The Way of All Things

 

A master of the dark arts of collodion photography, Ben Cauchi finds himself engaged in a singularly difficult balancing act: on the one hand is his chosen medium, with its nostalgic, antiquarian allure, and on the other are the always contemporary questions he wants to ask with it—about, for example, the permeability of truth and falsehood, and the relationship of seeing to knowing. The circus metaphor is no accident, as this artist often seems to be mimicking the gestures of conjuring and performance for his camera. But these gestures are themselves a form of misdirection, an enticement but also a distraction from his greater mission. For at the heart of Cauchi’s art is a testing of our normal suspension of disbelief in front of a photograph. This is a testing, then, of faith itself, making his photography a philosophical, even a theological, exercise as much as a production of images and artefacts.

Take, for example, the photograph titled The Way of All Things (2010). Listed as wet-collodion on acrylic, a modern version of a nineteenth-century process, the image shows us the empty slots of a set of shelves of the sort commonly used for mail delivery. Weathered and dusty, and cast in deep shadow, this piece of furniture appears to have been abandoned, a kind of relic of a now-superseded mode of communication. This, at least, is one way of reading such an image, a reading supported by the similarly superseded photographic process that has been used to convey it. ‘The way of all things’ thus becomes the truism that ‘all things must pass’. However, any reading must remain speculative and elusive, for nothing definitive is provided by Cauchi beyond an intriguing title and a rather enigmatic image.

This combination recurs frequently in his work. Metaphysical Interior (2009), for example, is one of several photographs of nondescript domestic spaces, all of them apparently abandoned or uninhabited and only minimally furnished. The metaphysics promised by his title must be brought to the image by the observer, for knowledge is in fact something this photograph carefully withholds. This isn’t to say that it has no meaning or effect. The darkness of the surface of each of these photographs, along with the pooling of light that Cauchi orchestrates, can’t help but suffuse them in melancholy, giving them a palpable mood, if not a specific signification. This adds to their sense of mystery and also to their quiet menace.

A key element of this mood is the play between past and present that permeates all of Cauchi’s work. Photographs always telescope past and present, given that photography brings us a moment caught back then, when the exposure was made, and allows us to look at it now, whenever that now might be. Time is in fact photography’s most fundamental medium, and the fact of time’s passing is the inevitable message of every photograph, no matter what its other nominal subject may be. Notoriously, Roland Barthes says that, by always presenting a past moment—the ‘that has been’—to us here in the present, photographs necessarily speak of the passing of time, and therefore of our own inevitable passing. The experience of looking at photographs is always accompanied, he says, by the catastrophe of death (another constant reference in Cauchi’s titles). But this temporal oscillation between past, present and future, what Barthes called photography’s ‘anterior future’ tense, is exacerbated here by Cauchi’s decision to revive antique photographic processes, bringing them back from extinction to haunt us anew in the digital twenty first century.1

The wet-collodion process was announced in March 1851 by an English sculptor and amateur photographer named Frederick Scott Archer. In a complicated procedure, a viscous combination of cotton soaked in nitric and sulphuric acid dissolved in alcohol, ether and potassium iodide is poured onto a glass plate. This plate is then sensitised to light through the addition of a silver nitrate solution and exposed in the camera while still wet, providing a detailed, translucent negative. Later, Archer also contributed to the invention of the ambrotype, in which an underexposed collodion negative is backed with black paint, thus making it appear positive to the eye of the observer. A variant, confusingly called the tintype, in which the collodion image is exposed on a blackened sheet of iron, was introduced by an American, Hamilton Smith, in February 1856. Cauchi uses versions of all these processes, though sometimes substitutes acrylic or aluminium as his substrate.

