“…knowing is a matter of part of the world making itself intelligible to another part.” -Karen Barad
The Radical Subjectivity Of Stephen Gill’s The Pillar
It’s impossible to approach a photo book about birds without eventually summoning up Masahisa Fukase’s The Solitude of Ravens. Published in 1986, Fukase’s book was a body blow to any hold realism might have had on the photographic imagination. Underexposed, out of focus, high-contrast, and cinematic, The Solitude of Ravens represented an unfettered expressionism in the service of interspecies collaboration. Projecting his own subjectivity onto that of the ravens he photographed, Fukase refused to obey the rules of straight photography, and the ravens–liberated from the mechanisms of photographic control–helped create a world no human being had ever seen before
No stranger to bending photographic rules or to birds, Stephen Gill, to his credit, has made a book of bird photographs—The Pillar—that looks nothing like The Solitude of Ravens. Instead of Fukase’s relentless movement and dark impressions, Gill placed his camera in a stationary position with a view of an open field. Sited across from a fence post and fitted with a motion sensor, Gill’s camera made a photograph whenever something in front of it moved. Basically, Gill set up a conceptual machine, a picture-making proposition that was as structured as it was open-ended. It is also an embodiment of a certain type of subjectivity: objective, observational, experimental, and removed. We don’t perceive Stephen Gill in his photographs the way we usually think of perceiving photographic authors: through their camera decisions at the moment of exposure. Instead, we note his absence, his refusal to shape every outcome of the photographic engagement, his resolute commitment to negotiating his own control. Through change of seasons, foggy days, wind and snow and blowing grass, Gill’s camera didn’t move.
What did move was birds. They landed on the fence post. They stared at the camera. They approached with feathers unfurled, they left with only a triangle of wing left in the frame. They flew across the adjoining field, silhouetted against milky clouds. They transformed Gill’s calculated conceptual gambit into a beautiful maelstrom of wing and sky, strength and stillness, purposeful movement caught in frames that resist human categories and conventional formal strategies. At its core, The Pillar represents two impulses usually construed as contradictory: the first is conceptual and structural rigor, the second is idiosyncratic and expressionistic lyricism. The genius of the book is that it utilizes both of these pictorial and symbolic strategies in a single coherent statement.
The photographs are astonishing. They are beautiful and wild. Every single page of The Pillar rests on the felicitous interplay of concept and circumstance, the constraint of the fixed camera position set free by the unpredictable grace and power of the birds. Every frame feels like a miracle of feathers and body, of upended focus and unpredictable cropping. But if we credit Gill—who conceived of the process, set up (and re-set) the camera, and edited and produced the book—with the patient subjectivity crucial to the maintenance of the conceptual structure, we must also credit the birds with the lyricism that transforms concept into undeniable revelation after undeniable revelation. It is the birds who choose to land on the post. It is the birds who maneuver into unforgettable shapes and who enter and exit the frame at various speeds. It is their subjectivity, their mysterious and wild agency, that makes each of these photographs more than a dry conceptual data point. We can never hope to understand the particularity of avian subjectivity and we don’t need to grant them agency. Over the span of The Pillar, they claim it for themselves, collaborate on their own terms, transforming a concept into a patch and a patch into a world.
Gill’s great accomplishment in The Pillar is his absolute commitment to representing a radical negotiation of photographic authorship, one that recognizes a multiplicity of subjectivities and an infinitude of agencies. Within the book’s pages lies the possibility that subjectivity and agency can be both shared and borderless and the suggestion that a vast complexity of forces is embodied in even the most unassuming Instagram snap. Like Fukase’s earlier collaboration with birds, Gill’s has the power to reshape our understanding of the photographic engagement as a power relationship both fluid and capable of revealing ways of knowing outside the human. It’s not only a different way to think about photography, it’s a different way to be in the world: an opening onto the nature of interbeing and the possibilities of the world taking a hand in its own representation and its own becoming.
In fond memory of Robert Byrd