Presenter, What Makes a Great Photograph - National Gallery of Victoria & Centre for Contemporary Photography
Don McCullin, title unknown to me, exact date unknown to me. I saw this picture in his retrospective at Arles in France last year, and found myself in front of it for eight days straight.
Unknown woman in a room, you whom I’ve seen through someone else’s mind and eyes, you whom I can’t forget – it is as if I knew you. It’s been a year, and when I close my eyes at night, I see you. I think myself into your world, one that has been and gone, and that remains. I can smell the room in which you stand – old, damp, tired; it has seen a lot and has survived; it bears all the signs of a fighter; look, there, the crumbling and tumbling wall sighs under the weight of the role of the witness; I can see it breathing, heavy, in and out (wait, are you breathing in sync, such as lovers might in the most intimate of unconscious gestures?) – cold old stone mustering against itself to lend you, woman, something known to lean on.
Is this your home? You belong, and yet you don’t. You are there, and still you aren’t. Your face, like that of the stone, bears legacy and weight of war. Not hopeless for it lives, but it is marked by a great melancholy. You are made made up – for the photographer’s visit? Your hair combed back, the skirt, the shining shoe. These shoes – whom are they shining for; a love, the stranger’s presence, a child? Who shined them? Something tells me it was you. Your gaze is warm and distant both, there and here but gone. Unknown woman in a room who burns behind my retina – what have you seen?
To your left wrist clings a watch, marker of time and death, alien and dislocated, it seems beyond your era; from now, not from then. Its imminence seems double-fold; did an unknown future drop it into the scene while no one cared to look, and what is its role against your skin? Your melancholy and your arms, the way they hold each other, remind of Picasso’s Woman with folded arms, 1902, Blue Period. Have your eyes read this work of art? Your scorny legs so close and straight – they make me feel an absence stronger still.
You, unknown woman in a room, I hear the sound of yet another clock, its ticking as untried as the silent presence of your watch. Together they count down to death, every tik one step closer to wet earth. But wait, I hear distant children too, some commotion in the hallway maybe, close but muffled. The tiny flat is one of many; crammed and modest, but still a sacred cave; your lover, after all.
The table you stand near to – it’s ever so telling! One setting only, either done or waiting to feed; either hastily shoved aside for the outsider’s visit, or waiting to be used, once he has left. Who is it for; you, a child, a friend, a lover? Are you alone, are you together? Are you in waiting, are you in mourning? Did someone die, did many die? One thing I know – you and the wall, you both have seen. You share a striking patience, and the look of knowing.
What are those coats or clothes behind you, hanging? Dark, like deep wraps, like ghosts, are they another marker of loss, or does it only seem that way to me?
Everything around you, unknown woman in a room, is in waiting. Time stands silently still, and yet the being-there of your future- watch is one of utmost urgency. The past, the present, the future – all of them are written here, and none. Past and future in the present, present and future in the past…and so it goes. Is it for them that the table is dressed?
And then there’s this, the greatest and perhaps most easily overlooked: the repetition. So perfect, so aligned that only visible when studied for long and scrutinised with an eye that can’t let off – there is one form that weaves throughout the scene of you like the ceaseless song of a cricket in high heat; the V. Can you see it? Here it is, in the paper ineffably clothing the wall. Here it is, in the front most part of the tablecloth, protruding out to us; a V. Here, lopsided, a trod mark on the floor. Here it is, in the bits of walldress eaten by time. Here it is, like body ornament layered around your legs; your veins. And here, finally, in your face, both ways. One V down, one V up. The strange man that came to make your picture – his eye is honest, tender and compassionate. He recognised the tired stone, the V, and you.
The scene before our eyes is naked as the house, signed of loss and scarcity and grief, but also signed of hope, strength and humanity. We’re given clues but not too many. Something is suggested but leaves me wanting more; burns your face into my half-sleep. In the dark I lie and see you leaning with the wall, quietly breathing in sync, in and out, through time and time and time. I’m IN your photograph, me and the present, in presence of history. I think I smell a faint whiff of burnt coal. The picture informs but more, it makes me feel. What is denoted is an unfixed state, a questionmark, a story told and left untold.
You, unknown woman with the wall, are insignia of the nature of story - written and lost somehow, and found again. Right here then lie offering and agony of stories from and in and with the world: forever fragmented, always unearthed and lost in translation.
You, unnamed woman with the wall, your life was real, you mattered. Through the eyes of the stranger that connect us, I am assumed the ultimate gift: I cannot know you, but I think I know you now. Your image burns.