but enclosing them in the box and photographing them

By Emily LaBarge
  • Emily LaBarge
    Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London.
Francesca Woodman, Untitled,
MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman.

You see, vision consisted of surprising the symbol of the thing in the thing itself. 1Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart, trans. Alison Entrekin (New York: New Directions, 2012), 38.

Photography has a special capacity to record “the injuries of time,” noted William H. Fox Talbot in the late 1830s. 2William H. Fox Talbot, in Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 69. Injustices, I have written in my notes. The injustices of time. An accident, I assume, though either word would be apt.

Cut, slice, splice—slip, slide, scratch—tear, scrape, bruise—

But lately I find a sliver of mirror is simply to slice an eyelid, Francesca Woodman titles a 1979–80 silver print in which a disembodied, illuminated hand offers a shard of mirror to a room that is scored with jagged streaks of light and dark. Woodman is known for the evocative titles of many of her photographs, sometimes hand scrawled across a band of white at the bottom of the image. For instance, There is the paper and then there is the person. Or, Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly into my hands. Again and again, On Being an Angel.

Does it matter if you cannot see the image that corresponds? Does it matter if you cannot read the words when you look at the photograph? Is it an injury, do I perform an injustice if I admit that sometimes I long to discover a conclusive correspondence between image and word—already knowing both systems of description to be inadequate? Where are the words for this image, I want to know—Francesca Woodman, untitled (MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire), 1980—well aware they are unlikely to have been given any by the artist—here with her arms raised and her head down, with her curling cuffs of birch bark and copse of slender-limbed trees. Did they—did the words fall off the bottom of the print? Did they tumble to the ground, a tangled pile of language? Did they land heavily, did they scatter and clatter and echo and echo—

I feel this is a weakness: the desire to fill empty spaces with as many words as possible.

A weakness and a duty.

Or a duty.

I feel this is a duty: the desire to fill empty spaces with as many words as possible.

Because why else do we write, why else do we look? If only to perceive the ways in which our impoverished means are countered by the suppleness of our tools. Descriptive devices, for instance. Those sweet syntactical alchemies: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, synchysis, parataxis—and so—and on—

A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. 3Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, et al. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 129.

It is perhaps for this reason that I am prone to write in the interrogative voice, even when the question marks begin to fade and disappear. For instance:

When, at what point, and for how long do you look at something before it gets inside of you? How long before it goes even deeper, down through your lungs and your heart and your guts to your feet, and spills out in a shadow that flickers this way and that, a pool of darkness only visible in certain lights? Then how long before you are it, and finally, it is you? And where do the words go? (What words?) How do they fit in? (Fit where?) Do they tumble forth unstoppably when you open your mouth, vinethick with buds and barbs, all the sharp graceless things that grow within—a verdant verbal excrescence? (I told you, I don’t know)—

Some of the people I know have a great kinship with or likeness to organic natural forms I would like to isolate these relationships but enclosing them in the box and photographing them. 4Francesca Woodman, “Journal Extracts, notebook #6, undated,” in Chris Townsend, Francesca Woodman (London: Phaidon, 2006), 244.

Photographs are indexical—that is to say, they always point to something else. In speech, indexical words are those that identify the speaker: I—herenow. As in, who is speaking thus? As in, what am I—here, now—asking this photograph to mean, and how and why and in whose voice? This is difficult to say, for not to take but to make, to become an image is a gnomic and clandestine process; and “indexical” can also mean the ratio of one dimension of a thing (as an anatomical structure) to another.

This photograph pulls a darkness down over my eyes. It pulls and it pulls and it will not stop pulling and I fear that the ground is unstable, the image is not fixed, and it will begin to dry and wilt and warp at the edges, to come unstuck and—I can no longer see clearly—and—it will crumble and dissolve in my hands.


Godiva, I unpeel——

Dead hands, dead stringencies. 5Sylvia Plath, “Ariel,” in Ariel (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 36.

I was once told that my writing was thorny. I wanted it to be true, but not in the sense that my interlocutor meant, which was that: it is fully of barbs; it catches and tears; it is twisted and defensive; it wastes time, overwrought, tangling the more productive organisms. In a dream, I tried to clarify my intentions by reaching into my mouth, hand going deeper and deep, to pull out a fistful of roses and laugh as my critic whispered, careful of the thorns, blanched and aghast. I am not interested in the formal qualities of my materials, I said, but their emotional and sensual ones. 6Ana Mendieta, as cited in Channing Gray, “Earth Art,” Providence Journal Bulletin, 21 April 1984, as cited in Laura Roulet, “Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre: Duet of Leaf and Stone,” Art Journal 63, no. 3 (2004), 80–101 (95). And, words do not look like the things they designate. 7Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt,” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. Thomas Baldwin (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 281.

Other voices, ideas, words resound and multiply. Hers, his, yours, for mine—a word for a word—for there is never only one. Here and here and there an image overlaid—and each gives rise to another: a decent trade, if devious and askew when the task at hand was to be singular in focus.

Is it a cheat to remind you, so Woodman can rest her arms for a moment, of the nymph Chloris, who transformed Crocus, Hyacinth, Adonis, and Narcissus into flowers? In Botticelli’s Primavera, these are the blossoms that pour out of her mouth as she looks over her shoulder to see the blue-faced god of wind in pursuit, as he emerges from the trees to take hold of her from behind. Should I conjure other attendant visions of Shakespeare’s Titus, whose daughter Lavinia is dragged to a forest and raped before her hands are amputated and her tongue is cut out, and whose brother Marcus describes her as a lopped tree, with branches, now stumps, for arms? What stern ungentle hands / Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare / of her two branches, those sweet ornaments / Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in. 8William Shakespeare, Titus (New York: Washington Square Press, 2005), 2.4.16–19.

