What does the writer move when he writes?
Also: the eyes, occasionally the legs. And here and there, a few other things. But in total: very little. A writer needs to sit still and allow all kinds of invisible things, especially his language centre, his imagination, his syntax, to move. Although it is equally true that these things move him.
The photographer Alexandra Cool placed a small black box on writers’ desks and allowed light to do its work.
Light does not interpret. Well obviously it can, because of what we, in its absence, cannot see. In such a box, light becomes an eye that monitors how light itself makes our movements visible.
Light light light up.
Photographing the movements of a writer in action: it’s like immortalizing the breeze in a leafless tree.
In space, writing is minimal art. Most writers don’t dance when they write. (Although of course a writer can dancingly alight on sentences.) Writing involves sitting quietly and being receptive. To chase elucidation and unravel fantasy. Living, breathing radio-receivers. Of language, of a story, of signals in their own ether.
Alexandra Cool wanted to record the breath and actions. In the hope that the outer movements would reveal something about those occurring inside.
This is probably an illusion: both Hemingway and Pessoa wrote standing up – and no two writers’ work could differ more. Wallace Stevens often wrote in the train during business trips, and Sartre regularly wrote at a café table, in full public view.
What then can the writer’s actions tell us about his specific work? Very little. But they can tell something about his use of time. About his smallest movements. About his stillness.
About the art of writing in general. And about the time and space of that writing.
And so a black box standing ‘open’ – from half an hour to several hours at a time – recorded immobility and movement. The first thing you notice about these photographs is how almost everything stands still except for the writer. It’s usually the opposite: everything moves and only the writer and the pigeons remain still.
That is the first surprise about these photographs: the writer doesn’t sit still at all. ‘Stillness’ is a mobile perception. Compared with the things around him – the computer, his papers, the walls, the window, the lamp, and an occasional flower – he is a turbulent sea.
Some move more than others. The more shadowy their image, the more they have moved. Some appear to have sat almost still, others have moved around so much that they have escaped the light: hardly anything remains of their form.
Therein lies the second surprise about these photographs. The more the writer moved, the more invisible he became. Whereas, we live in times when we move as much as possible in order to remain visible.
Sometimes the writer leaves behind a white spot, sometimes he is a ‘moving photograph’, sometimes nothing at all. In summary, in this light he/she becomes a shadow. Sitting, writing and inevitably moving, the writer becomes a phantom. A presence that fades and dissolves in varying degrees until eventually disappearing altogether.
Does he also disappear from his text? The idea is tempting: the writer as a temporary medium. The more text that emerges, the more the writer dissolves into himself. He is merely a conductor. Like the cocoon for a butterfly.
That is the third surprise: what in fact are we seeing? The simple play of light on a person writing in a room. No more than this. But we want to see more. The emotion behind the movement. What is ‘playing’ inside the head? What’s going on inside the writer, beneath his inconsequential gesturing?
These photographs concentrate on what lies between the exterior and interior layers. They suggest the appearance of something invisible. Especially, or so it seems to me, they express a desire to somehow give a form to mystery, the unknown.
This is a particularly romantic yearning. And in her desire to comprehend the unknown, the photographer – via her black box – is looking at nothing less than time itself.
I know this experience: I am rarely so mindful of time as when I am writing. What I mean by this is, while staring outside or at the computer screen, the compulsive smoking, re-inspecting the fingernails, the apparent aimlessness and uncertainty of it all.
How often have I not had the feeling: what am I doing sitting here, while the hours rush past me like a breeze against a solemn statue?
In these photographs the hours rush straight through the writers, like a shiver, while the rest remains immobile. Here, time seems to first seek the person, and only then the things. In this sense, these images depict the obsession/fascination of nearly all writers: both the lure and the phantom of time. While the writer writes against time, time writes against him.
The tension is palpable. Even though we know these images portray calm and concentration, at the same time they depict a strange kind of haste. The minimal, ordinary actions of the writers take on an unexpected urgency. In the calm modesty of the situation there exists a real sense of nervousness.
An aura of calamity resides in these photos.
What inspires these strange shadows? What do their ghostly movements mean in that dark room? They dwell in a state between presence and absence. Their appearance is almost unpleasant – reminiscent of alleged photos of ghosts, or certain paintings by Francis Bacon.
And so it was, that this photographer using nothing more than a small black box as a slow eye on writers’ desks, has made multifaceted portraits: portraits of writers, of writing, of the art of writing, of writing rooms and even of time. She has also taken her time: with great patience, allowing the hours and light to speak, she achieves something that is difficult to precisely capture: is it the time of the writers or the writing of time? It is both, and both simultaneously, in one wonderfully ambiguous movement, and it is just this movement that makes these photographs so intriguing and moving.
Translated from Dutch by Liz Morrison