Alexandra Cool’s photographs of authors

By Ulrike Draesner

There’s someone sitting there, wrinkling his brow, murmuring inaudibly, folding his hands, swearing, then finally typing down something. He’s bad tempered, just like the painter Caspar David Friedrich on those days when he painted air – but even then we actually saw something on the canvas. Yet that other one has in the meantime crossed everything out. At the end of the evening, with just 15 lines on the paper, he sits down to his meal, so exhausted that he can hardly speak a word.

He “writes”.

Apologetic smile. What else should he say when someone asks him what he does. When you come to think of it, he wasn’t just present, he was right in the middle of it.

What could all this be about, this (invisible) work with words as the raw material, words that all of us use day in day out? That is the question posed by Alexandra Cool, the graphic artist and photographer. In the south of Brussels, between Flemish fields and an old beech wood, she – together with the literary organisation Passa Porta (Brussels) – has done up two apartments for authors to work in. In the evenings, they sit down together for a meal, talking about and comparing their work as much as they can. On the first floor of the villa Cool’s photographs are to be found, mounted on large aluminium plates. Under the hands of the artist the clay model of a bust turns, changing with every movement.

And on the ground floor? There we see two authors, sitting far apart, practising metamorphosis.

Yet metamorphosis itself is a word belonging to the domain of the visible – and therefore difficult to imagine when relating it to the spoken language, to words which we cannot see with the eye – unless they are written down -, something abstract, even uniform (those same few letters constantly strung together). Even Rilke, eloquent in poetology, finds himself in deep water as soon as the inner translation work of a poet is involved, the concoction and transformation of world-and-language, both from the one into the other and in respect of each other. “No word in a poem (I include here every “and” and “the”) is identical with the same-sounding words used in everyday language; the purer regularity, the great relationship, the constellation within which it finds itself in a literary text, modifies it to the very heart of its nature, making it useless, unusable in everyday situations, untouchable and permanent – a true metamorphosis” (letter to Countess Sizzo, 17 March 1922).

And all of a sudden we find ourselves back at square one: writing. What does it involve? Does that ever enter the picture?

The answer consists, not quite by chance, of a little story. Writing is a process, dealing with time – whether it likes it or not – both in its content and in its production.

Some time near the end of the stay, Cool puts a box looking like a bird-house next to the surprised guest. Made of spruce wood, with a hole in it – and exposure time set to 30 minutes. Cool goes away, leaving the author alone with the “obscure thing”. The searcher for words looks at it, then returns to his work, as can be seen in the photos. 30 minutes are a long time.

Photos of authors writing do not always have the best reputation. In addition to the fact that they can quickly look posed (as they mostly are), we don’t see anything of the actual work. All we see when we snap a shot is someone typing on a computer keyboard. Working with words, this change-concoct-transform process without which neither source nor target would be exactly defined, is something very intimate. When writing, you can’t just let yourself be watched – you have to forget you are being watched in order to be able to carry on working. And anyway, one is not oneself during this time, but totally immersed, absorbed in one’s work.

Cool manages to find a precise and clever way of recording this constellation. A photo is taken, but there is no photographer. There is no seeing human eye. The subjective object of the picture remains alone with himself and his work. This work can go on, because the camera’s “click” is replaced by a period of noticeable length: the exposure of the film in the simple little box is just as slow as the concocting itself. This is all intensified by the use of black-and-white film. There are neither colours nor different rooms to distract later viewers of the writer-pictures, as the two tables, the same walls are to be found in all the pictures.

What does change are the authors.

Due to the fact that they, at the time the pictures were taken, had been working at their places for weeks, these places show evidence of their presence.

Gently but firmly, the photos steer our attention to the major and minor differences: empty tables, tables you can’t see because they are so full of paper, teacups, bottles, discarded pairs of glasses, CD players, newspapers, and then again books, papers, notes, piled on top of each other, and somewhere between all this we see a figure, with a computer, practically alone with the device. The person, sitting there in and between so many things, seems small, almost hidden. And the author, how he gets smaller and smaller while working, becoming almost a dwarf, because so much from within him is flowing out into what he is writing.

Jean Paul’s well-known adage, that the typewriter (or now the computer) participates in writing down the thoughts, would seem – when looking at Cool’s pictures – to be too narrow a description. The whole surroundings become involved: the way one finds a place in a room, thereby creating the fictitious space needed to conjure up a plot, to string words together. Normally we don’t see such surroundings, yet Cool’s pictures manage wonderfully to show these up.

Some of the authors are reading. Some are bent over. Large bottles of water, empty glasses. Keyboards, linked up to notebooks. Hands on mouses. Some are leaning right over their computers, almost kneeling. Or sitting still as in a Francis Bacon picture. Figures in cages – lost in thought, searching. In the dark, totally engrossed.

