I used to believe that I could be the next Larry Bird

Book published by Candor Arts 2017

Provoking the Question 

Essay by Scott Cowan

How is one to deal with an image?

This question is not only relevant, but I think necessary when encountering the work of David Robert Elliott. Elliott’s are images of expression: young, sweat-producing bodies struggling at the limits of energy, excess, and exhaustion. One after another, they depict a teenage encounter, an experience that marks one’s coming-of-age. It is of realizing—the immense closeness of pleasure and pain. Here, young faces are caught in the confusion of rapturous exhaust, of coming face to face with the reality of one’s own body, its contours and capabilities, and the agony of desire. - - Excruciating euphoria. Yes, the images are teaming with affective surface-information. They lend themselves to an immediate, easy read. Yet, despite the ease with which his subject matter (i.e., American youth) is viewed, Elliott’s images cannot be contained in such an easy read. Answering why he has focused on this subject, therefore, involves moving beyond the subject matter itself. That is, because of the intensity of the surface affect, they deceptively present themselves as merely expressive, or as direct imagery of a general subject. But to read his photographs directly (as if they were just about the
way a face can “look”, or emote) is to neglect their inquisitive potential. Moreover, to focus on the mere question of youth—even if it is in order to understand why he has focused on youth—is, I claim, to misunderstand his images entirely. The mystique of Elliott’s work is not due to what he says, but to the way he says it.

In fact, Elliott is not primarily concerned with showing viewers anything pictorial per se. Rather, his images feature the movement of thought: not content to remain static, something leaps from his work—he is provoking a question of images with images. ...How is one to deal with an image? Elliott’s images are traversed by motion that originates from a place external to the frame. His images do not technically begin within the bounds of the page—nor in the fold of the pages, multiple. Because of his devotion to the photographic surface, Elliot’s images are denied a sense of interiority. Or better: the internal is, for Elliott, the external. In other words, the space occupied by the viewer’s thought is the interior space of his images. This is why reading them too directly is to not read them at all.

Throughout his work, Elliott presses toward a more general (albeit important) point. Namely, that his viewers understand what it means to meet an image in medias res. There is neither a definite beginning nor definite ending to Elliott’s images. It is in the middle of viewing—in the middle of thinking the thought of Elliott’s images— that one begins to see the image of his photographs. For him, the pure surface of the photograph is the access-point from which one can come to consider what it means to meet an image in the middle of its thought. If the interior of Elliott’s photographs are exterior to their image, and if the viewer is always caught in the middle of viewing, then one must come to ask the question: How is one to deal with an image?

Of course, the question is, in general, not unique to Elliott’s photographic practice. Indeed, the question is exceedingly broad: it sits at the heart of photography itself. More interesting than the question, however, is the way that Elliott provokes it. It is in his provocation that Elliott’s work becomes challenging. The goal of this essay is to illustrate the fact that Elliott’s images approach the question, How is one to deal with an image?, from several different angles at once. Importantly, for Elliott, the notion of an “image” exceeds the photographic realm. What I mean is that on his

conceptual plane, an image can be thought not just in photographic, representational terms, but also according to human expression and life more generally. From his perspective, I believe, an image is a realization—or the organization—of an idea.

Because of the question’s simplicity my approach will take an indirect route. Some questions are of such simplicity that one can only get hold of indirectly, and in no other way. With them, one must, as Nietzsche said, “either take by surprise, or leave alone.” Such is the case at hand. Elliott’s images are slippery in nature: one can easily become satisfied with an answer—that is, an interpretation of his images—before the question his work provokes has even been properly asked.

So, in order to arrive at the question’s threshold, I will dramatize the following propositions:

  1. Humanity is a comic role.

  2. Character and fate are two words for the same thing.

  3. To become a human being is an art.

Each of these thoughts comes from Novalis, a Romantic poet and philosopher working at the turn of the 18th century. Above I suggested that in focusing too directly on the affective, representational qualities of Elliott’s images—on the agonistic “look” that young bodies can exhibit—is to miss much about his dealings with images. Each of these propositions help draw out further ways that Elliott’s work provokes the question, How is one to deal with an image?

Humanity is a comic role...

