This photo is the first in a stack of seventeen that I received in an envelope with no return address except “Passing By.” To understand them and why I received them, I need to be certain who sent them. I think probably Kara, the news photographer I lived with until recently when she put her belongings in storage and walked away with two suitcases. I haven’t heard from her in three months. That figure could be her passing by this ugly scene with its closed doors and barred windows, or maybe Kara took this shot. The dying people I used to escort on Terminal Tours took a lot of selfies, but they have passed on so I’m sure they didn’t send me these photos. I’ve ruled out my former wife, Ann, because she always said I was “just passing through.” The big brother who never tired of instructing me passed away a few years ago. My lawyer daughter is too proud to ever pass herself off as anonymous. The sender could, of course, be a stranger, and the photos could be a gift, maybe even some fan’s stimulus to quit writing this blog and to continue writing my Michael Keever memoirs with “passing” in their titles. But the photos seem more like a test than a gift. As a former pro basketball player, I believe—still—that life is motion. A photo--even one like this that snaps a person in motion—is a still life, a contradiction in terms to me. But when you get a mysterious message in a bottle, you can’t help but look and maybe even try to learn the language of the message.
Another person passing by, closer up this time. Like the woman in the first photo, the man seems to be passing through, oblivious to his surroundings. He appears to pay no attention to the blandishments of the photographed woman in the upper left and no attention to the complicated ugliness of barred openings in the upper right. The way he is holding his arms, he may be looking at his cell phone. He is surely unaware of the photographed figure in the lower left, who is — if you look closely or magnify — a reflection of the photographer taking this shot. The woman is not Kara. The woman is not a person I know. Forget about solving the mystery of taker and sender. “Keep it simple, Keever,” my high school coach used to say. What is it that I see? The man is shot moving like a player, he may be ignoring his setting as I often do, but I have more hair. Studying this person who is not me, I realize every photo is ultimately impersonal, a thing — even if it’s a portrait of you by someone you know. A photo is first and last a dead thing, still on paper, still in its digital home. That man will never take the next step. That stillness is the primal ugliness I resist in photos, their unpleasant reminder of the Terminal. That understood, maybe I can learn to appreciate what doesn’t move.
Of all the photos, this one near the end of the sequence should most frustrate me, the “me”—the former athlete--who began this narrative. No people or motion here. Passage is most certainly blocked: closed, locked, and sealed by that angled board, reinforced with panels at the bottom, painted the same colour as the wall to either side, fronted by a plant, spindly in itself but occupying what appears to be an oversized and heavy box. If doors are closed, windows are shuttered, passageways dead ended--no entrance, no exit--then what do I do with my tropism to pass through or see through? I can, of course, simply pass by. This photograph and others imply — I surprise myself by realizing now — that I should instead pause by such scenes, such photos. Find beauty in closure, in the shadow larger than the plant that casts it. Or find pleasure in incongruity, the overdetermination of the closure versus the ineffectualness of the plant. Or find solace in nature surviving, even in the least likely of places. Or find engagement with something that is utterly not me, does not reflect me, is not in motion, will never be in motion. All these sentences that begin with “or” admit that I’m uncertain. And I’ve come to believe that uncertainty is the desired effect of photos, not just great ones but all photos, for no matter how clearly focused the photo is we never know what was not taken, what was outside the frame, and therefore we realize that even the most documentary photos are like verbal fictions, selective excerpts from all that could be written. Given the vagaries of language, what you have been reading could be an unreliable fiction reflecting on uncertain photos, mirroring them. “Passing By” might be a reminder—playful I hope you will agree--of the uncertainty I believe every viewer of photographs should accept and even cherish. We are all passing through this world. But do not pass by the uncertain world. Do not pass by photos that don’t stop you in your tracks. Until all is still, why not enjoy uncertainty, how photos and stories both demonstrate that the world is not settled and fixed, not closed and locked--like the door here, like the windows in that first image, like the openings in the second image--to imagination?
These excerpts are from Passing By, a much longer photo/fiction collaboration between Kinga Owczennikow, whose photos have appeared in group shows all over Europe and in Vogue Italia, and Tom LeClair, whose four Passing novels have Michael Keever as putative author, narrator, and protagonist. Kinga Owczennikow has been a teacher in international schools in Asia and Europe, most recently in Albania. Tom LeClair is a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, most recently residing in Brooklyn. The complete Passing By can be found here: https://medium.com/@tomleclair_73623/passing-by-1e002f2b53db
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