A writer’s eyes are the only camera lens he or she needs. This morning (a clear warm day in December, where the mist rose off the dips in the hills by the side of the motorway), I drove and turned off that part of my brain that tries too hard. Its place was taken by my writerly camera obscura, that box I am: the image of the landscape projecting itself onto some screen inside me. Writers have no desperate need for the physical camera, I’m proposing.
Years ago, whilst in the huge open plan architectural studio with our tutors, who were dressed head to toe in black, smoking thin cigarettes with their legs crossed and with artfully mournful expressions wafting from them in great deep sighs, we were advised not to succumb to the ‘Kodak spot’. On field trips we were frowned upon if we dared take our cameras anywhere near the worn-down spot that ‘tourists’ chose. We were young: what did we know? We took our photos on clunky old pre-digital machines, amazed by the view over the Seine, or by the fact that we were drinking beer in Frankfurt’s old town, only thinking we were artists. Our tutors must have shook their heads in disdain, that night, every night, drinking wine in their black turtle-necks and leather brogues, sat in some back street bar listening to Georges Brassens. This is how I imagine them, at least.
Now, my art has shifted. Artists don’t die, they just shift conditions. Someone wrote this. I forget who. Shifting, shifting, and stories now come of travel . . .
I was in New York City the year before the Twin Towers came down. We walked down Wall Street, a deep channel where the air floods through like a giant air conditioning system. We found ourselves at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seventeen months later and the air conditioning system was deep in ash.
In Turkey, dizzy from the sheer claustrophobic heat of the day, stupefied by the mad intense spin of the huge and canopied bazaar, my travelling partner and I heard the door of an empty carpet seller’s shop shut quietly behind us.
Once, in Barcelona, I sat and watched my Spanish friend just melt as he listened to the voice of an Argentinean waitress in a bar off La Rambla. He told me I would never know the beauty of her accent.
Another travelling partner and I paid homage to Jim Morrison: we trekked our way up to le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris and found a small bead-festooned and squalid shrine. We weren’t alone.
At Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, I sat on the sparse wooden boards of a little house. We were crammed into a small upstairs room. Outside, we’d walked down Pusher Street to get there. I smiled at mischievous old hippies who, with some small yet tangible amusement, explained to the assembled group of pilgrims that the town was not one built on the foundations of worship at all, despite its name.
In Venice we chased the golden floats of the festival parades down the Canal Grande, and there were people strung along the quays and bridges and stood on the ramshackle tiny wooden jetties, all under the aching white-blue eggshell sky.
We live in modern times, I appreciate: we have the photograph and we have the capacity to ‘film’ all that we see. These objects created often do evoke a remembrance of experiences past; yet they are always framed. What exists beyond the frame, we will never know. Photographs and other digital recordings won’t ever capture and preserve a time and place the way that words can.
Only words can evoke the mad euphoria of a Venetian parade; the clammy uneasiness in a small room in a Danish ghetto; the sad peace of a Parisian graveyard; the utter hypnosis of love, of sorts, in a Barcelona backstreet; the surreptitious click of a door and the taste of iced tea, in forty degrees, in a Turkish bazaar; the cool portent of wind on Wall Street, one April before the world changed.
A picture can tell a thousand words, it’s true, but a thousand words can break the edges of the frame.
This article was first published, in part, at www.writersdock.com under a pen name.