What is common
to the ways of creating meanings
and prehistoric remains?
In my research and related photographic work I am particularly interested in time and temporality. I have photographed prehistoric remains like tombs, ritual places and rock art, I have searched the temporal layers of landscape and studied the effect of time in a photograph.
In front of a prehistoric remain I have a certain feeling of time. Something similar, at times, happens in front of a photograph. I wonder… do they have something in common? Or rather… what is common to the ways of creating meanings to photographs and prehistoric remains?
A photograph or a remain does not create meanings itself. If it seems it does, it is only an animistic illusion. A photograph does not have consciousness to create things. A photograph does not even carry meanings. No. What it does, it carries appearances that tempt us to create meanings. The meanings are born inside our heads, fed by our experiences, memories, observations etc. Same things can create different meanings to people with different backgrounds.
In David Bate’s terms my viewpoint is a combination of semiotics and realism. (David Bate 2009. Photography. The Key Concepts, p. 41–42.) Two different theoretical approaches to photographic images. Semiotics in the sense that the photograph has no fixed meanings. And realism in the sense that the photograph carries the appearance of the photographed.
An Object and Time
Prehistoric remains are tied to the past. They were constructed to fulfill the needs of an ancient society, as a tomb, a temple, a residence, or whatever. After a certain period of use they were abandoned and later, maybe forgotten. What remains is the ruin. By its existence the ruin refers to the past, to the original use.
What we now think about the remains, what is their meaning to us, is partly bind to their supposed original use. We see a three thousand year old burial cairn and by that we know that people three thousand years ago cared and respected their lost ones. We can make conclusions of their society and beliefs by the appearance and the location of the tomb. Through archaeological research we can get closer to the thoughts of the ancient builders and users and share at least some parts of the meanings they had for the constructions.
But this is not all. In front of a prehistoric remain I feel something the original users could not feel. For them the remain was not a ruin. It was a contemporary construction still in active use. The meaning we create for an object in use is different from the object not in use anymore. The fact we know the remain is old, built and used centuries or millennia ago, invokes new meanings. Meanings that deal with the time gone, past generations or the circulation of time.
In fact the ability to invoke temporal meanings can be found in any kind of a cultural object. Think about old clothes or great-grandparent’s tableware. Don’t they have same kind of relation to the past? They were created and used years, decades or centuries ago. They are not any clothes or any tableware, but the ones that were created in a specific time and used by specific people. They have their original uses and meanings just like the prehistoric remains. And the time gone changes our attitude towards them. Invoking ideas of time, they become similar to the ruins.
In dictionary the word “remnant” is defined as “a small piece or amount of something that is left from a larger original piece or amount”. Ruins are remnants of a kind: “the broken parts that are left from an old building or town”. They are objects that were. Leftovers. And the meanings of the objects rise from the past time. (Cambridge Free English Dictionary and Thesaerus.)
These temporal meanings also have something to do with myths. Not in the sense of fairytales or untruthful beliefs, but in the sense of origins – the origins of cultural activities of different kinds. In the ruin of a tomb we see the origins of the ritual of burial – or the religion – or society (as building of such construction requires co-operation). In the modest Stone Age painting on the cliff I see the origins of art.
Walter Banjamin has written something similar, although he rejects the word myth. “In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting.” (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, NLB, London 1977 (orig. 1928), p. 177–178.) From the ruins we can read the origins of things. They are allegories in a material form. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, NLB, London 1977, p. 178.)
Photograph as a remnant
As an object a photograph can be thought like clothes, tableware or whatever, and like them it can become a remnant. Like a nineteenth century daguerreotype, that most likely was used as a memento (and maybe treated like a precious relic).
But it is not only as an object how the photograph is bind to past. Even more profoundly the past is in its appearance, the very nature of photograph.
The visibility of a photograph is bind to a specific moment in the past. It has inherited its appearance in the moment of exposure. What we see in the photograph has developed in the time before the exposure, and it freezes to the light-sensitive surface at that certain moment. A photograph refers to the moment that is inevitably past.
This of course is most obvious in the photographs that in their appearances show something we think is old or gone. Photographs that we can recognize are from a past era. So that the iconic message of the image emphasizes the knowledge of the past moment. But this is not a must, the moment of the exposure is gone whatever is shown in the image. And we know it. It is branded in the definition of the photograph.
As described, it seems both photographs and prehistoric remains have a special relation to time. The moment when they were created and when they received their appearances is gone. When we look at them we look at something that has passed, the moment of exposure or the moment of the past culture. The knowledge of the time gone creates new meanings.
My claim is that a photograph, unlike most objects, is a remnant by its nature. A photograph shows a moment that was. It is not possible to make a photograph that is here and now. It can be here, but never now. A photograph is always in the past tence. It is born as a remnant of a moment.
Although the photograph can be an object in use. Its appearance is a remnant.
We can adapt Benjamin: “In the photograph history has physically merged into the image.”
Remnants of remnants
What then happens, when we look at a photograph of a prehistoric remain? What kind of temporal relations now arise?
English photographer Francis Frith journeyed Egypt and Middle East from 1856 to 1860 to create a series of photographs to sell to the public home in Britain. Frith’s wet-plate photographs are realistic and detailed views of the landscape and ancient monuments. It seems Frith’s purpose was to open a window to the exotic and distant country that was difficult to reach by most of the people. To create a realistic illusion of another place.
