The Included Third
‘It is a shadow on the painting that makes it shine.’
(Nicolas Boileau, Satire IX)
The art of assembly, montage, juxtaposition assuredly creates connections between disparate images. The oblique gaze we cast upon them is the true constituent of the grouping that gives them significance, without which those images would remain dispersed, scattered, unknown, uncomprehended. The gaze patiently identifies similarities, resemblances, affinities – but in certain cases the art of collecting, through contiguity and concordance, increases the mystery of the meaning of the whole. While two or three similar images may amuse through a supposed chance or simple coincidence in their subject or approach, an entire group of images of extremely diverse provenance in space and time that shows, so to speak, too many similarities is most intriguing, almost magical, supernatural, suggesting a hidden design.
Series have in common – precisely because they are series, which repeat, re-express, show and represent scenes in common – that they mean something entirely different once they pass a certain quantitative threshold. The more images of the same subject reoccur and accumulate, the more their emotional, affective, and intellectual qualities change, becoming more weird, disturbing, uneasy, troubling, approaching the unhealthy or even the pathological. This could not be said of collections of stamps, sardine tins, cars, or model aeroplanes. The discomfort arises from the constituent materiality of photography itself, that is (again, always, regardless of accompanying theory) that it records events that really occurred. The spectator’s unease is further accentuated when these photographs involve invented scenographies, poses, and attitudes, thus, for the most part, fictions – but fictions that the juxtaposition of dozens of images transforms into an excess of reality which thus becomes difficult for us to look at superficially.
The Predator series is arresting for this reason: at first glance, there is nothing more banal than the shadow on the ground of a man wearing a hat, given the eras in which the photographs were taken. As a similar shadow reappears in multiple photographs, this familiar apparition becomes, in fact, a familiar: strange, bizarre, disturbing, what is known in German as ‘disturbing strangeness’ (Unheimlich), a non-familiar that nonetheless presents a familiar face, homely yet eldritch, an ‘other’ that is still, somehow, known. From the selection and arrangement of images may arise the beginning of a story, according to the inclinations, familiarities, and projections of the receptors creating the optico-narrative montage. For instance, the Predator series immediately suggests images from film noir; the personage of whom one sees only the shadow forming a curious hybrid of M and the preacher from The Night of the Hunter.
The medium used inevitably conditions the relationship we maintain with reality; here, technically speaking, imagination’s role is radically reduced. It is entirely different in pictorial mythology, which abounds with images in which shadow fills various functions, but oscillates almost always between the impalpable indication of an absence and the proof of physical existence, since there must be a body to project a shadow. Whether the shadow is considered among the origins of painting (with the myth of Narcissus), legends (spectres, phantoms), religious stories (Peter’s shadow healing the sick), philosophical theories (Plato’s cave), fantastic tales (The Strange History of Peter Schlemihl or The Man Who Sold His Shadow by Adelbert von Chamisso), the shadow remains a visible reality, whether it be the shadow of a thing real or unreal. The shadow may be seen, it may even have a colour, as many painters have observed. Contrary to more or less mythological tales, photography attests, by its physico-mechanical nature, to the physical reality of the shadow as resulting from a necessarily present and genuinely revealed body. Barring darkroom trickery, fixing the movement of photons on film must confirm the nature of this medium which is the ‘art of fixing shadows’, in Fox Talbot’s phrase.
Once we accept the clumsiness of the man with the camera (and is it always a man, despite the hat?), the series cannot escape the ‘shadow of a doubt’ and indeed reinforces it: the same person could have made all these photographs over forty years; the title ineluctably orients how we read the images. This ‘predator’ might be a sexual predator, a blackmailer, a rapist, paedophile, thief, murderer, or even that ideal family man who, one fine day, methodically slaughters his entire family. Far from reassuring us, the compulsive repetition of the shadow is the proof at once of presence and complete anonymity. The more explicit the clue becomes through the shadow’s continual return, the more elusive is the being who casts the shadow in the image. We have here, literally, the projection of the ‘psychic shadow’ of the spectator on the shadows he successively sees. There returns the uneasiness previously attributed to the images alone, since the possible meanings of the shadow result essentially from the metaphorical and physical projection of our feelings. There is a well-known theory of the interpretation of shadows in the visual arts, genuinely shown yet representing something else entirely, related to the doubling of the personality, the ‘shadow half’ of the creator, but also of the viewer. Besides the famous example, among many others, of R.L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we cannot help thinking that the tenebroso style of Caravaggio might also contain the shadow half of this marvellous painter who was pursued throughout Italy for murder. Amateur psychobiographies of artists do not take us very far and, above all, do not capture the aesthetic and plastic elements of their work. We must understand these metaphoric and physical shadow elements as clues, traces, residues, imprints left behind by the artist’s gesture, in this case by the act of photographing.
