For the second entry in our new Dvafoto Book Club I’m thinking about J.M. Coetzee’s novel Slow Man, which I’ve been reading this week while on assignment in Budapest. This a book, shortly, about an Australian photographer who loses a leg in a bicycle accident and the succession of day nurses who tend to him and his depression, before a Croatian immigrant and caregiver becomes the focus of his attention. It is no wonder why a good friend of mine thoughtfully shipped me a copy of this from the States last month, especially after I mentioned how great Coetzee’s novel Disgrace was.
I’m still in this book but a passage leapt out at me this afternoon. I don’t know where it leads in the novel or really the character’s context for saying this, but I’m sure it’s worth a thought for artists and photographers. The narrator is the photographer Paul Rayment, he mentions his collection of first-generation photographs of early South Australian miners which he will donate to a University, his nurse Marijana Jokić and the young man in a car who caused his accident on Magill Road.
More than likely the Jokićs brought with them from the old country their own picture collection: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, family get-togethers. A pity he will not get to see it. He tends to trust pictures more than he trusts words. Not because pictures cannot lie but because, once they leave the darkroom, they are fixed, immutable. Whereas stories – the story of the needle in the bloodstream, for instance, or the story of how he and Wayne Blight came to meet on Magill Road – seem to change shape all the time.
The camera, with its power of taking in light and turning it into substance, has always seemed to him more a metaphysical than a mechanical device. His first real job was as a darkroom technician; his greatest pleasure was always in darkroom work. As the ghostly image emerged beneath the surface of the liquid, as veins of darkness on the paper began to knit together and grow visible, he would sometimes experience a little shiver of ecstasy, as though he were present at the day of creation.
That was why, later on, he began to lose interest in photography: first when colour took over, then when it became plain that the old magic of light-sensitve emulsions was waning, that to the rising generation the enchantment lay in the techne of images without substance, images that could flash through the ether without residing anywhere, that could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue. He gave up recording the world in photographs then, and transferred his energies to saving the past.
Does it say something about him, that native preference for black and white and shades of grey, that lack of interest in the new? Is that what women missed in him, his wife in particular: colour, openness?
The story he told Marijana was that he saved old pictures out of fidelity to their subjects, the men and women and children who offered their bodies up to the stranger’s lens. But that is not the whole truth. He saves them too out of fidelity to the photographs themselves, the photographic prints, most of them last survivors, unique. He gives them a good home and sees to it, as far as he is able, as far as anyone is able, that they will have a good home after he is gone. Perhaps, in turn, some as yet unborn stranger will reach back and save a picture of him, of the extinct Rayment of the Rayment Bequest.
I think there are some ideas in here that our readers will recognize or react strongly to, and I hope to read your responses. I’ll post my thoughts and perhaps conclusions after I finish the book, with part two of this post.