• j_a_laing

oblivious-oblivion

Updated: Oct 18

In the moment I release the shutter to document the demolition of the Red Road flats in Glasgow, the tripod head slips, as if the collapsing structures and those turning in graves have made the ground quake at their passing. Unperceived by me at the time, a young girl moves into the shot.


I reposted this 'throwback' on 11 October to mark the five year anniversary of the event, and went back to reading John Berger's Understanding a photograph. A metaphor makes me pause: the protagonist in a photograph, he suggests, 'wears the world', both as it existed at the instant of taking and in every subsequent instance of looking. Today, the five-years-younger-than-now cyclist remains oblivious to the spectacle suspended above her. She is clothed in a motion-blurred ponytail, mournful granite, tower blocks that look like they've been kicked at the back of their knees, and off-kilter clouds. I imagine the sequence of nows, just before, when she pushes one pedal down and catches the other coming up. Perhaps, two seconds distant from the blast, she'll stop and turn her head to locate the thunder rolling over the plinths. Later, she'll cough on dust and try to sleep, and the sound of the motorway, no longer muffled by eight slabs of glass and concrete and emptied rooms, will rise high above the roof. She'll ask mum to draw the curtains against the unfamiliar draft that swirls outside her window. She'll fall asleep, in uncanny space, wearing an outmoded experiment in urban planning.


Each time I look at this image, the 'generous medium' of photography reveals the selfish hand of a present that covered my eyes and blocked my perception. On the day, I focused on the framing of structures - and my intention. Years on, I see the moment and its contingencies differently. I barely recall witnessing the collapse and certainly didn't notice the child, but I'm drawn to look more closely. Perhaps it's her hesitant, half-presence in the frame that points towards an ambiguity beyond it. She seems unaware of what's disintegrating a couple of miles away, but there‘s a question in the movement of her hair and the position of her head. Why the absence of alarm in the midst of this explosion? Then I remember the lag between the seen and the heard. Has she perceived it yet? Is she slowing to locate the source of the atavistic thump in her chest? Or is she propelling herself along the cemetery path, as unaware of the destruction blooming on the horizon as I was to her passing?


Around her, the present projects the past and the tropes of pastness spin her toward an inevitable future. But Berger suggests 'no story is like a wheeled vehicle whose contact with the road is continuous'. Like the girl, we're continually riding over gaps - things not said, or seen. We use speed and ellision and blur to make sense and wrap ourselves in the illusion of connection. Despite the enigmas, her insistent forward motion toward the future stitches the lulls in time and space contained within the frame into a complex but coherent fabric.


I look closer. Something in my image doesn't ring true. Why does her posture unsettle me? As a cyclist, I recognise, feel even, something odd in it. A second image, which immediately follows it in sequence, reveals why; it shows that she was pushing, not propelling her bike, and her centre of gravity is displaced. She's not a cyclist; she's a pedestrian. The appearance of cycling in the previous tableau is revealed as simply that - an appearance. I study both, and prefer the more dynamic and enigmatic attire of the first. Two cyclists, a few feet and several years apart, hear tyres turning on tarmac and feel the swing of long hair at the back of the head. Two female figures - a child and a statue - wear garments given form by folds. One suggests life and energy, and the other prefigures death. I make my selection and pause the event at the apex of up-down, forward-back, past-future. A silent, undressed skyline is foretold, but not yet visible.


According to Berger, it takes a trio - a reflecting subject composed of photographer, viewer and protagonist - to tell a story. My lived experience is not, then or now, sufficient in itself to make this tale true for others. As time passes, recording and looking diverge further and at each new instance of looking, I experience the image less as the photographer and almost as another viewer. The warp of my memory can't cover the 'abyss' between then and now; the weft of a viewer's imagination is needed too. Unintentionally, it's the protagonist-girl who wears a world of lives lived in the Red Road flats and personal histories buried underfoot. Clothed in motifs that reify endings, she applies the brakes on time and puts her foot down in its path. It's her I see first, not the dust.


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