Crowd Scene
London, 12.2013
Essay

Maeve O’ Neill, Crowd Scene

...past things become futural. They send forth the time of the self anew when they have entered into the distance.
Walter Benjamin, The Metaphysics of Youth

In Maeve O’ Neill’s Crowd Scene (2010), an undated 6 x 4 inch photograph of a crowd is presented adjacent to a loosely arranged grid of images, each one approximately the size of the photograph, and each one an enlargement of different faces from the crowd in the photograph. There does not appear any guiding principle upon which these ‘portraits’ have been selected – each face is distinct, each one held fixed in a particular gaze. The photograph has no credited author, and neither the identity of the crowd nor the purpose for which they had gathered is known. The faces look toward us, but we do not know who they are.

In the essay In Our Image Wright Morris argues that in an ‘anonymous photograph, the loss of the photographer proves to be a gain’ for the viewer. Without access to supporting contextual information regarding the aims or identity of the photographer (that inevitably influence interpretation), ‘we see only the photograph. The existence of the visible world is affirmed, and that affirmation is sufficient.’ This is a view with parallel implications to those expressed by Walter Benjamin in A Short History of Photography when he writes of how ‘the first people to be reproduced [through photography] entered the visual space of photograph with their innocence intact, uncompromised by captions.’ It could be said that the lack of context provided in Crowd Scene preserves the ‘innocence’ of the faces being displayed, and allows the viewer freedom to interpret them intuitively – paradoxically however, it is almost impossible to view the work without searching for clues that might aid interpretation, or indicate something of the identity or intentions of the crowd. But any search seems destined to frustrate, only providing grounds for conjecture. The application of Vilem Flusser’s ‘photographer/camera’ complex, for example – requiring knowledge of the photographer’s intention in taking a photograph, and stemming from that, knowledge of how the camera’s function aided in realising those intentions – would demonstrate that we are simply missing too much information to be able to ‘decode’ the photograph of the crowd with any accuracy. As a consequence, a palpable and unresolvable tension persists between it and its magnified subjects, and it is this tension that lies at the heart of Crowd Scene’s enigmatic quality.

Two directly linked components of A Short History are enlightening here. The first is Benjamin’s formulation of the theory of the ‘optical unconscious’ – whereby the photograph is considered as an object that can facilitate heightened vision and awareness of the nature of the world, by capturing moments and details that could not otherwise be seen by the human eye. Crowd Scene expands on this notion to significant effect – extracting and magnifying details from the photograph that would have most likely been passed over by a viewer who encountered the image in isolation. The work of Gerhard Richter has exerted a formative influence on O’ Neill’s practice, and it is possible to draw a direct comparison between the visual strategy employed for Crowd Scene and Richter’s photographic painting-detail studies, such as 128 Details of a Picture (1978). Both of these works reflect another pertinent view of Benjamin’s, expressed elsewhere in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that ‘the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise in any case what was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’ The process of enlargement is a transformative act, it does not expose detail so much change the nature of what is being viewed entirely – so that the original image and its enlargement, though made of the same ‘stuff’, are no longer the same in their effects. But whereas in 128 Details, Richter employed this technique to blur the line between abstraction and figuration – by photographing an abstract painting in such a way that its surface took on the appearance of a ‘real’ landscape – the enlargements in Crowd Scene enact a much different kind of transformation: they grant each face its own unmistakable individuality and in doing so, detach each of them from the specificity of the time at which the original source photograph was taken. No longer do the faces belong to a crowd that sat in a room at a particular moment in the past, they begin to appear as individuals who look out toward us in the present.

This leads to a second point in A Short History that we might consider, where Benjamin poetically observes that ‘the beholder [of the photographic image] feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may discover it.’ Each gaze and gesture in the portraits of Crowd Scene appears energised through the process of separation and magnification, as though the subjects have been brought suddenly to life. Though we will never know them, they speak vividly to us as we look at them – this is the strange power of the work. Just as Benjamin writes of the being possessed by an ‘unruly desire’ to know more about the subject in David Octavius Hill’s Newhaven Fishwife photograph – ‘the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real’ – the experience of encountering Crowd Scene fills the viewer’s mind with such urges. It is the ‘realness’ of these individuals that is experienced in the moment of looking, and while their personal histories remain out of reach, the desire to recognise in their faces something with which we can know them, speaks to something very human within us.

John-Patrick Hartnett, December 2013