This photo was taken just past the 21st Ave intersection at Hillsboro Village. It reminds me of the way that Pamuk discusses Black and White. He sees Istanbul as a city in black and white. When I think of things in black and white, I usually connect something negative, or old with it. However, Pamuk loves this feature of his city. He embraces the general haze over the city and the attitudes of the citizens who embrace it. This photo makes me think of what Vanderbilt might have been like when this car was brand new. Vanderbilt, at that time, is just a story to me. I want to know what it was like in a time that I consider to be black and white, however, not in a negative way. Because Pamuk looks at black and white in a positive way, I am beginning to do the same. Maybe this era of black and white had things that I would have enjoyed. The simplicity of certain aspects of life. At the same time, there are negative things that go along with that era, especially social issues. While the car is ascetically beautiful, it is not as reliable or fuel efficient as a modern car. So in many ways, the black and white era had its advantages, but also its disadvantages to today. By looking at those advantages as Pamuk did, I can better appreciate the past, and enjoy looking this car even more, not just for its looks, but also for what it represents, and how far we have come since that time.
Orhan Pamuk dedicated a whole chapter of his memoir Istanbul to the theme of “black and white”. He says he has “always apprehended the city’s soul in black and white” (37), and for him the black and white of photographs of the city emphasize the decay of the glory of the Ottoman Empire, of Istanbul’s height.
“To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul” (39-40).
I had a very similar experience when I spent a couple of days on Juist, an island in the North Sea, with two friends. For many of the photographs I took there I set my camera to sepia because I felt that this hue would capture and reproduce the island’s “soul” much better than its real colors could. Juist is 17 km long and 1 km wide; half of the island is sandy beach. There are two villages, and almost every house has guestrooms for tourists. There are no cars there; the only people who have motored vehicles are the fire department, the Red Cross and doctors. Everybody else walks or uses bicycles or horse carriages. We went there in late summer – too late for beach weather, but it was still beautiful, windy but sunny on most days.
In many ways, this island seems like a timeless place – no cars, only leisure. Maybe this is the reason why I thought that sepia would suit it so much better, could capture our mood in a way that the lively colors of our surroundings could not.
For this week’s post I took a couple of pictures of the Vanderbilt campus. I loved how the morning sunshine illuminated the trees and buildings, how everything had this spring vibe and warmth and light.
For some reason, the same set of photographs doesn’t work for me in black and white. Yes, these pictures still have a certain charme; yes, they look timeless. But they lack the vibrancy of the beautiful spring colors, of sunshine. Black and white just won’t convey the mood the same way. The only two pictures that don’t lose their essence in black and white are the stone of former Kissam Hall and the interior of Kirkland Hall; but both of these places stand for the past and are there to keep memory alive. Black and white suits them.
But what about the Occupy Vanderbilt tents? They represent taking action against injustice, they are as much part of the present as anything can be. In black and white, the tents almost get lost in the trees, they don’t stand out at all. But this is not a camping trip. In much the same way, I could not bring myself to make the colors of the rainbow flag of the Office of LGBTQI Life fade: taking away the color there seemed like making the building’s purpose invisible.
Vanderbilt’s soul isn’t that of “a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years” (42); black and white won’t do the university justice in many cases. Taking away the campus’s colors feels like taking away something of Vanderbilt’s vibrant soul.
Having spent almost two years at Vanderbilt, I would say that I have become decently familiar with the campus. It wasn’t until this semester though, that I began volunteering at the greenhouse. I remember seeing it, during my first year, always wondering what it would be like to be up so high above the campus. Would I finally understand how it feels to be one of those problematic crows, flying from tree to tree? What would I see? Although I have spent about four or five Friday mornings at the greenhouse I never really did take advantage of the view. So this morning, I decided to make a special trip, in order to take a photo for this blog post.
One thing that caught my attention while reading Pamuk’s Istanbul, was when he described Melling’s Bosphorus paintings. He explained that “in Melling’s Istanbul landscapes it is almost as if there is no center” (Pamuk, 67). This fact, combined with the many paintings scattered through the chapter motivated me to take my own Melling painting-inspired photograph. Although the paintings are never at a direct bird’s eye view, there is a definite height and distance from the subject, hence my brief visit to the greenhouse.
Like Melling’s paintings, my photograph has no true center. Although there is a lot going on in this photograph, there is no focal point that the eye is immediately drawn towards. Instead, the viewer can slowly explore the landscape and take in the entire landscape. There are people walking along the pathways, but like Melling, I have not placed any “human dramas at the center” of my photograph (Pamuk, 68). One of the most important things that I did when editing this photograph via Instagram, was remove the color. Before, the red and green of the campus seemed overwhelming, there was too much to take in. But in black and white, there’s a sense of unity. Everything in the photograph has taken on equal value and meaning. Devoid of color, the photograph loses the vibrancy of life in color. Life is progressing in this photograph, but it is also frozen in a world of black and white. Through this paradox, the photograph gains the melancholy of nostalgia that Pamuk conveys throughout his narrative.
