Nerve impulses running down the spinal cord, triggering muscle cells – mitochondria pumping protons and electrons to provide the energy to move a muscle. The muscle contracts and the fingertip touches the release button, triggering a cascade of electronic signals, calculations, movements of electromechanical parts, chemical reactions inside a battery, a shutter opening, photons flashing inside and triggering chemical changes in the particles of the film. A myriad of smallest and shortest events and processes combine to produce that short “click” that indicates that a picture has been taken. The photographer looks away and her mind and eye turn on something else.
A short moment in her life. The moment she pressed the trigger of her camera. Clouds, trees or bushes, houses, the horizon, the sun. Motion blur. Lens Flair.
The photograph was shot while in motion, maybe from a train or a car. The hexagonal spots of lens flair are reflexes of the sun in the camera’s lenses, shaped by the partially closed aperture. There are smaller, more fuzzy hexagonal flare spots, maybe the result of droplets or dirt on the window or on the lens.
The hexagons, those artifacts of the aperture and of the optics of the lenses, have been colored in red and yellow during the photographs most recent stop. An artificial element has been added, but the paint has formed some random structures, visible through a magnifying glass, formed by surface tension and capillary action. Are these natural or artificial? The categories of natural and artificial are rather questionable, but these hexagons, maybe the most artificial part of the image, are showing clearly that the picture is not an objective image of the world out there but the result of a process – it is a trace of a moment, bringing together many factors, including the granularity of the film, the focus, the direction the camera was pointing, the moment it was triggered, the motion, the skill and experience of the photographer, as well as the quality of the camera’s optical system, based on the work of generations of photographers, workers, engineers, physicists and mathematicians.
But the moment that was captured in this picture has a history tracing back a far longer path in time. The sun, providing the light, coalesced out of a cloud of gas and dust billions of years ago, a cloud that originated in a supernova explosion of a previous star. The horizon is there because we are on the surface of a planet, the result of gravity acting on that primordial cloud. The clouds, the field, the trees, the houses, the street or railway, each of these are the products of a history containing plate tectonics, storms and sunshine, evolution of life, the history of humankind, technology. There is the biography of the photographer.
Transferred onto a black and white print from its original color slide, I hold the photograph in my hand now. It must have been bent somewhere on its trip, there is a slight bend just below the horizon. There are small specks of some dirt near the upper left corner of the white frame. First signs of aging, of being changed in history, a first little bit of a patina. It is not just an arbitrary copy of that original slide again, but it has started to acquire traces of its own history. Three of the hexagons have been painted. From a copy, produced in an electronic or photographic process of reproduction, it has been turned into an original.
There are probably fingerprints on the picture, invisible to the unaided eye. The paper has more properties than we know of, a microscope would reveal a tangle of fibers that once formed part of tree trunks in some forest. There might still be fragments of the DNA of those trees in it, of the DNA of some microbes or insects or that of a worker in the paper mill. There might be traces of the DNA of those who have been holding it. Maybe there are microscopic traces of dust and soot and cigarette smoke and soil and bacteria, from the streets of London or Vietnam or South Africa. But we are not going to slice it up and put it under a microscope. I am looking at it through an amplifying glass, I have scanned it and I can zoom in on screen, but as the accessible object I see, it exists on this human scale, a scale defined by our hands and eyes.
Between the scale of the very small and very short and the scale of the solar system that measures its age in terms of billions of years, there is this scale of the human being, reaching from the short moment of taking a single photograph to the biographies of several generations. So I am zooming in on that human scale now. The journey of the photograph is limited to this human world. It is traveling over the surface of earth, perhaps moving through a tunnel or several kilometers up in a plain, but limited to this thin sphere near earth’s surface. The time of the journey can be measured in days, weeks, months or years. It stays with me for a couple of weeks. In a few days or weeks, I am going to send it to somebody else.
The photograph has been put into an envelope, together with its fellow travelers added at several places. There are photographs and prints, small copies of maps, tickets for a ferry, a train, a museum, as well as some other objects. All of these have some meaning for the people who put them into this collection, or they document events that happened during the journey.
