Dreaming Robert Frank, Dreaming Walter Benjamin

Awake too much, the dream and its fragmented, fogged and transitory qualities, I find a seductive state. The lapse and slip and the nuance, already elusive by its very suggestion, is an amplitude to which I am drawn. That’s more than enough. Give me space, some time and, as Robert Frank would say, “Give me a sign …,” the ellipsis at the end offering as many endings or beginnings as the sky over the sea in front of the house he and June Leaf have lived in in Mabou, Cape Breton, since 1970. Now, since September 9 of this year—only June Leaf.

I thought Walter Benjamin, to whom I look as a multitudinous source, would be that, again—when I’m still thinking of taking Mandelbrot to Robert Frank and June Leaf in New York and no longer can—that Benjamin would be a person to look to for a response, a sign. I claim a specific, and will argue a legitimate and direct, connection to Walter Benjamin. I’ve done so before, any opportunity, actually. My maternal grandfather was born on July 15, 1982, Walter Benjamin the same.

A small book, On Photography Walter Benjamin, 2015 (Reaktion Books Ltd, edited and translated by Esther Leslie), would be a place from which to begin. It’s a nice book and contains pieces on photography written by Benjamin, including “Small History of Photography,” 1931, and other brief pieces, some previously unpublished and some shorter commentary included elsewhere in his writings. I read and made notes and included in the margins the initials WB, so I’d quickly recognize the point of reference. In fact, that’s also a trigger, if that doesn’t conjure too noisy a prompt. My garden is full of rabbits. My neighbourhood is full of rabbits. No one has cats or they are cosseted indoor cats and there’s little room inside the city for foxes. People garden, so there is a proliferation of rabbits. No longer a novelty and not even of interest to my dogs on our regular walks, they have been taken into the landscape with the squirrels and the city birds. (The birds are always remarked, though, and all are—with their small systems and skyward connection—an astonishment.)

But there is a rabbit, one rabbit who is 20 feet tall, and possibly one of the wealthiest rodents in the world and he has my attention. The scale may eliminate Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare, 1502, although he is a beauty. It’s not the sympathetically abject Bunny Boy in Harmony Korine’s 1997 film Gummo, and, in gratitude, it’s not the terrifying killer rabbit in the 2001 movie Donnie Darko. The initials WB are Walter Benjamin’s but also stand for Warner Bros, signature crest included. Riffing is a kind of dream state where associations link freely, and WB for me is, of course, Walter Benjamin but also Warner Bros, and I think only of Bugs Bunny in association with that giant film company and have since I was a very young child and the dancing, mooching, wickedly smart, quick and always game, 20-foot-tall rabbit was what WB stood for. Waskilly Wabbit, so named by the hapless, too-late-on-thescene Elmer Fudd. The “W,” as I knew it to be correct, stood for Wabbit and the “b” was for one of the double consonants that followed in Wabbit—the first “b,” probably. The second one, for whatever purpose they had in mind. I went no further.

Esther Leslie suggests Benjamin’s writing is photographic, especially when the subject is memory. She writes, “In his memoirs of childhood Benjamin gestures at uncanny moments of temporal removal, such as are achieved in photography.” Something would call his history to mind and he would see it complete, an instant lifted like a lucent block, I’m thinking, out of its past circumstances and held isolated and aloft. I understand. Name an event and it is as though a room is illuminated. Scanning like a slow-paced video camera, in memory I inventory the space and everything it holds there. Benjamin does this with his language, which would be a transcription of the photograph imprinted in memory and pulled up madeleine-like by the taste of a Christmas orange or the sound of disembodied voices on the street in quiet conversation, filtered through a drifting curtain on a night in late August. This is a photograph, too, and the question then—is memory a camera or is the camera a goad to memory?

After The Americans Robert Frank said he would leave the single photograph behind and he turned to film, producing Pull My Daisy, 1958, at 30 minutes in length. Never having been interested in or persuaded by the notion of a decisive moment’s being sufficiently full, his conviction was that the image was contingent on what preceded and what followed and that that might be closer to a truth—the intention and sense of a truth. Amplification is how we see, how we make sense, and is what happens in memory so that our past is more than time lost or gone but is a rich store. It’s time’s sop against regret, I’d say. Poet Robert Kroetsch told us, in Seed Catalogue, his long poem from 1986, “Love is an amplification / by doing / over and over,” and Michael Ondaatje, too, suggests the elaboration of a moment in his poem “The Time Around Scars,” the title alone being sufficient to say to me that the scar itself is not an isolated imprint but the mark carrying with it the event and the adjacent circumstances and the day leading up to it and the way, in that whole preceding week, the sky had been grey and low and the weather unseasonably warm.

