When I first conceived my book, Invisible City, it was, among other things, a response to conflicting images. The multiple mythologies of New York City I had grown up with no longer held true. And I felt trapped: trapped by my circumstance and trapped in what seemed an unending downward spiral of history. We were told cities were obsolete: that their problems of crime, drugs and poverty were insurmountable; that advances in communication technologies (fax machines!), transportation and distribution made the necessity for centralized urban places a thing of the past. New York seemed to suffer multiple urban ills as it sat on a precipice. In this, New York was hardly alone: social problems manifested themselves in many cities around the globe. Amsterdam had its junkies; Berlin its squats; London its hooligans. I attempted to reconcile the outmoded images I had of New York with my experience. It was my hope to demystify and elucidate my circumstance. In this, for me personally, I achieved my goals. In retrospect, two other things became clear. First: the received wisdom that cities were obsolete turned out to be a falsehood. And second: my images only helped to further mythologize the community in which I lived.
Photographic images behave like particles and waves. On the one hand they are like particles—specific points of reference—concrete, frozen, discrete signifiers of something in a moment in time. We might see in a photographic image something inimitably identifiable of a certain time and place: the folds of a dress as it caresses a leg or the sun burning bright on a brick wall captured one autumn day. But images are also general reference points, evocative in nature. An image of a smile reminds us of all manner of smiles, a sunset reminiscent of sunsets seen and portrayed all over the world. In that way photographic images behave like waves radiating meaning out from a center connecting themselves through metaphor and allusion across time and space to other self-similar images. They have continuity and flow connecting us via metaphor to fact and feeling/belief and knowledge, alluding to the world both as it was and as we imagined it could be or ever has been. All possibilities: a kind of specific truth and all kinds of truths, but never the thing itself: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” as Magritte says in The Treachery of Images.
But to say the image is not the thing itself or to recognize that an experience must first be transformed into a reference point in order for it to be communicated is missing both the point and the power of an allusion. I think of what the photographer Machiel Botman said to me on the birth of my first child. “You don’t know this yet, but right now you can see in her face the adult she will become. You will always see it there, and you will see it every time that you look at her over the years, but you can never guess who’ll she be, or what she will eventually look like. Only afterwards, when she is older, will you be able to look at her and say, “Yes, I have known you all this time and I see in you now what I saw when I first laid eyes upon you.””
This is a mystery we confront at every turn: for the world always presents and represents itself both as something new but also something familiar. What we discern with ease was built upon past reckonings. In turn those understandings will be the scaffold upon which we launch new realizations: if we have the tools and the foresight and are open to looking.
Everything happens at once in a vast incomprehensible and infinite present. But when we orientate our attentions in a particular direction the infinite vastness that we call reality coalesces to one specific reference point in time. It is here that we devise our stories and images: models to explore and explain (and explain away) an infinite world. No doubt the way we tell our stories has an effect upon us. Across time and culture we become the stories and images we believe in or identify with: we do this as we incorporate notions that are both manufactured within us and that exists outside of us. I can’t help but think about these words I’ve used here to parse the world, how they situate us in place and time: and how they draw an image for you based on your own understanding of the words and phrases and descriptors I use. Language brings us an essential quality for understanding the world that, in turn, changes the way we relate to what we perceive. As we order the world we confront we give it meaning: as we bring meaning to the world, the world reflects meaning back to us. As we share the images and words that we use to describe the world, not only do we describe our selves to our selves, but we also change our selves: we change the way we know the world and how we operate in the world.
Heidegger said, “Language speaks us as we speak language:” that the language we use forms our understanding and forms us as we speak it; that words convey meanings to us through us and by their use by us. Without language, what would consciousness be? What would culture be? Of what would we, or how could we even conceive of experience? What would we make of the present? I can only speculate.
I turn (again) to James Agee where he says in the preface to Helen Levitt's, A Way of Seeing,
"The mind and the spirit are constantly formed by, and as constantly form, the senses, and misuse or neglect the senses only at grave peril to every possibility of wisdom and well being. The busiest and most abundant of the senses is that of sight. The sense of sight has been served and illuminated by the visual arts for as long, almost, as we have been human."
I can’t help but connect Agee’s idea that sight “constantly formed by, and as constantly form(s)” the mind to Heidegger’s idea that language speaks us as we speak language, because now I must also conclude that images imagine us as we imagine images.