How to Make the Light Stay

Image: Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1929


Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie (projet pour un texte), Film still, 1969 

I hate movement that displaces the lines. [1]

The man sits, leaning forward over a low wooden crate that has been overturned to function as a desk. Across this haphazard writing surface lies an open notebook — landscape format, wide white expanse of empty page — a pot of ink and a drinking glass holding an array of writing utensils. To his left is a stack of paper with a small book atop — what does it say across the cover? ÉTOILES? — and to his right are three pens lined up at an angle with the notebook’s edge. Reinforcements, perhaps, should his chosen quill fail.

Over the man’s shoulder, against a brick wall that has been painted white, is written DEPARTEMENT DES AIGLES in black block text. He dips his pen into the pot of ink and ­— nib above paper for a moment just paused — begins to write. Free flowing script scrolls across the page, careful and steady, with great purpose: Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lines.

As though summoned by this text itself, it begins to rain: the man doesn’t flinch or waver, continues to write — even as his lines are displaced in a wash of ink down the page; even as each word is borne waterlogged and dispersed, disappears before it can be finished. It begins to pour: only faint impressions remain, fainter still as the water increases in volume and strength, pools around the ink pot and blooming blue Rorschachs spool across the wooden crate desk. The film is in black and white — but like so much else, in images and in life, you don’t have to be able to see the colour to know that it’s there. Ink-dark water streams across the page and, with his final punctuation, full stop, he puts down his pen. A title appears across the image: projet pour un texte — the subtitle for the 1969 film by Marcel Broodthaers, La Pluie.

I too hate movements that displace the lines. Is la pluie, the rain, somehow analogous to the process of writing? Drawing a line, making a film, taking a photograph — preserving a moment, a narrative, a series of events and ideas? Do we strive in vain, while torrential forces heedlessly endeavour to eliminate our efforts? Or is this the very point of it all: to harness the seeming oppositions.

How to draw a line that is not stupid? It is not enough to undulate it a little to make it a living thing: you must…make it gauche: there is always a little gaucherie in intelligence. [2]

For years now, I have suffered a persistent fear about speaking in public. In my anxious imaginings, I have been asked to give a speech — a reading for some important public event. Summoned to the stage, I stand and walk to the front of the room, turn to face the audience and smile, gripping my papers — the script to be delivered — so no one can see that my hands are shaking. I clear my throat and look down to my notes, ready to start. Only there is something wrong — the words, the letters, are they — moving? The lines of text begin to shudder and shake, slide around on the page. I realise the text has come unstuck from the paper and if it tilts at all, they will slither and slip off onto the ground, land heavily at my feet in a tangled mess, a heap of language. The worst will be confirmed: nothing is permanent and all descriptive systems are inadequate.

I know this to be fundamentally (I have been assured) impossible. But there seems an incontrovertible truth to it; and each time I sit down to write, this spectral image flashes through my mind, making it difficult to figure out where to begin. How to organise, how to assemble the objects and ideas to see if they will cohere — what shines through — what variety of illumination may be produced. And the question remains, always: how to make the light remain, how to fix it to the page?

Marcel Broodthaers, Signatures, 1971

Marcel Broodthaers, Signatures, 1971

Which is also to ask, where to place the line, for how long will it stay, in what time signature does it play? In Broodthaer’s Signatures, 1971, the line is predominantly a name — initials projected onto a wall from slides in a carousel — M and B and . and .. and … in between — in blue and red and black and a pale pale something that might once have been another colour but is now a barely visible white as the light burns through its translucent ground. In some slides the letters are profuse, scattered across the image; in others they are spare — only a couple at the very top or bottom, sometimes bisected, as though slip-sliding away past the edges of light into the shadows that border.

There is a soothing rhythm to the march of signatures as, through repetition, they seem to dissolve into abstracted marks arranged in various configurations. But Broodthaers, lover of the slippery nature and accidental happenings of language, limns these traces of his hand with a kind of poetry — words that appear, alone, in between M and B and MB and their many attendant ellipses: MIROIR / VIPÈRE / PYRAMIDE / SONGER / SPHERE / ÂME and again, MIROIR, written backwards, with halting Rs and a lower case i. Because, I suppose, reflections are always distorted. And words are made of letters are made of lines and so, as such, can change direction at any time — are infinitely divisible.