Benjamin, too, questioned the limit of the single image, but his application here leans to its social and political efficacy. He is reading his colleague Bertold Brecht’s writing on photography’s interrogating the truthfulness (even then) of media—in this case the single photograph’s being manufactured with the intent to deceive, either for economic gain as a commodity, or for political manipulation and control. Brecht suggests, Esther Leslie writes, that an artwork that is clearly a constructed piece would be revealing, its multiple sources evident as assembled elements or fragments that would say it is indeed a composite and its subject is complex. Leslie says Benjamin takes this idea of an assemblage’s being closer to truthfulness and agrees with the legitimacy of the photomontage as “a form of photograph that works with and against words, with captions and one-liners, to anchor the image,” adding, “At the same time, these elements detonate ‘reality,’ breaking apart its functional reification, by uncovering what the relations between its alienated parts are.” She quotes from a lecture Benjamin had written in 1934 to deliver at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it revolutionary use value.”

Not with political revolution in mind, although most certainly, profoundly and quietly in the avant-garde, Robert Frank might have seen ideational parallels here in his photomontages and incised and written-on negatives, collages and inscribed assemblages. But personal, autobiographical in their content. Autobiographical in the specificity of the images but universal and unmistakable in their emotional evocations. It is not possible to misread the weight of the pain and loss in Sick of Goodby’_s, 1978, or _Andrea, Mabou, 1977.

If you go to Walter Benjamin you go to The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version, 1936, in Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938 (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). Benjamin is writing about films and he says that with any movement, any gesture— like picking up a cigarette lighter or a spoon—we know nothing about what happens between the initiation of the gesture and its realization, and this, he says, is where the camera comes into play, “with all its resources for swooping and rising, disrupting and isolating,” and so on. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis,” and he goes further: “these two types of unconscious are intimately linked.” Film gives us the extremes and extensions, the hallucinations and psychoses that are usually reserved for dreaming. It’s his sense that films provide an audience with the beneficial opportunity to enter these states—psychosis and dreaming—collectively. It’s a benefit or fact that nullifies Heraclitus’s ancient truth that “those who are awake have a world in common while each sleeper has a world of his own.” It is probably closer to truth, alas, than Heraclitus’s ancient scripture that media is so ubiquitous, pervasive and insidious that our dreams are no longer our sole purview.

But how acutely awake do we have to be? I mean, is it necessary to be vigilantly attentive to the exterior world or can we sometimes let it sift and filter in? In the imperceptible space that film catches— what Walter Benjamin refers to as the space, or is it the time of the optical unconscious—there is time for the unconscious perception to be absorbed and noted—now or later.

I’m looking at four images set horizontally. They are one work identified as Untitled, 1996, from the exhibition and book “Robert Frank HOLD STILL—keep going,” which began its tour at Museum Folkwang in Essen in December 2001 and travelled to Reina Sofia, Madrid, and Centro Cultural de Belem. Under the four images in Robert Frank’s readily identifiable script is this message, seeming to have started outside the left-hand edge of the image. It begins, “Water. two black and white Polaroid negatives in a tray June’s hand resting on a Stone table next to a cup and / Saucer from the Montreal Prison two Stones inside the cup the Knife from Japan the glasses are mine / one negative is sharp the other is not it is September 21st 1996.” Laid out this way, it is a poem. Robert Frank said, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” Robert’s script/poem is a clear and comprehensive description of the four images. All the components are listed. If I want to add more I find nothing is missing except to comment that the black is rich and dense and impenetrable, and the subject of the two Polaroid negatives is the subject of the fourth photograph, which is the stone table with June’s hand and the prison cup and saucer. The four images are separate, discrete prints, but, in fact, June’s arm with hand resting on the stone table extends from the adjacent image across the photo’s outer edge to place itself on the stone table, speaking, perhaps, to the reach and sustaining presence her dedication to work and life brought to Robert’s darker questioning person. From one image to the next Robert gives time for apprehension, for us to bring to the image our own question, our own sorrowing, to pause in respect—one image to the next as our eyes move across—for the mysterious life another person inhabits; the space to look up and beyond the frame and see in the mind’s eye—which is Benjamin’s optical unconscious—an alternate frame and a different way to conclude an elliptical tale that doesn’t end. ❚

Volume 38, Number 4: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #152, published December 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.