WRITERS PRIZE: 15 / JUL / 2022
by Morwenna Kearsley

Pluto is often described as God of the Dead or Lord of the Underworld and I would add Photographer to that list. For what is a photograph if not a death? Down in the deep, dark shadows of his subterranean city, I imagine him printing photographs. Negative to positive, light to dark. Perhaps he uses the summer time, when Proserpina departs the Underworld, to really get to grips with the darkroom backlog. In his 1843 story The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe’s mercurial narrator names his pet cat Pluto. This brutal malefactor confesses to a pattern of abuse and violence meted out not only to Pluto but his wife also; a response to their consistent love and care and fear. Writing at a time when photography was still in its infancy, Poe plays on the prophetic image-apparition as central to superstitious beliefs and dreadful outcomes. In one scene, an image of the murdered Pluto appears on a scorched wall after fire consumes the narrator’s house. The white, negative image of the black cat communicates to observers the brutal manner of its death. In another scene, a replacement black cat’s tuft of white chest hair slowly begins to form a prophetic image of gallows. Poe tells us, through the use of black and white images that the positive photograph is bound to its negative in perpetuity, like a crime to its punishment.

There’s a postcard of Brassaï’s The Black Cat on my mantlepiece that I brought home from a work trip to a photography festival called Unseen. Away from the carefully curated rooms of the gallery, the black cat sat grumpily in the gift shop alongside other reproductions of famous 20th century photography. I reached out and took a copy from the rack, another black cat sat furiously behind the one I’d just removed. In the postcard the cat almost completely fills the frame, its black fur puffed out around it like a shroud. Due to the seeming fluffiness of the fur, I can’t decipher any true outline of the animal. Just two piercing, white eyes with a black slit down the centre of each, glaring out at me from beneath the shadows. It sits on a rug, decorated with a constellation of repeat shapes that resemble ringed planets. The rug is spot-lit in a way that reveals only the section the cat sits on, edges morphing into the dark background. The photograph is monochrome and printed to reveal maximum contrast between the sharp white of the cat’s eyes and the unending blackness of the shadows. There’s something preternatural about the cat, it needles me like a feared childhood toy or a bad omen. I pull a downloaded jpeg of Brassaï's The Black Cat from the internet into Photoshop and invert it to get closer to its negative state. The opulent black shadows are replaced by a thin white surface and suddenly I recognise the trick, the negative acting as a magician’s spoiler. It has been altered to enhance the shadow areas, transforming utilitarian fur into an oneiric cloak of mystery. I wonder if he retouched the negative himself? Or perhaps hired a hand more delicate than his own to gently rub the shadow areas with a cuttlefish bone, allowing the light swift passage. Has the background been painted in too? And how can the floor tilt so manically while the cat sits so still? Brassaï, like Poe, has constructed a convincing simulacrum, its teetering verisimilitude creating the perfect conditions for unease to come shivering in alongside.

The pattern of consequent days shift and black cats converge: one saunters past me in the street, its green eye winking as I try to remember which way is bad luck. I flick through a Walker Evans book and there’s another, lying atop a cut log on the porch of a sharecropper’s cabin. My boyfriend arbitrarily texts me screen grabs of photographs by Ralf Crane. They document black cats auditioning for a role in the 1962 horror film Tales of Terror, the fourth film in a cycle of eight featuring adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. A row of Plutos stretch out across the picture plane, leashed to their human counterparts. Somewhere in the depths of his darkroom, the Lord of the Underworld manipulates the light falling through his fingers on to the paper below and chuckles.

Image: L: Brassaï, The Black Cat, c.1935/5, inverted R: Brassaï, The Black Cat, c.1935/5, positive

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