My favorite part of encountering an Oliver Leach photograph like S35 for the first time is how long it takes to find one’s bearings. The photographs themselves offer little help; you seldom have more than an educated guess as to what exactly you’re seeing. You might notice a tree branch in silhouette, or the facade of a house, or appendages belonging to a human body – suggestion enough to convince you that the subject matter has some grounding in our physical reality. (In S35, I suspect that the starting point is the entryway to a condemned building.) But as soon as you try to nail down that correspondence, the photo undermines the attempt. For every concession to representation that Leach’s photographs admit, they do something to complicate it.
On some level, Leach’s vision is an exercise in making the particular abstract. Leach trains you to view objects independently of their overall assemblage, and instead see them as their constituent parts. The point is perhaps not to see the thing photographed, but the aspects of the thing. Conventional photographs let shapes and colors solidify into familiar images, but Leach’s photographs work in reverse. They take what might start as a familiar sight and rip it apart as you watch, until only the barest elements remain. It’s an approach as striking as his bizarre (and extremely NSFW) Twitter presence. Spectral color washes give his images an otherworldly appearance, depriving them of context – no sunlight hues to guess the time of day, no familiar tints of grass or brick or leaf to denote the setting. What’s in the frame is distilled to pure shape and texture. Then there are the geometric interruptions: the solid swaths made from overlaying material or intentionally damaging the film. In S35, a shadowy stand-in replaces what might be a plank of wood over a doorway; elsewhere, as in Bv2-59, luminous portals erupt in dark fields. These unexpected presences suggest still purer shapes lurking within the already abstracted subject, as if Leach is working his way toward an even more ideal image.
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One of the projects of philosophy is to find the universal in the particular – to determine what is common among the different, or what is permanent amid change. The ancient philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BCE) touches on this concern when he notes that we never step into the same river twice. A flowing river never has the same water in it at two different times, nor is it exactly the same shape as it was before. It is in a perpetual state of flux. Nonetheless, we are able to identify it as a river every time – if not the same river from our previous encounter. What makes it possible for us to do this?
The incomparably influential Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) answers by positing a world of permanence and perfection beyond our own that gives shape to the fluctuating world of time and space that we inhabit. This world is dubbed the world of the Forms. A Form is the perfect example of a thing – in other words, what that thing is independent of any of its material instances. For instance, you might see dozens of icicles hanging from your roof after a snowy day. They may vary in shape and size and transparency, but they are all recognizable as icicles despite these many differences. Plato suggests that this is because they all correspond in some measure to the ideal Icicle (following the philosophical convention of rendering a Form with a capital letter).
Within aesthetics, Plato’s theory has profound repercussions, even if you set aside the many philosophers who have built upon his arguments. The short of it is that Plato is largely hostile toward the arts, viewing them as an obstacle in the pursuit of truth and understanding. If everything we encounter in our world is an inferior facsimile of an ideal Form, then any artistic creation that tries to capture the world is a facsimile of a facsimile, a copy twice inferior. It is not even an image of the truth, but a shadow of that image, distorted by the greater distance of its remove. To value art is therefore to value obfuscation, and to stray from the truth toward which Plato believes everyone should strive.
The theory of the Forms also poses another aesthetic hostility. The ideal is philosophically useful as a descriptive category, but turns damaging when used as a measuring stick. The desire to produce a work that is worthy of it can intimidate and stymie. When writing this post, I carry an impression of the ideal sequence of words in my head – what novelist Michael Cunningham eloquently calls “a cathedral made of fire” – but what ends up on the page never quite seems its equal. Cunningham cites a similar problem for novelists: to their writers, all finished books ultimately feel “like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.” Nothing will match the ideal; by definition, nothing can. In Plato’s system, the perfect is a sign of the good. In aesthetics, the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.
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Take another look at S35. What draws your attention first? For me, it is always that deep blue something over the door. It never stops looking incongruous, like it belongs to a different plane entirely. Compared to the rest of the image, the blue intrusion has the simplest shape, the simplest color, the simplest texture. Yet it manages to push the rest of the photograph from focus. The results are of a piece with many of Leach’s other works: once he uncovers a glimpse of a purer geometry, inching his way toward that ideal element of the photographic image, it upstages all else.
Then again, everything pales before the ideal. What is a rectangle before the Rectangle? What is a blue compared to Blue? Leach may not have uncovered a Door in S35, but he’s on its trail, finding and framing an approximation that suggests he’s closing the distance.
The way I see it, Leach’s photographs stage a dramatic confrontation with Platonic Forms. Like Susan Sontag, whose On Photography opens with a chapter titled “In Plato’s Cave,” Leach’s work describes an enmity between Platonism and photography. However, Leach seems less concerned about the untruths of representation than how the Forms overwhelm aesthetic pursuits. His photographs only gesture toward the ideal; they cannot attain the unattainable. But even Leach’s feints are enough to unsettle. If his geometric substitutes for the ideal Form can exert such a pull within his photographs, imagine what the real thing might do. Plato advises us to turn from this world of transience to the world of the eternal. Leach’s photos caution us that, for better or for worse, there is no turning back.
Still, I find an ambivalence in Leach’s photographs that always leads me to return to them. There is plenty in them for the eye to explore. Since they aren’t strictly representational, they welcome views from different distances and angles. In brief, they’re beautiful, like most art strives to be. Yet they achieve this through that almost-fatal feint toward the ideal – the presence that threatens to collapse the piece is the same thing that gives the photo its weight. Some days I read this as a proof of Platonism: paying respect to the Forms by making them the keystone of the work, and suggesting that beauty is inconceivable without them. But on other occasions, I question whether Leach’s photographs succeed not because of the ideal, but in spite of it – by revealing how much beauty resides in this material world of ours, even in the shadow of what purports to be something greater.
Cover Photo: Cave entrance. Source: Freephotos – Pixabay
The Art of Thinking is a series of explanatory articles about aesthetic philosophy.