The passenger

oan-adnThe passenger (2015)

The word ‘surreal’ has been so thoroughly abused as to render it now nearly impotent of meaning.

I hear people use it all the time interchangeably where terms like ‘oneiric’, ‘transcendent’ or ‘fantastic’ might better serve.

To me this image is surreal. Yes: there’s an element of it that is oneiric, i.e. the way text you read in a dream shifts as you read it. Yes: it’s–in some small way–transcendent because upon seeing this I experienced an in rush of breath and for the briefest nano second my subject perceiving an object shattered; yes, it’s also fantasic in that the train and the nude woman staring–ostensibly at me via the conjured space-time magic of a camera lens.

The reason I suggest it’s surreal is it has a feel to it of your mind playing tricks on you. For example: many years ago on what was perhaps my second trip to MoMA, I was walking to Grand Central. Although it wasn’t late, it was already dark–the sort of weather where you can smell the promise of snow in the air and the wind makes you shrink into your own core heat.

There were very few people on the streets and I remember passing a restaurant with tinted windows that looked in on the type of establishment that you’d need reservations in order to be seated and served. I wasn’t even paying attention really but I could’ve sworn there was a woman in a beautiful evening gown sitting across a candlelit table from a man, who wasn’t a man so much as a sunflower dressed in a well-heeled suit. The image stopped me in my tracks and I actually took a step back craned my neck for a second look.

Of course, it had been a trick of light, reflection and imagination. Still though, the oddity of the scene I perceived has stuck with me. It still feels strangely more real to me than the reality.

It’s that feeling I mean to convey when I term this image surreal. I feel like if I look away and look back, I will see the less interesting reality. Yet, due to some strange magic, the initial moment of mistaken perception has been transformed from passing ephemerality into something permanent. Yes, exactly that and beautifully so.

[↑] Source unknown – Title unknown (2009-2010); [↓] Albert FinchJourney.. (2015)

There are literally thousands of reasons why the Harry Potter series was such a cultural watershed. Among the most notable: a consistent worldview/mythology and the way the world is introduced to the reader very much the way humans begin to understand their world, i.e. through limit observation–the reader experiences the world with Harry and then learns the depth and breath through institutionalized education.

It’s funny though because the point where I invested in the story wasn’t when Hagrid arrives. It’s when Harry arrives on Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station and encounters the Hogwart’s Express train. Whether we realize it or not: there is something in our subconscious that still clings to the wonder of our first–from the standpoint of evolution–encounter with speedy transit.

Trains are fucking magic. Full stop. (And the fact that the wizarding world would enchant a train sells the whole thing in a way that is one of those conceptual coup de graces that there is no way to overestimate.)

The best I’ve ever heard this sense articulated was by Ani DiFranco in her staggering 9/11 elegy entitled Self-Evident, where she laments the problems our addiction to fossil fuel creates:

…once upon a time the line followed the river
and peeked into all the backyards
and the laundry was waving
the graffiti was teasing us
from brick walls and bridges
we were rolling over ridges
through valleys
under stars
i dream of touring like duke ellington
in my own railroad car
i dream of waiting on the tall blonde wooden benches
in a grand station aglow with grace
and then standing out on the platform
and feeling the air on my face

give back the night its distant whistle
give the darkness back its soul
give the big oil companies the finger finally
and relearn how to rock-n-roll

And that’s why, although neither of these images is anywhere near perfect–both feature underexposure and the compositional logic doesn’t really gel–there’s still something compelling about them. It’s almost as if by virtue of the fact that one places a moment that is moving not only in time but also in space in stasis, there is an inherent narrativity to the resulting image.

Consider Pavel Kiselev’s heinously under-edited, but still intriguing Railway Novel. Or, this fragment by Dylanne Lee that doesn’t fit within the themes of this blog but has been almost constantly lurking at the fringe of my consciousness.

David Jubert Graphistolageimprobable (2011)

What first caught my attention was the splash of what I always call acid green but is probably better termed: pistachio.

It’s one of my favorite colors–commanding visual attention and reminscent of the prevailing color during the second third of Mark Romanek’s brilliantly executed music video for nine inch nailsThe Perfect Drug.

Next, I wondered how a picture from the Montparnasse stop on the Paris Metro ended up on my dashboard since I’m hardly a railfan.

Yes, I confess a vague fondness for trains–especially trains that serve in citywide subterranean mass transit systems. I can’t explain this fondness more than to explain that my ex always insisted that the NYC Subway was ‘magic’.

Maybe not be true magic but there is certainly something magical about descending and depending on the time of day and line, a train pulls into the station. The doors open–people step out, people step in. The doors close. The train follows the tracks and spirits you uptown, downtown, crosstown.

It took me awhile for me to see the nude on the opposite platform visible between the two train cars.

There was something about having my persistent gaze rewarded that appealed to me–at least initially.

With subsequent consideration, I am less impressed.

I do appreciate the rupture this represents with most of Graphistolage’s work. His draughtsman-esque insistence on symmetry and super saturated color–both of which I find cloying, at best–are absent.

The trouble is his approach does not adapt to the situation in which he finds himself. The effort to emphasize symmetry is cursory at best–the camera is not level as well as being panned slightly left.

Further, the figure bisected by the right frame edge fails to completely balance the asymmetry of the man on the left exiting the car through the open door.

Ultimately, the technical shortcomings serve as an elaborate distraction from the one great blight of the image: once you see the naked woman the image offers the viewer no assistance in unraveling the question of why she is standing there so improbably framed.


Meanwhile, in my train-travel-wetdream…

Photo by Pavel Kiselev

Wasn’t it Blake who noted the naked body of a woman is more a measure of heaven than any man deserves?

The first thing I notice here is not the very attractive—and even more naked—girl looking over her left shoulder at the landscape beyond the window against which she is leaning. What I see is a photograph taken inside a train.

I love trains. I am not a ‘railien’ or ‘railfan’, not by a long stretch. But there is something about trains that makes me smile. You would think this would have lessened some after spending around six hundred hours a year for five years traveling via rail.

It hasn’t.

Admittedly there are good days and there are bad days but over time I have learned a simple fact: I am rarely as focused and alone with my own chaos in as when I like this lounging Aphrodite stare out as the passing landscape blurs.

Commuter trains do not offer opportunity for much repose. And being naked on a train is not really something I had considered; however, the prospect of lurching vibrations shivering every inch of skin does is incredibly appealing to me.

And oh Jesus fucking Harold and Maude Christ, to make love and then savor the scent of shared bodies while everything around you hums until you start to make love again.

There is a lesson here about sharing everything.

Even the loneliness of being together.

UPDATE: Another image likely from the same series.

UPDATE 2: And another

UPDATE 3: And another one, and another one