Call and Response; an exploration in photography and writing

Long wait for something real

Here is an example of one exchange from the collaborative book I have been working on (more info about book below):

Text by Nancy Brokaw
Image by Julianna Foster

A package arrives in the mail. Open it to find a photograph: a hand gestures toward a distant, shrouded horizon.

The photograph is simplicity itself

The hand reaches from the lower right corner of the image up to the horizon, reaching, or so it seems, for the cascade of little suns that tumble down from the opposite corner.

The hand, which reaches into the image right from where you stand, could be your hand.

But look again. Your hand is separated from you by a scrim beaded with water droplets.

The scene itself is an impossibility.

At once drawn in to, and cut off from, the scene, you are plunged beyond the realm of the possible into mystery.

Is the hand—your hand?—reaching out in fear, as if to ward off an approaching threat? Or does it yearn, stretching toward a boundary you cannot breach, a world you can never enter? Is the gesture a farewell, a valediction to a departing soul? Or a last good-bye to the world itself as if, in taking leave of life, your impossible, off-screen surrogate aches to touch this sweet old world one more time?

An answer, like the scene, is impossible.

The photograph is an illusion of the real

As invented, the photograph was a triumph of empiricism, William Henry Fox Talbot’s pencil of nature: Here was the visible world—the world of solid objects and surface beauty— transcribed by an unholy alliance of physics and chemistry. Holding a photograph in your hands, you held a slice of reality, an objective moment of time forever fixed on a piece of paper.

Or did you?

The photograph is a child, too, of magic. At least one of its inventors—Louis-Jacques-Mand√© Daguerre was a man of the stage, a lighting designer and a creator of theatrical illusions. Before inventing the daguerreotype, he made a living, and a pretty good one at that, with another of his inventions: the diorama—a proto-cinematic theater that created illusions of reality through the manipulation of light. Sitting in a darkened theater, his audience viewed a painted scene that seemed to move before their eyes. Using techniques of reflection and refraction of changing light on a semi-transparent canvas, Daguerre created trompe l’oeil effects that could make candles in a painted church scene seem to flicker and mist descend on a mountainside village.

Like the magician, the photographer is a master manipulator of perception. The medium has long been the handmaiden of the uncanny, the surreal, the mysterious: from the early days on—from William Mumler, one of the first of the 19th-century spirit photographers, right up to Adam Fuss and his daguerreotypes of smoke—those of a metaphysical mind have explored the paradox of a photography that pierces the veil of reality.

Playing with your faith in the truth-value of the photographic image, Julianna Foster is heir to that tradition. She presents you with a patently impossible, unphotographable scene, and conjuring up a hand that emerges in a mysterious liminal space, she invites you into the unknown and leads you to the question:

What do you look at when you look at this photograph?

Me? To my eye, this image is infused with a sense of wonder and regret. It is as though our proxy, represented by that reaching hand, glimpses the sublime in an array of suns. But the sublime—this dream of transcendence—is forever beyond your reach.

One day, after writing all of the above, I asked Foster the title of her image. Her answer: “No title. Feel free to give it one.”

That night, I sat down to watch Tarkovsy’s The Sacrifice. Halfway in, the local eccentric (cum mystic) Otto speaks of his “long wait for something real.”


I shouldn’t really presume but, to me, Otto’s turn of phrase might do.