Photography is the shape of silence

By Susana Cordero de Espinosa

Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

Photography is the shape of silence. It silences attitudes, emotions, solitudes, steps; it silences words themselves, so that they can go on being what they once were, speaking themselves inexhaustibly.

In infinite photographs, infinite silences follow one upon another, all different, even the instant that has been frozen. Because every instant that is halted in that way stops speaking, while life shows that silence is the most vigorous form of communication. And thus the images in this book — knowledge shaped from silences, from immobilized instants in the life of Pablo Corral, who is devoted to looking beyond himself — speak to us of so many things, things learned and gathered in the course of twenty-five years of looking in order to learn by looking, of being impassioned by nature and by people, of dreaming other people’s dreams.

In each silenced yet ineffably expressive scene there is the artist who captured it, there are landscapes, figures, events frozen in time, and there are the viewers.

This triple, deceptively simultaneous conjunction of photographer, subject, and observer recreates universes, recreates the universe. Pablo’s polished, self-effacing gaze, endowed with an unerring “nose,” always there, always daring, challenges itself, reflects upon itself, makes demands upon itself, and remains in every one of the photographs, and from them looks out at us. The instant, captured by the gaze behind the camera, reserved for a forever that will stretch on long after us, is there. And we, seduced by his universe, seeing what we see and feeling what the scene inspires in us, are sensitized — we thrill, we suffer, we rebel, we love, we believe, as the aesthetic stimulus — be it event, stone, cloud, feather, smile, gesture of love, or melancholy  — demands. We, too, are there.

“What’s in a rose?” Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez asked. “Don’t touch it anymore!”. . . What’s in a photograph? Everything it gives us, or that we take from it; that thing the artist looked at and froze, as a challenge to our senses; everything we intuit or invent from what the photo suggests to us. A triad that can be translated only by silence. “Don’t touch it anymore!”. . .

Remote, those long arguments about the value of suggestion in black-and-white photography, remote the frivolity that purists find in the colors of digital photography, the “minimal effort” they ascribe to it. In this case, they’re wrong. Reality comes to us in living color; capturing it as it is can hardly be called betrayal. Each color is expression, suggestion, life, and also death. And as for the perfection sought after by technique, there would be nothing without the creating eye, the aesthetic sense, the spirit that fills every scene of this magnificent silence.

The instant frozen in a photograph speaks for itself, of course. Can be so intense, in fact, that we need no words, additions, justifications, or explanations: the anecdote, the landscape, the pain, the happiness, the light, the shade speak.

We can, though, look for the artist behind the photographs, in the reasons for his selection. Why did he want to show us this landscape and not another? Why this country, of all the countless countries he has traveled through and looked at? These people — what are they doing? Why are they here, in this place first of all, in these photographs second? Who are they? What are the photographer’s favorite subjects, and which one does this image fit in?

It’s interesting to look at how certain motifs are repeated. As in the shadowy interiors of Flemish paintings, or the tormented yet delightful forms of the flesh in the works of Botero, in these photographs we find, if we look beyond the landscapes whose beauty justifies any and all approaches, the quotidian existence of the simplest events: children playing; the wind, the sea, the river as players in scenes of daily life — delicious walks in the Cambodian evening, picnics in the country or along the riverbank, clean simple, humble clothes swelling in the breeze. In scenes of daily life, how can there not be women repeated — alert young mothers, nuns with virginal faces, or severe faces with sad, serene expressions, the faces of courageous poverty, everyday women, watching over life and death, wise observers of pain and devastation, or prayerful women, or thoughtful, or women happily, beautifully frivolous in their exaltation of youth and love, in the miracle of the dance, of nakedness? Women who make every routine seem a miracle? Mothers, sisters, daughters; warm adolescents, grandmothers with compassionate, understanding faces, their skin written over with the lessons of a long life?

And how can there not be men, dreaming of a distant women, or a different woman? No matter the setting, they assume the same postures. Savoring a cigarette and the mystery of the smoke curling in the air: colors, new clouds rise from their mouths. A glance, then look away. How can there not be men and everyday work and worry and poverty, and love. . . ?

