Am Kohlwitzplatz

Sunday brunch at Kohlwitzplatz, Berlin

There is no more perfect place to be on a prickly hot late Spring Sunday afternoon. The coffee is creamy and satisfying, the juice freshly pressed and tart. Agile sparrows nibble at stray crumbs. It’s so lazy here, so deliciously faul. You can feel it in the hot balmy air permeating your marrow and then sweating right out of your pores. You just want to sit and watch and not really participate in life but regard it idly. Curiously. With one lazy eye flickering open and the other turned inwards.

The children kick up the sand with their skinny bare feet, romping half-naked in the sticky heat. The adults keep a cursory glance. Not really interested. They hang together, laze together, legs and arms entwined like vines. They are everywhere, but nowhere, those children. They dot in and out of trees, behind cars, bushes. They sit, slovenly and nonchalant eating eggs, tomato soup.

I am softening contentedly in this heat. Like a wax crayon left out in the sun I am all pulpy and pliable. I want to close my eyes – just for a second – and find myself wandering around exploring my dreams. Everyone here seems so comfortable, so self-assured.

My eye, well-trained, hazily snaps a thousand photographs, storing them in my mind.

The jolly man with the accordion bumbles by hopefully every half hour or so. He is too effusive for this heat, too much.

Tourists clutch their time out guides and look around nervously, expectantly, excited. They offer a welcome relief from this mood of intense laziness.

The waitresses are utterly charming. Keen and attentive they flit about like delightful little moths all sunny and smiling and carefree.

***

I wrote this (in draft form) last May on a trip to Berlin with some girlfriends. We had a great time, but by Sunday were ready to part company. We were hungover and exhausted after a night of partying Berlin style. I think we crawled into our beds around 6am. It was late morning when I woke and whilst the other two slept I packed my bag and went off with my camera to enjoy some time alone before I had to catch my flight home.

I had been taking lots of pictures all weekend, and I think it made my friends a bit cross because I wasn’t really engaging all the time. But I couldn’t help myself Berlin is such a vibrant, photogenic city. I was glad to have some precious moments to myself to enjoy a wander around the area of our apartment and a leisurely brunch of scrambled eggs with spinach, fresh orange juice and coffee.

I wrote this whilst sitting in the cafe. I don’t remember the name of it now, but it’s quite a large, busy and famous cafe right on the square opposite the park (hence all the tourists – I think it must feature in the Time Out guide). It’s situated in the Prenzlauer Berg district which is quite a peaceful, middle- class residential area. Lots of young families seem to live around there and it’s full of cute little boutique style shops, restuarants and cafes. Our apartment was just down the road and the owner recommended the cafe to us. Anyway, they do a great brunch – well worth checking out. Unfortunately I didn’t get many fitting pictures of the moment I describe. I think my camera battery had run out by this point, and anyhow I was busy writing and thinking and looking. I remember feeling tired but happy and very peaceful, very present in the moment.

NB – ‘faul’ means lazy in German

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

A private moment

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Chairs

So, today I am sharing my love for more random things. This time it is chairs. I am not sure why they are so appealing (I know it’s a bit strange). There is something about empty chairs, though, which draws me to them – compels me to photograph them. They have to be slightly-out-of-place-looking. Sort of lost; expectant; hopeful. Waiting to be useful, perhaps? Waiting for someone to take their willing seat, to mould themselves into their close contours. A chair is full of promise. (A bench is not the same thing at all, by the way. People perch on benches. They sit on chairs, get comfy, relax, wriggle a bit until they find a good position. Like a cat which pads around on a welcoming lap until it finds that perfect arrangement of cat-on-lap). A chair is a good thing. And they seem to often come in pairs. This is one of my favourite chair pictures. I hope you like it.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012


Punctum

I am re-reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. What has struck me with much greater emphasis this time around is Barthes’ highly emotional response to the subject matter of photography. He realises early on that he will not be able to write on the subject in his usual objective, scholarly style, being unable to separate himself from his own personal, instinctive and of course highly subjective response. He wants, instead, to understand photography in a “primitive” way “without culture”(p.7)  and his language, accordingly, is visceral; at times violent in nature. He describes how individual photographs have the power to induce a range of intense emotions in him ranging from fear and grief to excitement and love (and then at times just plain indifference). The metaphor that strikes me with its force and agression is that of photography as a “wound”:

I wanted to explore [photography] not as a question (a theme), but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (p.21)

A wound is something painful and unpleasant, but more than that a wound is flesh which has been penetrated. His investigations are not just intrusive, they are brutal, primal, and inextricably linked with being.