But Cauchi’s act of resurrection is not confined to his photographic process. Many of his images re-stage familiar scenes from the history of nineteenth century photography, further confusing past and present. Mixing Solutions, from 2003, is both a reminder of the chemical process described above and a replay of a daguerreotype made by Robert Cornelius in Philadelphia in 1843, a self-portrait of the photographer as alchemist (an inference repeated in Cauchi’s Potions, from 2007).2The Photographer’s Hand (A Tribute), made in 2006, similarly recalls at least two famous predecessors. In August 1845, the Boston studio of Southworth and Hawes fulfilled a commission by daguerreotyping the open hand of Captain Jonathan Walker which had been branded with the letters ‘S. S.’, for ‘slave stealer’, after Walker’s unsuccessful attempt to free seven slaves.3 In 1861, the French photographer Nadar used electricity to light his exposure of the scarred hand of an unnamed banker. This photograph was described as a ‘chirographical study’, as if this single body part could be taken as a key to the character not just of an individual but of an entire profession.4 Cauchi seems to be proposing something similar in this study of his own hand, inviting us to undertake some impromptu palmistry to divine his inner motivations.

The Photographer’s Shirt, another ambrotype from 2003, mimics the appearance of an 1867 photograph by François Aubert titled Emperor Maximilian’s Shirt after His Execution. Aubert’s picture documents the surviving evidence of this momentous political event in Mexican history. The martyred emperor’s shirt is hung up so that we can see the bullet holes and bloodstains that despoil its surface, as if to make of it a relic for the modern age.5 Cauchi’s shirt is pristine in comparison, although a soiled collar bespeaks of otherwise unseen labour. Nevertheless, his actual execution seems to have been stayed, at least for now. Suspended cloths and shrouds are frequent motifs in Cauchi’s work, sometimes implying an absent or departed body—sometimes literally called Ghost—but all acting like a magician’s prop to hide something that is apparently about to be revealed (but never is). One, Stained Cloth (2007), again recalls Aubert’s hanging shirt, but in this case the stains have been left there by the noxious chemicals employed in Cauchi’s photography, a reminder that this medium comes with its own inherent dangers.

Self-Portrait with Hovering Cloth, an ambrotype from 2005, shifts from the realm of magic to that of the paranormal, showing Cauchi sitting at a draped table while witnessing, perhaps even while telekinetically inducing, the levitation of a small black cloth. We tend to believe what we see in a photograph, but that naivety is called into question here, as it is in other, related works. In Pseudo-Levitation (2003), for example, we see the artist’s outstretched hand with a small Bible suspended beneath, a prodigious feat except that we can clearly see the wires that make this suspension possible. Faith is once again conjured, but in a disturbing context wherein trickery is also revealed (or perhaps a confidence trick is unveiled). One is reminded in these and other Cauchi scenarios of the case of William Mumler, the Boston photographer charged with fraud in 1869 after selling customers pictures of themselves consorting with the ghostly apparitions of deceased loved ones. What’s interesting about this case is that, even after Mumler’s montage technique was revealed to his clients, they refused to disbelieve his photographs or the spirit world they seemed to confirm. As one frustrated prosecutor put it, ‘Those who went to [Mumler] prepared to believe, of course did believe… It proves the existence of a belief in the prisoner’s statements, not the truth of those statements.’6

Our belief in photographs is perhaps most powerfully manifested in portraits, where we take for granted that we are seeing a person as they really are (or, at least, as they really were). The photograph appears to be pointing to, as much as recording, its portrait subject, a certification of the truth of their appearance beyond the capacity of a painting or written description to provide. But this is all an illusion, of course. From the very beginnings of photography, it has been understood by its practitioners that a photograph represents a truth-to-presence (it certifies that a person was once there before the camera, in some past moment in time and space) but not necessarily a truth-to-appearance. Cauchi’s photography consistently plays in this gap between presence and appearance, belief and truth. This is particularly evident in those photographs where he appears as a version of himself. Self-Portrait as Prophet (2005), for example, sees the artist with eyes averted and one hand raised, as if to grant benediction or, equally likely, to perform an act of legerdemain (sleight of hand). This outcome seems to have already occurred in Self-Portrait with Ghosted Object (2005), a puff of smoke having obscured Cauchi’s face, a puff apparently miraculously called forth from his cupped hand below.

