Did you come by photograph or by train?

I was looking through my google docs and I found one that was empty except for these lines:

  • Did you come by photograph or by train?
  • I don’t know
  • Does anyone?

What do they mean? I think I got that first line from John Berger, I’d spent some time watching the video essays he made for Channel 4 in the eighties, and I think that line falls out of his mouth in a flurry of others. ‘Did you come by photograph or by train?‘ as though, in looking at a photograph, one is offered the opportunity of travel. The photograph travels to you, and you travel in the direction of the photograph.

I’ve written about this before, in an essay about finding an old boyfriends hands inbetween the pages of a book, or in finding old versions of myself in my mum’s photo albums. Travel is facillitated by the image.

Berger continues: All photographs are a form of transportation and an expression of absence. So, are all photographs an expression of a form of grief-space, then? Grief-space has altered a little since I wrote that blogpost, but the basic principles are the same: Grief-space is a hole through which lost things arrive. Crucially, grief-space is what’s inside the hole, and the mode by which one might travel between the layers of time and space to reach a different layer to the one you’re on now. A photograph provides a window from one space-time to another in the same way that an instance of grief-space provides a window from the place where the lost thing isn’t to the place where it is. 

Travel by photograph, then, as an instance of grief-space travel (whilst perhaps unconnected to grief in most instances) works more like a train than a flight, maybe. The travel by photograph isn’t instantaneous, but rather cycles back through the layers to reach the point of the photograph being taken. In a way, this swift concertinaing of time is reminiscent of the flatting of time I experience when looking at a painting. Seeing the immediacy of gesture recorded in the paint shortens the gap between me in the now, and the painter in the instance of painting. In painting, these gestures close ‘the distance in time between the painting of the picture, and the act of looking at it.’ It makes them contemporary in a way that a photograph isn’t.

The painting is always-already happening. Your eye traces the fluctuations of paint. In the photograph, the moment is always-already gone. I took this photograph of you then, but you are not that person anymore, you are that person + 2 seconds of experience.

I suppose that must be something to do with duration. But, if Bergson says that duration happens outside of space; is that where the photograph happens? Is that where the communication between artist and audience happens in the gestural memory of painter in paint? Does even saying ‘where’ discount the fact that it has nothing to do with space at all? ‘We involuntarily fix at a point in space each of the moments which we count’ – can we help but to think about time in terms of space? Can we help but to think about the journey we take in looking at a photograph spatially? What about the journey the photograph takes to reach us?

In January I went to a flea market in Montreuil. It was freezing, and the tabletops were covered in all manner of junk. We’d wandered round it picking stuff up and putting stuff down, picking up old postcards and reading what they said: tu me manque – I miss you – on a passé une bonne semaine – we’ve had a good week – J’aimerais que tu sois là – I wish you were here… Sitting in a pile of junk, blue and red and plastic, was a disposable camera. I picked it up, it only had 3 photos left on it, I asked the woman how much it was (she said 5€, the absolute cheek of it) we bartered, I gave her 50¢ and took the camera home in my pocket.

Last weekend my friend and I went to Snappy Snaps and got the photos developed, and they are the weirdest collection of photos I’ve ever received, when the man handed them to me he said “It’s an old one isn’t it?”

It looks like christmas. It looks like 1989. It looks like a time before I existed, and yet it’s existing right now, in my front room. On the S1 bus, my friend and I tried to guess when they’re from. Today in the living room, my mum and I tried to work out why they were taken. Both of them had theories about the invisible photographer, about who the elbow on the table belongs to, and who the woman in the photograph is.

Why did they take such meticulous photos of their appartment and never get the roll developed? Were they doing it to sell those things (the fride, the oven, the dresser), or catalogue them? Did someone die, and were they shutting up the house before selling up? Is it a family; a mum, a dad, a child? Was the child gifted the camera on christmas morning and burning through the film at a rate of knotts because they can. The camera stuffed in a box under the bed, and left there, until it was thrown out one day and picked up by the woman at the flea market, who brought it to her stall to sell it to me for 50p.



This one is most interesting. The weird doubling of seeing both sides of the woman in the photograph, her gaze inquisitive, the weird light in the mirror like it’s another world in there. The expression on her face, like she’s asking me a question, like my little peering 21st century face has just appeared at the lens of the camera, and she says to me:

Did you come here by photograph, or by train?

What’s the truth of the moment, here? What’s going on? I feel like I’m trying to find clues as to who the photographer is; a flash of them in the mirror, a toe in the corner of a frame. What does she have in her hand? Is it a cigarette case? An iPhone?  Is it 1989, is it 2009? Is it now? Is it then? Is it somewhen other.

Theres a spectral quality to photos like this, there’s a sense that they came into being in the present moment, after being interred in the camera. The photos begin by coming back into the present, exhumed from the film. W.G Sebald says some lovely things about photographs; his work itself being centred around notions of memory and forgetting, hereness and thereness, existence and absense. He said that a photograph is a ‘nomadic thing’, ‘intended to get lost’ only to be plucked out of the stream of history at the end of it; resurfacing like a message in a bottle.

Much of Sebald’s writings are about journeys, about crossing swathes of landscape to find yourself somewhere else. Getting lost, and then being found. The film photograph is like this; the moment lost, captured in the film until the act of development. The delay between the moment captured, and the realisation of the moment-as-photograph allows for a kind of thread of memory to connect the three instances together in the way that the paint captures the gestures of the artist. Taking the photograph, developing the photograph, looking at the photograph; all existing at once, collapsing the gaps in time.

That’s what these photographs have done, in a way. Collapsed the gaps in time between looking at them on a country bus service running through green fields and high skies, the bus seat is in their apartment, the sky infiltrating the unworld of the captured mirrors, my friend, my mother, and I, seated at the table for a christmas dinner in 1989 (or somewhere thereabouts). space and time cease to be distinctive axes on a graph in which we situate ourselves, because in the photos we are both anywhen and anywhere, and so are the things depicted in them.

When something takes place it means it happened. But that terminology of taking place, is different to taking time. Of course it does take time, but it’s almost as though the found photograph is evidence of time being a weird interlocking of places; or a weird interlocking of things taking place. A photo is taken, and the moment is lost. In a weird way, I wonder if finding these photos is evidence of the continuous becoming-past of the present; of the balancing act we play on the knife edge of ‘the now’.

These photos appear to have no narrative. Yet, the narrator, or rather the photographer, has built one out of snapshots of a single dinner, preceded by the space in which the dinner is happening. These are our lamps, this is our table setting, these are our christmas decorations. This moment has lost in the memory of the photos’ subjects. I wonder if the woman, the elbow, and the photographer remember this instance in their apartment at christmas? I wonder if they’re still around to remember. If they don’t, do I remember it for them, because I’ve seen the moments captured, too? Do the photos have narrative in and of themselves, or am I building the narrative out of some sense of needing to find chronological order in something that never had it?

In Paris I also found a set of passport photos on the ground on my street. I kept them in my wallet for a while, and then put them on my wall, just two snaps of a woman smiling slightly, again looking very 80s (but perhaps thats just parisian fashion?). Again in Montreuil I found a picture of a boy holding a toy lion, the back edge of a polaroid after the front bit of development has been ripped off. All of these photos are lost/found things, resurfacing like driftwood, like seaglass, precious little windows into lost worlds.

Moments lost, and then found again.

Did you come by photograph

                                                           or by train?


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