We take pictures to stop time, but in doing so, we irrefutably mark its passage. Photography is a cruel medium.
It’s the summer of 2001, and Guille and Belinda are eleven and twelve. Belinda’s wearing a blue-and-white striped bikini, Guille a red one-piece with multicolored polka dots. Their hair is wet from their latest swim. The cousins can be seen from head to toe in the centre of the frame, as they stand looking away from us. They’re locked in a tight embrace, Belinda’s fingers pressing dents into Guille’s fleshy back. At their feet, green blades of grass poke up proudly from the yellowed field, and in the sky overhead, dark clouds are gathering. In The Black Cloud, Argentinian photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti captures what usually escapes us: youth. The physicality of prepubescent friendship, entire summer days spent in swimsuits, childhood bodies already starting to show the contours of their full-grown versions — Sanguinetti has frozen it all, wrested from the clutches of time.
In 1839, the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot published a paper on something he had been working on for several years: The Art of Fixing a Shadow, or photography. (Across the English Channel, Louis Daguerre had just announced his own photographic discovery, and Talbot felt the urgent need to share his findings.) Thanks to photography, Talbot wrote, ‘…all that is fleeting and momentary’ could now be ‘fixed’ for ever. ‘We may receive on paper the fleeting shadow, arrest it there, and […] fix it so firmly as to be no more capable of change.’
Photography is a modern invention — as modern as the belief that children should play instead of working.
Youth is as fleeting as a shadow; nothing is as ‘capable of change’ as a child. Youthfulness is fragile and ephemeral, while maturity seems to grow heavier and fuller with each passing year. It is not surprising, then, that from the beginning, photographers tried to ‘arrest’ youth — from the fairy-tale portraits by Lady Cameron and Lewis Carroll in the nineteenth century to Helen Levitt’s street photos of children at play in the twentieth, and from Rineke Dijkstra’s awkward adolescents to Ryan McGinley’s skinny-dipping friends.
Photography is a modern invention — as modern as the belief that children should play instead of working, and that one’s identity is determined by one’s age. Photography is also nearly as old as our modern sense of time: time was first standardized in England in 1847, eight years after Fox Talbot managed to freeze that which is most transitory and changeable.
Talbot spoke of the ‘natural magic’ with which the camera could fix a shadow. In his day, photography was as much wizardry as it was scientific triumph. The medium could make time stand still or, just as revealing, slow it down, enabling people to see things otherwise invisible to the naked eye. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the Frenchman Étienne-Jules Marey and British émigré Eadweard Muybridge made stop-action photos of people and animals in motion. They slowed down time by capturing in a series of pictures what would normally be over in only a fraction of a second. The camera settled a question that had previously been unanswerable: a horse in full gallop, it turns out, does indeed lift all four hooves off the ground at the same time.
The photographs provide not only evidence of their youthfulness, but also — especially — of its fleeting nature. It makes photography a cruel medium, a cunning ally.
The Black Cloud is part of a project Alessandra Sanguinetti started in 1999. Every summer, she would visit a friend of her parents at her farm in the country. There she photographed Guille and Belinda, cousins who spent their summers together at their grandmother’s. In her 2o1o book The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams, Sanguinetti published sixty photos she took between 1999 and 2oo2. On those pages, Guille and Belinda travel through their dream world with an openness only known to ten-, eleven-, twelve- year-olds. We see the cousins on the banks of the river, sunbathing, with underpants for hats. They play doctor (Guille is the doctor, Belinda the patient), play dress-up (Belinda is Jesus, Guille the Virgin Mary), hold a funeral, put on lipstick.
In the photograph To the Past, from 2ooo, the girls stand before a white wall. Above their heads hang two portraits, between them is a billy goat. Belinda’s left hand is touching the goat’s nose; with her right, she’s clinking a wine glass against Guille’s. The girls hold their chins high, and their satisfied expressions make them look exactly like Eustace Tilley, the cartoon dandy who regularly graces the cover of the New Yorker.
Six years after The Black Cloud, Sanguinetti photographed Guille and Belinda again. In The Real Thing from 2oo7, Guille is sitting on the bed. Belinda is sits beside her, in a chair at the foot of the bed. Here, too, the cousins are looking away from us, but this time they are gazing in different directions. Guille is looking at something or someone who seems to be to the left, behind the photographer, while Belinda stares ahead, straight out of the frame. Guille’s hands rest on her thigh and on the bed; at Belinda’s breast a baby is nursing, supported by Belinda’s left hand. Guille and Belinda are by no means old — only seventeen and eighteen — but they are light years away from that earlier summer’s swimsuit embrace. Somewhere between The Black Cloud and The Real Thing, Guille’s and Belinda’s childhood has vanished. The process couldn’t be observed as it was taking place, but is only visible in hindsight — with the help of photography.
That’s the irony with photography: photos can halt time or slow it down, but they can also let time pass with merciless speed. In Sanguinetti’s work, Guille and Belinda grow up in seconds. The photographs provide not only evidence of their youthfulness, but also — especially — of its fleeting nature. It makes photography a cruel medium, a cunning ally. We take pictures to stop time, but in doing so mark its passage.
