‘Walked in the streets for two hours, weightless, boneless, bodiless.’
Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910–23
In 1958, Italo Calvino published a short story titled ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’. The protagonist, Antonino, likes to lecture his friends on certain bugbears in contemporary society, such as the tendency (no longer limited to tourists) to behave as though life is worthwhile only when it has been caught by the camera. ‘The line between the reality that is photographed because it is beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow.’ When Antonino accidentally takes a pleasing snapshot of some of his friends frolicking in the sea, he embarks despite himself on a photographic odyssey, to make ‘a catalogue of everything in the world that resists photography.’ He begins by photographing his flummoxed lover, Bice, at all hours of the day and night. He ends by making images of the most banal aspects of the shrinking world around him: ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, an unmade bed, a damp stain on the wall of his room, a corner in which there is nothing but a radiator pipe. Finally despairing, Antonino concludes that only by photographing photographs could he hope to fulfil his exhaustive and exhausting ambition.
A catalogue of everything in the world that resists photography – this is in some sense what photographers have always hoped to make. At one point in the process of becoming the artist whose mature work we see in Tales of Estrangement, Effie Paleologou tried to do what Antonino does in Calvino’s tale: to photograph every minute of her day, starting with the instant she woke up by pointing a camera at the ceiling. The project was doomed, but there remains in her work a commitment to the quotidian, to the anonymous corner, to interstices in the daily round, to paying attention to her own mode and rhythms of attention, even if scale and subjects have taken her elsewhere, out into the night. In these recent images produced in – or perhaps we should say between – Athens and London, anonymous tracts of the city (mostly) after dark are the ostensible theme. Though we may also wonder what kind of vision is involved or implied here to make the city seem so fantastical, so productive of light and form and atmosphere. It’s not too simplistic, or too dramatic, to say that this is a vision in a kind of exile.
Early in her career Paleologou was attracted, as other writers and artists have been, to the modernist idea of the flâneur: the ambulatory and usually male character at large and at leisure in the city, casting an easily distracted eye on its inhabitants, commodities, and intended or accidental aesthetic experiences. For Baudelaire, who in his 1863 essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ bases his definition partly on Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’, the flâneur is essentially a creature of the urban mass. ‘The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.’ In Paleologou’s work, there is certainly something of the city wanderer celebrated by Poe, Baudelaire, and (later) Walter Benjamin. But where have the crowds gone? Can we still speak of a flâneur when the masses are absent, and in place of the street-level pleasures of the city there are instead these darkling visions of – what, exactly? Architecture? Nature? Infrastructure? Found atmospheres or carefully confected spectacle?
Excerpt from Brian Dillon’s essay ‘Everything Merges with the Night’, from Tales of Estrangement by Effie Paleologou
27 x 33 cm, 112 pages
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