The envelope has been handed over in a post office or dumped into a post box, it has been sorted from one mail bag into another, gone from hand to hand, from conveyor to hand and back into mail bags, it has been sorted by machine and by eye, it went through the hands of many people. It has been put into air freight containers or gone by ship. It has travelled by truck or by bike. Each person in the mail system only knows the next station; nobody knows how the whole system works, with all of its details. The envelope carries some traces of the history it has gone through. Most of the detail of this history, however, is already forgotten. The mail system does not record what is happening inside it. That information is lost, dispersed in some heat radiation racing away from us into outer space. The envelope was thrown behind the horizon of that system in Canada and emerged at my doorstep several days later.
I have put the photograph into a frame, behind glass. The small painting that normally resides in this frame had to make room for it for a couple of days. A small watercolor painting, painted in 1925 by my grandfather Rolf Keller, showing the village of Ebersdorf where his mother was living. He painted it in the expressionist style of the time.
The expressionist style of the painting also does not provide an image of the painted object as it is, but a subjective view of it, as well as a view that has gone through the filters of a style that emerged out of the material and psychological destruction of World War I. The painting as well, is a trace of a moment in history.
The hook on the wall where the photograph is now hanging in my living room, as a guest in that frame, is normally occupied by a small triptych by Anita de Soto, painted on playing cards. I got it from her when she was visiting here from New Zealand some time ago. The back side reads “Hopeless cards. Made in Leipzig. Oil on paper 2010.” I know there are more of these. My sister has such a triptych as well. I don’t know if Anita turned a whole deck of cards into such paintings. They look like motion-blurred or stormy, very unlike the “clear” surrealist style of her large paintings.
So these are the paintings that now play host to the photograph on this stop, one providing a frame, the other one a hook on the wall.
The photograph is the record of a short moment in Emily’s life. Many of the contributions to this project, both on the blog and in the envelope, have some biographical aspect, providing a short view into the lives of the people taking part, providing insight into the projects they are working on, or glimpses of the lives of some other people, like that Nepalese boy with the paper plane, for example. Like individual fibers in a thread of wool, coming perhaps from different sheep but spun together into one yarn, fragments of different stories are combined here. The photograph acts as the condensation nucleus upon which these texts and photographs and paintings, these stories and thoughts, these interpretations and bits of imparted meaning, these snippets of different biographies, are accreting.
I am also going to add some snippets from a project I am currently working on, but I am neither a photographer nor a painter. I am currently working on a biographical project, transcribing letters written by my grandparents Grete and Rolf Keller. Below, I am giving some examples from those letters, translated into English. This project is both part of my current studies of history and philosophy, as well as part of a larger project of biographical work within my family.
By a range of historical accidents, a lot of biographical material, like letters, diaries, photographs and documents, has been preserved in my family. My mother, initially assisted by my late father, has transcribed countless letters and other documents, starting with material going back several generations before her own, and she is still continuing this work.
The letters I am currently working on are still uncharted territory. Each letter of my grandparrents, each sketch or drawing, each painting my grandfather left only provides a short glimpse into his life. Taken together, an overall picture is beginning to emerge from these fragments. To what extent is this overall picture a representation of the reality that existed, the reality experience by my grandparents and the people around them back in the 1950s and 1960s? To what extent is it a construction, showing shapes that are actually artifacts, just like those lens flare hexagons are artifacts of the imaging process, not real objects out there at the time when that photograph was taken? Each letter transcribed provides new information. The image is revised and shifting, and on the other hand it is shining new light on details that had been obscure on first reading. The understanding deepens by going through this hermeneutic circle. Additional information, from external sources as well as from my mother’s memory, is adding further detail. It is like zooming in and zooming out.
One pervasive topic in the letter is mail. Parcels where sent both ways and their contents listed, letters and parcels where announced, their arrival confirmed. Photographs were also sent, as exemplified by the first citation below, and sometimes hand-drawn sketches.
Another Main topic is travel. The letters set in in 1956, when my father, accompanied by a friend of the family who had visited them, left Karl-Marx-Stadt (now again called Chemnitz) and went to Hamburg in the western part of Germany, crossing the border between east and west that was still open at the time. So the fact of separation into two different cities is what triggers the letters. The very first letter, from July 16th, 1956, picks the topic of travel out as its first main theme. In thinking about his son’s trip to the city of Hamburg, where Rolf Keller had been living before, his thoughts went back to the time when he himself arrived in that city, many years earlier, thus providing a little piece of biographical information that would have been lost otherwise. We read:
“…It has become rather quiet in our place, a condition we will have to get used to bit by bit. In bed, we were always looking at the clock: now they are in Leipzig – now in Bitterfeld. Mother could not sleep at all and played solitaire in the night. Quarter to nine, now they’ll be there shortly.