One image, two image, three, four, or more—how they stack up—how they cannot be contained. Metonymical chains. Similarity in difference. A hop skip and a jump. A part for the whole.

And so why not? Why not slip on the thin birch skin and wear it around for a while. Feel how it curls—just so—and the skin on its inside is so pink and new and raw. Marvel at its sympathetic fit—perfectly tailored—it does not even slide down your arms when you raise them in the air, no matter how high, no matter how long—waiting for that take, the one in which everything lines up.

And so why not? Of course things branch, share a limb, snake, and shake—pare it back—prune and parse—the branch will not break. No image, no word, no meaning is whole, there is no there there, 9Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (London: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 298. in the center of the center, in the heart of the heart of the country. 10William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (New York: NYRB Classics, 2014), 245. For the dirty broken truth of correspondence, with its winsome smile and its pieces offered as a whole, is that there is no such thing.

You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough. 11Anne Carson, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 29.

Affinity is defined as the natural liking for, and understanding of, someone or something. It can also refer to a similarity of characteristics that suggests a deeper organic relationship—particularly a resemblance in structure between animals, plants, or languages. Affinity, so close to metaphor—the sliding scale of semblance by which we understand something in greater depth by placing it next to something else, translate it into as many tongues and voices as possible. What is the fear inside language? No accident of the body can make it stop burning. 12Ibid., 141. And so we do our utmost. We use our means to make it mean, even as the meaning disperses.

Woodman’s photographs—this photograph deliberately mistreats the photographic image to engender multiple points of interpretation, meaning, and complexity, within and without the frame. She straddles the razor-fine line of the body as subject and object and plays at truncation, championing the violent tranquility of the disjointed body. The fugitive fragment is not bound, it burns and sizzles and ricochets, gathers substance, meaning, affinity, as it strides into representation as open, boundless, infinite, sloughing its tethers to the I—here—now—

A sliver of this, a sliver of that. A sapling, a maple, an oak, an elm, a poplar, a beech, a dark cherry tree. A willow, a wallow, a swallow—or 4, in the air, frozen for a moment, like different elapses of the same bird, in 4/4 time.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. 13Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily,” in Geography and Plays (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 187.

This image asks how to photograph, how to still in time this transfiguration—the alchemy of form as something collapses into a different version of itself. Subject to object; photograph to image; past to present; organic form to organic form; light to dark; and so on; the binaries, the inversions, the lines crossed and crisscrossed are endless. Which is also to ask: How to preserve the invisible if it can only be measured by its disappearance?

Woodman elaborately planned many of her photographs in advance. Perhaps due to the fact that she often used a shutter release cable so that she could incorporate her own body into the images—no need for the presence of any other. On this count, charges of narcissism, an obsession with the self reflected back, always seem mistaken, for they assume the subject has imagined the existence of another viewer outside of (this) space and time. Woodman is not a Narcissus but an Echo—she observes and records as images and forms, including her own, repeat, reflect, metamorphose, fall into deep affinity.

In spite of her detailed preliminary plans, Woodman’s photographs often seem focused on play and the haphazard—passing time in a room, in the woods, in this world. How many ways to combine the materials available. How chance allows us to stumble gratefully into unexpected and fruitful juxtapositions. The photographs can be seen as “problem sets,” as Rosalind Krauss terms them in her 1986 essay that accompanied the first major exhibition of Woodman’s work after the artist’s death in 1981, aged twenty-two. The images are attempts to answer questions, for instance: How to photograph something that doesn’t exist? Something like—time, transformation, light, angels.

W.H. Hudson says that birds feel something akin to pain (and fear) just before migration and that nothing alleviates this feeling except flight (the rapid motion of wings). 14Lorine Niedecker, “Letter, January 30, 1968,” in Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960–1970 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986), 149.

People argue about Woodman’s images. Young women, violent ends, and limited bodies of work left behind are rich and complicated fodder. She was a feminist, she was not a feminist. The works are Surrealist, the works are careful studies in performance photography. Her physical appearance is essential, her beauty is of no consequence. Mention the suicide, do not mention the suicide. (There, I did it.) Her death is irrelevant to the work, her death means everything to the work. But the two are bound. Or are they. But it was so extreme. And her face was beyond recognition. (I’m sorry, I can’t—)

Words like felling axes have chipped away at the bark. (Courage man; the hurt cannot be much. 15William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (London: Scott, Webster, and Geary, 1842), III.1.95.) And it is difficult not to think of her propensity for images of flight. It is difficult not to think of another woman artist who ‘jumped’ (was pushed) from a window. It is difficult not to see Leap into the Void and remember that under Yves Klein’s brave horizontally suspended em dash of a body there was, in reality, a group of people with a trampoline.

Why do I heave deep sighs?

It is natural, a matter of course, all

creatures have their laws. 16Chinese lyric (unattributed), as quoted in Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Subjection of Women,” in A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: The Ecco Press, 1982), 182.

This is about frustration and affinity and desire and clumsiness.

This is about language and images; how and what takes root; what is exposed, what moans, groans, howls when you plant your feet firmly and yank—

This is about, Through its beauty the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us. 17Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2011), 81.

This is about, Tell all the truth but tell it slant. 18Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—,” Poetry Foundation website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/56824 (accessed 28 February 2017).

This is about, If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit. 19Ludwig Wittgenstein, Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1984), 174.

This is about how things pile up and pile up and pile up and when I asked my mother, one day years ago, where are all of the birch trees, there used to be so many, she said they died. There was a disease, she said, and, remember the two in our backyard that grew from one stump? They died and we had to cut them down. I said, I remember the stump. I said, I remember the stump, but I do not remember the trees—I do not think—no.

Not that we forget.

This is because there is the paper and then there is the person.