Essay: The Tenor and the Vehicle

Originally appeared in Ellipsis: Dual Vision by Stephen Posen (2013: Glitterati Incorporated)


I have a memory of my father holding his light meter above a prickly pear blossoming in the parking lot of a Motel 6—or maybe it was Econo Lodge—on the outskirts of Capitol Reef, Utah. I’d grown accustomed to this gesture. Invariably it meant delayed departure, my mother’s tolerance drifting toward impatience, children antsy in the backseat. But it’s a peculiar memory to hold onto. Here was no grand event, no incident. I know now that the act of taking his old analog light meter out of his rawhide camera case signaled that something beckoned to be captured. Something called to be translated from a glimpse into an image: a matrix of negative spaces between the jumbled stems, crosshatch of needles against green, matte skin. The fleshy flower, like a heart born in violent beauty outside an infant’s body, opening toward my father’s eye, his seeing. I know now that the gesture signaled how the cacti had already been at work on him, on his imagination—even if all I could see was an overgrown parking island. He wouldn’t always take such lengths, of course, to make certain that the particular quantum of the world he’d aimed his camera toward was translated on his slide or print film exactly as desired, as he’d seen. He would drive through hours of landscape—badlands, switchbacks down a mountainside in the Rockies—with one of his cameras perched on the steering wheel, or holding the lens out the window in an attempt to capture some fleeting vista while keeping the truck on the road. Before digital photography, before he could know whether he’d gotten the shot (whether chanced upon, or the product of careful calculation of film speed, aperture and exposure, lens, angle), I know he must have carried around the echoes, the fleeting possibilities of those encounters. Until the film could be developed, until he knew what was there, on that negative, he carried around the memory of what he’d seen, of that iota of reality he’d tried to harness as image. Wondering: what have I gleaned? Did I capture some part of what existed between my seeing and what I saw?

Stephen Posen’s vibrant and beguiling collection of photographs, Ellipsis, Dual Visions, leaves me charged with wondering and possibility. With resonant distances and uncommon intimacies. Traversing these eighty-six images—each composed of a pair of photographs— I was reminded of Mark Doty’s comment about the later still lifes of the Dutch Masters. The significance of the objects found in each of the paintings—the translucency of a lemon, light of white damask—lies in “a poetry of relation.” Here, too, in Posen’s book, we feel the resonance, the thrum, the yearning that opens up between the two photographs comprising each of his images. We feel it even when the subjects of a pair—a flag in a golf green, a model having her make-up done (#62); a rotting fruit beset by bumbleebees, a member’s only jacket on the hood of a car (#43)—so often have little to recommend one to the other. But such is the nature of metaphors—and I came to understand at least part of the relationship between Posen’s photographs as that of the two parts of a metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle. “I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,” writes the poet Jack Gilbert in “Finding Something,” “because horse is the closest I can get to it.” As in Gilbert’s poem, the viewers of Posen’s photographs are left to feel into precisely how a child’s hand grasping a brilliantly pink, sunlit pool toy is held in relation to a swan—by what energy “moon” (the tenor) is bound to “horses in the tempered dark” (the vehicle). The answer is, of course, at least partially because Posen has placed them together for us to behold. But, as with a metaphor, the viewer is left to close the connection.

I’ve been trying to reckon the mechanics of this yearning I feel between the photographs. Posen told me that he’s “interested in the space between the images, ” and while I was spending time with his collection I was reminded of something I’d once read about the peculiarity of the relationship between the former ninth planet, Pluto, and its moon Charon. Most planets in the solar system are so massive that their moons are held in orbit around them. But Pluto and Charon are more equally matched in size and mass: they exert a more equal measure of gravity on the other. As a result, the two icy rocks orbit a point of gravity—a barycenter, its called—that they create together in the space between them. They are a spinning system of twin worlds that at once influence and are influenced by each other’s mass. So, too, are Posen’s photographs locked into a synchronous orbit with each other. In #15, a glass case of unsettling plastic fingers displaying false nails—floral punctuation, starbursts—tugs at the accompanying photograph’s fossilized ammonites’ spiral shells; in each other’s echoes I hear an anxiety of impermanence. This seabed record of ancient dead lends the mall counter still life a melancholy urgency. Caught in the space between the quiet fossils and the vapid terror of the human beauty industry I hear the poet Rilke, in the presence of his headless statue of Apollo, imploring “you must change your life.” The force the photographs have on each other—and the contemplation they force us into—makes it nearly impossible to decouple them from each other. Separated, they would ache for each other, for the image—the spinning, tidal system—they are together. For the metaphor they become.

