The Book Club: J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man

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.

One Response to “The Book Club: J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man”

  1. marco aurelio

    I was enthralled the first time i beheld an Edward Curtis original in Arizona where I had escape to after 24 years of living and working in New York. What struck me was that nothing in my experience of contemporary media photography captured the same tonality in the skin of a subject.

    Each epoch holds its own magic.

    I kept two analog dslrs in my closet all of my adolescent years, never having the desire and patience to learn its hocus-pocus. And I only became passionately drawn to photography when i was given a coolpix in my thirties. It set a very small match to my dry soul and I have never looked back.

    I imagine the reaction of the tribe when they were shown the paintings of bulls on the walls of a cave at Lascaux, thousands and thousands of years ago. Imagine the terror and ecstasy and wonder of seeing bulls transplanted from the prairie to cave walls, at at time when possibly spoken language was still not part of the human condition. Imagine the spiritual ecstasy of seeing Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Mathew if you were country folk who had never seen a painting before. Ever. But knew the bible story faithfully. Imagine the folk at Kronos when some guy started making statues of sportsmen so close to reality that they looked “almost” life-like to them.

    I am wary of nostalgia, each epoch holds its own magic. And, what I understand now is that photographs do hold a record, but it is also as poor an interpretation of reality as language. Each one of us who wear a lens for eyes interprets the reality in front of us according to the reality inside ourselves, no beating around the bush about it. We projet who we are right through that glassy prism.

    What I discovered is that I project who I am on the subjects I photograph, whether they are young-adults from a South-American city park in my Night Portrait series or still life from my Yellowstone National park my Surfaces series. I still dont know how that works, and honestly, I am too much in love with the shooting part of the equation than the understanding part of the equation, for now.

    What we do with a little black box and 11 pieces of concave glass is unique to our time the same way what painters of the past did was unique to their time, as will be with the visual thinkers of the future with tools we are yet to imagine. What we do with it today matters more than then past or the future, to me, for metaphysical reasons. how we preserve and look at the past is extremely important, but it is anachronistic to look back and imagine we can interpret it when we have so much difficulty interpreting even what we do now.

    Something beyond words and beyond our conscious mind keeps that fire in our soul going every single day to get up and go photographing. It doesnt matter what it is, what matters is that we keep true to that wondrous inner-being impulse.

    I spent 18 years in cubicle farms in new york. Without being conscious of it, felt that there was something wrong with our world, and accidentally felt compelled to put a lens to my world. I am the poorest I have ever been as a rookie-photographer in the lousiest market in my lifetime, but I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. Nothing compares to it.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful passage.

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