Posts Tagged ‘Geoff Dyer’

Eyes upon the street

June 7, 2010

When I woke up on Saturday morning I was thinking very hard about windows.

The previous night I went to see the Exposed exhibition at the Tate Modern and then, instead of going to a big amazing party in Hackney, stayed in and watched a BBC adaptation of Mrs Dalloway on iPlayer. I am sure this is the onset of middle age. Everything muddled together in my head overnight and resulted in this preoccupation with windows.

‘Window’ evolved etymologically from the Old Norse: vindr – ‘wind’ and auga – ‘eye’. A root which brings to mind what Jane Jacobs wrote in The Life and Death of Great American Cities:

There must be eyes upon the street

For windows enable exactly that – one can be inside, separate from, yet looking out on to the street.

This function of a window strikes me as particularly applicable to a moment just before the end of the BBC version of Mrs Dalloway. The party, for which Clarissa Dalloway has spent all day preparing, is in full swing. A doctor arrives very late and apologises for his tardiness, explaining that one of his patients has just killed himself. We already know this, because we have seen his patient – Septimus Warren Smith – kill himself earlier on. Clarissa is upset by the doctor bringing death into her party and goes into a small quiet room next door to come to and recover. She goes to an open window and looks down upon the street, watching carriages coming and going, people arriving and leaving her party.

It is Kafka’s endorsement of a window as a way of making life bearable for a solitary man:

… he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.

Mrs Dalloway has gone to her window a tired woman, but the movement of the street helps her recover, brings her back ‘into the human harmony’, ready to face the party again.

But there’s more to this window scene than just a swift recovery. For Septimus killed himself by throwing himself out of window, impaling himself on the railings below. Indeed, in the film, Mrs Dalloway looks out of the window, looks down and, after watching the street, sees some railings. She finds herself imagining what must have happened to Septimus. In the book, Woolf writes:

Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.

So windows, then, are not just an eye upon the street; they are a boundary between home and street. A boundary which can be too easily transgressed – a transparent line which, if stepped across, if one is so moved to escape the interior world and desperate to join the street, leads to death.

This window scene is a contrast from the opening of the novel, in which Clarissa remembers when she was eighteen, stepping through French windows into the outside:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

But even then, right at the beginning of the book, windows bring tension and foreboding:

… feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …

For Woolf then, windows are an escape – ‘a plunge’ – a bursting out of the oppressive interior and out into the world, into the street. But this optimism is shattered with Septimus’ death, when he moves from the inside, through the window, to the street.

In Exposed at the Tate Modern, there are photographs of people killing themselves by jumping from buildings. These are tragic enough, but more chilling are the photos of the crowd gathering around, watching the spectacle.

There is one of a young man in South Africa, Amos Gexella, looking back anxiously at the camera poised on the edge of the sixth-floor balcony of a building. Blurred on the street below are crowds of people. Apparently, the caption tells us, an estimated 2,000 onlookers yelled ‘Jump! Jump’. Two hours later he rolled off the parapet to his death.

In Mrs Dalloway, Septimus waits until the doctor (Holmes) arrives before throwing himself out of the window to his death. Immediately beforehand, he catches sight of an onlooker:

Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door.

Septimus’ suicide depends on witnesses, just as the death of his friend Evans, during the war, is made all the more horrific by his witnessing it and his repeated hallucinations of that horrific moment.

When Clarissa learns of Septimus’ death, she sees an onlooker too. In the book of Mrs Dalloway (not the film), when Clarissa escapes her party she doesn’t immediately look out of the window. All the reflections on death take place within the quiet room. It is only afterwards that she goes to the window:

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising! – in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! … She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.

It is indeed ‘surprising’, incredibly unexpected, to look out of a window, expecting to see the street and instead to be confronted with someone else, another observer, another person staring out of their own window. You lose your position of privilege, of exclusivity – you’re no longer the only person looking. (In the film, Clarissa also sees the old lady opposite, but only after she has looked down on the street.)

