“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Thinking about this deceptively modest show the opening lines of Goodbye to Berlin keep coming back to me. An atmosphere, something in the works calm presence, invokes Christopher Isherwood’s famous analogy. Though memorable, Isherwood’s observation is also a little odd. Surely the key thing a camera does, the photographer does, (as the writer also does) is to select moments from the flow of time and fix them into a new reality. A camera with its shutter open records nothing in the end. Isherwood’s pal, W.H. Auden, thought it odd too. In his contrarily titled poem I Am Not A Camera, Auden writes how ‘flash-backs’ (photographs) falsify the past, because they forget “the remembering present.” We remember the past from a future already gained, the photograph – paused in its own time – holds no trace of this backward glance. Of course Isherwood’s narrator is not as impassive as he implies. “Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” He says ‘all’ but he doesn’t mean it literally. For all of his languid tone, he knows, like a good photographer knows, exactly when to blink.
Woman Smoking, 2014, hand-printed C-type print on archival photo paper
Something of Isherwood’s languor, and the contrariness of Auden seem to merge in these small, mostly colour photographs made by Samuel Laurence Cunnane. They also have something entirely his own. His images have a curious, teasing allusiveness. The depictions of café interiors, of isolated figures and buildings, seem almost generic at first, like something you’ve already seen. Paradoxically though, the more you look at them, the less familiar his pictures become, as though their content was sinking beneath your consciousness, like memories on the wane.
All photographs carry the opposing weights of nostalgia and premonition. Shot on the once ubiquitous medium of 35mm film, Laurence Cunnane’s carry an old-school version. His photographs retain not just the indexical link between the subject and its depiction, but the slow alchemy of chemical transition, and the time-lapse this requires. This lapse – quaintly anachronistic – feels important, a delay also present within the roll of film itself. The film-image, suspended in the dark, lives a private history, between the moment of capture and the moment of release. Eventually ‘printed and fixed’ in the ‘some day’ of the photographers darkroom, the seventeen works here, all dated 2014 – the smallest no larger than snaps – are presented in plain black frames, in a single, irregularly spaced line around the galleries white walls. While this simple presentation is countered somewhat by the eminence of the gallery itself, their contradictory nature is also expressed as an odd sort of determination, as though they were insistently modest, and this fine line, between assertiveness and restraint, is part of their subtle effect.
Isherwood’s novel is told in distinct chapters, a ‘Berlin Diary’, whose feline prose outlines a portentous historical moment. Laurence Cunnane is only passing through – one photograph is called Airport – stopping just long enough to capture his subjects off guard, rendering them, to use Roland Barthes phrase “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies”. An old woman sits on a park bench. She is smoking. Alone in a grotto of surrounding trees, a diagonal of sunlight cuts through the dark canopy and dramatically illuminates her out-puffed breath. Though relatively passive, Woman Smoking is about as active as things get. A woman smokes, plants grow, buildings, like people, slowly fall apart. There’s a pleasure in noticing things, in time doing its work, but there’s little sense of joie de vivre. Do his subjects know what we know, that their time is already past?
Man in apartment, Lisbon, 2014
Looking up from my desk it’s suddenly raining. Shimmering across the smooth eye of glass, tiny slipstreams fill – like welling tears – and run down.
Much has been written about why photographs make us sad (The superimposition of reality and the past – Barthes “That-has-been”). We often look at them to feel closer to the person or thing they depict only to be reminded that, that person, that thing, no longer exists. The photograph brings us into a closer relation with things, while simultaneously reminding us of how separated we are. Man in apartment, Lisbon shows the corner of a lopsided apartment block (as though the photographer, or the world, was unsteady on its feet). Through the guardrail of the first floor balcony – the buildings concrete facade is a shade or two darker than the dismal sky – a single, opened shutter reveals a darkened room, and close to the window, a mans downturned head. He appears to be reading; visible in the glow of a lamp, lost in a world we can’t see. In Man in Botanical Garden, Hamburg, a man can be seen walking through dense vegitation. It’s not immediately obvious, but gradually you realise you are looking at him from behind a pane of glass. His evident bulk, occupying only a tiny portion of the frame, is moving within a layer of reflections. Something in the figure’s heft, his grey beard, reminded me, weirdly perhaps, of the art critic David Sylvester. The photographic print has its own physicality, its own matter, but we rarely acknowledge this. In its transparent nature, a photograph is a kind of anti-matter, the physical token of an absence. The man in the picture continues in the minds eye, beyond the transparent glass and its reflected palms, deeper into the jungle.
Man in Café, Lisbon, 2014, hand-printed C-type print on archival photo paper
Moving in closer, Man in café, Lisbon looks over the shoulder of a dark suited figure seated at a lunch counter. Nearest the camera, the man’s dark outline, and further back, the check-shirted torso of the man sitting opposite, compose a boundary of blurred parts around a more focused centre. Across this median, a metal counter contains a blue and white plate, a green bottle, and a half-filled glass. The dark figures clenched hand shows a small tattoo, some kind of ‘X’. I was reminded of the American photographer William Eccleston, or maybe just a certain kind of American photography, of diner chic, burnished surfaces, the democracy of the daily ration. Reflected lights and hard surfaces make a composition of diagonals, a shiny lattice, in Bread. Glowing softly in the fluorescence (was it taken in the same café?) a huddle of the eponymous ‘breads’ is piled together in one corner of a metal display cabinet, their swollen, triangular mounds like so many cellophane wrapped tongues. Laurence Cunnane has the street photographers knack of making the mundane seem important, of making the ordinary speak.
Apartment Building, 2014, hand-printed C-type print on archival photo paper
Seeming at first merely bleak, even banal, the Apartment Building leans at an angle of 45 degrees, a series of warm grey bands receding upwards against a flat grey sky. From the pavement, or possibly through the window of a car, the sharp tilt of the camera makes the multi-story building appear to be taking off, rising against a dirty iridescence of raindrops, a grainy noise across the bottom of the picture. In addition to their angular poise, the meaning of these photographs is also curiously oblique, as if something within them is held back. Maybe it’s that secret history, their interim epoch upon the shelf? This inwardness has the paradoxical effect of drawing you in. Like the photographer in Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’, you peer at the surface to find a deeper truth. “I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the photograph” Barthes writes. You can look at these photographs all you want, he might have said, but their mystery will remain untouched.
Through the window, beneath the shifting clouds, the tree in the garden moves through its changes in the shuttering sun.