Pictures and Pixels - Photographic Art and Beyond
National Salon 2016

Attila Bartis

On photography (Excerpts from a diary, 1996–2016)

What’s this?
This is the letter A, darling.
What’s this?
It’s a painting. Munkácsy painted it.
What’s this?
It’s a violin. Press your fingers on the fingerboard.
Who’s this?
This is me when I was your age. 

I can’t for the life of me remember. I do remember the capital A on the red cloth binding. Then D and then Y which we pronounce I. I remember the violin was really a weapon – a bow – yet it has nothing to do with killing. I remember the Yawning Apprentice. The way it’s so lifelike and makes you yawn even though it’s just a painting. I remember a lot of things. But I can recall nothing at all of the moment Mother or Father said to me: darling, this is a photograph.

In the same way, I can’t remember telling my own children: this is a photograph. I do remember later explaining to them, this is the aperture and this is where you adjust shutter speed. I also remember saying this is me when I was your age. But like I said, I have no memory whatsoever of the moment I taught them what a photograph was. At three you look at a photograph and know what it is. They may not get it how somebody can sit inside a radio set, and television takes some explanation too, and whether or not they believe it, at least they have some vague inkling of reality surrounding them. Photographs, however, are taken for granted. They’re the same as reality, only a lot smaller, black and white, motionless, and eternal.

If we look up into the sky, time gets muddled up. Disregarding night flights, satellites and a bunch of planets, the nearest tiny dot is not now but four years ago. The one next to it one or a hundred million years ago. It hardly matters. We’ve got used to it. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about understanding but it’s about getting used to, because understanding is impossible. It often drives astronomers crazy even. In the same way the photographer is forced come to terms with the fact that he will never fully understand the thing he produces. If he refuses to content himself with half-truths and decides to truly look into things, he will simply go crazy.

Like a foreign body that once penetrated my skull, becoming trapped somewhere between the vision centre and the bundles of nerves responsible for dreams, if it were removed I might survive, but would certainly become blind. Photography is rather like that.

Madness and sanctity are probably unattainable to photography. If I sit in front of a piano motionless for minutes, silence can be music, and even a blank sheet of paper can be poetry, but the empty frame hung on the wall is always a painting, never a photograph.

The fact that that photography can work without me is a rather troubling thought. The possibility of the closed-circuit television camera, which continuously recorded the image of textile workers in a workshop or pedestrians in the street, was there in Fox Talbot’s machine. Series of pictures recorded in this way can be either offensively impersonal or movingly personal. Some of these pictures will be ironic, grotesque and sentimental. Or erotic for that matter, or a work of social documentary photography. Composition will be masterfully accomplished in one and poor in the other. All of this depends on what happened in the moment of exposure within the visual field of the lens. And if I have no knowledge of the way in which a picture was taken, I’ll never suspect they were not taken by someone. Theoretically it’s a matter of money where the camera will go and what it can do. With the help of a clever contraption I could make the camera walk around town. It could enter office buildings and private homes, randomly change its perspective, take black-and-white or coloured pictures, use a diffusion disk, taking blurry pictures or using depth of field, in other words, the pictures taken in this way would have different characteristics. And although at first sight this utopian (or dystopian) camera might be seen as the little brother of the poetry automaton, we’d be surprised how many more good pictures it takes than good sonnets the Shakespeare generator churns out. What’s more, every one of the pictures it takes can be regarded as photography; they will be eloquent and meaningful. But one might swap the Shakespeare generator for a Leonardo generator or a Bach generator, and the result will be the same. My camera would theoretically have the capability of taking a picture characteristic of Cartier-Bresson, but for the above-mentioned generators Virgin of the Rocks or the Art of Fugue would remain a pipe dream. Only this is a vanity issue. It’ll hardly make anyone want to put down their camera.

Double-natured light is in fact a synonym of existence. And there was light. That was the beginning. For us nonexistence is inherently associated with darkness, and although there’s probably no darkness either in nonexistence. Only it’s just as unimaginable to us as the stars that died billions of years ago but are still shining up there, or as parallels meeting at infinity, or the no-man’s-land between animate and inanimate matter. Now, photography is as double natured as is light. It’s part of the existing material world, and a very perishable part of it at that, but it transcends into an inconceivable domain. It disregards time and space. Everything except photography is visible there and then, when and where it exists. Only in the darkroom can I put a negative in the enlarger, projected on a sheet of white paper, place it in the developer, and there’s Mother looking at me.

