Notes on THE PHOTOGRAPHIC SETS

Logicians speak of an unavoidable division of all entities into particulars and universals. Particulars multiply and enter into Complexes, or sets, as expressions of Specificity; they exist in the World in which we experience and therefore they exist in time. Universals occur as the relations in complexes or sets. They do not exist in time and have no relation to one specific place which they may not simultaneously have to another.

 

This way of thinking about the stuff of the world is not exclusive to logicians. Constable said that his art could be found under every hedge. His chiaroscuro of nature was everywhere, universally represented in the infinite variation of specific particulars. Atget's photographs of trees is another case. The particular tree is in every instance primordial in its universality while unique and specific in its setting. Their recurrent characteristics develop an intensity of resemblance such that each is each and each is the other. Bellini's portrait/landscape, St. Francis in the Wilderness, is another kind of paradoxical embrace of the universal/particular oscillation. Each of its botanical specimens is rendered with encyclopedic detail while St. Francis exists outside the bounds of naturalism. This somehow quickens the "enigma of visibility" itself.

 

Employing this logical distinction between universal and particular in the making of photographic sets reconciles what is at once appearance and reality, partial and whole. The ratio of specificity to variety is grounded in an imperceptual switch from figure to ground. Each photograph considered individually depicts a distinct nominal distance. If you focus on a single photograph (the minimal unit of observation) its specific distance displaces the formal space of the set. If you reverse your focal attention all specific distance disappears. Distance is associated with the particular, space with universality.

 

There is a simple mimetic value in the covert, paradoxical procedures for choosing one remote or fluctuant patch of earth (for whatever a priori, systemic reasons) over another. Any observational regimen is essentially a private method whereby things and views of things are differentiated; where a hierarchy of fact intersects with the observer's hierarchy of perception.

 

For example: Detritus deposited by random forces in nature, say wind or rains, unfolds in seriatim into a metaphor of circulation. A formal pattern based upon hunches regarding proximity, sequence and confluence is mapped, or superimposed, over the natural pattern. The central idea in an observational schema is that all such strategies are improbable; none are natural. "Nature is full of an infinity of operations which have never been part of experience," wrote Leonardo.

 

Since the mapping is multiple, the observational schema is allusive rather than denominative. The single photograph is an increment revealing some fraction of the system while being an iconic sign resting upon its faithful similarity with what it represents. Schemata composed of iconic signs lend themselves to, and are best suited for, codification on the basis of manifest or structural similarities. Logically more complex schemata, for example those using formal or abstract signs, permit the classification of objects and phenomena on the basis of hidden or functional similarities. All of the observational strategies are both iconic and formal in this sense, as they are the succession of terms in a series.

 

A visual calculus for charting serial observation originates in the work of Muybridge and E. J. Marley. Their explicit goal was to visualize movement as it evolves in space and is linked with a strict directional seriality. It is involved less with the domain of visual gratification than it is with exemplification of principle.

 

The chain or sequence of sign-situations in a photographic set do not necessarily represent a strict directional seriality. It is but one option in a repertoire, since each set is an exercise in nominalist individuality, is internally determined, and traces an ineluctable working-out of a given way of observing within a given method of organization. The key is to "distinguish without dividing"; to engage the complex attribute Coleridge called "multeity in unity."

Frank Gilette

New York City / 1980

Mecox / 1979

Caravaggio in Valletta / 1978