Two defining experiences in the contemporary, capitalist mode of life are plain: first is the pressure to work hard, and succeed no matter the pay off; the second is anxiety. The two are not unrelated. There is a tension in the modern subject, who is encouraged to pursue what they love and to work hard to realize themselves, but is also pressured to not take anything too seriously—not to “become a fanatic”—and to remain within the bounds of expectation. Moreover, it is increasingly easy to relate to images that convey the human experience of the process of maturation and becoming self-aware. Here, Elliott’s “image” operates at the level of how one organizes oneself in relation social norms. Faces tense; muscles aching; and legs growing sore. Hard work and anxiety: our two great friends, to whom we devote so much of our energy. –Sweat, heat, and the race against time. We stress our minds with an increase of demands (from family, friends, bosses, lovers, etc.): Go! Try harder! Improve!

And to what end?

All the while, the demand (a product of modern anxiety) that one think, act, or create distracts one from dwelling on the anxiety of not knowing how to give something “one’s all,” but at the same time to not “become too extreme.” It’s like a curse: the push - the drive --- the movement ---- the intensity that time impresses upon human life.

But again: to what end?

Energy doesn’t always have an “end,” a specific aim or destination...does it? Isn’t it the case that, most often, energy just fades away? Does not the use of energy we find ourselves most at home in take the form of a half-composed thought, a strangely pronounced phrase, or a project left somewhat unfulfilled? The only certain end to energy is death.

But wait a moment...

I’ve gone too far, too fast, and perhaps in the wrong direction. The point here was to animate the fundamental comedy that is human life, not the tragedy.

While death is certain, what is not certain is one’s take on death. Specifically, one’s understanding of death’s relation to life. Most often death is pictured as the absence of life—life’s complete and total opposite. But, for the sake of Elliott’s images, lets suppose otherwise: that life is not positive while death is negative. Lets suppose death is not the absence of life, and imagine instead that life is an entanglement with death. That is, that life is itself a form of death, and an extremely rare form at that. In the same way that a question is thought-turned-toward-transforming-thought, life is death-aiming-to-transform-death. Herein lies comedy. Tragedy always has the potential to change, to return to the eternal comedy of life-from-death. Humanity has, through time, become the incredible animal through which death becomes life. And in our interrogation of what death means, we have found ourselves pressing life to its limits. Only from these limits can we laugh, full of spirit, at the meaningful meaninglessness of our endeavors. Elliott’s images rest within the tension of, on the one hand, determination, anxiety, and promise; and on the other hand, of vibrant creatures fully engaged in an aimless pursuit. But, how is one to deal with this image of human activity? Perhaps useless life is not something we should avoid so seriously. A comedy is difficult to understand beyond the humor.

The idea of an “image” in Elliott’s work is seen as operating according to how one • becomes organized by social norms. Now, lets press into a different idea: that character

and fate are two words for the same thing.

The notion of fate is ever concerned with borders, the line dividing what occurs from what could occur. If something is fated, then there is always something left un-done or non-doable. If X is fated to occur, then the negation of X (abbreviated here as ~X) is destined to remain, always and forever, non-occurent. Though imaginable, ~X is, in actuality, without potentiality. There is no chance (and there never was) that ~X could come to be. Rather than focusing on what is, the notion of fate forces one to think about what is not: what could have but could never be. In other words, fate is determined in marking what it is not, i.e., chance. Thus, the notion of chance—a notion fully exterior to fate—calls itself to the surface every time fate is thought. With fate, necessity is constantly at the surface; and all the while, chance sits beneath, acting as support. With fate, the exterior is interior.

They say that there is a certain point in life, an apex. (The moment is as tall as a mountain, but easily moveable through but an ounce of faith.) And so, they say, in reaching it one comes to realize one’s freedom to be, and to thereby act freely. In this freedom, however, one finds oneself yet again in the grip of the spirit of fate. In the act of determining how far one is willing to go in order to reach one’s supposed potential, one ultimately discovers the limits of one’s ability, as well as the limits of chance. “Perhaps if I focused hard enough” one dreams, “perhaps, I could act toward X and become X.”

And yet: ~X.

But if chance lies at the heart of fate, then what could it possibly mean that something is fated to happen? ...That it happened by chance? But that appears to be the opposite claim.

Elliott’s photos are fixated on the dilemma: subjects forcing themselves—physically

and mentally—beyond themselves to a limit, while simultaneously determining that limit. Elliott admits of a coming face-to-face with one’s own body—its capabilities. In confronting oneself, one’s limits develop, producing a different kind of image: the image of who one is. Fate occurs by chance-of-character. In Elliott’s images there lies the thought that every chance desire in one’s life functions as material from which one becomes one’s own.