Another project that shows this especially well is The Brown Sisters by Nicholas Nixon. In 1975 Nixon, then twenty-six, photographed his 25-year-old wife, Bebe, and her sisters, Heather, aged twenty-three, Laurie, twenty- one, and Mimi, fifteen. He has since made a portrait of the sisters every year, always using the same camera, and always in the same order: from left to right, Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie. In the 2o14 book The Brown Sisters: Forty Years, the photos are printed chronologically. Looking through them, you feel like a time traveller. Almost imperceptibly, but ultimately irreversibly, the young sisters transform into older women. Lanky limbs turn fleshy, smooth foreheads grow lined, crow’s feet appear around eyes. (Neither Sanguinetti nor Nixon print the photos in random or reverse order. What kind of story would The Brown Sisters tell if the book opened with the most recent photograph and ended with the one from 1975?)
The Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra first made a portrait of Almerisa, a six-year-old girl who fled Bosnia with her family and was living at the time in a refugee centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1994. In the photo, Almerisa is sitting on a red plastic chair, her bobbed hair neatly combed, her feet dangling above the ground in fuzzy blue socks and black patent shoes. Dijkstra photographed Almerisa another thirteen times — always in the same set-up and always seated on a chair. Two years after the first photo, Almerisa’s socks are white. Another two years later, in 1998, her toes finally reach the ground. In a photograph from 2oo3, a teen with bleached-blond hair and meticulously plucked eyebrows glares out at us. In the final photo of the series, in 2oo8, her hair is brown again and Almerisa, like Belinda, has a baby in her arms.
The Brown Sisters, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and Almerisa are known the world over. Sanguinetti has exhibited around the globe, and Nixon’s and Dijkstra’s photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. But photographing youth — and with it, youth’s fleeting nature — is not reserved for artists. Almost everyone has his or her own personal version of The Brown Sisters sitting on a shelf or on the computer. Our photo albums document our own mortality. There are also countless online projects, like ‘The Arrow of Time’ by the Argentinian Diego Goldberg, who takes a picture of himself, his wife and his children each year on 17 June. The American artist Jonathan Keller created a digital self- portrait every day for eight years. In The Adaptation to My Generation: Living My Life Faster, a time-lapse video he put online in 2oo6, Keller gets eight years older in a minute and a half — and the app Daily Mugshot helps imitators make a new self-portrait every day. (Online, quality suffers from sheer quantity: watching Keller’s film is slightly disorienting, and the obsessive self-documentation practised by his followers has something creepy about it.)
The difference between our own photos and those of Guille and Belinda, Almerisa and the Brown sisters is that we can look at their photos without memories. The charm bracelet around Laurie Brown’s wrist doesn’t have any personal associations for us, doesn’t transport us to the store where we bought it or the hotel room where we lost it years later. We can project and imagine (I don’t have a clue how Laurie got her bracelet, don’t have any idea when and where she stopped wearing it), but as opposed to our own baby books and childhood photo albums, the projects by Sanguinetti, Nixon and Dijkstra invite cool, detached observation. Add to that the fact that Nixon used a large-format camera and Sanguinetti and Dijkstra shoot in medium format — the high resolution lends their photographs a richness and detail your average baby pictures won’t have. Every blemish that wasn’t there last year, every new wrinkle, every stray hair, is in sharp focus in their photos. Photos stand still: more so than with film projects that treat the same theme, like the documentary series Seven Up by British film-maker Michael Apted, with Sanguinetti’s, Dijkstra’s and Nixon’s photographs we are in a position to carefully and thoroughly study youth as it fades away. We page back through the books, in search of the moment a face first starts getting doughy, an arm loses its definition, skin its youthful glow. (A sidenote: if we didn’t have pictures of ourselves at age five, fifteen, twenty-five, would getting older feel different? Would youth seem less transitory? Sanguinetti, Dijkstra and Nixon tell us about the fleeting nature of youth, but youth as a physical and visual phenomenon. The photographs don’t tell us anything about how old or how young the subjects feel.)
The last book the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote before his death in 198o, Camera Lucida, was about photography. A photo, wrote Barthes, has the singular capacity to show us the past in the present. For Barthes, this meant that every photograph, regardless of the subject, was about the passage of time, and hence death. Photos invite us to time travel — to the past or, speculating, to the future. Paging through The Brown Sisters, we anticipate the picture with only three sisters in it, or two, or one. And if those photos are never taken, it’s because Nixon himself has died.
Many of Guille’s and Belinda’s ‘adventures’ have to do with death, too. The cousins wear funeral attire (Archibaldo’s Funeral, 1999), play dead (Two Disgraces, 2ooo), point toy guns at themselves or each other. In Ophelias, a photo from 2oo2, Guille and Belinda lie supine in shallow water. Belinda is wearing a long dress; Guille has fastened a sheet to her red swimsuit. The cousins are floating with eyes closed, their legs outstretched — two dead water nymphs in the Styx, with flowers in their hands instead of coins on their eyes.
Sanguinetti once said her urge to take photographs stems from a fear of death. The connection between photography and death is as old as the link between photography and youth. Photos are mementos, bearers of our memories. It makes photography a cherished weapon in the struggle against forgetfulness and oblivion, a way to beat death. But the sword is at least double-edged here, too. The quick and the dead, the child and the coffin — the one necessarily ends where the other begins. And in a photograph we see them both.