The photos are sharp, yet at the same time matt, light brown-yellow tones in white, a complex cloudy grey. Piles of clouds in the windows, the sun just breaking through, trees full of snow, bending under the weight. A glimmer of thought, a glimmer of light.

We see rituals. Insights into the process we call writing.

We see large white sheets of paper in the room (the sides turned over), yet they seem so delicate – as if we could actually recognise the author through them. At any moment, we almost expect everything to become transparent. That’s just where the photos come into their own, beginning to tell of that interval of time they have captured – congealed, shrunk, squeezed together. The extended exposure phase makes them hybrid structures: photos seeming to become a sort of photo-film or a film-photo. Not a one-off film still, but a photo as a whole film, which we can see within a split second (capturing it with our eye), then slowly unrolling it, interpreting it in our own way.

In doing so, the photos develop a second characteristic. We start feeling how we are slowly getting closer to “writing”, as a picture of something invisible. A paradox becomes possible: Cool’s pictures of authors show something you can’t show.

Writing. And what “is happening”?

The surroundings are there, silent and sharp, remaining fixed, clear contours. The weather we see outside the window is on the other hand sometimes performing a little drama, with the sun and clouds gliding by, glistening. And in the middle of all this, we see ourselves, human beings, moving, not really capable of being immobile – human, i.e. indistinct. Not blurred, not fuzzy, but precisely captured in fuzziness. At the centre of the photos – just that place most difficult to grasp. The faces in particular melt into contours, sheets, next pages, as if the authors, in writing, are themselves pages of a book.

A further thought. What strange internal duplication, which I know from writing and now am amazed to (re)discover in Cool’s pictures. They are – almost – terrifying, yet full of beauty. They move in on the photographed subject and on the viewer. They speak of a secret without revealing it, in black, in white and in thousands of shades of grey, as if they were whispering.

Some tried to smile at the camera.

Some were leaning on their elbows.

And the odd one is even casting a shadow, behind his back – a shadow which, unlike the body, can be seen distinctly on the wall.

Is this because it is our shadow which is created by silence?

Thoughts come to mind when looking at the photos, unobtrusive in white, in grey, in shades so to speak, shadows on the wall, near curtains, next to lamp shades – shadows that remind us that the people depicted need eyes for their work, even if these are not to be seen in the photos, because all expressions are blurred. Indeed, the authors were somewhere else. We see them leaning over their work, leaning back, we see their writing movements, yet their eyes have disappeared from the photos, as they are so engrossed in following the letters.

What do we see?

Some are working with two computers, with some we see writing flickering on their chests, one is sucking his cheeks as if far away. Slips of paper stick out of books like tongues. Now everything is involved in writing.

Our perception is divided into small time slots. Cameras have the ability to reveal what we miss in these slots. The dark-bright recording made by that clicking chamber, as described by Roland Barthes, snatches a split second from our lives – the static image – and conserves it. According to Barthes, remembrance goes hand in hand with “devivification”, taking away life: life and death are remixed at that moment when light and shadow swap places.

In Cool’s photos, we see this process somewhat softened.

In the 30-minute room opened up by her photos, we see writing as a no-thing between the things in the room, something alive, more alive than the weather outside, but at the same time slow and slightly blurred. But most of all we see the person writing.

Not the author, or to put it more precisely, the author pretending to be (or acting as) an author: the person who does the writing, but not now. Here he is nothing but a symbol for someone who, at a different time, in a different place, generates text. What we see is a writer invisible to the unarmed eye – a person quivering between dark and light, a living thing full of concentration and alien to himself. A ghost as well, as the person is a piece of body in metamorphosis, a self-expression over which we have no control. No voluntary muscle tension, no glimpse of an idea which the person depicted could try and paint on his face for the photo, affects the person. The person is self-defining, left to himself, like his own handwriting.

Sometimes the writing person can’t even be recognised as an author.

Energy lines start to appear, between sheet and paper, as movements, white lines, roads for transferring thoughts and ideas. We end up with a chequerboard of gloss, black and grey, with little or much movement, sometimes sharp, sometimes intentionally blurred, surrounded by the sharp edges of things. A chequerboard depicting “writing”, that finding and stringing together of words, that concocting of sentences, that creation of a work, that bows us down, that links us together, that tells of us.

Cool’s photos expose authors, telling us not just about them, but about what it means to be totally immersed in something. They depict people in between things, in a room, working – small lights consisting of bodies and time, themselves mixed in a hybrid way, bodies and something else that we can hardly put our fingers on (any more), something we are searching for (as our spirit, our mind or an idea?), and sometimes it finds us, depicted and in writing – as a conversation between the two – a fantastic conversation beginning here.