“Remember when you used to write about every night out we had,” Kitty reminisced.
I said I did, although I felt surprised at how alien the impulse felt in that moment.
That impulse had been the cornerstone of what became my first book, Egress. (There’s even a picture of Kitty on page 193.) Back in 2017, I was always so driven to document every moment shared together, perhaps because, at that time, the times apart felt so difficult and alienating, with grief seeping in when social distractions were not readily available, and even then it remained palpably in the background.
We’re together a lot at the moment, we same friends, who are split between Newcastle and London but remain in various forms of close proximity, equal parts serendipitously and intentionally, six and a half years later. The times apart hardly bring discomfort anymore. We are a firm if ambient part of each other’s lives. Neighbours. Friends. Family.
I still like taking pictures of us all. I do that a lot. But the nights themselves tend to live on happily in memory, beyond words and without the need for earnest commemoration. When one night is over, the next one is never far away.
Still, as ever, it doesn’t take much to encourage me to write, and Kitty’s reminiscing made me want to make the effort.
We were walking home that night from the Avalon Café in south London, after the first of two fundraisers thrown to raise money for Kitty’s top surgery. I say “home”; I mean to the Royal George pub in Deptford, where two of our group lived and the other five of us were just staying. A London home it feels like nonetheless.
Thus prompted, I started making notes in my head of things to remember, things to write in my phone once I got into bed. But I also don’t feel the need to write it down at all. I don’t need to write down how I felt. I already knew how I felt. Writing felt superfluous.
I read a Flannery O’Connor quote recently: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That is true enough for me too, most days. My writing self is distinctly other to the inarticulate goof of everyday conversation, who feels like an idiot in spite of any sort of reputation. But when dancing, I’m not thinking about anything, and I already know how I feel. I never feel more in tune with my body, more aware of when to move, of when to adapt to a beat, when to stop and rest for a while, when I don’t want to dance but smoke and talk. I write only when I feel I have something to work through. Dancing is a working-through of its own sort.
There’s a photographic equivalent of this maybe, and photography has always felt like a more embodied process for me than writing. There is a more immediate sense of phenomenological intention, and so I still take plenty of photos on dancefloors (even if such a practice is generally frowned upon these days). Less something done to take myself out of the moment, photographs are taken when I feel most immersed in things. Not hard records of events but glimmers of fleeting feelings. A dropped pin in the river of unfolding experience. But theories of photography usually proceed otherwise. Its status as an -ography lends the medium a sense of inscription that I have always felt generalises a much more complicated relationship to the self and its intentions; a more complicated relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. It is not simply the case that the author is dead or absent within the final product of a creative exercise, but that the relation between self and world becomes truly blurred in the making.
Contrary to this, many of the great photographers have a tendency to oversimplify and undermine their own relationships to their practice. I’m reminded of a Garry Winogrand quote I read once, which seems to echo O’Conner’s sentiment but doesn’t really: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” I was introduced to Winogrand’s work by one of my lecturers as an undergrad, Jason Evans, himself a raver and music photographer, and I relayed this quote to him, assuming a natural affinity with it. But he didn’t like it at all. It took me a while to figure out why.
There are others who have said similar things, who talk about a kind of autonomous process at work in making photographs. Lee Friedlander speaks about things in a similar but more interesting way, for example:
It fascinates me that there is a variety of feeling about what I do. I’m not a premeditative photographer. I see a picture and I make it. If I had a chance, I’d be out shooting all the time. You don’t have to go looking for pictures. The material is generous. You go out and the pictures are staring at you.
Friedlander is interesting precisely because he sees images everywhere. His photographs are themselves often embedded with other images, at once giving rise to a photographic practice that is compositionally complex, demonstrating what we might recognise as a masterful “eye” and deployment of photographic agency, but the complexity of the images also tends to displace the photographing self that Friedlander is. We thus find ourselves before images of a multifaceted world in which the self is increasingly buried under a semioblitz that is nonetheless seized upon by the admiring trigger finger.
Thinking about that particular Friedlander quote just read, I do wonder if my old lecturer would dislike that one as well, although he was a great admirer of both Friedlander and Winogrand’s work. He was and remains far more explicitly intentional in his photographic practice; more sculptural, and more poetic in a way, too. It is as if, in his view, immersed in the world with a camera in hand, you’re not so much searching for something outside of yourself, which is missing from ordinary cameraless perception, but constructing something new out of the elements in front of you. The real creative practice is found not so much in constructing the images themselves, but alluding to the elusive relationships between them in the edit. Better to construct an aura, rather than see if one comes through the lens on its own.
The reality of all other aesthetic experience is probably, truthly, some combination of the two; a combination of searching and constructing.
I have often thought about writing in the same way – a medium that feels like a natural extension of a much older, if now less habitual, documentary practice, with writing now taking precedence. At its most exciting, the words do just appear on the page, and those pieces of writing are usually the ones that people respond to the most enthusiastically. But the work you really care about is often so much more laboured. Sometimes that sense of labouring comes through disastrously (for the reader). But occasionally there is a wonderful middle-ground.