Because I don’t have enough paper

I am writing on your first draft.

And here a strange word shows through

and, like that snowflake on my hand long ago,

melts trustingly, with no reproach. [3]

In Natural History, Pliny recounts the story of Apelles and Protogenes, rival painters in ancient Greece. The former went to visit the latter and, upon finding that no one was home, painted a single, fine-coloured line on a panel in the man’s studio. When Protogenes returned, he knew — from the quality of the line — that his visitor must have been Apelles, and so the artist drew an even finer line, in another colour, over the original mark. Apelles returned sometime thereafter and drew another, a third line inside the inside line of Protogenes. This final contour was so fine, so slender and precise, that no other could be drawn — Apelles had, so to speak, drawn the line, and the speechless competition of lineaments was over: to execute the indivisible line was evidence of an unparalleled precision and mastery.

What if your instrument is not a brush or a pencil, but light itself? Where and how is the line drawn in a photograph? How does it flicker across the image, through the lens, slowly absorbed by whatever ground waits and waits for the line to darken and sink in, for the contours to shape, the picture to emerge. And what if what if what if — you see that all the world, everything real and abstract — is made up of lines off which all kinds of light glance: should you look closely and should you wait, should you attend carefully enough. The possibilities are endless and the lines, striations both light and dark, stretch through the history of photography.

Alfred Stieglitz, Sun rays--Paula--Berlin, 1889

Alfred Stieglitz, Sun rays–Paula–Berlin, 1889

In 1889, Alfred Stieglitz captured Sun rays—Paula—Berlin, in which the eponymous rays are the incontrovertible star, the étoile, the punctum, the ordering principle of the photograph. They raze across the image in tightly ordered lines. Sunlight streams through the narrow blind slats of the window at the left edge of the picture to cast a careful geometry across the room and its inhabitant, Paula, who sits writing at a proximate table, the window panes open into the room towards her. On the table is a framed photograph of Paula, two unframed versions of which are also pinned to the wall above her — one identical, one smaller and reversed — on either side of which are duplicate images of a landscape. It is as though the room itself is a camera: the open window is the aperture by which light enters to glance across and arrest these various incidences of portraiture, mirroring and reproduction. Only, who has engineered the image? Who watches and waits from outside of the room as inside, hushed and still, we witness what the light can do?

The eye you see isn’t

an eye because you see it

it’s an eye because it sees you. [4]

Other decades, other lines — Paul Strand’s Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916, could be an abstract geometric study after his mentor’s Berlin interior. Did the sun burn brighter in Connecticut? Is this why the image has a paler hue? The rectangles of sun are hot and thick, divided by an abutting table surface and thrown back on themselves at a jarring, thirsty angle. No — every good photographer knows better than to afford the sun such power on its own: these are matters of framing, perspective, exposure. That is to say: the amount of light that reaches the film — how far the rays and tendrils have been allowed to stretch and unfurl to make visible the traces, the lines of time in any given moment.

Paul Strand, Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916

Paul Strand, Porch Shadows, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, 1916

Sometimes you don’t even need a camera, all you have to do is find the light and wait: arrange your things carefully across a surface — paper-cut shapes, domestic objects, tools, appliances, hair — just so — and marvel that when you remove them a short time later, they remain. Or their contours, at least — shapes in shadow and light.

For instance, perhaps you might find a Circle and Radiating Lines, as in Curtis Moffatt’s 1930 photogram of that title. The singular ‘circle’ is, in fact, a misnomer: one can count a total of five within the image — they overlap, circle around and inside of each other, glowing Venn-diagram cross-sections. But the brightest, the whitest presences of all are the lines that radiate, scoring white shrieks, a stave of cuts from the upper right to the middle left of the page — bisecting every sphere in their trajectory. In a field of forms that is diffuse and free-floating, it is the lines that tell us where things begin and end — or at least where time and light did in this instance, for they are closest to the original paper ground itself; the oldest, most patient form on the page. As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote in Malerei, Photographie, Film, photography is ‘space through light’ ­— the camera can provide photographic evidence of a ‘space-time continuum’.

