Photo by Ailbhe Greaney

Notes On Distance

Extract from the essay Room Without A View, written during the first lockdown period of Covid-19, by Ailbhe Greaney

The view from the roof deck, over mountains and the sea, over the passage tombs and shanty towns, over things which should have been impossible to have brought together in the span of just one gaze, but which had become more than possible; which had become ours

Belinda McKeon, Party Party, 2016

The idea of the view from a window is nothing new within art or photographic history. In fact, within photographic history, it serves as a particular foundation. The very first image to be to be permanently rendered – to be fixed – was entitled View from the Window at Le Gras, taken in 1826 by Niecephore Niepce.

The term ‘fixed’ is used here because the mechanism for capturing an image existed long before the fixing of Niepce’s view. The first reference to the Camera Obscura was by Giovanni Battista della Porta in his book Natural Magic in 1558. As such, it was possible to conceive of the view that the contemporary camera would provide long before the fixed photograph actually existed.

The Camera Obscura was first used during a time when such an apparatus would have been considered to be a thing of magic. The view that this camera afforded was a secretive glimpse onto the world outside the box. Those inside were concealed from view and as such this action operated as a kind of magic. This history reveals the power of the view, especially the view from a window.

While the window does not operate technically in the same way as the Camera Obscura, conceptually however, it acts as a similar link between inside and outside; providing a private view on to the world outside. In the book Photography Is Magic (2015) Charlotte Cotton tells us that magic, in both the realm of close-up magic and photographic magic: ‘is a multisensory experience that calls – instantaneously and without our consciously knowing it – upon our capacity to script our own sense of visual reality’.

For myself, moving to New York in 2000 as a student of photography – with 9/11 striking the city a year later – my own photographic work had at its origin a desire to both see and replicate or duplicate the world as I once knew it or wished it to be. In this way photographs have, to reference John Szarkowski, served as windows, offering a view onto both the known and the unknown; often taken with eyes closed as much as open.

Originally from Galway I moved to New York when I was 21, leaving my family behind, and if my work has been an attempt to fill a gap, it has also operated to create a gap within the image plane. During my first year in the city the only person I knew died of cancer. Years later it was such an illness that took me away again, leaving for Belfast, meeting my husband in France, and engaging in a long-distance relationship before his ultimate relocation. Now, however, he commutes to work in England and is separated for several days of the week from myself and our small son.

Living close to the airport on Belfast Lough, the window in our home has measured degrees of separation, as it is possible on occasion to see his plane fly overhead and away from us. We are also both set apart by several hours of sea and land from our parents and grandparents. As such distance and separation are significant in my own life, now eased and accentuated, at one and the same time, in the time of Covid-19. My husband can now, at least in part, work from home but my parents and sister are out of reach.

In the time of Covid many people are reliant on the view from their window for relief from isolation and confinement. What happens when the view that is offered is the opposite of relief? The window now acts as a frame on a world that has been closed in, shrunk to the parameters of our own home, our own view. What happens when there is no view?

For without a home there is no such prospect, no perspective; no blanket of repetition, of the security of one day being the same as the next. Racial and ethnic minority communities, migrant workers, low income, homeless and refugee populations have been disproportionately affected by the virus – with the poor also being more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, often, conversely, essentially more compelled to leave the safety of their home to work.

In the opening pages of W.G Sebald’s The Rings or Saturn (1995) the narrator tells us of his admittance to hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. He describes the sensation of becoming: ‘over whelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insenate spot. Indeed, all that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colourless patch of sky framed in the window. Several times during the day I felt a desire to assure myself of a reality I feared had vanished forever by looking out of that hospital window, which, for some strange reason, was draped with black netting…’

The drive to “fix” an object, view, perspective, the unfixable – as an image – exists in the drawings and sculpture of Vija Celmins. The way in which the artist draws on the photograph of the thing, often returning again and again to reproduce the reproduction, reveals a kind of vastness in the particular, similar to the qualities perceived in photographic work that is indexical.

In the work of Stephen Shore, when viewed over a long period of time, it is possible to find his photographs ‘in’ the world, as well as the world in his photographs; framing reality in one’s mind’s eye as if it were such a photograph, as well as seeing the vast expansive possibilities of the world within a single framed photograph. His philosophy, articulated within his 2018 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, positions the medium within a context whereby non photographic professionals might benefit from taking pictures which feel like seeing; within a state of heightened awareness, whereby relationships begin to stand out.