So this project – to understand photography – is not just a scientific or scholarly one, it is an essential one; it is phenomenological, and it is ontological. These themes which underpin Camera Lucida are entirely human: life, death, pain, ecstasy. Indeed, Barthes writes of the experience of being photographed (he likens it to being “in parenthesis”) as akin to dying (p.14). This separation of himself from reality, this looking upon himself, or ‘othering’ is truly a morbid experience for him, turning him into a kind of sceptre, and throughout there is a sense of alternating between extremes of emotion on the subject of photography. He is attracted to it (he descrbes in erotic detail the excitement the mechanical ‘click’ of the shutter induces in him). But there is fear there, too. Not in the mechanics of the camera, which is satisfying and comforting, but in the eye of the photographer. The eye penetrates him, and it kills him. Just a little bit.

Barthes doesn’t know how to categorize photography, but he recognises it is somehow essential. In the end he is unable to separate his own self; his own emotions and desires, and his own essential being from photography.

So photography is a confusion of the subject-object relationship, in that we cannot separate it from ourselves. A photograph  “carries its referent with itself” (p.5) which induces this kind of unnerving or perhaps unheimlich experience Barthes has when he looks at some pictures. This carries us neatly back to themes of haunting and death. I have often thought of photographs as kind of shadows or ghosts; little replicas (“little simulacrum” (p.9) Barthes calls them) of moments in time; moments otherwise long forgotten, dead. A photograph occupies its own time-space, or creates it rather, and I think this is quite unnerving.

Anyhow, I digress (albeit it willingly) and need to pull myself back to Barthes and his concepts of studium and punctum, otherwise this blog entry will not make a whole lot of sense…. here we are back to the idea of photograph as wound. Whilst studium is described as a kind of general interest in the idea of a photograph (the way we might be interested in something when we ‘study’ it, so in quite a detached way); the punctum is the bit that disturbs all that and leaps out at you, excites you; the pin prick of surprise, the question mark – the bit that gets you in the gut. It is, in essence, the emotional response – the element of surprise. Of course he describes it so much more eloquently, so I shall refer you back to his wonderful words:

…the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element …. I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (p. 27)

This photograph of a dress hanging outside a second-hand shop is my attempt to illustrate punctum. The street scene in itself is fairly ordinary; a quiet residential suburb of Berlin – a few cars, grey buildings, a beautiful sunny day the trees cast dappled shadows on the cobbled pavement below. The shop owner has decided to display her wares on the street. She has saved one special dress for prime position; hanging from the awning it catches the eye immediately (studium?). It is the dress of every little girl’s fairy-tales: romantic, swishy, twirly, frothy and flouncey. It makes you feel good just looking at this dress. And the way it dances there provocatively in the gentle breeze is so pleasing to the eye. The happy accident, or the punctum, for me is the perfect shadow that the full bloom of the dress casts below in the direct sunlight, drawing the eye to the fore of the picture and then back up to the dress again. Not so much an intentional detail, as I recall, it provides that extra little ‘oh’ of joy; that “sting” of surprise. The other thing I like about this capture is the way the dress juxtaposes with the banality of the street scene almost as if it has been superimposed upon it. The way it’s floaty ephemeral-ness sort of jarrs against the ordinariness of the row of parked cars. Maybe that is the punctum? Now that I close my eyes and look at it again, maybe that is the thing that works on me.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that I have succeeded in demonstrating Barthes’ theory with this image. Of course there are many photographs in the book which he uses to illustrate it much better. But I am working towards it… let’s call it an attempt. Let me know what you think…

Text: Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, published by Vintage, 2000 and originally published in 1980

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Capturing the spaces in-between

A  photograph: a note, a thought, a flicker, a shadow, a shade, a glimpse, a glance, a moment, a blur, a trace, a shot, a capture, a fragment, an instant, an etching, a sketch, an inscription, a quotation, a resurrection, a memory…

 … What is it that lies in the space in-between?

A daydream? A keepsake?

A secret time-space, revealed to the eye, captured and stored inside.

The concept in phenomenological thought of bracketing as a reductive process, allowing us to examine things up close was introduced by Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. Seeing things in parenthesis is of course what we do when we take a photograph: our eye selects a scene, something interesting; we take the picture; the picture becomes an object in itself; we put it in an album, on the wall, on flickr, or facebook to share with friends and family. It has been divorced from its original context. It has been re-claimed and re-contextualised. 

I love this picture, which I took in Berlin, of a girl reading on a step framed by a jungle of vivid green, punctuated by billowy white roses. I feel like I am peering into someone’s secret space every time I look at it. I think it makes you wonder, too who she is, why she is there and what she is reading. Does she sit there often? Is it her space? Or is she a tourist like me, who just came across a nice place to sit, like I came across a nice shot? What is her story? What was she doing just before, and just after this picture was taken? Is she happy or sad?

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter, because it was just a fleeting moment, in-between a zillion other moments, and I have used the capture I came across and borrowed for my own purposes, so it’s part of my story now.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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