As part of the feedback I received at the recent Thames Valley Group meeting, our tutor Jayne suggested I read Craig Owens’ essay Photography “en abyme”. This was, I realised later, a response to my photograph of the cut-out figures shown below.
Fortunately the essay is available to download and the link is here: http://www.ecolemagasin.com/IMG/pdf/owens.pdf. It is not the easiest of reads, and my summary also relies on the explanation to be found in Chapter 5 of Gelder & Westgeest’s Photography Theory in Historical Perspective.
Owens uses the image below, Bal des Quatre Saisons by Brassaï as the starting point for his argument.
At a superficial reading, it appears to be a standard image of a party scene, but as one looks at it in more detail, the viewer becomes aware that
a complex web of internal reduplications deflects attention away from that which, despite the status of photographs as imprints of the real, remain external to the image: the reality it depicts. Psychological and sociological details are thus displaces by the network of internal relationships between subject, mirror and other, which structures the image. Owens, 1978, 73
The image shows two couples and three other people. At first glance, it appears the two couples might be the same, but slowly the realisation dawns that the pair in the mirror are sitting opposite the three people at the front of the image and are only visible in the mirror’s reflection. I had originally considered whether the mirror was in fact a window, through which one can see into another room, but this is not the case. The two couples seem to mirror each other’s positioning in a way that Desmond Morris (see refs) would find interesting, while the other people in the image are a separate but integral part of the scene. The girl on the left appears to be looking at someone outside the frame, while the woman at the back is looking directly at the photographer, albeit through the mirror. So, the photographer is part of the image, despite not being visible.
The strange duplications and reflected connections extend much further than this, but only add detail to the argument. The point is that the mirror references the analogical definition of the photograph as a mirror of reality.
Because the mirror image doubles the subjects – which is exactly what the photograph itself does – it functions as a reduced internal image of the photograph. The mirror reflects not only the subject depicted, but also the entire photograph. It tells us in a photograph what a photograph is – en abyme. Owens, 1978, 75)
In simple terms, en abyme is a term from literary theory, which refers to a small part of a text that reproduces the whole thing in miniature, in this case an internal mirror that provides an explanation for the whole scene. However, there is more to it than that. The Youtube lecture by Prof. Michael Paraskos below posits the notion that an idea mise en abyme can offer the viewer the possibility of seeing an alternative reality, one that is not imprisoned by our current cultural norms. Paraskos uses the concepts of mirrors and windows, as has been outlined in the course materials, but rather than “windows”, he explains the idea as a “looking glass”, (from Lewis Carroll) in which one can see the possibility of a different reality, unrelated to our current world, and not bound by any underlying assumptions that we take for granted. He theorises that in this zone, there is the possibility of producing new, creative art. It is a complex lecture, and I probably do not need to go into more detail than that for the purposes of this post. Where it is relevant is that the en abyme concept can be used to describe “mirrors and windows” in a different way to that suggested in our coursework.
This theory above is where I would like to place my assignment, and my idea is to use the concept mise en abyme to consider whether what we see through a mirror is reality or something different. Thus, although the assignment will use mirrors as props for the work, the overall result is a study of the windows concept, or the looking glass which Paraskos describes.
(Incidentally, I am left wondering whether Bressai’s photograph was deliberately set up to make a point set up or whether the photographer took advantage of a scene already in place.)
In my next post, I will look at some photographers who use mirrors in this way, and consider the test images I have taken so far.
Morris, Desmond. (xxxx
Gelder & Westgeest’s Photography Theory in Historical Perspective.