One flawed shot may be overlooked. The same errors repeated are stranger, even if one imagines that a different photographer is involved each time, for nothing indicates that the shadow was not deliberately included. Sometimes one has the impression that the contrary may be true. When the photograph was taken, it would have been impossible not to see the shadow cast beside the subject, or at his feet, or even on the greater part of his body, sometimes mirroring him when we see a man head-on also wearing a hat, or the shadow from the back cast on another hatted man, also with his back turned. No doubt the serial effect creates a coherence where technical ignorance produced merely accidents, slips, failures. Caught up in this ‘reality’ effect caused by lack of technical know-how, we are somehow engaged in that process of (pseudo) elaboration laid bare by psychoanalysis and condensed in the stubborn formulation; ‘I know, but even so –’. For all our conviction that the images’ apparent meaning is due only to their having previously been chosen and arranged – that they have no inherent significance in themselves – it’s no use. This banal factuality must hide – could hide – another meaning to be teased out. Its significance eludes us, for we do not have all the elements (who, where, how, on what dates?). It is nevertheless clear (‘I know’) that an even greater number of this kind of image would only confirm the suspicion (‘but even so’) even as it amplified their strangeness.
In the various pictorial traditions and even in shadow theatres it is extraordinarily rare to see the shadow of the artist appear in his works. He or she who organises, stages, or depicts is not present in shadow form, so that the point he/she occupies and through which certain shadows are shown us is not represented, as though that gaze were bodiless, without volume or mass. A shadowless vision which nonetheless represents shadows, an entity which might contain shadows but does not itself appear to have contours. Or perhaps, as recommended in treatises, care was taken not to expose one’s own body to the light in order to avoid any shadow upon the work. And even when perspective and lighting made its absence impossible, the shadow of the reproducer of shadows in the representation never appeared. The paintings in which this phenomenon becomes perfectly visible were for the most part produced after the invention of photography.
The Predator series is a tributary of visual codes and socially constructed representations, but also the direct result of the whole process of taking a photograph. Looking closely, some-thing is off, something resists, especially in the photographs where the shadow occupies a large proportion of the picture. Thanks to the shadow, we can see perfectly the posture of the body taking the picture, but never its elbows and raised arms and thus the camera itself. The machine which captured the shadow is hidden, muffled, contained by the very shadow that its invisible presence reveals. It was precisely because it was physically enveloped by the shadow we see that the camera was able to capture it so clearly. We feel the gaze of the photographer present, in shadow form, in the image, we are as though in his place and duplicating his gaze, but our unease comes from the third gaze included in the shadow itself – the camera. The result of the process and physical arrangement of taking a photograph seems inevitable. But who or what sees what we see as an end result if it is not the apparatus enshrouded by the very shadow it has literally produced? We are thus given access to a sort of view from nowhere, as though the shadow were engendered naturally without the assistance of instrument or technique. This third gaze is found there, somewhere, in the shadow of its shadow.
Jacinto Lageira is a professor of aesthetics and philosophy of art at the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne), as well as an art critic.
His published works include: L’Image du monde dans le corps du texte (I, II), La Lettre volée, 2003 ; L’Esthétique traversée – Psychanalyse, sémiotique et phénoménologie à l’œuvre, La Lettre volée, 2007 ; La Déréalisation du monde. Fiction et réalité en conflit, J. Chambon, 2010 ; Cristallisations (monographie Jean-Marc Bustamante), Actes Sud, 2012 ; Regard oblique. Essais sur la perception, La Lettre volée, 2013.