Whether I make just a single enlargement of my pictures, whether I treat them as unique and inimitable works of art, whether I muck around with them in the darkroom to the extent that they really do become inimitable, in spite all of my efforts they will remain reproductions. Reproductions whose original has been long lost.

Discounting certain conventions, nothing justifies not claiming as my own a number of photographs that were taken at a time when I couldn’t possibly have been present. And naturally that has nothing to do with the quality of the pictures in question. It’s just that it’s easy to figure out that at the given place and time I myself would have taken the same, or a vastly similar, picture. No other art allows for this kind of calculation. It’s only when we bring together all those suspiciously similar photographs taken in the past century and a half that we come to realise how measly a bag reality really is.

Every good photograph delights. Even the cruellest one. Looking at photographic documents of the atrocities of the past century, I see bayonets penetrating between the ribs, Dresden razed from the face of the earth, and corpses piled up in Auschwitz in a way that complies with the strictest compositional principles. That is my only problem with photography really.

Yesterday I needed a few reproductions from the Legacy and I took a few pictures to an old man on the Körút to be photocopied. I took the photographs out of my bag – portraits of [Hungarian authors] Mészöly, Esterházy, Nádas, Kemény, Tandori, Kertész and Parti Nagy. They were the best ones, at least the ones I liked best.

“Are you some director or filmmaker?” the old man asked.

“No. I’m a writer,” I replied.

“So where d’you get all these actors from?” he asked as he placed [the poet] Tandori in the photocopier with the same respect as it he were [comedian] Kálmán Latabár.

Good thing I didn’t take a self-portrait.

Every time I page through my notes I’m surprised that I’ve never written anything nice about photography. In fact, my most fervent outbursts suspiciously coincide with the creation of the best pictures. There’s just one exception: a page and a half of clumsy discussion about the divine origin of photography. Specifically, about how the Turin shroud is none other than a contact copy of God’s dead son; how even the Lord took a picture of his own son for safety’s sake. I wrote that when I was wholeheartedly convinced I would give up photography for good.

Our notions of the Lord hold no risks really. The likelihood of facing our mistakes is minuscule. The only thing we might face is others’ notion of God. Only discussions of photography elicit the same sense of futility. The feeling that nobody can take us closer to truth. Archaeologists are believed, psychologists are believed, and even (wo)men of letters. I’m willing to admit so much, albeit with reservations, maybe arguing if my knowledge permits. The majority of statements I’ve ever read or thought about the nature of photography lose validity the moment I pick up a camera.

On Sunday I took a picture of my father for the Legacy. Last night when I set out to enlarge it in the kitchen, I discovered a hair on the negative. Right on his forehead. I only discovered it during the test enlargement. I wanted to clean the negative but it turned out it wasn’t a hair after all, but a problem with the emulsion. It would either stay there or I’d touch it up afterwards and make it go away. When eventually the proper enlargement was ready and I brought it in the room to hang out to dry, it transpired that what I’d thought would need retouching, was not a flaw at all. It was a fracture on my father’s forehead, dating from his prison years. It was a fracture I’d known about all along, but had never seen in 28 years. It took a silly photo I thought to be spoilt to come upon the incontrovertible reality of the boot that kicked my father in the forehead.

Nobody’s ever seen their own face. Even the mirror produces a reverse image. Even in a photo I will see my face moments or decades ago. In fact, I have no other choice but to believe my mirror image and other people’s claim that it is me in the picture. Yet that belief is stronger than all other beliefs. Only perhaps in the meaning of words do we have as much faith as we have in photography.

I learnt from a photograph what my maternal grandfather looked like. He died in forty-six, that is, twenty-two years before I was born. And if he were to walk in right now, unquestionably I’d recognise him. My knowledge based on a bunch of photographs would be enough to believe in his resurrection.

In connection with photographs we are simply forced to use terms of which we have little understanding. For example, timelessness, eternity. All of these are words linked with that which is unfathomable, the Lord. Only photography is in fact very tangible and real. Consequently, there is always a sneaking suspicion of fraud about photography.