I’ve returned frequently to the second image in the book, uncertain not about what I see in each photograph (though in other instances that’s the case) but about the gravity that sets them spinning about that point between them. One photograph gives a homeless man huddled on an MTA subway car bench; the other offers some garish pinwheels, the door of a van or truck in the background. Little or nothing of the photographs’ subjects initially calls out toward each other. But, after a moment, certain formal echoes begin to emerge. The curves of the window frame reach toward the vehicle’s wheel well. The sickle of red, white, and blue vanes between the two concentric windmills draw the eye toward a crescent between the sweatshirt and the hefty bag wherein the man’s face can be glimpsed. Plucked out of the current of our daily lives—commutes, suburban yards—each image threatens a kind of banal transience. The eye might move from each photograph’s quotidian subject swiftly were it not for these rhymes: curves, negative space, transecting lines. And these rhymes beckon me into contemplation. A sense of impossibility wells up when I register the cowled man’s white cane as that of a blind person. How does a blind man endure, homeless, a New York City winter? Or, sighted, did this man—enveloped in the mass of his possessions, seeking sleep or privacy—take up this symbol of blindness to serve some other, private purpose? At once terribly dull in their plastic, rural patriotism and mundane psychedelic flora, the pinwheels are alive in the force of their color against the washed-out metal. I am caught between the two photographs, held in an unease bound up in ideas of home, gestures toward tentative solace and vibrant light, if not joy. And it is form that makes this happen.

But how did these photographs come together? In spite of myself, I can’t help but wonder which photograph Posen took first, or how a formal element—the hunter orange of a backyard mosquito tent; the same color, faded, glimpsed inside a tent pitched on a dune (#20)—became an open nerve, almost painfully alive with potential. A holstered handgun resting on a gray plastic bag; a newly chainsawn tree stump rising from a tar or corrugated metal field (#42): did Posen carry the memory of one of these photographs around in his head, charged with an openness, a desire? In his essay, “Souls on Ice,” Mark Doty writes, “our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do.” I can imagine the shape of that handgun, that shade of blaze orange “knowing” before Posen does—a memory stirring him towards the discovery of the other, tuning his seeing toward a photograph not yet taken. But I can also as easily imagine that the realization of connection occurs only later when he shuffles through the photographs amassed on the computer, spread across his desk in New York.

The answer doesn’t matter to me, not really. Because I have been left to play in the music of each duet, to thrum to the resonances awakened between the two photographs. However the individual photographs were initially taken, however they were brought into concert, their work together is vibrant and immediate. Not a single pairing is obvious. No single photograph is in thrall to the other—each exerts a force on the other that simultaneously clarifies and complicates my reading of them. While there is a metaphorical relationship between them, it is a reciprocal one: each is both tenor and vehicle to the other. Indeed, the images exist in a kind of parataxis, if I can borrow that term from grammar: Posen has placed the photographs side by side without any explicit guidance to how they relate to one another. We must hunt, or perhaps simply be open to the surprise of what formal and tonal details allow us to grok their relationship. A system of wires and suspended lamps in a high-vaulted room—a church? museum?—develops an uncanny intimacy with the inner space of a hot air balloon’s ropes and metal skeleton (#6). Each photograph emphasizes the logarithmic dynamics of a nautilus shell that can now be seen in the other. The curve of a gold-tasseled curtain echoes a winter branch tangled with a spider’s gossamer: the formal echo is clear, yet so subtle that my eye lingers in the hope of glimpsing something more elusive that holds the two photographs together (#4). Of seeing into the mechanics of the poetry at work here.

