No book – more precisely, no series of books – has embedded itself more deeply into my life than Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. The four companion volumes, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea, are remarkable on several counts. Their portrayal of the story’s protagonist, the city of Alexandria herself, is vibrant and evocative. Against the background of her corniche, brothels and souks, the author sets himself the unusual and difficult task of examining the complexity of human relationships, emotions and events in the context of the space/time continuum. To the degree that he succeeds in reaching that goal, he succeeds as well in making the Quartet a bit of a structural tour de force.
Durrell’s dialogue occasionally creaks and groans like a recalcitrant ox-cart, but his descriptive powers are unrivaled. Whether tracing the outlines of Alexandrian society, plumbing the depths of traditional Egyptian culture or capturing the incomparable beauties of Mediterranean sea and sky, his language is variously lush, languid and spare. As Justine opens with the insistent force of a natural process, the narrator is living on an island with a companion we know only as “the child”. Her identity, suggested, is not confirmed. What is clear is the setting, an exquisite prologue to what will come:
In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds. If ever there are sails here they die before the land shadows them. Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water…gone!
Beyond the elegant structure of Durrell’s story and the extravagant beauty of his language, there is another reason for artists of every sort to plumb the depths of his narrative. Few writers provide more clues to their own artistic process or their personal convictions about the nature of art than does Durrell. Painter or poet, novelist, sculptor or photographer – all can find guidance for their craft and the beginnings of wisdom for their art in words which have become as well-known as their author:
I spoke of the uselessness of art, but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies with this ~ that only there, in the silence of the painter or writer can reality be re-ordered, re-worked and made to show its significant side.
Sitting in silence at my desk , I often enjoy little more than a hunch, a suspicion, a tentative sense of direction in which to travel with my words. Still, I understand the process by which words can be “re-ordered and re-worked” to reveal that deeper significance Durrell so rightly prizes, and no one seems inclined to argue the appropriateness of such re-working.
However, as I’ve become more appreciative of the possibilities offered by photography, I’ve been intrigued and puzzled by arguments between those I privately think of as “purists” and “innovators” – that is, between those who insist photographs never should be retouched in any way, and those who assume tweeks and tricks of every sort will be a natural part of the creative process.
In simplest terms, the argument seems to boil down to “pure perception is good, manipulation is bad.” Manipulation most often seems to mean “messing about with a computer”. But “manipulation” of an image doesn’t begin when someone opens Photoshop or Picnik. It begins at the beginning, when the photographer makes a first decision about what will, or won’t, be in the viewfinder.
Michael Smith, member of the North American Nature Photographers and former member of the National Press Photographers Association, ponders these issues in a recent discussion on his fine blog, Dissent Decree.
As he says, “…I have heard most of the arguments about how far photographic “truth” may be stretched. What it comes down to is context and intent. A photojournalist with ethics will not alter, stage or otherwise contrive a photograph. However, that same photographer must and will decide what to photograph, from what vantage point, and (at which) exact moment.”
“Likewise, he or she will decide what focal length lens to use, what to focus upon, what to frame in the viewfinder (“in-camera cropping”) and what aperture setting and ISO to use. All of these decisions shape and shade the final image – (which becomes) in some degree… editorializing and self-expression as much as reporting. Photojournalism, in spite of what the purists may argue, is in part a form of Art.”
As a writer, I understand the need for constant choice. I spend hours choosing between this word or that, reordering paragraphs, eliminating sentences or adding the necessary phrase. Photography, it seems, is no less a process of continual decision making. Should I photograph this flower, or that? Would the building be better shot in morning light or evening? Shall I focus here, or there? Will I choose black and white, or color? It intrigues me that some consider these decisions inherently artistic, even as they describe what happens at the computer as undesirable manipulation.
It seems obvious we can’t have it both ways. If deciding to include a cloud or exclude a tree in a photograph is an “artistic decision”, then cropping, framing and applying effects can be artistic decisions, too. On the other hand, if choosing to transform an image with the special effects available through computer programs is “manipulation”, then choosing a subject, a vantage point, a condition of light is just as surely a manipulation of what viewers will see in the final image.
In fact, whether a photographer chooses to rely on camera settings alone or prefers to crop, tint or otherwise modify an image after its upload to a computer, the goal is the same: to choose a subject and then to “rework” that reality, to frame this bit of landscape or that bit of life in such a way that its emotional depth and temporal significance become accessible. Like a painter selecting a favorite brush or a writer uncoiling great loops of words, the photographer softens and tints, focuses and frames in such a way that quite ordinary bits of daily life become transformed, evoking a sense of unutterable mystery and delight. Inexplicably, they become living moments, available to serve artists of every sort in a way Durrell understood to his depth:
These are moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life that is writing. One can debauch them with words, but one can never spoil them. In this context too, I recover another such moment, lying beside a sleeping woman in a cheap room near the mosque. In that early spring dawn, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the ebed – a voice hanging like a hair in the palm cooled airs of Alexandria…
The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words, the voice of muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity ~ until the whole world seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing lightly as a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendors of a language she would never know.