Unreal Nature

August 20, 2013

Performing For the Camera

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:44 am

…  knowing that the result of his own work is to be photographed, he has come to perform for my camera.

This is from ‘Erotic Predicaments for Camera’ (1982); found in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton edited by Bruce Jenkins (2009):

It is widely alleged that a picture is worth some reasonably large but finite number of words. It has been widely believed that a photograph is as plausible as — or approximates to the plausibility of — that swarm of events that we are accustomed to call the real world. … I have chosen, therefore, to attempt to believe what is believed, to attempt to generate those words that the photograph is supposed to be worth …

Frampton does four imaginary impersonations of the making/makers of real historic photographs; I give you one of them:

[ … ]

… The year is 1885, on an afternoon in early November. I am in London in Whitechapel, a teeming slum just north of the city, where the circumstances of life are so vile that even the fearless Jack London, come to study, left, sickened, after a few months. I am in room 13, off a foul alleyway in Miller’s Court. I am told that the whole space is no more than twelve feet square and contains only two chairs, a table, and a bed, but I can see only the last named item and a corner of the table beside it, and behind it, very near, the lower part of a closed door. The rent, which is four shillings a week, is three months in arrears.

The light is dim and will need to be augmented with magnesium. Today, mercifully, the world is colorless, odorless, tasteless as distilled water. On the bed, still wearing portions of a linen undergarment, lies what remains of a woman. The throat has been cut straight across with a knife, nearly severing the head from the body. The left arm, like the head, is attached to the body by skin only. The nose has been cut off, the forehead flayed, and the thighs stripped of flesh. The abdomen has been slashed with a knife both across and downward, and the viscera wrenched away. Both of the breasts have been cut from the body. The flesh from the thighs, together with the kidneys, nose, and breasts, has been placed on the table, and the liver placed between the feet. An amputated hand has been pushed into the stomach. The eyes are intact. Blood, from the severing of the carotid artery, is everywhere, but the bedclothes, which have been rolled aside, are surprisingly unstained.

Because it is my duty to do so, as it is my duty to be here in this place at all, I make a single photograph of this shambles. The scene vanishes.

This is my fifth such encounter in recent months, and it is destined to be my last. After the first, it was given out to the papers that, through the photograph’s power of minutely detailed observation, Scotland Yard expected to determine the murderer’s identity with all speed.

… my work has not, in fact, illuminated our pursuit of the murderer, of whom it is known only that he is right-handed … and that from medical evidence alone. But it has not been, I fear, without its miserable effect, because, knowing that the result of his own work is to be photographed, he has come to perform for my camera. In each successive instance he has become more thorough, painstaking, ingenious in his ghastly craft. In the first case, he probably accomplished his business in a minute or two, but the coroner has estimated that he spent three hours arranging this final and most spectacular masterpiece, like an artist who would rearrange anatomy to his whim, in whom all affection for that grand edifice, the human body, has soured and rotted.

… Not long ago, the man we seek sent a letter to the Chief Inspector, dated, with perfect correctness, “from Hell.” Our incomprehension of these pictures, which we so desperately need to comprehend, has made for us a Hell of our own. At least, out of our need to know the murderer’s name, we have conferred one upon him: he is called Jack the Ripper. My own name is unknown, even to myself; my photographs will be hidden away for three generations, and when they come to light again the meaning that we seek in them will be no plainer than it is at this moment. Perhaps they mean something else entirely.

If you want to see the photograph in question (I don’t recommend it), here it is. The victim is Mary Jane Kelly.

My most recent previous post from Frampton’s book is here.



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