Curtis Moffatt, Circle and Radiating Lines, 1930

Curtis Moffatt, Circle and Radiating Lines, 1930

In this dimension ­— the long-lens of the photographic line as it extends through time — as Walter Benjamin noted, ‘a different nature speaks to the camera than speaks to the eye’. [5] In photography, the line — depending on the mechanism at hand and eye — can denote both negative and positive space, both absence and presence of light. Is it a nature of inversions?

Now you see how great

must be the love that burns in me

when it escapes my mind that we are empty

and I treat shade as a solid thing. [6]

Man Ray is famous for his perfection of the solarised line, the discovery of a darkroom accident in which his assistant, Lee Miller, accidentally exposed the film to light during developing — which had the effect of reversing the image from positive to negative. This technique can be exacted to varying degrees depending on how extreme is the desired reversal; but in each case it has the effect of highlighting dividing lines and contours, which seem to glow with a silky, incandescent depth. How negative, how positive, how dark inside the light, how much illumination within the dark room, is a matter of mere seconds. Much like the twilight — infinitesimal gradations of light to dark catch nuanced details, make visible perspectives that are otherwise unseen. When the sun sets, the band of indigo to deep and deeper blue seen along the horizon is in fact the shadow of the earth. It seems to me that, with your feet on the ground, this is as close as one might get to aerial perspective.

Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1929

Man Ray, Lee Miller, 1929

The vertiginous thrill of the darkening line, the world from above, can be seen in many of Moholy-Nagy’s aerial photographs. From 1927-8, the photographer took a series of photographs showing different views looking down from the Berlin Radio Tower —one of the most innovative new buildings in the city at the time. In some images, what is most striking is the narrowness of the tower, the dark, intricate lines of shadow its metal girders cast across the ground. In View from the Berlin Radio Tower in Winter, 1928, however, the tower itself is not visible. We see only the earth far below — covered in a blanket of white snow, but for a jagged line of black that seems to crack through the centre of the otherwise placid image: it snakes from the lower left of the image, past the frost-covered grass, along a concrete expanse and up a long, wide set of stairs.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, View from the Berlin Radio Tower, 1928

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, View from the Berlin Radio Tower, 1928

I do not understand where this dark line comes from, with its force and depth that appears as a giant crevasse in the earth, in the ground of the image. Is it the heat of human passage? Feet and bodies traveling the same route each day, drawn like a magnet along the same line of traverse? Is it the shadow of the tower, somehow scorched into the cold, snowy ground? Or have waves of sound, radio frequencies, picked up such speed, coursing through the air, that they wave and break, crack and spark like invisible live wires to sear long strokes into the photographic field?

The cut, the slice, clean and careful — the power of the line that burns across the image with an almost visceral effect, as though each sunspot, each dark trajectory is executed with such force that it punctures the page. But if it slips, if the paper is jostled, will the cut stretch and tear and abrade the thin skin of the image? And what material lies just underneath such tender surfaces?

If you scratch a photograph you find two things; a painting and a photograph. [7]

Jolana Havelokova’s First time skating series, 2008-9, is rife with crisp incisions — the lines left by skate blades through fresh snow, glides and glissando that betray just hints of the movement that produced them.  It is possible to imagine the bodies that may have arced and twirled in the air above these delicate strokes; it is also possible to hear, if you are familiar with it, the sound this makes — a muffled crispness shot through with the grating crackle of metal scraping ice — one stroke — two — three — grab a partner — stop to catch your breath — swing round and round — turn back ­— head home as dusk descends and there is a chill in the cool, dark air.