The instant is silenced, so that it may speak forever. . . . Basketball players on who knows what old rundown court, the ball’s shadow on the wall, while happiness echoes to the sky. Sheets in the wind, clothes in the wind, a woman washing, a stray dog. . . The daisylike flowers of the frailejón on the alpine plains, and the women of the tango, far to the south, waiting, their hair bleached blond, their faces marked by life, the male dancer who passes by, looks, keeps walking. . . The women, shoulder to shoulder, bear the weight of their solitude, smile behind the tables, chat, get to know one another, at least.

The frozen instant in each photograph allows us to return, turn back to them until we feel the texture of adobe on our fingertips, the dazzling whiteness of the walls or some dress at a fiesta in our eyes, the wind on our eyelids. The instant’s silence says so much, arranges objects, whispers, yearnings just so. . . Its grace calls us back to the images, and, through them, asks us to reconstruct that world and the gaze that lingered on it.

Each photograph attracts us, and then it clutches us, holds us immobile, but only apparently so. In that sense, it fulfills the mission that Alain attributes to beauty: “The beautiful stops us.” I have experienced that here, where in every image of these twenty-five years every detail begs us to linger. But I must also say that I’m grateful that in this book, the beautiful fills one’s soul, fully. We linger, and we are filled.

Nor does beauty need to be joyful to stop us, although we viewers, mortal and blurry images pierced by time, need, paradoxically, to translate the impression that the photograph made on us, resort to the ambiguity of words to fulfill the vast urge to disambiguate it. I ask myself why I write; perhaps only to find reasons not to talk.

And I have — we have — the right to fabricate hope when I am witness to Pablo’s love in the gaze of the enamored kid who’s looking at the girl he’s courting, when I am witness to Pablo’s desire in the desire of the couple dancing, whose touching cheeks consummate the fleeting union of body against body, when I am witness to Pablo’s desire in that frozen step that existed for an instant and now is no more, like desire. I am witness to Pablo’s solitude on the rugged mountain top, in the icy blue peaks of pure beauty, no preservatives added. I am witness to Pablo’s past, which he evokes in this selection made with such true humility — doubly humble because it is truth, and true. Does Pablo move toward the light or does he let the light penetrate him? Apparently, there are two moments in that moment that is but one: the gaze is gazed upon by the object that it gazes upon; the object gazes at the gaze with which it is gazed upon. Gaze and object are joined in the unique, intimate, violent, and vulnerable moment of the click that freezes them. And the result of that double gaze is an image that has no knowledge of itself, and comes to us riddled with uncertainty, so that we may peek into the depths of that which Rilke talked about: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure.”

Let us be warned by this fiesta of color, this miracle of everyday life, these landscapes of the soul. They bring us pain, profoundly. Their beauty communicates to us the ephemerality of beauty; their youth, the fleeting nature of a time which, in its passing, is bearing us toward our end, for we are our time — we are time. This time, their time, the time of each image is the joy of pain in the soul. It is, joyfully still, that degree of terror — to pass, to cease to be, to dream of continuing to be what now, definitively, is no longer — that our heart can still endure.

And what’s more, we need that beautiful warning so that we can begin to truly be. When we open a book of poetry, real poetry, how often do we feel the need to snap it shut again when we come across a babbling line, wounded by creation? How often have we experienced a kind of secret guilt because we can’t endure to read on? How often have we opened the book again to that poem and turned the page, yearning to be able to recreate the poem in the fear and uncertainty of so much beautiful evidence. . . ? The same thing happens with these photographs. When I saw them with Pablo, I’d have liked to stop and linger over every one, but I was afraid — afraid of not being able to endure so much happiness, so much sadness, so much gazing, so much youth, so much helplessness.

Words! The silent images, predestined to equivocation, that say so much, that say everything. Is it they or is it our gaze that will never find univocality, the univocality that marks the universe with equivocation and, desperate to communicate, communicates only its own impotence?

Like some miracle that conjures away doubt, we dream that there are things like tenderness, friendship, the soft, pleasant beauty of certain moments, certain images, certain words. And although photography confirms that the world is only illusion, that the moments it captured ceased to exist the second they were captured, we are here, ready, as we turn these pages, as we are enchanted by these faces, to feel the terrible yet grateful uncertainty of our poor — beautiful — human certainties.

Susana Cordero de Espinosa

Cumbayá, June 17, 2007