The same experience applies the multiple marks made over time by Celmins. Her series Ocean or Ocean Surface (1968 – 2000) is made up of the detail of such, drawn over and over again with a precision that almost makes the ocean surface swim before the viewer’s eyes. Within children’s literature there is a tradition of lyrical stories going back to the 19th Century, which depend upon repetition and rhythmic text to progress, known as ‘Cumulative’ or ‘Chain’ tales.

The effect of these stories seems to connect quite strongly with art works, especially photographic works, which build one upon the other to draw out understanding and a sense of complexity within simplicity. The inherent contradictions, which have existed within photography since its invention, mean that it is a medium permanently at odds with its own state; continually attempting to fix the world within a representation whose form is unfixed, fluid, and in constant progression.

To survive time photography’s technology must constantly evolve. In French the words for Weather and Time are the same, Temps. Photography as a medium is both as changeable and as constant as the weather itself. For myself, repeatedly traveling by train to work as it curves around the bend in the water that is Belfast Lough, walking along the Salthill promenade of my homeplace in Galway, I see the repetitive drawings of Vija Celmins in the triangular formations of the water.

Engaging in physical distancing at one home in Belfast, far from another in Galway, I have looked to the drawings of Celmins, the photographs of Shore, to recall a reality I sometimes fear has vanished forever. In mid-June 2020, the week before the very first lockdown restrictions began to lift in Ireland, mid-morning radio identified Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr. Blue Sky (1977) as its most requested piece of music. During an unprecedented blue skied spring the lyrics ask Mr. Blue Sky why he has had to hide away for so long, so long? Where did we go wrong?

Within this current crisis the sense of repetition, of static immobilisation, of each day as a counterpart for the next prevails. Art, the word and the image, the idea of a continuous, stable, yet ever changing view from a window; the existence of contemporary technology, social media – portals all, but not all Facebook; might offer some respite from such a sense of paralyses, some opportunity to reproduce, to duplicate the world as we once knew it, or wished it to be.

Across every continent we have heard stories of people connecting through the panes of their windows, physical and virtual. Waving hello to the living; goodbye to the dead. The window has become a portal through which we render ourselves present, through which we make our daily and final connections. Our ability to maintain connections with loved ones via digital apertures focused on thumbs or the ceiling is reminiscent of days when we used film in our cameras and could not control the exact outcome of each frame.

Knowing what is behind the thumb, below the ceiling, allows us to continue the conversation, to fill in the gaps and to be together whilst apart. The current crises within which we now find ourselves has resulted in neighbourhood film screenings on the gable walls of houses, painted rainbows in windows and the resounding soundwaves of hands clapping for our healthcare workers at dusk.

Plexiglass screens have conversely divided us whilst allowing us to exist within the same space. The physical nature of these acts reveals the fact that the virtual cannot and does not replace the physical, rather it serves – especially in times of crises – to remind us that we are here, that we are real; we are not weightless or without substance, without a perspective or a view of our own. As in art practice, the view from our own window is what drives a desire to go beyond this; to engage with worlds within worlds, with a world, with worlds, that are not within reach, or indeed within view.

It encourages us to use our powerful technologies to take control over the framing of our perspectives so that where we are can now be the view: ‘And what is a view? A view is where we are not. Where we are is never a view’ (Brennan, 1966).

The work of Kara Walker – best known for her hand-drawn black silhouettes, returning us to pre-photographic days when the magical camera-like apparatus was used as an aid in the drawing of silhouettes – reminds us that the advent of the fixed photographic image coincided with the abolition of slavery in the United States and projects the proper Victorian medium of the silhouette onto the subjects of race, gender and sexuality. In many respects the photograph’s dual and contrary ability to both identify sameness and propagate difference has at one and the same time unleashed as much harm as good, depending upon who has been engaged in the capture. Within her work Walker speaks about eviscerating the body of a collective experience, to the point of leaving nothing intact.

The poet Eavan Boland died on April 27th, 2020, not of, but in the time of Covid-19. In a poem, published as part of the collection A Woman Without a Country (2014), she writes of The Lost Art of Letter Writing. This draws us back to a time when the mark we make was sent through an envelope, becoming the portal through which, we made ourselves present in the lives of others. In the time of Covid-19 we are immersed within a feeling of both extreme weight and a sensation of weightlessness, of invisibility and paralyses; countered and accentuated only by the extreme visibility of our ability to look through, beyond and back onto ourselves, via the portal that is the actual window and especially the portal that is the window of contemporary technology.

The sensation is that of moving through time without a ticket, with the ever-present anxiety that the reality we once knew will have vanished upon our arrival. In the end Boland puts into words that with which we now struggle, ‘How to ask: is it still there?’ While the world that we know, the world as we wish it to be, is not within view and, as yet, may not even exist.