Dieter Roelstraete :: What you see is what you get

The creation narrative of photography – and, consequently, both its mission statement and its meaning – is a matter of pure and simple etymology. “Photo-graphein” equals “writing with light” – or: writing at the speed of light, as the artistic ideology of the snapshot/the singular moment, courtesy of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the like, would have it. The speed of a single defining and by definition creative glance – one brief and utterly powerful barrage of photons: the camera flash. Photography as the quintessential art of the instant, this instant here and now, one moment in time – the proverbial twinkling of the eye. If ever an art form has been immersed in the conceptual apparatus of the temporal, it surely has to be the art of photography: writing with light and writing in time, the art of photography presents itself as the one art form fully – and desperately – aware of its fleeting temporality, its unalterable transience, its total and utter impotence versus all attempts, so achingly typical of so many other art forms (the more traditional media of painting and sculpture in particular seem to ground their essence-as-existence in an ambitious claim to permanence), to record a certain state of wilful eternity. Short-lived but real. The art of photography may well pride itself on being the most sincere of all art forms exactly because of its fateful modesty: unable to grasp more than this one futile moment in time, the photograph finds itself “closer” to the experiential nature of reality than any other art form known to man.

Recording no more than this one futile moment in time – and supposedly doing so in the interest of posterity. This one futile moment in time, recorded for us to return to time and time again: a remembrance and souvenir of things and times past, but also a slice of things and times past made present every time we take another look at it. A gateway to a moment long gone but far from closed down/off, the photograph offers us a possibility of endlessly revisiting the spiral of time, discovering “new” things, things unseen, unsuspected or simply forgotten, every time we lay eyes upon its image. Think of a photograph as a means of circumnavigating the trappings of superficial first impressions: we can always go back to what we saw or, better still, didn’t see.

Through the lens of the camera, we get a chance to actually peer through the treacherous simplicity and seeming transparency of representation: taking recourse to the univocal evidence of the snapshot, we can actually try and learn to cure ourselves from the deeply ingrained visual addiction to “love at first sight” and “taking things at face value”. Photography equals the chance of a second glance: deeper, more closely focused, longer, in the relative seclusion of a brief moment out of time, as we take one step back into time. Photography is out there to explore – lighten up – the dark side of sight – all the things we thought didn’t matter, or simply forgot to look at in our habitual hurry to consider the world a fully known and explored place. Stepping back into the momentary space of the photograph, we can actually revive the one moment we thought we’d seen it all – only to find ourselves deceived by the so-called “naturalness” of the glimpse: so many things we always thought “to be” now resurface “to seem”.

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