with, I was curious about the scene’s location.  Could it be the Brecon Beacons?  Or mid-Wales?  Or maybe not in Wales at all?  Then, I couldn’t help noticing the weather in the photo.  Upland Britain hardly ever looks like this.  On just a few cyclonic days each summer does the sun shine in this way, with rain-innocent clouds and a light haze.  The photographer must have been very lucky or very patient.

But what really drew me back to the picture were its composition and its main subject – the gate in the middle of the wire fence.  As a gate it’s a failure.  One of its horizontal timbers is broken, and two of its verticals are missing.  It’s no longer attached to its gatepost, so any human or animal could easily slide their way between the two.  It may be that the photographer found this dilapidation appealing – when I take snaps I find signs of disrepair and dissolution a constant temptation – but I suspect that he or she spotted was the other, more successful aspect of the gate: its symbolic, liminal function.

The gate marks a gap in the frontier between two worlds: the urban world of the camera and its owner, probably standing on a tarmac road and in front of a car, and a different world beyond.  That world, the kingdom of the open moor, opens up beyond the fence – the ajar gate invites us to explore it – and stretches for apparently infinite miles into the distance, rising slowly towards a low ridge on the horizon.  It’s pathless country, all tussocks and soughs of reed, heather, grass and mud.  Once inhabited by our Bronze Age ancestors, it’s now empty, barren and unfancied by all but the most determined walkers, and maybe conservationists, if it’s in a national park.  For me at this moment the moor has an irresistible pull.  It stands for freedom and solitude, far from the walls of a closed institution, and for the elation of walking out, beyond the gate and into the distance, boots bouncing from tuft to tuft and skylarks sounding overhead.

After a while I began to realise that the photo of the gate was beginning to exert a spell over my mind.  The word to describe the effect that occurred to me was ‘aura’, some kind of special magnetic force in the picture drawing my eyes and working on my imagination.  Then I remembered that I’d got the word from rereading Walter Benjamin’s famous essay of 1936, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.  Benjamin – since we share a name I’ll call him Walter – used ‘aura’ to describe the special quality or singularity attached to an authentic, original work of art, ‘a unique manifestation of a remoteness, no matter how near it may be’.  Early art objects drew their aura from their ‘cultic’ (magical or religious) origins.  Later, secular art drew its aura from the ‘genius’ of the artist (no longer a craftsman) and the tradition that building around it.  But ‘aura’ only belongs to an original.  It can’t possibly transfer, Walter says, to mechanical copies – photographs, say – of the same object.  Modern society, where ‘copies’ predominate and ‘getting close’ to art is easy (film is Walter’s favourite example), aura fades.

As you can see, Walter’s view of the aura doesn’t quite fit my case, the photo of the gate.  Not only is the picture in the frame not the original (whatever that that may be, a piece of celluloid or a digital file), it’s just one of several copies within the same building.  So it shouldn’t emanate any aura.  Yet for me, it does.  The reason for the contradiction is that in his account of the art object Walter doesn’t pay much attention to what the viewer brings to its status.  To me it’s a matter of no consequence that the picture on the wall is a copy, or a copy of a copy, of some ‘genuine’ original.  What counts is what this copy says to me, how I personally react to it.

Actually, I may be unfair to Walter.  Later in his essay he does refer to the process I was engaged in, a close inspection of the thing itself, only to dismiss it as middle class delusion: immersion ‘in the degeneration in the bourgeoisie became a school of asocial behaviour.’  Whereas film, for Walter the key art form in the mechanised age, is a mass form which links to the viewer through ‘distraction’ rather than immersion.

Walter and I will have to disagree about ‘aura’.  He isn’t the clearest of writers, I admit, and I may be misinterpreting what he says.  Strangely, there’s a paragraph in chapter 10 that’s not only entirely clear, it’s also remarkably accurate as a forecast of the relationship between reading and writing in our own century:

For centuries the situation in literature was such that a small number of writers faced many thousands of times that number of readers.  Then, towards the end of the last century, there came a change.  As the press grew in volume  … larger and larger sections of that readership (gradually at first) turned into writers … The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character … The reader is constantly ready to become a writer.

Every reader a writer is exactly where we stand now.  Walter, we need you with us today, in the age of logorrhoeic bloggers, fake journalists and social media slaves.

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