All photography is a time paradox. Timelessness within time, passing eternity. To take pictures is none other than isolating time from reality for a moment, then returning that moment to time. This paradox was perhaps best encapsulated by Barthes in connection with the portrait of Lewis Payne taken before his execution: “He is dead and he is going to die.”

It is very likely that all complications surrounding photography come from our secret expectations of photography, that is, from us. Essentially, we are calling photography to account for our failure to become part of the reality whose reflected lights it has captured. This calling to account is in fact the disappointment of the child who discovers the trick and blames the illusionist for not being a magician. We have the same emotional expectations of photographs as primitive man of the mammoths painted on the wall of his cave. Even tough we know full well it’s impossible, we expect from photography not to die.

Whether or not photography is art was initially a matter of debate. Later it became clear that it is. Today it never crosses anybody’s mind whether photography in itself is art. The fact that in the moment of writing this sentence more photographs are taken around the world than there are characters written, settles the matter once and for all. It is no longer possible to speak of photographic art without a clear creative intention. Doubtless, photographs can be picked from the immeasurable mass of images out there, and they can be placed in museums, but they will only become works of art in the same was as the Dadaists’ urinal which was created as a work of art not by its maker, but by Duchamp alone.

Probably more radically than literature, photography changed not only the world around us, but also man himself. Like Dostoyevsky, Goethe and Shakespeare combined. Man before Fox Talbot is a complete stranger to man after Fox Talbot.

It’s very likely that anyone holding a camera will make every effort to take pictures to the best of their ability. I keep watching tourists: it’s simply not true they close their eyes before pressing the shutter. Many of them spend minutes setting, composing and finding a good picture. A picture they would like to see in their album in many years to come. I can well imagine many of them thinking that nobody before them has seen a building or river or mountain the same way as them. And they’re probably not disappointed when they take their prints home from the photo lab.

Photography, exactly because of its dependency on visible reality, is unsuited for abstraction. A photograph never depicts the table, but always a table. Never Man, but always just a person. It fails as a language that can be used to describe the world. In turn, language, in all its abstraction, will fail to describe photography. The world (in time) and image (outside time) are irreconcilable. And yet, as soon as it will become technologically possible, every man and every table in the world will be photographed.

In Man and his Symbols Jung writes how there is nothing more vexing to the scientific mind than having to deal with facts that cannot be grasped in their entirety, and cannot be formulated in a way that is satisfactory to intellect and logic. I believe photography to be the same. When examining the characteristics of a photograph, I ought, before all, to be examining myself. I ought to be examining why, at the cost of patent speculation, I force myself to see photography in some kind of a transparent, logical system. I ought, rather, to be examining why I am compelled to do so. I’ve never felt the same urge about anything except photography. Likewise, I’ve never written about anything in such sterile terms as about photography.

Once we’ve come to understand photography at least as well as we understand language, and once we have fewer sneaking suspicions about it than clear statements, we need to know that it’s not us who have become smarter, but rather, it’s not us anymore: the subject of our examination has changed us.

There are two mechanical contraptions that have never ceased to mystify me since childhood: the clock and the camera. For decades it never occurred to me that both of them were in fact about time.

If God is intemporal and sees the world in its entirety, he must see us rather like a photograph. A photograph that shows our every moment, and every moment of our grandfathers and grandchildren.

Since I’ve had the Leica I’ve taken more photos at night, holding the camera for up to half a minute, than I’ve made technically impeccable pictures. Night photography somehow brings back animal vision. The unlikely lights, the trembling of the hand give pictures an atavistic character.

Hearing Babits recite his own poem or Bartók play the piano brings me closer to them than any portrait of them. In spite of this, I look at their faces much more often than I do listen to them from archive recordings. We try not to laugh at the deaf, but are particularly sympathetic towards the blind.

Sontag. “Photographs [...] are a grammar and [...] an ethics of seeing.” Well... I’m not sure if seeing, smelling, hearing or even perception do have an ethics.

Sontag. “In fact, using a camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually.” Well... Maybe it’s not a good way of getting at someone. But once you’ve got there, the sheer presence of the camera legitimises such routes of, and opens such gates to, sexual encounter which love in itself could never accomplish.

