Poet Wisława Szymborska, in an imaginary conversation with Ecclesiastes, challenges him with cunning shrewdness: “There’s nothing new under the sun… But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem.”
The series of photographs featured in Uri Gershuni’s exhibition—in itself, a contemplation of the notions of newness and sun in their photographic context—lacks the reconciled innocence underlying Szymborska’s statement. It is imbued with an antithetical despair, and its conclusions transpire on the verge of an abyss, as it were. Gradually, however, their proximity will be revealed.
The exhibition seems to be underpinned by the realization that the sun that shines on us is, in itself, rather ancient, and that in an irreversible process which cannot be altered, it will evolve within about five billion years to a star unable to produce warmth and light. Sharp fluctuations in temperature would cause the sun to shed its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula moving around the nucleus of the shrinking sun slowly cooling in space. The sun too will cease to exist.
There is no artistic medium like photography so inseparably tied with the sun. Its idiosyncratic language is distinguished by its dependence on natural astrophysical processes originating in sunlight. When these processes are imprinted in the chemistry of the photographic paper, the photograph transforms into a perfect melting pot between the technological and the living, a contact point between man and the stars, mediated by a light-registering apparatus. The act of photography is a desperate attempt to fish out something illuminated in an infinite universe, to leave a hint of our being; the camera as a box for capturing tiny physical occurrences, the “Pencil of Nature” as per the ever so accurate title by the pioneer of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.
Gershuni’s photographs appear as though they have been created in a world struck by a process of extinction, under a disappearing sun and its gradually waning light. His journey to the village of Lacock in Wiltshire, England—Talbot’s hometown—which spawned these photographs, essentially calls to mind worshippers swarming holy sites on the eve of an apocalypse.
The photographs in the exhibition document Talbot’s habitat as it appears in the present. Some of them contain objects and places which were the subject of the first photographs in history. Gershuni’s new photographs blend with the memory of Talbot’s photographs—especially the oriel window at Lacock Abbey, the earliest known surviving example of a photographic negative and a photogenic print—like a chemical collision between beginning and end. It is as though in Gershuni’s fusion of his photographs with the memory of Talbot’s photographs, we witness a nuclear occurrence, a catastrophe which melts epilogue into prologue, while everything between them burns and melts away.
Had the universe suddenly reversed the direction of its expansion, it would have turned backwards, toward the Big Bang, and disappeared anew into the void. Gershuni does exactly that: a deep despair with photography’s ability to innovate and excite, as well as thoughts about the dying sun on which photography as a whole is dependent, have motivated him to embark on a journey back to the starting point, to the realms of the “Big Bang” that gave rise to the pristine act of photography, perhaps in an attempt to be swallowed up by it and disappear into a black hole.
To prove that only the moments in which things—universes, planets, or human beings—are born or die has any meaning, Gershuni proposes to erase and destroy everything ever photographed, except for the first photographs ever taken by man; to try to assimilate into them so as to experience the sense of revelation embodied in Talbot’s work, which is still concealed in his photographs. Subsequently, one must die out with the sun, never to photograph again.
Much has been written about the “devalidation” of the photographic act in this overly mapped era which is inundated by images. It seems, however, that Gershuni not only laments the devaluation of photography; he also dares to do what other photographers don’t: to catalyze and to be present at its very moment of execution, while voicing a great cry of despair.
Gershuni’s journey to Lacock is like a pilgrimage to a shrine to experience or see something that Talbot saw, before the end comes. A closer look at what Gershuni saw there in the moments of truth, however, reveals a less terminal answer than we might have expected. Despite the morbidity and the attraction with cessation simmering in the black, grainy photographs on view, they secretly emanate a wonderful yet silent hope. The first photograph in the exhibition features Talbot’s tombstone. While at first sight, it is an image which declares the death of the inventor of photography, and with him, perhaps, the death of photography as a whole, and as such it invokes a sense of bowing to dead ancestors, on second thought it is also a photograph featuring a sculptural object made of a durable material which symbolizes the death of a man, while the stone itself lives on.