I sit and write fluidly, automatically, and then reconstruct a sense of lucidity from whatever falls on the page, always feeling more like an editor of the unconscious than a writer in any more proactive sense. The words and reflections that seep out from nowhere are gathered like objects, like jigsaw pieces. They are objectified by an editorial consciousness, then used to construct something new, which is more subjective, and at the same time objective in another way. Objective for the other. I thus alienate myself from my own life and walk around it in such a way that it comes alive again, as if for the first time. Memory, yes, but more than that. Memorializing. At once historicising, situating, and imbuing recorded life with another form of living life.
When writing Egress, there was so much to work through. So much death. On all the nights we spent dancing, there was so often a conversation held on some deep topic or other in the smoking area or back at the afters – we were all Goldsmiths students, after all – but those conversations were seldom what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture my friends, paint pictures of them, with care and attention. Document life in death’s midst, retaining it, walking a tightrope so that the writing did not produce more death of another sort but rather a rebirth. It was a way of nurturing friendship through philosophy.
I like to write about my friends, my experiences, in this way. To write about someone is to let them know you love them. However, quoting them, relaying conversations verbatim, is unnecessary, even intrusive. But to nonetheless acknowledge their presence and the way they themselves contributed to an atmosphere and a sensory experience – that is enough.
To write about and share photographs of our nights out together was another way of saying “I love you” once the night was over, when the feeling wasn’t so strong.
Writing in the pub the other day, “Circle the Drain” by Soccer Mommy came on the in-house Spotify playlist, pumped out into the beer garden. I liked it and, having not heard it before, Shazam’d it. Another track from the same album, Color Theory, called “Up the Walls”, which we’ve just heard, has been a persistent earworm ever since.
The colour theory in question, according to singer-songwriter Sophia Allison, is a mixture of blue, yellow and grey, each signifying a different emotional state; a different shade of depression. However, what sounds, at first, like some unsubtle symbolism becomes far more joyful in its actualisation.
There is a clear movement of sublation here. Not so much the absolute negation of something, but rather its mastery. An album about depression, at least this one, transforms depression into something innately overcome in song, and a lesson is retained from the overcoming, such that the affect wrestled with is no longer an obstacle but an expressive tool. A feeling becomes a colour to be painted with, and it is striking that the paintings themselves are not muted and washed-out, which is how depression itself may feel. To make a feeling a colour and paint with it makes the affect expressed come all the more alive, rescued from its own anhedonia. As such, Color Theory is not drained but bright neon. It is an album about depression that nonetheless radiates with a certain kind of joy – a Spinozist joy.
I remember what Gilles Deleuze once said about joy in the works of Baruch Spinoza. Joy, for him, is a complex emotion, albeit rendered wonderfully simplistically in his Ethics. It is an affect of life, an affect of resistance, an affect of action. You can (and must) find joy, even if you do not feel it naturally at a given moment. Joy is a flight from sad affects. Joy is an act.
Deleuze says, in an explanation that is as obscurely poetic as it is crystal clear:
I conquer, however little this may be, a small piece of colour. I enter a little further into colour. I think that is what joy could be. That’s what it means to fulfil a power of action, to set a power of action in motion, thereby causing it to be fulfilled.
“Up the Walls” is a good example. It is a song about a kind of directionless intensity, a feeling without outlet, a feeling of entrapment, which may be difficult to flee from in the moment, but which nonetheless finds an outlet later in song. It is a song about an apparent lack of presence or dynamism that contradicts itself, manifesting in a short song that is nonetheless a slow burn, a song that grows and builds and does have release, even if the moment it describes did not.
There is a moment in the song that sends shivers down my spine every time. The second verse goes:
Tell me that you need me
When everything is wrong
Be there in the morning
When the feeling ain’t as strong
And just as the feeling is described and denounced, just as the desire for desire itself is affirmed in a moment outside of passion, when insecurity may be at its zenith, the drums kick in and provide immediate gratification. Solidity is delivered in an instant. The song delivers joy in a way the anonymous lover may not.
To write about a night spent with friends and music may feel like a betrayal of a moment, a cheapening of an affect. To spend a night with poetry in a certain space-time, only to then encapsulate it on the page, where poetry might be most at home but is at once conspicuously absent and ever-present. Poetry is transformed into little more than a description.
But I’m reminded of a Phil Elverum quote used in Egress:
… I don’t have to interpret this. I don’t have to make it pretty or find wisdom in it at all. It’s okay to just describe what happened, then leave it at that. There’s no lesson.
There’s no lesson, at least, in (and with) music. Poetry abounds from its own absence.
It’s a feeling that re-emerges, much to my surprise, from TikTok, in a viral video made by the user @garrettlee39, who chugs his body back and forth in one place to the 2014 song “Need 2” by Pinegrove. The video is cut short just before Garrett seems to burst into tears. The song’s lyrics become a kind of convoluted and paradoxical reflection on what any song might itself mean:
What’s that sound?
What’s that song about?
It’s nothing worth me sayin’ aloud
So then why do I seem to