Far too big a light

Gertrud Sandqvist, 2013


“When everything that called itself art was stricken with palsy, the photographer switched on his thousand-candle-power lamp and gradually the light-sensitive paper absorbed the darkness of a few everyday objects. He had discovered what could be done by a pure and sensitive flash of light – a light that was more important than all the constellations arranged for the eye’s pleasure.”

In his famous Little History of Photography from 1931 Walter Benjamin quotes the dadaist Tristan Tzara, writing about photography in La photographie à l'envers in 1922. Benjamin extols the beauty of the very first photographs, the daguerreotypes. He falls in love with David Octavius Hill’s photograph of a Newhaven fishwife from the mid-1840s, and quotes Stefan George: “And I ask: How did the beauty of that hair, those eyes, beguile our forebears? How did that mouth kiss, to which desire curls up senseless as smoke without fire?” Fascinatingly enough this famous photograph is one of a large suite of calotypes in which Hill and his colleague Robert Adamsson portrayed a kind of model society, in which the fishwives’ collaborative hard work and concern for each other constituted a positive example of worker solidarity. The series is also the first in which photography is used as social documentation. This should be a perfect subject for Benjamin to delve into. But he does not do so – instead, he loses himself in musings about the fishwife’s faded beauty. He also makes her anonymous – her name was Elizabeth Johnstone Hall. She was a human being, a character, just as much as the philosopher Schelling, whose portrait Benjamin also takes up for discussion.

Benjamin is a spectator, a melancholy one. Like the surrealists, he was fascinated by photography, both in its magical aspect of preserving the traces of the light of a moment, and its inherent sadness: this brief instant, or its shadow, has been arbitrarily wrenched out of one time and transported to another one. It was this that prompted Marcel Proust in the last part of In Search of Lost Time to compare his own work to that of a photographer developing pictures in the darkroom – he, too, re-invoked and preserved time.

Charif Benhelima discovered the Polaroid, a technology that was primarily associated with amateur snapshots, in 1998. At that time, he was living in Harlem, New York, and Polaroids meant that he could immediately show the people living there what pictures he had taken. But it also constituted a challenging alternative to the way street photographers work. For Benhelima, who spent ten years in Brussels testing out and developing classical documentary photography, the Polaroid involves greater precision and greater depth. There was an ambivalence, a magic, about the Polaroid in a way that is reminiscent of the early photographic technologies.

Daguerre’s photographs were iodized silver plates that were exposed in a camera obscura. These plates preserved shadow images. They were unique, and could cost up to 25 gold francs.

The Polaroid is also unique. Its history can be seen as a kind of hobby-photography appendix to digital technology. Rapidly, and in the daylight, it shows the darkroom moment when the negative is fixed and transformed into a positive image on paper.

Strangely enough, it seems as if it is when a technology is totally new, or when it is obsolete, that it becomes interesting for artists to work with. Tzara’s comments are about the fascination with light – with light being both what comes out of the photographer’s bright lights, and a metaphor for enlightenment, illumination. The sudden light illuminates and reveals the world, shows things as they are, beyond arrangement and artifice. We see the new world appear, transparent, without shadows. For Benjamin the world is lost, a permanent afterwards. The angel of history has his back to the future, his eyes staring in horror.

The obsolete Polaroid technique is not for technically-oriented master photographers. But it does have the power of metaphor to describe what is shown in the photograph – moments of life, soon vanished. And light, frozen for a fraction of a second, displayed 15-20 seconds later.

Benhelima’s series Roots and Black-Out isolate and bring out plants and everyday objects in an urban setting. Through mechanical manipulation of the Polaroid technology they are isolated from their surroundings. They become fantastic, magical bearers of light, with a peculiar poetic lustre.

In front of me I have a Polaroid from the Black-Out series. A silvery, yet warm tone lies over the picture. A classic lady’s bicycle casts rhomboid shadows. The front wheel continues into a tyre-thin shadow, which finds an echo in the shape of a solid shadow to the left of the picture. The saddle leans against the light-coloured wall. The picture is as exquisite as a haiku. I see the light from a day in early summer, when the sun is high in the sky, and it is time to go out and enjoy the freedom and the balmy wind. This cycle also tells us about a city that people can cycle in, where everyone takes to the road on more or less battered bikes. Just now, the bike is resting – perhaps the owner is taking a cup of coffee at a nearby outdoor café. It seems not to have a complicated lock and is not a showy model. It belongs to a world where people trust each other.

All this is what Barthes would call the studium. The picture’s punctum, the thing that strikes and attracts me, is this seductive light, with its soft shadows.

For Benhelima the image is also political. All his works resonate with his early feeling of being an outsider in Belgian society, and perhaps in the world. The obliterated surroundings to the isolated, occasionally pretty, and always identifiable object or plant in Black-Out and Roots is an analogy for the way a person wants to be seen as a person and not as a representative in a prejudiced society. His longing to belong, but also his attentiveness to people and the world give him the special gaze that characterizes his work. When he has the flash eat away at people’s features in the Semites series, what is left is a nameless identity, and an identification with being an outsider, Jewish as well as Arab.

If, in his youth, Benhelima in a way created a family for himself out of the people in Brussels’ immigrant district, in Semites the people who are his relatives become anonymous. Far too big a light obliterates the differences between them. What remains is the similarity of the shapes of their heads.

Benhelima has an intense relationship with life and seeing. One manifestation of this intensity is his great sensitivity to light. This is more about seeing than being seen. What his Polaroid camera helps him to preserve is the beauty and fragility of the moment. His political relationship with the world is based on these moments and on what they show and express. We could call such a politics of the fragment ‘aesthetic’, in the sense that the choices and standpoints involved are based on the intelligence and experience of the senses. Benhelima shows an example, and faced with this example, we can say, to use an old-fashioned expression: it is true, because it is beautiful.

In the last years before her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt explored in depth a proposition made by the young Immanuel Kant, namely that aesthetics helps us make ethical choices. Arendt, one of the 20th century’s most original thinkers, had already written a tentative account at the beginning of the 60s, but abandoned the idea for more immediately topical political problems. Now, she returns to this staggering idea – how can aesthetics get us to make ethical choices, or more pointedly: how can the sense of beauty help us to distinguish between right and wrong? We have only a few lecture notes to help us track down Arendt’s train of thought.

Arendt/Kant think that the most important capability underpinning aesthetic choices is the capacity to choose, i.e. the capacity to discriminate. And choice is based on example: this is what I want to see/show. Kant/Arendt also thinks that it is only the human being and art that have no purpose. Art exists because it does, people live and should behave towards each other such that nobody lets anyone else become their job.

In order to be able to appreciate purposeless art, people had to learn non-egoism. And the imagination that means that we can put ourselves into a mindset different from our own – the artist’s mindset. These qualities, disinterest and impartiality, are the prerequisites for being able to make aesthetic choices, based on examples, rather than on a general principle. The same qualities should help us to judge the way people treat each other.

Benhelima does not judge. Nor does he tell us how to respond, other than in the Arendtian/Kantian sense. He allows the light to be suspended so that we see that this is beautiful – this is a beautiful action. He lets this unprejudiced affection guide his gaze.