What about when the process is reversed? What happens when instead of looking out of the window on to the street, one looks from the street back into the window.

There is a striking example of this at the Tate Modern’s Exposed. Two photos from Shizuka Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series are on show. Yokomizo wrote anonymous letters to several subjects asking if they would stand, with the lights on, at a particular window at a certain time of night, so that she could photograph them from the street. If they chose not to participate they could close the curtains, and if they chose to open the door to meet her then she wouldn’t use the photo. The encounters lasted for ten minutes, and nothing else was exchanged.

In the ‘Stranger’ photos the first thing I noticed was that appendage to a window: the window frame. Because here window frame and picture frame are almost perfectly aligned. Looking into a window yields only a small glimpse of the occupant’s home and private life. But, as with many portraits, photos, still-lifes, one is tempted to infer as much as possible from the details that are on show. Everything in the frame gains significance just because it is included.

One feels as if one is intruding, looking into someone’s home through their window. The window panels and frame also act as bars, preventing entry, blocking a complete unhindered view. And it is this feeling of intrusion that is played with, encouraged, in many photos that highlight voyeurism. Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series – also on show in Exposed, and mentioned by Geoff Dyer in his fantastic The Ongoing Moment – are good examples.

The photos are of a back window of a sex club, showing blurred and alluring images of women in various stages of strip-tease. Dyer makes the point that the sex club was off Wall Street, and as we look at bejewelled thronged bottoms, we are really seeing the ‘murky, grimy backside of finance’. (I bet the banker who was so horrid to me at that party goes to that kind of place all the time.)

In Mrs Dalloway – both film and book – windows are two-way. They are a method of looking in and looking out; of moving from interior to exterior and back again, between characters, between different aspects of London. As Woolf flits from one character’s thoughts to another, so seamlessly, so smoothly, so windows are sheer, smooth linking devices, ways of joining people, openings.

The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry’s shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in inquiry. Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked.

Windows are ways of looking. Looking out and looking in, or even looking between, from window to window. Perhaps the most haunting window was the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s. Geoff Dyer describes Smith’s liability to obsession, spending years on the street and taking too many photographs, documenting so much that it became meaningless. Eventually Smith limited himself to his window, wanting to create a series of shots entitled As from my window I sometimes glance. But he did not ‘sometimes glance’, instead he sat there obsessively for more than twenty hours at a time, taking thousands of photos.  His window was close to his workspace and darkroom, so he was able to produce prints very quickly. He pinned them up on panels that he erected across his loft, dividing the room into a maze of alleys and streets. As Dyer points out:

The photographer didn’t want to go into the streets; instead, by dint of obsessive Borgesian twists, the street moved into the home.

And perhaps this hints at the riskiness of windows, their untrustworthiness. Smith’s window was supposed to be his protection from the street but instead it brought the street to him, enabling it to invade his interior space. Windows don’t provide an escape in Mrs Dalloway, they lead to death, or to a view of another observer at their window, a kind of distorted mirror. They don’t provide honest views of people and their homes in Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series – the frames block entry, only allowing views of specific sections.

And, perhaps it’s rude, but I’d like to end with a photo which I think of as an insult to windows.

I came across Edward Steichen’s photo Sunday Papers in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. Annoyingly the copyright must be assiduously protected as I can’t find a picture of it online anywhere. The photo is a view out of a window but there is no street. Most of the frame is filled with a brick building. In the centre of all the brick is another window, wide open, but you can look in only far enough to see a man, not even looking back at you, but reading the papers. He is frustrating the window. Because of this man, you can’t see in through his window and you might as well not be able to look out of your window as, aside from the man, you can only see a brick wall. But the man is reading the newspaper – he has found a different view, a different way of having eyes upon the street. And, I’m afraid, he’s saying it’s better.

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The Mad Hatter, hanging on to his hat

March 25, 2010

I went to see Alice in Wonderland the other day. Everyone said how bored they were by it – one friend of mine actually fell asleep – but I have to confess, I found myself really intrigued by the Mad Hatter’s attachment to his hat. Yes, he’s a Hatter, of course he loves his hat – he knows exactly how much work and love and care went into making it – but surely he’s made hundreds, thousands of hats. Why is this one so important?