Thus, in his very first photograph here, Gershuni declares the ability of a given substance to survive long after the materials from which our bodies are made. The series of images continues; From the dark surfaces of his photographs, trees, stone paths, ancient gates, bridges, tables, and latticed windows float out—an assortment of objects that existed before Talbot’s time and continues to exist years after his death.
Do these photographs, despite the withering images of mildew and damp and the bubbling, burnt photographic paper, in fact symbolize survival, subsistence, attesting to Gershuni’s secret belief in the chance to be saved? Perhaps even a belief in a form of new life after the end of days? If an object, a piece of furniture, a structure, or a plant, can survive and still leave an indelible impression of the person who created it or came in contact with it, even after the latter’s death, can not an art work do the same?
Gershuni’s renewed belief in photography’s ability to form a memory, a material incarnation of a former life, erupts from his surprising photographs of a human figure—Mr. Kronnagel—whose gaze is penetrating and direct. While observing the photographs depicting objects – which are akin to an invocation of ghosts – is disturbing; knowing that they are unaware of us observing them, as if we didn’t exist, and they are oblivious of us since they will long outlive us, Mr. Kronnagel is well aware of our presence; he knows that we breathe on the other side of the camera, hence he constitutes an image which is all a living, breathing, present presence, much more than the sacred past around him. Thus he deserves to leave behind photographic evidence of his existence.
Now behold the photograph of a vehicle moving swiftly in a field (perhaps it is an ambulance, hence an image of resuscitation?), implying more life within the desistence, life moving from here to there, eternally frozen by the camera. When has a photograph last elicited such basic excitement in its ability to intervene with the flow of time and treasure life in light?
Talbot and Gershuni are indeed absent from the photographs, because in their destructive encounter both have been annihilated, whether physically or metaphorically. But photographs of other people, akin to survivors from a disaster zone, bespeak a life found which is yet to be documented, and life yet to be documented is nonetheless a belief in something new under the sun.
Gershuni has fulfilled the most basic commandment of photography: to offer evidence of the photographer’s journey, whether inward or outward, into the distance; to constitute proof of the photographer’s discoveries and revelations, whose photographable texture he perpetuated for us. Had every person been given the unique chance to travel in time, his choice, whether to move forward or back, would greatly attest to his sources of curiosity, his beliefs, and his hopes.
Gershuni chose to travel back in time to the nascent moment of the photographic medium, which is also the beginning of its expiration, hence a point of destruction. He plunged into a dark, suicidal crisis of faith that had taken over him, and looked straight ahead. He experienced within himself powerful moments of contradiction, a split between the believer and the heretic within him: Is there an “afterlife”? Is eternity photographable? Is there anything left in this expendable world worthy of being photographed? Is there a merciful Great Father capable of explaining our disappearance from the world virtually without leaving a trace? And if the moments of birth and death are the essence, is it not vital that we meet the propagator, who is supposed to die before us infront of our eyes, at the moment of his death?
Gershuni’s photographs are like souvenirs from a voyage to the end of the world, taken by a believer who has lost his path and now tries to find it again. He has found it in the masturbation photograph: Even if it might appear like sacrilege, as defiance against “wasting of one’s seed,” even if it celebrates the carnal, the flesh, the corporeal, the expendable, this photograph is nevertheless blended with a different spiritual sanctity, the sanctity of the blessing of the Sun and Sight: “One who sees the sun at its turning point, should say blessed is he who reenacts the works of Creation”. Because we are observing a new man before us, under the sun, in a moment of vitality.
Sometime in 1839—a temporal view which is emptied of meaning vis-à-vis infinity—Talbot exposed a negative to the sun. All of a sudden, light was rendered dark and black, while darkness transformed into whiteness. That Gershuni discovered under yesterday’s sun.