The Truth of the Images

in Dear Dave magazine, n.21, David Rhodes publishing, New York 2016

blow up still
 

Film still from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, 1966. (Original photograph by Don McCullin)

 

…we know that beneath the image revealed there is another one, more faithful to reality, and that beneath there is another one, and again a new one under this last one, up to the true image of that absolute and mysterious reality that no one will ever see
Michelangelo Antonioni [1]

The last thing that counts in what the poet says is that it may also be true

Galileo Galilei

 

Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal film Blow-Up anticipated some fundamental questions that are proving to be decisive in re-considering the nature and role of the photographic image as an umbilical cord with the Real and a medium between the subject and the object depicted. In its ability to represent and convey the mental and retinal vision of the photographer, its subjective and interpretive position in a man’s experience of the world and, ultimately, the Truth that it simultaneously hides and discloses, proves and belies, conceals and reveals, the photograph is fundamental to our comprehension of the world.

Blow Up depicts a single day in the life of Thomas, a glamorous 1960’s London fashion photographer, unfolding among a series of apparently disconnected and casual events: taking pictures in a flophouse and professional studio shootings, driving around town in a convertible Rolls Royce and looking for paraphernalia in an antiques shop, wandering in a nearby park taking pictures of pigeons, trees and a couple of lovers; meeting his book editor, visiting his neighbor and discussing his abstract paintings, playing with two aspiring young models in his studio, attending a rock concert, a drug-drenched party, fancy restaurants, playing with mimes on a tennis court ….

Surprisingly, the core event of the day reveals to be his voyeuristic chase of two lovers in a city park, the photographs he takes and the relation with the woman who is initially angry with Thomas for having violated their privacy only to visit him later, smoke pot, make love and give him a false phone number while requesting the restitution of his film. After she leaves, Thomas reviews the sequence of his black and white negatives, examining their enlargements and seeking insight into the woman’s apprehension, sensing he might have missed something contradicting his memory and understanding of the event. Following the timeline of his film and blowing up single shots and details, he begins to grasp a different story, this time through his pictures, as if a new narrative within the film unfolded in front of the photographer’s and the viewers’ eyes. Finally Thomas enlarges the detail of one image seemingly containing a possible solution to his morbid quest for an answer. Upon many successive enlargements Thomas suspects seeing in the hazy, grainy and enigmatic print the corpse of the man he had photographed with the woman, discovering another truth from what he had seen in the park. This crucial photograph that may contain evidence of a murder is abstract and unclear, dotted and elusive as one of his neighbor’s paintings. That same night Thomas returns without a camera to the location in the park and sees the corpse; when he returns in the morning with his camera, the corpse is gone. Back in his studio he discovers that all the pictures, except for the abstract one, have been stolen together with the negatives and contact sheet. The only trace left, perhaps ignored by the thief as meaningless, now bares the entire memory of the event and its secret: it is the key element to stand for the “truth” that revolves between -what he thought he had seen- and what -actually occurred-.

In Blow Up, the photographer exerts full power over his subjects when thoroughly staged  and  kept under his direct control, rewound, restrained and immobilized to perfection, only to loose grip and control of events when involved in a seemingly banal circumstance, an ordinary occurrence of his everyday life.

Through the experience of the photographer and the scrutiny of his enigmatic key shot, Antonioni seems to suggest the existence of an unbridgeable gap between looking and seeing, and likewise between seeing and thinking; his story expresses dramatically the enigma of seeing through a narrative which is literal (the facts depicted), metaphorical (the interpretation of images) and symbolic (the Truth of the pictures and of the event) at the same time, eliciting fundamental questions if we see the practice of photography as an experiential path of discovery and knowledge.

 

Do we only see what we think?

Through a single photograph the protagonist can see what he retinally did not see: how can this be? Was he blind while looking so intently, peeping and peering, glaring, observing, glancing and hawking like a hunter his prey? Was he the witness of a different story from what he sensed as a love one? Was his belief responsible for his vision, decisions and actions, only to be contradicted by a different story unfolding through the frames of the photographs?

Blow up reflects on the binding link that intertwines seeing and thinking, revealing the mystery of our glance as we ponder what the photographer actually saw. The limits of our vision, the constrains of the medium and ultimately the way we interpret Reality, dramatically determine our knowledge and understanding of the external world. Is Antonioni suggesting that we can only see what we think and our eye receives simultaneously the information from outside and inside, the existing world and our mind so that one could not be distinguished nor exist without the other? Therefore: on what actual elements can we base our comprehension and judgment of reality in order to exert our free will and be able to decide, chose and responsibly act?

 

Is our point of view responsible for what we actually see?

Voyaging alternately through the movie camera eye, the still camera eye and the photographer’s eye, we see how an apparently mundane event, a couple of lovers playing with each other seeking privacy in a park, may disclose an unexpected story, an obscure plot and possibly unfold the mystery that resides in the ordinary everyday. Once the event has occurred and disappeared from us, it is turned into memory and imagination; the photographer can no longer change his physical point of view, nor examine the raw material of reality from a different angle; yet he can change his mental perspective and position, reconsidering anew what he sees through the irrefutable timeline of his contact sheet, exploring a different film that ultimately leads him to a conclusion opposing his original premise.