Sontag. “[Photography] turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder.” Well, this is rather speculative, as is a lot of what Sontag says. The thing is that I get the same sense of speculative thinking when reading my own ideas on photography, as in Sontag and others. I have the same feeling with Barthes too, although for me he is the only scholar to have got closest to the essence of photography. On the basis of what constitutes a gun we determine how a murder is committed. Subliminal murder is, then, not photography but portrayal itself. For this very reason the type of picture is indifferent. It is not photography that many religions prohibit, but the portrayal of the Lord and man.

Sontag. Sometimes I feel a liar, sometimes a pervert, sometimes a common criminal just for picking up a camera. Naturally these charges are never pressed formally, but Sontag’s words make me feel guilty of them all the same. On the other hand, I often feel the same without reading Sontag. At least I can be certain that even if I’m sometimes irritated by her reasoning, she’s put a finger on a weak spot. I ought really to be more concerned with why I can’t give up photography than with what photography is.

Sontag. Photography–possession–knowledge–sense of power. At this point I’m stuck. For no other reason than we’re talking about Photography. If she were discussing specific cases or several cases without making generalisations, I’d understand. But not like this. Empirically I don’t understand. For I have taken photographs in a way that I was filled with neither a sense of knowledge nor power. I merely felt bereavement, lack of comprehension and vulnerability, and my camera did nothing to change that sense. A servant, I took pictures desperately of the hand of my deceased Father. I didn’t even feel the power of the living over the dead.

Sontag. She discusses photography as if she held the key to the secret. As if she could comprehend, or even expose the Photograph. Naturally she does not hold the key, and she knows it and doesn’t claim to either. Her emphases, her generalising, occasionally bombastic sentences would seem to suggest that nevertheless. I’m unable to believe even when I agree with her. I feel like I’m sitting at the six-o’clock mass and being read the lesson. I might believe the Holy Scripture, but not the priest.

The fact that the same picture can appear in countless places and ways, large and small, in black-and-white and in colour, projected, on a screen or on paper is somehow possible to deal with. But when time appears in a picture, it turns upside down everything we thought about photography.

An almost still photograph in a family album or on the wall of a bedroom, in which someone gradually grows old in real time. Then the programme deletes itself. Or restarts – and still we’re not sitting in a cinema but looking at a family album on a Sunday afternoon. Today that is merely a question of money. Depends whether there’s a need.

Sometimes photography makes feel as awkward as an embarrassing disease that entitles the doctor to give moral advice alongside penicillin. Knowing, or at least suspecting, what I’m taking pictures of and why is all right. But when I trust in blind faith, I hang my head in shame.

The digital camera spared me the thing I hated most about photography. The wait. Waiting for the lab assistant to develop the film, waiting in the darkroom for the picture to develop, waiting for the print to dry, because the tones only show up properly on a dry print, and only then will I know if all’s well or if I need to go back to make a new enlargement. After many thousands of instantly viewed pictures it was the very lack of having to wait that took me back to the film camera. It’s a bit like love when you spend half the day tidying the flat before they knock at the door.

The photograph says nothing about the time required for exposure. The reality that it depicts only extends in space. The moving image draws you from real time into its own time. It calls for the kind of attention a still image would never require. That is completely independent of the subject of the picture. That’s why trying to have a conversation with the television on is a waste of effort, as is trying to coexist with a series of moving images.

I’ve become aware that my knowledge of photography, whether that it comes from others or from my own experience, in no way influences my relationship to photography. At least no more than my readings in ontology influence the relationship to my own life and to life in general. Whether or not I take pictures is not a theoretical issue, and at the end of the day that is the only argument to support my taking photographs.

István and I are writing an interview book, and here I am speculating and fumbling helplessly for words all day, trying to define photography. Or at least trying to define what it means for me. I don’t know. It fills half of my life, yet I still don’t know. Every word is awful and insincere. And other people’s words are equally irritating. Then my teenage son gives me a call from Budapest to say he’s won the Camera obscura competition. He won first prize, and never imagined... He’s so happy, as if he’d just been given all of Berlin as a gift. Surely, as long as it doesn’t harm others, it doesn’t matter what makes you happy...