But my uncertainty about this poetry of relation is, I think, essential to Posen’s work in his book. Consider how the viewer looks down into the two worlds given in #16— the alligator enclosure and the efficiency bathroom—and immediately experiences the formal echoes across the photographs: rectilinear space, kindred colors, the tapered head of the gator and the squat-toilet drain. The first might have been taken out on Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia, one stop on a package tour that allows the visitor to gawk at the reptiles in their underwater cages and witness the Vietnamese refugees in their floating village of political limbo. The bathroom’s ugliness is somehow honest and brutally vibrant, but I doubt myself as soon as my mind reaches for a narrative or thematic link between the two (water and effluent? enclosure?). I like feeling an ache between the two photographs without feeling compelled to riddle out a particular story. I like that to try to consider the photographs independent of each other would do some violence to what they have become together, the image they combine to create.

As the reader falls deeper into the book, some of Posen’s preoccupations come into focus. He is drawn, I think, to the perfect strangeness of our species’ impulse to create images. Plastic fir boughs decking the front of a farm truck; a growling wolf on a polyester blanket (#37). The distorted musculature of a child’s action figures; the plastic solemnity of a Virgin Mary clock (#45). An Assyrian frieze depicting a roaring lion; a Kiss impersonator in full regalia, tongue lolling (#52). Some of these pairings help us read the way we gather our symbols, our objects together in deliberate, if questionable aesthetic statements; others reveal the way our view, indeed, our experience of the world is cluttered and mediated by the productions and reproductions we surround ourselves with. The first image in the book—tchotchke ceramic statuary and dancers in shimmery taffeta—calls attention to our everyday enactments of (culturally specific) ideas of beauty, how different societies tune our sensibilities. Without a sense of either praise or condemnation, Posen remains fascinated by the resonant patterns these pairings awaken formally and thematically. He invites the viewer in, to participate—comfortably or otherwise—in the play between the images.

I’m intrigued how some of the pairings leave me disturbed, enlivened by a violence that somehow isn’t quite there. In #9, glass bulbs and needles mar a landscape of scarred, rose-mottled skin—a practice of Chinese medicine known as “cupping.” Then: a ghostly, blurred shape intimates a hanged man—no, that’s not it, more the hooded prisoner on a stool at Abu Ghraib—before I realize it’s simply an unopened lawn umbrella with a Lichtenberg figure of a winter deciduous tree radiating behind it. It’s wonderful, and disorienting, what happens here without anything—without any literal brutality—happening between the images. However, in a later pairing, #50, the violence is palpable and explicit, unsettling in a quite different way. By thrusting the window of stacked skulls into this nearly absurd, cruel contrast with the vending machine of rubber balls, Posen is able to make what’s become a banal—and thus easy, too easy to turn away from—photographic remnant of the Khmer Rouge atrocity disturbingly fresh again. The rubber balls burgeon in size, their supermarket foyer made strange as its forced to accept the echo of those skulls, the innocent Cambodian dead. The eye sockets, nasal cavities, the gaping wound of a bullet: they all pick up the slapdash rainbow patterns—diamonds, ammonia clouds of Saturn—emblazoned on the balls. Only in this juxtaposition do questions come that might not otherwise, so familiar are we with this species of atrocity image: How do you even begin accounting for such loss? Do these skulls belong here, behind glass, on display, offered up? Shouldn’t they be in the ground, in a grave? But if they were, would I be asked—forced—to carry this image away with me?