This brought the time of 1919 back to my mind, when I left on one Saturday to start my job with RAG at Rathausmarkt on Monday. In those days, I lived in Hamburg 24, Schröderstr. 24, with one Mrs. Kamnitzer. The street does not exist anymore, the number 24 has remained.
I am adding a few photographs which I am sure you would like to have. …”
That the street no longer exists is a reference to World War II, when Hamburg, like many other cities, was heavily bombed. The number 24 refers to Rolf Keller’s logo, a stylized 24 that he designed when he started his own business in 1924. You can see it on the painting of Ebersdorf above. The remembered biography is a selected and reformed version of reality, and in that process, meaning can be added, as is exemplified with the number 24 here.
The content of most of the letters, however, refers to the time when they were written. The letters provide a view into life in the GDR in the 1950s and 1960s, from the unique point of view of a self-employed graphic artist. Let me give you one more example, describing my grandfather’s work at the Leipzig industrial fair of 1958, where he was preparing paintings of machines, to be used in leaflets or brochures. The letter, to his son, is dated March 10th, 1958 (“Lederbogen” was a publisher Rolf Keller was occasionally working for, Defa was a state-owned film producer, HO was a national retail chain):
“…I wanted to get brochures or technical literature for you in Leipzig, but due to lack of time, I could not get anything appropriate. Wanted to write to you from Leipzig, but! On Friday, Feb. 28th early morning I drove with the Lederbogen-people. On Friday, Saturday and early Sunday we designed the stand. On Monday [I went] to the technical fair where delivered some work to Sch. and he told me I should make suggestions for some watercolors. So from 9 in the morning to half past 5 in the evening I was sketching 8 machines, in the middle of the most active hustle and bustle of the fair. Often there was only one point of view for a machine or an assembly line and in the case of two machines, that point was in the middle of the stream of fairgoers who nearly without exceptions occluded the object of interest and opened up the view on what had to be drawn only for moments. Investing all my energy, at two o’clock I had sketched 5 machines, then hunger made itself felt. But the office where my briefcase was standing was locked because of a conference of the postal service. I had to go to an HO food booth to devour the national dish: bratwurst with bread roll. Then I was searching for a place to sit in order to rest for a quarter of an hour because the drawing within the crowd, the stupid comments when they were spotting the “painter”, the noise and the standing which I am not used to and being bumped into had made me tired. The only free arm chair I could find belonged to the institute for technology and as soon as I was stretching my tired bones in the chair, I was bombarded with new questions, technical ones this time, because sitting there with my white lab coat, people thought I was one of the specialist engineers where one could get technical information. So up again. I spotted the cinema and quickly entered. With empty gaze, I was watching a film about plastic materials. Unfortunately, the film about “buffing” was only been shown in the evening. I would have been interested in that one. With new energy I continued making sketches, so that in the evening I could present 8 sketches to Mr. Sch. of which 6 were approved to be implemented as watercolors. Then I painted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the night. Interesting; photographers, pressmen, radio reporters, Defa and TV where at work. My work went on well so that Tuesday night from 5 PM to 6 AM I finished 3 watercolors. Wednesday I achieved only 2, and Thursday I was finished already half past 12 in the night with all 6. …”
So this is the kind of material among which the photograph is spending its time here, both as a material object ant as a mental object in my mind. Snipets of biography being added to this thread.
I will soon be packing the photograph back into the envelope. I am going to add a copy of a sketch from one of the letters, a sketch showing some tropical plants, a hobby of Rolf Keller and another topic showing up in the letters a lot. Maybe I am going to use a new, larger envelope and put the old one inside. The old envelope has gathered lots of inscriptions, stickers, adhesive tape, an object that has recorded some part of the trip of the photograph, providing traces of its own “biography”; but soon it will no longer be suited for the mail system. Like a molting caterpillar, the picture is getting out of its old skin and getting a new one, but it will take the old one along, an object that is becoming part of this slowly growing collective work, or rather project, of art, history, biography, philosophy or whatever it might be and become. What it will become, I don’t know. The past is known only in fragments and the future is open.