 

Are Images Models of Reality?

Seeing is a creative act: we make up what we see more often than see what is actually there. Our glance only grasps highly reworked subjective fragments, shadows and reflections, “ideas” of the world: our understandings of what we call Reality.

We access and acknowledge Reality through images that are formed in our mind and result from the connection between two worlds: the manifold external one and our lightless inner one. This connection is fundamental. We do not see Reality in itself but only images that we make up of it and through these powerful, complex, mysterious mediators we see and we think. Mental images are the models of reality that we use; they are visual metaphors, allusions, interpretive vessels, and emanations.

These images are our true “lies that make us realize truth”[2], but how? We attribute meanings to images through our process of interpretation so that we can grasp what we see and what we think. Although the answer is always further away from our reach, the finite forms of our images may disclose multiple ways to read them and visually approach the infinite complexity of the Real. What we actually see is a mystery and the models we create as our images may tell and help to interpret the greater mystery that we are part of. In the words of Luigi Pirandello: “Man necessarily acts through forms, which are the appearances that he creates for himself, to which we ascribe value of reality”[3].

 

Can an interpretation be right and wrong at the same time?

Love and death seem to be two aspects of the same Reality that Thomas seeks to decipher through his key photograph: something doubtlessly happened in the park and his pictures prove that he was there. Could he possibly also have provoked the event? Albert Einstein stated that the understanding of a phenomenon observed is relative to the frame of reference of the observer; quantum physics maintains that the very presence of the observer changes the nature of the event. It is legitimate to wonder whether there would have been a murder if the photographer had not intervened on his stage of Reality, influencing and possibly determining the very course of the event. Was the woman the dead man’s lover or was she the accomplice to the murder or, possibly, both? Thomas is confronted with the deceptive truths of a photograph and the natures of the event that he eyewitnessed and ultimately with the meaning of what he saw, as the interpretation of this mysterious photograph is his alone.

 

How many realities can we attain through a single photograph?

The event that occurred was one: in how many different ways can we understand it if the same photograph can lead us to different meanings when observed from different angles? Are there actual events out there or do they result from subjective processes that turn them into stories and narratives? Had something not taken place, Thomas’ photograph could not have been taken; therefore there must be a link of necessity between Photography and Reality, yet the nature and meaning of the Image generated by their encounter need to be questioned. Inevitably we come to terms with the enigmatic nature of the Image as a threshold between these two active polarities, yet the Image is also a new self-defined object entirely determined by its language and narrative.

 

What is a photograph?

The more Thomas blows up his picture looking for the truth of the event depicted and the deeper he penetrates its secret, seeking the clarity not achieved while in the presence of the event, the more vague, grainy and elusive, less intelligible the picture becomes. When he finally sees and understands the presence of the corpse, the image has become like a pointillist painting: paradoxically now that the picture finally reveals the Truth of the event, the photographer is left to be the only person capable to read it. While his friend Bill needs to step away from his abstract painting to begin to see what he actually painted, the photographer has to get closer and closer to magnify the bits of information embedded in his picture, as if both Bill and Thomas were more in control of their imagination and desire than of external reality. Diane Arbus once stated that “a photograph is a secret about a secret: the more it tells you, the less you know”[4]. The power of a photograph often resides in what is not explicitly depicted, in the unclear areas, the accidents, outside the borders and within its structure, in the silence embedded in the secret of its language, in its interpretive depth.

 

Can Abstract Photography lead us to objective Reality?

The photographer blows up the image to see as deeply inside as he can, but trying to reveal its inner truth destroys its physical structure. Ultimately he is the only one able to decipher it: only he can see and imagine the corpse through the enigmatic structure of the silver grains.

The evidence of a murder, the most objective proof of what had happened is also the most abstract representation of the event. The photographer did not see the murder: he only photographed it. Why is the Truth more accessible through an abstract photograph rather than the man’s direct experience of Reality?

 

Can an Image reveal the Truth?

Does an Image contain its own truth or is there a superior one which we are part of?

Is the Truth in the eye of the beholder or does it exist out there, awaiting to be grasped? Does Reality contain already all its Truths and all its possible images? What vehicles do we have to access and reveal them? What Truth does a single image contain, if any, and how many others can be attributed: as many as can be thought, imagined, remembered, envisioned and wished? Can an Image reveal our Truth and ultimately tell us who we are?

 

[1] From a presentation that Michelangelo Antonioni made of Beyond the Clouds, the film that proved to be the last one of his life, 1995.
[2] Pablo Picasso, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies”, in The Arts, 1923, conversation with Marius de Zayas.
[3] Luigi Pirandello, in One, No One and One Hundred Thousand, novel, 1926.
[4] Diane Arbus, in Art Forum, A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, May 1971.