When I look at the Frith’s photographs today, there is also another kind of illusion. The multiple illusion of time. When I look at the photograph I know it shows a certain place in a certain moment some 160 years ago. But at the same time I look at a landscape with a history of – at least – 5000 years. The ruins of pyramids or temples refer to the times they were built, the ancient Egypt.
I can suppose that for Frith’s contemporaries the ancient was the primary temporal layer of Frith’s photographs. Not what the ruins were in their days, but the glory of the Ancient. But the photograph is a prisoner of the moment of exposure. It shows the past layers of the landscape, but cannot hide the newer ones. The collapsed buildings, fallen statues and the texts carved to the stone in western alphabets deny the return to the ancient.
The pyramid rises from the sand. Some local people – I suppose – are sitting next to the Sphinx. Further away there is one more person with a donkey. The pyramid and the sphinx dominate the landscape, but we can clearly see the damage caused by millennia of sand, heat, erosion and human activities. The smooth surface of the pyramid is taken down, the Sphinx is cracked and partly covered with sand. From the massive constructions we can feel the power of the Egyptian empire. But the photograph also suggests that the empire has fallen. Long ago.
But also the moment in the photograph is gone. I haven't been in Egypt. But I have seen a mass of photographs. And I know the environment has changed. What appears forgotten or sleepy in Frith's photographs is totally different in more recent images. Let’s see the photograph by Juha Suonpää, for instance. (Juha Suonpää, Sacred places – Pyhät paikat. Maahenki, Helsinki 2007, p. 40–41.)
In Suonpää's panorama the pyramids dominate the distant horizon, but the foreground is covered with lines of plastic chairs. The sphinx and the constructions around it are dug up. People dressed in European style walk on a line towards the Great Pyramid. There are busses on the right and a futuristic construction next to the pyramid.
Frith's photographs can produce a pale illusion of the times of the pharaohs, although the moment of the photographs is clearly in the nineteenth century. In the Suonpää's photograph the activities of the 21st century form the dominant temporal layer. There is a reference to the ancient, but it is framed by the 21st century. The illusion is gone.
This, of course, is also a matter of placing and cropping. If Suonpää, like Richard Misrach, places his camera to another site and crops it only to the pyramid, would the illusion return?
More remnants of remnants
Let’s see another example. Again the same subject is seen by two photographers, now about in the same time, but with different approaches.
American photographer Paul Caponigro toured the British isles in the 1960s and 70s, photographing mainly Stone Age monuments in the landscape. In the book Megaliths he offers us a selection of beautifully printed black and white photographs of prehistoric remains. Caponigro is interested in the spiritual and mystical aspect of the megalithic monuments. The photographs are peaceful and descriptive. They show the details of the monuments, but also their position in the landscape.
Caponigro’s photographs are rich of tones, but he does not dramatize in the Ansel Adams’ style. The land is detailed and the sky is pale. The weather and light are “ordinary” in the sense that they do not point to any specific moment. The feeling of time in Caponigro’s photographs is slow and endless, almost stopped. The stones have been in the landscape for thousands of years, and so they shall. The imagery creates an undramatic, meditative feeling faithful to Caponigro’s respectful attitude towards the ancient monuments.
British photographer Fay Godwin also had interest on British landscape and prehistoric remains, but while Caponigro’s style is silent and distant, Godwin is present in the landscape. There is a sense of experience in her photographs. The sky is often in a dynamic role, controlling the light and tuning the atmosphere of the landscape. The photographs are not taken on any moment, like Caponigro’s, but at a specific moment, when the clouds and the stones are arranged in a one-time-only position. The moment, that is now gone.
In Moonlight, Avebury Godwin shows a field lightened by the full moon. A herd of sheep is lying on the field. In the background dark trees are standing against the gray sky. Buildings made of stone lie under the trees and in front of them are the stones. But the stones and the buildings are just the stage. The white sheep in the foreground are the main characters. The feeling is sleepy and calm. But it can be temporary, one of the sheep is standing alerted. The moment is emphasized, moment of the sheep against the eternity of the stones.
Caponigro and Godwin shared the same subject – prehistoric remains in British landscape – and created beautifully finished black and white photographs. But their approaches were somewhat different. Caponigro emphasized spiritual aspects of the remains while Godwin was – I believe – more interested on the history of the land. This difference in approaches is also visible in the appearance of the photographs. And the appearances are results of the choices the photographers made when they placed their cameras on the landscape and when they worked in the darkrooms.
In Godwin’s photographs the idea that a photograph is a remnant of a certain moment in the past is emphasized. In Caponigro’s photographs the temporality is different. Even though the photographs are tied to a certain moment in the past, they tempt me to think about constancy. They were, they are and they will be.
The photograph of an ancient ruin invokes temporal meanings similar to the meanings of the ruins themselves. But there is also another temporal layer in the photographs. A layer created by the moment of exposure. The photographs of ancient remains are remnants of remnants. They are temporally layered in two levels. In the level of the object and in the level of the photograph.
Which level is dominant is related to the choices the photographer makes when placing the camera and while working with the final image.
Ismo Luukkonen is an artist photographer living and working in Turku, Finland. He also works as a senior lecturer of photography in the Arts Academy at the Turku University of Applied Sciences.
This introduction is based on a presentation given in the Helsinki Photomedia 2016 conference at Aalto University in March–April 2016.