Jaime Erin JohnsonSpine (201X)

Everyone is familiar with the experience of seeing something and swearing they’ve seen it before even though they have never seen it–the experience of déjà vu.

Somewhere exactly halfway between the inverse and opposite of that is what’s called jamais vu–seeing something known as if for the first time.

For me, this photo sits somewhere between déjà vu and jamais vu: I am reasonable certain I’ve never seen it.

..yet I’ve had a notion of making a stunningly similar scene for a while now…

The great photography as fine art curator John Szarkowski maintained that all photos functioned as either windows or mirrors–respectively: showing the viewer the world around them or showing them something about themselves.

I tend to get tetchy about either/or dichotomies. (Or, as the joke goes: there are two types of people in this world; hard working decent folks and assholes who go around sorting everyone around them based on arbitrary bifurcative criteria.) However, I think for the epoch in which Szarkowski worked, windows and mirrors were arguably better criteria than might’ve otherwise be employed.

The thing I wonder is if maybe they no longer apply. I mean photography as a discipline has been predominantly focused on The World As It Is ™ for much of its formative years. (Arguments about the potential for a photograph or image to be subjective, notwithstanding, of course.)

Something I do that I’m not sure whether actually trained art historians do is the tendency to extrapolate based on trends that have already run their course.

There’s the interpenetrative history of dadaism and surrealism–and I’d argue that dadaism arguably better earns the surrealist designation, while surrealism was something more interested in toeing the line of what these days gets termed: oneiric.

As I’ve pointed out David Lynch has made a career out of sometimes skillfully, other times clumsily conflated surreality and oneirism. (In fact it occurs to me that his best work occurs when he actually distinguishes between the two with some sort of logical system–that no matter how difficult it is to parse, keeps these differing impulses in their own respective lanes. And, here I am thinking explicitly of Mulholland Dr. Although if you’d prefer me to restrict things to the realm of photography, I’ll see you Josef Koudelka and raise you Arno Rafael Minkkinen.)

Also, photography doesn’t really have a surrealist branch of practice. I mean you’ve got Joel-Peter Witkin and Jerry Uelsmann–and I’d place both closer to say whatever the hell it was H. R. Giger was on about than of a piece with Salvador Dali.

My point is merely that I don’t think Szarkowski’s windows/mirrors bifurcation works any more–except maybe in oneiric deviations of photography/image making.

It seems like surrealism is invested in showing us a world that is enough like our waking world that were it possible we could step into it and ‘inhabit’ it. Oneirism reintroduces us to a world we already know–but may have forgotten upon waking.

In effect: surrealism is a window, whereas oneirism is a mirror.

And what I adore about Jaime Erin Johnson’s image here is that the experience I have looking at it is virtually identical to encountering a word in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that describes something I’ve felt is an experience only I have ever had–only to discover that a language I don’t speak or know found that feeling important enough to name.

It really doesn’t matter whether I’ve ever seen this image before–it works because it taps into a sort of archetypal symbology to convey the reality of an emotion that has been if not fully inhabited, then at least methodically studied.

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