Once, to be observed was considered to be attended to. Visibility was much preferable to invisibility in that it meant that your existence was noted, that you had presence and perhaps effect. But increasingly the image apparatus is being experienced as overbearing. To be visible now means to be exposed. Any time you occupy an observable space, you are vulnerable to being mechanically scrutinized. Scrutinizing space is increasing: streets, shopping malls, interior and exterior public spaces, work, even home.
While mindful that cross-disciplinary analogies can be dangerous and misleading, I would like to borrow from linguistics its third division and consider the possibility of a “photo-pragmatics”: the study of the ways in which photographs act in the world to have effect and promote certain behaviour.
During Michael Mann’s 1981 film Thief, the title character Frank (played by James Caan) proposes marriage to Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a waitress he hardly knows. For her he pulls out his wallet and presents a folded photo collage that we have seen briefly before – he had been shown consulting it as if it were a compass or a map. Among the imagery it included were a few human figures, an old bearded man, a woman with a child, a house, some cars. “Here,” he says, “that is my life and nothing, nobody can stop me from making that happen.”
The renewal requires a death. Specifically, the second life, the new alternate life that comes with middle age, requires the identity-death of the child past, the symbolic figure of the immature being. So, Michel Campeau begins his new multi-part project Arboresccnces (2000) showing a young girl busy writing, and then he invokes an earlier picture set in a cemetery in which a barren tree shadow falls across the rocky ground, in the upper corner of which is the open maw of a freshly dug grave.