By strange coincidence (or is it the universe nudging me to write this post? See this post for more on ‘coincidence’) I happened to be reading about hats the following day in The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer – a brilliantly enlightening sweep across American photography, which clumps all sorts of photos together under marvellously approachable themes like benches, fences, hands and … hats.

Dyer reckons ‘the story of the Depression can be told quite simply through photographs of men’s hats’. He actually means through photographs of men in hats (important distinction this, as we shall see …) Hats, he says, before America’s Great Depression, are a symbol of affluence and democracy; men wearing them are ‘brimful of hope and expectation’. During the Depression, the relative batteredness of a man’s hat reflects his downtrodden state. Wearing one’s heart on one’s hat rather than on one’s sleeve, I suppose.

White Angel Bread Line, Lange, 1933

Dyer uses Dorothea Lange’s photograph White Angel Bread Line to illustrate this. The fedora belonging to the man in the centre, with his back to the crowd, is far more bedraggled than anyone else’s. The man has gone through more than the other men, his hat is worse off, and he has turned his back on the scrum of people jostling, scrabbling for something that’s in short supply. He knows that there isn’t enough for him, his greater experience has resigned him to it. And, as Dyer suggests, that man, and his hat, is ‘like a premonition of what is to come. By the end of the decade everyone else will have followed his example of battered resilience.’

Lange’s photos of men in hats show, Dyer says, the hat to be their shelter, their source of comfort – be it a shade when sitting, waiting indefinitely, at the edge of a field, or a pillow when lying on the pavement of Skid Row in San Francisco. There is something almost unbearably poignant, I think, about these men clinging on to this piece of dignity, still finding comfort in it, when everything else has gone.

What if we look at the Mad Hatter in this light? Ok, it’s not 1930s America, but it is a place going through an undoubtedly hard time. Wonderland (or ‘Underland’ in the film) is under the tyrannous rule of the Red Queen. The Hatter, who used to work for the White Queen, is now unemployed and there is nothing for him to do other than take tea. Remember his joy, in the film, when the Red Queen gets him to make hats for her – ‘it’s so good to be practising my trade again,’ he gushes to Alice. Work, even if it is for the enemy, is better than no work at all. If this weren’t enough to suggest that Underland is undergoing some sort of Depression, then what about the more literal fact that the Hatter is, well, depressed – Johnny Depp isn’t just mad in the film, he is most definitely sad. The hat is his reminder of happier times, of when he danced the futterwack (his ‘happy dance’), for example. He refuses to be parted from it, even when the Cheshire Cat asks him, even when about to be beheaded – perhaps not taking his hat off to the Red Queen is also a mark of disrespect, or a premonition of his imminent escape, that he won’t soon be in the presence of death.

The Hatter is inseparable from his hat, just as the men of America’s Great Depression kept their hats on even when reduced to sleeping on the pavement. Hanging on their hats, they all refuse to give up on the memory of good times, on the hope for those good times to return.

Untitled, Winogrand, 1950s

Tellingly, after the Depression, hats lose this significance in photography. Dyer uses the example of this untitled photograph by Garry Winogrand from the 1950s to show that by then a hat is just a hat, not something that represents the unfair blows that life has dealt to its wearer. The man on the right represents the 1930s, the hat-stand on the left represents the 1950s and the future of photography. The hat is no longer on a man’s head; it is dehumanised. As Dyer says, ‘the photographers of the new generation will describe a hat because it just happens to be somewhere’.

Perhaps, at the end of the film, once the Jabberwocky has been slain and the White Queen rules again, the Hatter will be able to see his trusted hat as just another hat, an optional appendage. Perhaps he will take his hat off to Alice, acknowledging his respect for her triumphant battle. And perhaps, let’s hope, in the happier times to come, he won’t hasten to put it back on.