Monday, 19 September 2016


I was back on campus last week for the first time in several months, to carry out some errands and to catch up with the news. It seemed I could barely turn a corner without bumping into someone I used to work with, as they scurried about the place getting ready for the looming October invasion. It does no harm to remind myself of the pressures of the world of work, and I won't pretend it didn't feel rather good, to be a man of comparative leisure.

As usual, building work was everywhere; as usual, it looked like it was running over schedule. To get to one of my favourite windows (third picture) I had to negotiate a barricaded-off road (first picture). I find it interesting that the truthfulness of photography means that the second and third photos are contained in the first, and the first in the second (and probably both of the other two are somewhere in the third, if you were to look closely enough at the reflections) even though this formed no part of my intentions as I "worked" the scene.

One of the most characteristic and compelling things about "straight" photography is its truthfulness, that visual truth in depth, as opposed to the selective "truthiness" of most visual art. Sure, you can frame and exclude and edit, but the medium's essence is to show whatever fell within the chosen angle of view, without prejudice or censorship. You might say that getting the camera's truthfulness and your own agenda of truthiness into alignment is in large part what the art of photography is about. Somehow, that seems important, in our allegedly "post-truth" world, where politicians can assert that "we have had enough of experts", and in which merely repeating something often enough – particularly something people want to be true – can make it true, or at least give it "truthiness".

Although the central paradox of art remains: that a package of artful and even contradictory lies, distortions, and misrepresentations can convey more truth than a plain account of the apparent facts. With appropriate emphasis on the "can", of course. Nothing is ever simple, and point-of-view is everything.
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent — of Miss Vincy, for example.
George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871, chapter XXVII


Martyn Cornell said...

One of the many little asides that make Middlemarch the joy it is

Mike C. said...


Isn't it? I was clearing out some books, and found the Penguin edition I read in 1973. I had to keep it, not donate it to Oxfam, as it's full of my insightful marginal annotations, like "FUCKING BRILLIANT!!" and "I love you, George Eliot!!!", that sort of thing. It's funny, for years I've misremembered that passage as being from Virginia Woolf, but there it was, heavily underlined and with multiple exclamation marks next to it. It's probably time I read it again...