Originally published in LONDON +10
Edited by Carlos Villanueva Brandt
Architectural Association, London (2010)
“Let’s imagine a moment, for instance: the appearance of an image.”
Above: W. H. Fox Talbot, Trafalgar Square London, during the erection of Nelson’s Column (1843)
“Did you know Trafalgar Square is precisely as old as photography?”
David Campany (2009)
At the end of October 1843 the statue of Nelson was scheduled to be put in place in Trafalgar Square. But installation, like the creation of the memorial, was delayed, and the square was not completed until 1845. The square had been the site of the Royal stables for centuries, but in the 1820s John Nash was commissioned by the Prince Regent to draft plans to redevelop the area; these included the spectacular Regent’s street, making way for the Prince to reach St. James’s in style, ending with a monumental square cleared out from the 17th century urban fabric. By 1843 the square had been a building site for more than twenty years and the press was reporting crowds of dissatisfied Londoners walking around it, expecting progress. William Henry Fox Talbot, considered the inventor of modern photography, took this photograph during his early tests of the calotype process—maybe the second known photograph of Trafalgar Square—which involved a very long exposure. Talbot’s photograph captures the instance of a double construction, that of the image of London through one of its most recognisable sights, and of photography as a medium, with the invention of an image-making process. Which is to say it simultaneously documents both the image of London as we know it, and a possibility for it becoming an image we know.
Photography is so related to documentation—always while inscribing the image of something also documenting a particular technique, its registering process. Not being a photographer, photography’s capacity to make past things present is for me overly tangible, disarming, uncanny, especially as the preferred medium of documentation of work made in other mediums.
On a strictly practical level this photograph relates to a time that has passed, and captured on film the light of an instant on what was to become Trafalgar square—by the time these light conditions were inscribed on the photographic plate, the present should have been different, technically, to that one. Which is not to say this image is necessarily of the past, as of course the photograph is present here, and makes something present; photographs are also beholders of duration. But as an image can only be read from one’s own position, it brings together different moments, the hypothetical then inside the now, creates a line between them, and with it, a possible narrative. According to Arendt , thought from the position of ourselves, the moment of presence, of a possible now, is not actually part of a continuum, a flow of uninterrupted succession, it is broken in the middle between past and future, exactly at the point were we stand—which rather than designating the present as we usually understand it designates a gap in time, a break, an interruption in our linear understanding of time and history. Much like the photographs I am looking at. Faced with a photograph of Trafalgar square, I am therefore inhabiting a double interruption: the one where I stand, and another one, that is made present to me.
This photograph of Trafalgar square in construction is too loaded, charged with symbolic and historical significance, to be interesting only as an observation of a singular past moment—within a history of construction, or even photography, for the purposes of this text—it lacks precision, explanation, is too iconic, striking, romantic. Its only possibility is through this faculty to open-up narratives, made possible by photography as a medium, which allows these to appear, to be read, to interrupt. A such, a medium can be made to tell a particular story, rather than another. Some stories do not reach us for specific reasons—for absence of documentation, because they might not have been found or never captured by lack of given importance, or simply not archived—but also by comparison, because other stories might be deemed more important, more worthy of recording and keeping; usually the story of the winners, of the powerful, the conquering, the dominant. Dominant stories have also an uncanny tendency to obscure other, less glorious, ones.
“It is a process to read a picture again and again, not for its own sake, but as a meaningful relation, and it recounts a setting of how things are, but also of how we can imagine them. There is an activity embedded in this process, not only using photography as the tool we have used for a long time within an important political project—to give something a visibility and an existence that has none—but while doing so accept it as a complicated process, not just a simple gesture acted out by a photographer, but an entire process with many involved.”
There is something willed into existence through this photograph, and it can be used as a lead to what London was imagined to become, to how it was projected into the future to be read, as much as to what it actually stood for one hundred and sixty six years ago; it is part of a project. Like any project it also entails editing and discarding, deleting a particular reality in order to construct another one. The project that is Trafalgar square, being a construction project, required no doubt substantial removal, destruction, and erasure. The photograph itself on the other hand, also involved deletion: for example through long exposure which erases moving bodies, those of the city’s inhabitants, London citizens. The framing acts out a different, double absence: by capturing the base of the column it does not show that Nelson’s statue is not yet standing on top of it.
While photography was invented over a century and half ago, and in spite of its sophisticated critical discourse, it is still called upon as a medium that can give a believable version of what has happened, and is able to account for or remember something. We are irresistibly tempted to believe that what the image resulting from a camera shutter makes available to us, is a portion of reality, directly extracted from the flow of time, through some scientific artifice. Rational caution stems from reminiscing how Barthes explained that with photography we face uncoded messages, and that Berger elucidated photographs’ relationship to reality, which is not by translating appearance into the real, but rather by quoting it. Which is how photography becomes through its capacity of witnessing, the best means for fabricating, deceiving or distorting. Because they are discontinuous, all photographs are in fact ambiguous witnesses, and it is exactly by offering us an instant in time that they also render it absolute.
Both Barthes and Berger insist that photographs are not comprehensible by themselves, but require explication to be read. Something strange happens however when text is added onto a photograph, which Susan Sontag explained: they suddenly produce a certainty effect, acquire a dramatically assertive quality. In the relationship between text and image, images require an explanation that the text appears to give. Photography, with its uncanny ability to give us what looks like an irrefutable account of an event, even while its meaning may be obscure, absorbs from words, which are and can remain generic, an authenticity: they document, and by doing so, give meaning. And this process of giving meaning is, or can be, manipulative.
While we might be familiar with these notions, at least theoretically, and have grown accustomed to the idea that appearances are deceptive, questioning the appearance of things however allows enquiries into particular concerns, suspicions, ideas. For example it allows thinking through this phenomenal instance, the single occurrence of a double construction: of the image of London, and of the means to (re)produce images and therefore distribute that image, indefinitely. Amidst the history of Victorian London a singular event can be grabbed to describe the technological and urban invention of the city, it becomes an example, constitutes a point of orientation in thinking and working with construction and image-production.
As such it also produces further questions:
While images of London are very present in media and culture—as opposed to say those of Kars in South-western Turkey—it is predominantly portrayed and analyzed as it is: which is to say, as a permanent reality. Whereas Talbot’s photograph is that of a building site, with a monumental structure propped up with bits of scaffolding, exposed in its fragility, temporary, in-the-making, unfinished. Building sites are photographed and in this way stored in architect’s offices and city archives (or in this case, by collectors), but they do not appear in the history and theory of architecture. Cities like London, filled with scaffoldings and building sites, own no books about them in their libraries. Why are construction sites so present in our everyday life and yet so absent from how things are portrayed, discussed, analysed?
While looking at W. H. Fox Talbot’s Trafalgar Square, London, during the erection of Nelson’s Column, we know that the square will be finished (for a time at least), all surfaces made good and signs of working cleaned up, that the hoarding will be demolished and taken away, and that the scaffolding will disappear, and with it, a fragment of the yet to-be-written history of the workers of architecture.