WRITERS PRIZE: 22 / MAR / 2021
THROUGH A KITCHEN WINDOW
by Julie Dawn Dennis
At home I am, in normal circumstances, liberated by limitation, free to be myself inside my own room. Through my window I can be both seen and hidden. With soft curtains closed, I redact the outside world; with them open, I may gaze across the outside, and (if I choose to) photograph what I see. Looking through the viewfinder it is as though I am present in both places at once. Both the window and the camera complicate my interior and exterior worlds. If the human eye is window to one’s soul, is a camera an extension to this ‘soul-window’? You look into my eye to read me, to know me. I want to share with you an image of what my eye sees so that you may read me further and know me deeper.
Across the centuries, artists painted interior scenes in which windows were often a symbol of yearning. When photography was being calculated in 19th century brains, were we stepping forwards or sideways in human creativity? Either way, the window was an essential ingredient in the experiment; photography’s umbilical cord. I can only imagine Niépce’s excitement as his 1827 contraption formed a fixed view of the rooftops from its position on a French windowsill. Even today the image represents a magic, and a birth: a new tool for reflexivity. Time hasn’t changed things too much. In the last century we talked of mirrors and windows, Szarkowski suggesting that certain photographs are more like windows, that through them "one might better know the world". I store details from photographs in my mental filing system. They appear to me again when prompted, whether I search them out or not. More recently, theorists have paralleled our looking to wanting; some kind of ownership of whatever it is we cast our eye upon. "There is no looking without thoughts of using, possessing, repossessing, owning, fixing, appropriating, keeping, remembering and commemorating, cherishing, borrowing, and stealing."
Now, in pandemic, some photographers are looking in at the isolated, the window frame enhancing confinement, the glass powerfully making a point of separation. The fragile glass protects me from you, through this you see our faces, our eyes, and the fear within, boxed up and ready for your shutter. If photography and looking are attached to desire, the longing in lockdown window-faces is for not only for the outside world, but to feel safe again; a return to a past state of security, freedom to chat and work and hug and love again. For the photographer looking in, perhaps there too lies a desire, a need for human connection, but also an ironic sense of safety on the outside. May I take your photo in there? No explanation is needed. Not this time.
I stay indoors, staring across land and sky, not seeing the bubbles in the old glass. Washing the dishes, though a chore, becomes an opportunity for dreaming. While my hands instinctively work the hot water and wipe away the smears of dinner, my thoughts drift, imagination finds space, ideas spark. Photography always stirs up that hard problem of consciousness, of inner and outer selves. It is only hard if you pick at it; dreamers leave that to the rest, believing that windows, and cameras, can open dreams. The Shamanic "opening in the plane" was a state of trance a window in the spirit world, a linking of visible and invisible realms. The artist Turner was said to have crawled to the window and looked out just prior to his moment of death. So, with my lens looking outward through the glass I bridge interior and exterior places, but also may be seeking to connect with other inner states. The photograph taken through my window becomes surface within surface, like nesting dolls, within the familiar rectangular frame and, inside or outside, the window offers a further symbolic layer. You know, though, that symbols won’t tell you how I really feel, but I am OK with that. "This very unknowability of other human beings is what fuels our fascination with poetry and fiction and art, those windows into other minds."
This is the third of the articles shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography.