Santa Maria Novella, in Florence Wells' presentation image 03

 

I began my last presentation with a quote from E.M.Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View, in which the English characters abroad in Italy attempt to discover the exact standpoint from which Alessio Baldovinetti might have painted a view of Florence. I suggested that the source of much of the irony in the novel was a disconnection between standpoint  - as the physical ‘being there’ of the observer, with the inclusion of his or her physical and sociological particularity – and viewpoint – as the fictive or virtual, sharable, philosophical point of view. I presented photographs from the Conway Library which suggest just such a disconnection, and focused especially on these two, probably staged, photographs of a woman apparently too deeply absorbed in her book to be aware of her dramatic surroundings. The first photograph was taken in front of the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence; the second was taken in Andorra. Translating Forster’s theoretical writing into these terms, I suggested that in fiction the viewpoint is as visible as the standpoint. Given Whitney Davis’s statement that photography involves the partial coincidence of standpoint and viewpoint, I proposed that this therefore reflects the limits of photography as both fiction and non-fiction.

At the last lunch I was directed to Forster’s preparatory notes and drafts for A Room with a View, which include further discussion as to exactly where Baldovinetti may have stood. Notably one draft makes Forster’s derision over the question very clear: in it a character named Tancred asks himself a subsequent question:

What aesthetic pleasure for himself, what enlightenment for others, did Mr Rankin procure by nefariously evolving the personality of Alessio Bladovinetti – a personality which consisted in having gone up a hill…[1]

Whilst Forster sees irony in the failure of the English tourist authentically to connect viewpoint with standpoint, he also seems highly scornful of attempts to discover one through the other. The question articulated by Tancred then is a fundamental one, both for Forster’s novel and for the photographs I have been researching: to what extent and in what way can we infer that standpoint and viewpoint coincide?

Since the last Conway lunch I have researched in more detail the particular collection of photographs to which these two belong. The collection is constituted of 250 photographs that were given to the Conway Library in 1959 by a Miss Rona Read of Hampstead. Whilst the collection begins with a couple of photographs in England, the majority are taken in Italy, with Switzerland and Andorra also featuring. Some of the negatives are dated, and the dates range from 1893 to 1897. Interestingly, while most of the negatives are glass, some are nitrate, which suggests that this photographer – possibly Miss Read’s father – was excited about new technology and dedicated enough to carry around two different cameras whilst travelling. This woman appears quite frequently in the photographs; she is often to be found looking pensive, wistful and unaware of the camera in many a picturesque setting. However while the woman’s viewpoint remains enigmatic and apparently dislocated from her standpoint, the photographer subtly connects her to her physical surroundings. I talked last time about the way in which the woman’s figure echoes that of the arches of the Santa Maria Novella Duomo behind her, both suggesting a mysterious interior.

 

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This photograph was taken in Venice. Here she is seated so as to lead our eyes past her to the bridge beyond, the vertical line of her feather boa reflecting that of the buildings above her.

 

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And here too in Taggia it seems hard to imagine the scene without her, as, counterbalanced by the tree in the top right-hand corner, she again leads our eye beyond her frame to the building that too seems to lean on its elbow on the edge of the cliff face. While her viewpoint may remain mysterious, then, that of the photographer becomes clearer through her presence.

 

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While the woman is the only person I have found who reappears within the set, this photographer clearly enjoyed positioning a figure within his compositions. Here for example a young boy leans on the bridge in front of the Porta del Paradiso, creating a similar sense of melancholic yet peaceful reverie. Accompanying the romanticism of such a distant gaze is also the establishment of class distinction: Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins have stated that since the nineteenth century the ‘civilised’ classes have made themselves ‘less available’ to the camera by averting their eyes from it: ‘the higher status person may thus be characterised as too absorbed in weighty matters to attend to the photographer’s agenda’.[2]

 

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This photograph taken in Amalfi, for example, suggests just such a contrast. Here the man on the bridge looks directly into the camera and seems less preoccupied with inaccessible meditation than he is interested in the photographer. Aware that he is looked at, his stare back into the lens is accompanied by a casual posture, with one leg dangling from the wall and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. If the view of the ‘civilised’ must remain veiled from us, then the mystery of the woman’s viewpoint, heightened by the disconnection from her dramatic standpoints, clarifies her social status.