I realize that the images that keep pulling me back are those that make me joyfully uneasy. They provoke laughter and discomfort, tentative understanding and lingering mystery. In #56, the rhyme between the nature morte of a slaughtered goat, arranged on blood-soaked cardboard, and the photograph that might be entitled “Still Life with Jabba the Hut and Winter Gourds” makes the butchery somehow playful, the (found? staged?) scene of unusual harvest inexplicably unsettling. The veins and cells of overexposed cabbage leaves re-jig how I see the patchwork of fields, snows, and roads framed by a jet-engine at 30,000 feet (#5). And my favorite duet—tadpoles caught in green, stagnant water on a bleached tarpaulin; a somehow planetary glimpse of, maybe, a koi fish—I still resist even describing for fear that doing so, taking the nearly abstract image and drawing it into figurative reality, will make something vanish for me. As though locating the barycenter between Pluto and Charon would somehow send those worlds spinning away from each other, or crashing together in cataclysm. I don’t want to know too much for fear that my wonder will pale; I want to remain with the chimera born of these two images’ (almost) ineffable intimacy.

In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty explores the elusive force that this one small still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem has somehow had on him. He writes, “I have been pulled into the orbit of a painting, have allowed myself to be pulled into its sphere by casual attraction deepening to something more compelling. I have felt the energy and life of the painting’s will; I have been held there, instructed.” One result of this attraction, this instruction, is that once he’s left the painting’s vivid world of resonant, minute detail, once he’s left the museum, the rest of Doty’s world, the city itself, is enlivened. The painting has re-tuned his seeing: “the air of the Upper East Side full of rising plumes of smoke from furnaces and steaming laundries, exhaust from the tailpipes of idling taxis, flapping banners, gangs of pigeons.” For a spell, Doty is able to see and feel the overwhelming stimulus of the city as though it were a still life.

After spending another afternoon looking at Stephen Posen’s photographs in the cafe of a design center sequestered on the sixth floor of one of Bangkok’s many malls, I make my way out into the city. Normally I struggle to block out the persistent and pernicious advertisements the storefronts pummel me with, must brace myself for their visual klaxon as I run the gauntlet of brands. But today, Posen’s photographs have tuned my mind’s eye, my anxiety. In The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, poet Wallace Stevens writes that “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.” Today, I think, Posen’s images, their resonant patterns and particular gravities, provide me with the metaphors to escape the disorienting tumult of manipulated desires and plundered signs I encounter in the mall. Posen gives me: a cataract of green felt emptying into a billiard pocket; ripples radiating about a swan’s neck, diving for food (#85). And here I find: the cascading blue fabric of a Gucci coat, spangled with stars; a two-story living wall of ferns, orchids, and unopened peace lilies. “Sometimes,” Doty writes in “Souls on Ice,” “it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.” The eighty-six pairings of Ellipsis, Dual Visions have charged me with seeing, with yearning, with an openness that allows me to reach out into the world in front of me in all its forms, uglinesses, aching, and psalms. And when I walk out into the hothouse air of Thailand’s rainy season I feel nothing but rhymes and echoes: bottles of strawberry Fanta left for the spirits; duckheads grilling under a billowing, greasy fan. The torn blue shirt of the construction workers walking home; the patchwork tarpaulins—cobalt, zaffre, Tiffany blue, azure—shrouding the abandoned building at the top of our street.

I know that if I held my iPhone up to what I see there I might hold, for a moment, what I have seen. But that it couldn’t hold, not really, the gravity of attention and attraction Posen’s images have awakened me to. Images themselves don’t ever really contain what we want them to—not really. That’s what I admire so much about this collection of photographs. Posen provokes us to inhabit not just the photographs, but the quick, uncertain poetry of their relation. The spirit of attraction between them, an attraction that is only made palpable through the viewer’s presence. It’s the spirit, I imagine, my father carried between the moment he glimpsed something and when he took out his light meter and flipped it open. Between when he took the photograph and when it was developed—the wondering, the longing between his seeing and what he’d seen. Between what our minds reach for, and what we grasp. If only for a moment.

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