Always dressed in the same suit jacket and serious expression, Cauchi is in fact a constant motif in his own photographs, and many of them involve him putting on an act. In this, he again recalls the history of his chosen medium. Much cheaper than the daguerreotype process it displaced, collodion photography at last made it possible for ordinary customers to act out in front of the camera, and it is not unusual to find examples where people have turned their backs or otherwise parodied the established conventions of portraiture. Humour is never far from Cauchi’s performances either, but it is a knowing, black sort of humour in which irony is turned into a critical tool—you’re never quite sure if the joke is on him, or on us, or perhaps on life itself. In White Lie (2003), for example, the artist stands with his back to us, denying us the benefits of his face but revealing a hidden hand clutching some smoking incense sticks. Could this be Cauchi’s comment on photography in general?

But beyond all the smoke and mirrors (another frequent prop in these photographs), the most compelling of these self-portraits may well be the simplest, a tintype from 2006 titled The Last Day. Cauchi here looms ominously out of the darkness, as if hovering uncertainly between past and present, this time offering himself for our scrutiny with an intensity that borders on the confrontational. This look in part stems from the relatively lengthy exposure time involved, perhaps as long as 60 seconds, requiring a kind of clenching of the sitter’s eyes. Part of it is the texture of Cauchi’s skin, made swarthy here and turned into a rugged planetary surface by the tintype’s peculiar response to colour and light. And part of it is the other-worldly softness with which he is depicted, diffusing both his features and the sense of thereness we usually associate with a photograph. In short, the technical specificities of his medium are embodied in its portrayal of him—he has become not himself but someone subjected to photography.

Walter Benjamin evokes this embodiment rather well in his 1931 essay ‘Little History of Photography’:

The first reproduced human beings entered the viewing space of photography with integrity—or rather, without inscription… The human countenance had a silence about it in which the gaze rested. In short, all the potentialities of this art had not yet been established… The procedure itself caused the subjects to live their way into, rather than out of, the moment; during the long duration of the exposure, they grew into the picture.7

Could this ‘growing into’ be the ultimate subject of Cauchi’s art? In constantly pushing at the boundaries of photography’s plausibility, its means of producing meaning, he also addresses our own susceptibility to this medium’s undoubted seductions. He addresses, in other words, our inclination to give ourselves up to photography, to become subject to it, to be produced by it.

As we’ve seen, a photograph is an indexical trace of the presence of its referent, a trace that both confirms the reality of existence and remembers it, potentially surviving as a fragile talisman of that existence even after the person or thing depicted has passed on. We treasure photography to allay our fears about forgetting and being forgotten. In other words, we submit ourselves to photography to deny the possibility of death, to stop time in its tracks and us with it. But this promise of immortality comes at a price—the suspension of our critical faculties, the surrender of those faculties to faith. We are asked to adopt a belief in the capacities of photography that chooses to overlook its various artifices in the interests of securing a life everlasting. Cauchi introduces a note of caution into this familiar fairy tale. His photographs, always cast as still lifes (as natures mortes), are full of foreboding, a litany of false hopes, betrayals and failed experiments, or at least of wry exposures of photography’s many frailties. Photographs, he seems to suggest, are The Lies We Tell Ourselves (2004). But is he here to snap us out of the spell? Or is he merely hypnotising us anew? In the end, only we can tell, because he certainly won’t.

 

Geoffrey Batchen, 2012

 

1These ideas are canvassed in more detail in Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
2See, for example, the daguerreotype by Cornelius and an engraving made after it in M. Susan Barger and William B. White, The Daguerreotype: Nineteenth-Century Technology and Modern Science (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 97.
3See the entry for this daguerreotype in Grant Romer and Brian Wallis eds., Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes (New York: International Center of Photography, 2005), 307.
4See the entry for Nadar, Banker’s hand, 1861, in Maria Morris Hambourg et. al, Nadar (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 247.
5See the account of this execution and Aubert’s photograph in Michel Frizot ed., A New History of Photography (Cologne: Könemann, 1998), 142-143.
6For the full story, see Louis Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
7Walter Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931), translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, in Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin eds., The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2008), 279, 280.