Like a proverb: the one rich in spirit forces much into one’s life; with every chance act, one forms the image of the beginning of the end of one’s fate.

How is one to deal with this image?

Beyond Elliott’s images of comedy and fate, there is the thought that to become a human being is an art.

With this thought, I am interested in entering the fragmentary nature of Elliott’s photography. As I noted above, one is always caught within the middle of his images— never does the viewer have access to the origin- or end-point his photographs imply. It is always only piece-by-piece that Elliott’s images imply a temporal sequence of before and after. Now, I do not mean this in a narrative sense. If that were the case, then that observation could be made of the work of any photographer. Instead, what I mean is that in Elliott’s work there is no temporal sequence through which to think his images. The meaning in his photographs, as I also noted above, is purely a surface- level affair. To “dig deeper” into them one must move beyond the image monopolizing the surface. It is not that one must look “beyond the frame.” That, again, would be true of too much contemporary photography. Rather, the fragmentary nature of Elliott’s images is their apparent whole-ness. Certainly, if his work is fragmentary, it is not in the sense that they function as bits of rubble, shards of something once

complete. For Elliott, the “image” is a fragment in that it represents, in micro, a world of experience, in macro. “A fragment, like a miniature work of art,” Novalis imagined, “has to be complete in itself like a hedgehog.” Thus, if you seek to know what his images “mean,” then you must focus on the thought that brought you to the image, as well as the thought that takes you away from it. In this sense, Elliott’s images begin to provide an alternative mode by which to think the image.

For Nietzsche, fragmentary thought is like a bathtub filled with icy water. Cold baths make thoughts quick: fast in, fast out. Elliott’s images are fragmentary in that they are self-contained, yet they lack specific genre. Are they portraits? Clearly his photographs convey a deep, art-historical sense of beauty: are they studies? Are his photographs documents of events? Or—since some could easily accompany a story in a magazine—are they editorial? Perhaps they are cinematic? They do contain quite a bit of motion. No, instead: is he making a social statement? If so, is it criticism? ...Celebration? What is interesting about Elliott’s images is that, with them, the question of genre nears impossibility: to any and all of these questions the answer

is always both “yes” and “no.” One can understand his images through to multiple genres at once. As with an icy bath, one is rarely content to rest calm in any one specific category.
Given the contradiction—the “yes” and “no” his work oscillates between—it may be that questions of genre are the wrong kind of questions to ask. The contradiction occurs, perhaps, because fragmentary thought rests on a different sort of question. Rather than being determinative, fragments are rooted in questions of expansion: “Can you do it?” “And what are you doing as you do it?” and “Is there really only one way of doing it?” ...These are the sorts of questions that give color to one’s character, one’s fate. To think in fragments is to think according to the movement involved in becoming a human. Most of one’s life takes the form of a half-composed thought, or of fragmented imagery. Composing the fragment, and giving it a sense of wholeness, that is the art. Such art demands asking a deceptively simple question: how is one to deal with an image?

So, how is one to deal with an image?

Such a question is necessary when encountering the work of David Robert Elliott. It is a question he humbly makes available to his viewers. Yet, there is a vague border (at least within aesthetics) between provoking a question and asking it. Elliott’s photographs do not ask anything; instead they provoke a question that sits at the heart of photography itself.

While thoughts come and go, questions do not. Consider: thoughts tend to strike at random, and are (often) forgotten just as accidentally. One can seek to have a “good idea,” but cannot plan its arrival in advance. Questions, in contrast, are always for or towards something; they are formations and constructions of thought, and are focused on something. While thought can be either aimless or determined, questions involve some degree of intentionality. To question is to direct thought, to guide thought towards more thought. Like an exponent raising a number to the power of itself, a question brings thought to the power of thought, thereby producing vastly more

opportunities to think from. As Novalis said, “every word is a word to conjure with.” Every word, every thought, every image, is something that has the power to evoke a further word, image, or thought. Thought-provoking thoughts provoke thought to the threshold of a question. So, in arriving at the precipice of the question via Elliott’s images, my goal has not been to think about his images, but to think-with them. Despite provoking such a simple question, How is one to deal with an image?, Elliott achieves a difficult task: raising the immediate thought of an image to a concern with the ways an image can be dealt with.