Looking out of the Darkness
The Photographs of Ciaránóg Arnold
by Colin Graham
A harsh play of darkness and light is at the centre of Ciaránóg Arnold's photographs. In this series of images of men living in and around Ballinasloe, men who are 'down and out', the unforgiving luminescence of street lighting is used, imitated, and then transformed into something more than itself, so that the contrasts of the photograph become the mere sign of a greater light, an almost metaphysical illumination. Arnold's subjects lie low - they sleep, collapse, or haunch down, and in doing so they apparently visually reflect their social status. Yet there is more to these photographs than the deadpan pity that a photographic chronicle of homelessness might naturally aspire to. This is not simply a record of poverty nor a set of images that works primarily as a prick to our bourgeois consciences. The 'lowliness' of the men and places in these photographs is part of a vertiginous relationship between the light from the street or from the camera flash, and the distance between these men and the light they look for, or which searches them out, intimating that their lives should be understood beyond the frame which would be created by an eye that is merely socially concerned. The darkness and light of these lives tries to lift us outside the boundaries of the photograph and outside the conventions of documentary accounts of the dispossessed. We are taken close to a tantalising vision - avoiding the obvious danger of romanticising poverty - a vision which is always moving us towards seeing a wonder, a magic and a compromised kind of purity in both these photographs and their subjects.
Boris Mikhailov's Case History series is in some ways the epitome of contemporary photography's mode of seeing those who have been caught, willingly or otherwise, in the social substrata, living on the streets, or living with addiction. Mikhailov's images of the homeless in Kharkov, and more widely in the Ukraine, deliberately verge on the voyeuristic. Knowing that he pays his subjects makes for complicated and uncomfortable viewing, and it is mainly in the political commentary which is needled through his images that Mikhailov's Case History redeems itself. The satire inherent in Mikhailov's images is heightened by their mimicry of Christian iconography, but this is a satire which also mocks the false transcendence of such icons. Mikhailov's down and outs are given dignity which is hard won and bought at the expense of the photographer and, less literally, at the expense of those who might be shocked by the images and the circumstances of their creation. Mikhailov's influential images in Case History are, in other words, contained within their own social critique, which becomes their raison d'être.
Ciaránóg Arnold's images fit broadly into the category which Mikhailov's photographs inhabit - their subject matter and to some extent their photographic curiosity and proximity to the homeless and the deprived is similar. But Arnold's images are interested primarily in something other than material degradation. There is a hint that sublimity (aesthetic and almost spiritual) resides somewhere in these scenes. It may be in the people or the places; it may be in the eye of the photographer or the viewer; whichever it is, the relationship between darkness and light is the key. It is the 'power of a well managed darkess', which Edmund Burke thought key to the creation of the sublime, since 'darkness is more productive of sublime ideas than light'. So in Arnold's apparently straightforward night-time suburbia an unremarkable middle-class-looking house sits in the midst of a 'well managed darkness' and the co-ordinates of light in the photograph begin their interplay. The house is lit by the streetlight, yet the length of the exposure means that the house front looks to be exuding light, and the streetlight has become like a security floodlight, suggesting a threat to this clean and tidy domesticity. The darkness around the house is not just defining of the light, then, but a challenge to it. A black foreground and shadowed hedges are areas of the unknown. It is in these areas that Arnold's human subjects exist, if not actually then at least metaphorically, living beyond the direct glance of respectability. (Elsewhere in his imagery Arnold, strives to give an uncanny and blank familiarity to shrubbery and cultivated hedgerows, as if a dark spirit of place had been forgotten in the recesses behind privet, willow and unkempt grass.) The solidity of the house and all it stands for may be reflected in the streetlight, but that is not the end or even the focus of this image. The framing and exposure here turn the streetlight into something like a photographic flash, so that the bottom portion of the image imitates the structure of the studio portrait. This photograph then cleverly shows us bourgeois life looking at itself in a meta-photograph, and bound into that self-regard is a fearful darkness beyond the light. Jokily mixing a photographic structure with the house as the opposite of homelessness, the bottom portion of the image is an inversion in subject matter but a replication in light of the other photographs in the series.
However it is the light breaking out above the house which confirms this photograph's function as a broad view of what other images by Arnold strive for in a more microcosmic way. That moonlight is visionary, natural, almost mystical. To see it, it is necessary to look up, to look beyond suburbia. And that is exactly what the man in another image does - his gaze is dreamy, maybe absent or maybe entirely full and revelatory. Behind him the lighting turns an unremarkable, unkempt and disintegrating building, overrun with weeds and detritus, into a grotto-like scene. The light from above, the man's unsurprised, almost fulfilled look, and the enigmatic beginnings of a private smile, suggest a quiet yet profound moment, focused on the source of the light. What this is remains a mystery, and the photographer and viewer are denied the privilege of turning their gaze on what the man himself sees. In this way we as viewers are made subordinate to this man's moment of understanding, and so his place in the world is given a profundity which we cannot patronise or categorise because we are not given the co-ordinates or vocabulary to describe it. We don't know what he sees, but the image asks us to accept that, maybe because of who he is and where he is, he can see what we cannot.
There is a certain similarity in Arnold's images to the relatively recent project Hide that Can by Deirdre O'Callaghan. O'Callaghan had a similar empathetic regard for the Irish homeless living in London who were the subject of her photographs. Arnold's images are less polished, more immediate and yet verge on the iconic. In his photograph of three men drinking and smoking on a street corner there is a drama in their patience and poise. The scoring on the concrete wall, and the writing in the render, suggests a persistent occupation of this place - its nothingness as a physical space is turned into a kind of home for these men simply because they are there, but the photograph is able to emphasise how this space can be familiar by using street lighting again, as with the photograph of the suburban house. The question we are asked by this image is about the nature of feeling at home in any space. The blankness and paranoia of the suburban are contrasted with the texture and companionability of the seemingly dead and hostile urban space. Arnold's sublime seems to believe that occupying a space is to bring light to it, however dark it may appear to be.
In the one image which looks upwards the light which sheds itself so benignly elsewhere is scattered in blossom, creating a beauty and again a mystery of moment and place which accommodates the urban very easily but does not celebrate the speed nor the atomisation of urban life. Given that this image is the one upward view it may be that here we can understand something of what is in the mystery of the other photographs - what do those look up from below see? Why the enigmatic smile? The blossom is proudly nostalgic, maybe even sentimental, but it is there, and in using patches and scatterings of light it is given a strength as an image by the care with which Arnold has used light elsewhere in the series.
This is, then, the view from below. That greatest of genuine-fake 'down and outs', George Orwell wrote about his time in Paris as a 'tramp', shaking off his Etonianism in search of a visceral experience which would connect him with something he could not name, but knew that he would find by socially descending:
"...there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety."
Orwell means this in a purely social sense, or at least that's how it seems. The upper-middle-class boy Eric Blair has become the tramp George Orwell. But, while Orwell is as unromanticising as Arnold, both, differently, seem fascinated by the possibility that going 'down', or to the dogs, lifts an anxiety which is endemic to settled modern life. In Arnold's case that journey downwards seems to rekindle a sense of place and bring about a clarity of vision. To enter the darkness is to have a purer and more profound understanding of the light. And to look up from below is to see an enhanced sublime, something most of us miss in the midst of the light pollution of modern life.