The Beauty of the Uncertain
There is nothing more rhetorical than a pose, that decided effort to transcend the contingency of one’s face and posture by means of an eidos, a vehicle whereby the corporeal, the instantaneous, the fungible aspire to the condition of an eternal Platonic idea. In spite of the historical impact of different forms of the anti-portrait (the uncontrollable image of Robert Frank or the zoological passion of Diane Arbus for the singularity of the camera), social habits and professional photographic practice continue to adhere to the pictorial expectation of capturing an idealized “I”: the care lavished on the image and its lighting, the precise coordination of eye and shutter finger, and above all the productive self-censoring of the photographic subject. All these forces conspire to constitute a sublimated emissary that conceals and fabricates, in the face of the camera, a controlled appearance, an artifact of subjectivity. One stops and appears before the camera, one pauses,1 greeting it as a servant approaches his master.
In this aspect, as in many others, the transition from analog and chemical photography to the illusionism of digital photography has only radicalized the most ordinary photographic custom: whereas the destruction of a photograph used to entail a certain magical disquiet (ultimately, the cutting or tearing of a snapshot suggested a furious slaughter), the ease of eliminating files from digital devices has empowered photographic subjects to exercise police-state control over the beauty and fitness of their faces. The portrait, even when taken for bureaucratic purposes, must seem like just another kind of perfume: an effective concealment of our fragile, neurotic condition, that of bodies subjected to a gaze and haunted by the fear of identification.
If a pose has a symbolic and culturally constructed quality, a gesture, on the other hand, is an almost organic aspect of our appearance in the presence of others: a clue, no less revealing than the silver bromide of a vintage photograph, of an atomic fact in the endless chain of events that make up the world. In this case it betrays the relation between the “movement of the body and limbs as an expression of feeling.”2 The eminently corporeal nature of the gesture is even written into its etymology: gestus, in Latin, means a “bearing or movement of the body,” implying (through the whole range of its derivations in Spanish, including gesta [‘exploit’] and gerencia [‘management’]), the particularly concrete character of the verb gerĕre, which means to conduct or carry on business, as well as to show an expression.3 Whereas the pose is a lofty conveyance of meaning, the gesture is an uncontrollable betrayer.
The images produced by Yvonne Venegas tend to be betrayals: efforts to snap the shutter a split second before or after the subject’s awareness takes control of the image. This untimeliness is on various occasions a fruit of parasitism: capturing one model while being photographed by another, the eruption of the lens standing in an unresolved parallax against a scene constructed by someone else. In other images, the gesture emerges out of a kind of counter-discipline: an attempt to accompany with the scalpel of exposure a movement of fatigue, fear, or dejection. This is a book whose beauty resides in images imbued with the fragility of the uncertain: intermediate moments, subjugated acts, plays of blindness, abjurations of spectacle. A game that is rendered more radical by the fact that Yvonne Venegas uses only 6-x-7-cm black-and-white film, the standard medium of that hand-to-hand combat whereby modern photography, by means of the camera, –witness and possessor of their weight and soul–, left a physical, chemical trace of the shadows it captured.
Gestus appears to hang in a narrow passage between life and death, the moment of exposure that every photographic encounter entails. It is in this sense that the movement of a branch against the cityscape is comparable to the movement of the head or the blinking of an eye: it is an encounter with another “shutter,” the one that closed on figurative ambitions and opened up on a moment without expectations, a slice of abandonment. This is why the comparison with the patience of objects and the table of instruments applies to the photographer: perhaps they are figurations of the distance and silence required by all thought.
1 The etymology of the word could not be more eloquent. Spanish posar, according to Corominas, derives from Late Latin pausare (‘cease, stop’). In this sense, it shares meaning with the idea of the “presentation” of our ontology. See Joan Corominas, Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (Madrid: Gredos, 1990), p. 470.
2 See “gesture” 3.b, in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), volume I, p. 1136.
3 Corominas, Breve diccionario etimológico, p. 296.