 

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Indeed this is the only photograph I have found in the collection in which the photographed figure gazes at the same object as the photographer. And here again the photographer uses the woman’s presence to reflect and add to his view of the Duomo beyond her; they are subtly integrated. Both she and the Pisa Duomo are viewed square on: she, like the architecture, stands erect, the folds of her skirt mirroring the columns at the base of the cathedral, her shawl and dark head dome-like in front of the crown of the building. Interestingly, this synthesis between person and place is also in sympathy with Forster’s fiction: one only has to think of the almost supernatural connection between characters and buildings in Howard’s End, for example, where Forster writes that Mrs Wilcox ‘is the house’, to see an uncanny sense of oneness between a woman and a building.[3] The connection between the fore-grounded figure and the view beyond her in these compositions allows the photographer to convey more of his viewpoint through her standpoint: she acts as a gauze through which our view of the building is filtered; we must look across her, and so she becomes a sign of the photographer’s, and our own, view which filters our vision of the object.

 

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The woman is far from the distanced observer favoured by early photographers who saw the medium as a route to pure objectivity then, to the isolation of standpoint from viewpoint. Notably Whitney Davis aligned the standpoint with observer, and viewpoint with viewer. The woman appears to observe very little, too absorbed is she in reverie and imagination. If she is distanced from her surroundings, that distance seems more temporal than physical. And this fits with Davis’ discussion of the relation between standpoint and viewpoint as one of contiguity not continuity. Contiguity suggests some contact, or touch, while continuity is more suggestive of a logical sequence or linear progression. Contiguity, then, is I think more connected to a physical relation, continuity to a temporal one. In these photographs, the woman’s figure is carefully intertwined with her physical space, despite her rather transported, timeless gaze. She appears as if forever positioned in that spot, frozen in time, fixed within the scene by plays of shape, colour and space. Her figure is photographed as integral to the contiguity of forms captured by the lens. In this way then, her poetic presence acts as a sign of the viewpoint that mediates our relationship with the standpoint.

 

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Plays of distance are especially interesting in this photograph, which is produced from one of five negatives in the collection that have the word ‘telephoto’ written on them, alongside a date, 1897. The telephoto lens was invented in 1891, [4] so again it seems that this photographer was adventurous and up-to-date with the latest photographic technologies. This photograph was taken in Tuscany, looking up at the west front of Lucca cathedral. The composition of the three archways is striking in its relation to the first photograph I showed of Santa Maria Novella. Here there is no distracted figure to present a sense of scale and distance, and to embody the mediation of viewpoint to standpoint. Yet this is not a purely objective standpoint of a distanced observer; distance here has been reduced, and the standpoint, projected into space by the telephoto lens, itself becomes somewhat fictional. As the viewpoint becomes clearer through a narrower focus and more specific choice of subject, the standpoint notably becomes more ungrounded, virtual, fictional: more akin in nature to Davis’ definition of a viewpoint. The relationship between standpoint and viewpoint can never be divorced; at most we can attempt to invert it.

In A Room with a View, George Emerson claims that ‘all that matters’ in a view ‘is distance and air’, and that the ‘only one perfect view’ is that of ‘the sky straight over our heads’. [5] This is consistent with Forster’s championing of the direct, connected and expansive over the vicarious, mediated and enclosed throughout his novel. The title of the novel’s sequel, A View without a Room, is weighty with symbolism. There are many symbols of barriers in the novel, of things that mediate or truncate experience. They range from walls of rooms to Cecil’s pince-nez. One important symbol however, is the Alinari photographs Lucy buys in Florence. I don’t have time to go into the details of the scene, but I think that as an author Forster uses photography as a sign of mediation, of second-hand, vicarious experience. Photographs in the novel are something we must ‘look across’. These photographs from the Conway perhaps reflect such a view without sharing its negativity. I have suggested that the recurrence of the figure - herself temporally distant but photographed as physically integrated with the scene beyond her – acts as sign of the mediation of subjectivity and viewpoint that is an inescapable part of photography. I think the photographer would be pleased by the idea of this woman dotted amongst the red boxes of the Conway library, filed according to the objects behind her at which she seldom looks, and acting as a reminder of the viewpoint every photographic standpoint embodies.

 

© Rachel Wells 2006

 

[1] E.M.Forster, The Lucy Novels: Early Sketches for A Room with a View, ed. O. Stallybrass, (London, 1977) p. 33.

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[2] C. Lutz & J. Collins, ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes’ in The Photography Reader, ed.Liz Wells, (London, 2003) pp. 354-374.

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[3] E.M.Forster, Howard’s End, (London, 1941, 1st pub.1910), p. 292.

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[4] G. Clarke, The Photograph, (Oxford, 1997) p. 236.

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[5] E.M.Forster, A Room With A View, ed. O. Stallybrass, (London, 1978) p. 177.

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