Jolana Havelkova, First time skating 4

Jolana Havelkova, First time skating, 2008-09

Pierre Bismuth, Following the Right Hand of Sigmund Freud, 2009

Pierre Bismuth, Following the Right Hand of Sigmund Freud, 2009

Is it possible to speak of the sound that a line makes? What of the dance of a gesturing hand? Pierre Bismuth’s 16mm film, Following the Right Hand of Sigmund Freud, 2009, traces the famous analyst’s motions as he speaks with a friend. As they converse, an increasingly tangled white line snakes across the surface of the film to produce an automatic writing that bears resemblance to a gesticulated rather than a verbal language. Is drawing the same as writing the same as speech, speaking, hearing? Internally, the voice of Freud himself resounds and confounds, as he tries to understand what might constitute a permanent trace: Thus an unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces seem to be mutually exclusive properties in the apparatus which we use as substitutes for our natural memory: either the receptive surface must be renewed or the note must be destroyed. [8]

Always the question: how to make the light stay, how to fix it to the page? If it is the light that draws the line, shades the counters, where does it end? Whence the pause, the caesura, the coda? Must the paper or the source be manipulated in order for the line to curl round itself to a final, centrifugal point, or to muster enough energy to begin again, in another direction?

I once went to visit an artist, an older German man, at his apartment in New York City ­— a Tribeca walk-up, with the toilet in the hallway, the bathtub in the kitchen, the bed in the closet, and so on. It was cramped, but it was a tiny haven full of light, and he had drawn small faces on the walls and in corners, low and high, so that you came upon them unexpected — small eyes and a tight smile peering back at you, faint against the off-white. This man made what he called ‘sun pictures’: coloured paper card with different shapes taped across it, which — relocated and exposed to the sun over time, often a span of many years — created geometric photograms that blushed with mysterious shapes, rendered dense and textured by the thickness of the paper. On the sunny afternoon of my visit, he showed me a work underway: these take many years, he said, this is a patient activity, he nodded solemnly, it is a slow and careful, it is an attentive and affectionate devotion, he pointed towards the window ledge where a clipboard was held against the wall at a particular angle. What do you do now, I asked? I wait, he said, we wait.

The Open Door, 1844

Henry Fox-Talbot, The Open Door, 1844

On the wall next to the window was taped a small reproduction of William Fox Talbot’s The Open Door, 1843. Looking at it closely, while the artist made coffee in the other room, I marvelled at the complexity of light and shadow in the photograph, and imagined what would happen if this still image came to life: the coarse twigs of the broom rubbed at the edges of my mind, albumen flaking away to leave behind plain white scratches into which rushed the potential for a moment, overtaken by scrutiny, to erase itself. I blinked and looked away and wondered about the responsibility of keeping some lines to myself in order to allow others to remain intact.

Over the smell of burnt milk, I yelled to ask, would the artist mind if I sat down for a moment to write — take your time, he replied. I recalled EB White’s anxieties about preservation: As a writing man… I have always felt charged with the safe-keeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost[9] I pictured the lines of Talbot’s broom sweeping across the ground in smooth, round strokes and thought of the painter Giotto’s perfectly drawn freehand circle, of which he said — this is enough and too much. Then — nib above paper for a moment just paused — I leaned forward, in the room flooded with light, and began to write.

 —Emily LaBarge 

Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London. @emilylabarge

The exhibition Double Take: Drawing and Photography runs at The Photographers’ Gallery until Sunday 3rd July.



1. Marcel Broodthaers, text for La Pluie (project pour texte), 1969.

2. Roland Barthes, ‘Cy Twombly: Works on Paper’, in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p.160.

3. Anna Akhmatova, ‘Poem Without a Hero’, in Poem Without a Hero and Selected Poems, trans. by Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 1989) p.107.

4. Antonio Machado, Antonio Machado, ed. and trans. by Alan S. Trueblood (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1982) p. 290.

5. Walter Benjamin, ‘A Short History of Photography’, Screen, 13 (1972), p. 7.

6. Alighieri Dante, ‘Purgatorio’, in The Divine Comedy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1948), p.59.

7. Janet Malcolm, Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography (Boston: David R. Godine, 1981) p.128.

8. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (London: Penguin, 1991) p. 430.

9. E.B. White, ‘The Ring of Time’, in The Words of E.B. White (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011) p.213.

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