For me, Vanderbilt has always been about the trees. They felt safe, comfortable. They were permanent, they could not be moved or changed. Moreover, although they may appear innocuous, they are markers of our history. Just as I watched their leaves burst into flame and drop to the ground, so had students of the 60’s, and for a few of them, the men in the university’s earliest years. I used to challenge myself to try to name each species, when I saw one I particularly liked, I would close my eyes and memorizes its name. There is a gorgeous species known as the osage orange, with colorful bark, which writhes upwards like a wrinkled man. If you look to your right on your way down to 21st there are young redwoods, one of the most ancient species of trees. When I look at Vanderbilt’s trees, I feel rooted (no pun intended). I feel academic. I was very touched by the story during our tour of the students throwing books out of burning Kirkland, of the commitment to education that implies. A need to learn. Now the trees, like the decaying mansions of the Ottoman Empire, are the only witnesses.
For eighteen years, I looked out of my window and saw hills in the distance. You could see the observatory that formed part of my school logo.
The land is too flat.
There were trees on top of the hills, I knew Worlebury Woods were always there, at the edge of the horizon. When I was about five, I remember walking on a path through the woods in my wellington boots as my feet squished in the mud.
The trees are too close.
At the back of my garden, marking its end, is a wall of red brick. I remember being really surprised when I found out it didn’t belong to us, but our neighbour, as it was also part of his garage.
It’s too open.
Right outside my window is my back garden, only a little square of grass bordered by some little bushes. I’ve played out there more times than I can count.
The lawn is too large.
My window itself consists of three panes of glass. I leave the narrow one at the top open most of the time, but the large one at the side is only open when it’s really hot.
The window is too narrow, the window is too high.
There are patterns on the net curtains that I can easily push aside. Then there’s the main curtains. When I was six, my aunt made them for me herself.
There is a metal mesh blocking the way.
For eighteen years, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw my home. Now I see Vanderbilt. I love the trees and the greenery, I take photographs to preserve the memory, but I am not home. Everything here is strange to me.
The building was of a grand scale and many claimed that it was the most attractive on campus. Styled in the same red brick that composed the other university structures, the dorm once stretched across the mass that is now Alumni Lawn and maintained an impressive air about it. Housing four floors of rowdy boys, who where known for stealing police motorcycles for fun, it was only the truest symbol of Vanderbilt camaraderie that the university so prided (and still prides) itself on.
This building that I speak of doesn’t exist anymore. Torn down to make room for more contemporary structures or engulfed in a fire, whatever the reason, it simply did not translate into the modern world. Like so many of its contemporaries, it was easily erased with time, made forgotten by the wake of constant world revision.
In reading about the decomposing Istanbul that arouses so much nostalgia in Pamuk, I could not help but think about the transcendence of this antique Vanderbilt dorm into a mere memory. And, while I do not hold even a fraction of the passion that Pamuk holds towards his beloved Istanbul, I am saddened by the erasure of these founding buildings here on campus. That the campus and Istanbul, as well as the petite Jewish children that I wrote about last week, are now merely suggestions of their former referents, is overwhelmingly disheartening. (Like my former overexposing of the Jewish children’s faces, I distorted this photograph that I took of the spot where this obliterated dormitory once rested. I blurred the image incessantly as to firmly emphasize its transference into nothing but a mere memory.)
Yet, in thinking about this corrosion of the past that we see by evaluating both the Vanderbilt campus and Istanbul, while it is poignant, it is also inevitable (which possibly makes its actuality even more distressing). As unbearable as it may seem to accept, this erasure of past realities is a continuous cycle that can be whittled down to being a simple “matter-of-fact.” It is a blunt and harsh truth to fully realize, but it is the only way that I can make sense of it. To view this decomposition as something unavoidable makes it less painful to accept. It is also what drives the collective memory that I spoke about in my last post. As time greedily wears on, and history slowly creeps away from us, we cling to past realities as best we can. It is this individual and unwavering desire to grip onto the past that transforms into a communal yearning to remember. And thus, as we cannot avoid the gradual decay of the past, we also cannot abstain from creating the collective memory—they are both inevitable.
In reading Sebald, I was fascinated by the idea of the transferring of memory. In Max Ferber, Ferber gives his mother’s memoirs to the narrator because her collection of remembrance is simply too much for him to bear. Ferber literally transfers the burden of memory to the narrator because he simply cannot sustain its weight. And yet, these are not Ferber’s own memories…they are his mothers. In turn, the narrator is tormented by these memoirs. Like Ferber, he is haunted by memories that are not his.
In thinking about this conveying of emotions to outside parties who did not experience those memories directly, I think it is interesting to consider photographer Jessica Ingram. Her work consists of photographs of sites where past violence occurred. The images seem innocent, even beautiful, and yet, they hold such horrific histories behind their attractive surfaces. While Ingram was not present at the actual events, and thus the memories hinted at by her photographs are not her own, she is deeply burdened and tortured by their reality. Like Ferber and the narrator, she is plagued and laden by recollections that are not her own.
In considering this transcendence of memory in both Sebald and Ingram’s work, it is interesting to see how exactly this is achieved. For Sebald, memories are conveyed through a personal memoir—through the private words of the individual who experienced them. Ingram, however, shows this progression of memory through the art of photography—bestowing the weight of her burden of emotion to the rest of the world through image. However, these are not the only ways that people ease the disturbing mass of memory. For generations memory has been communicated through oral stories, films, textbooks, etc. Of these different means of transference, which is the most effective? Is it words? Image?
The above photograph is not my own. In fact, it is merely one that I found after a quick Google search of the word, “Holocaust.” Inspired by the work and progressive thinking of Christian Boltanski, I employed Photoshop to distort this image, over-exposing the faces of these Jewish children so that they become merely suggestions of their former referents. In looking at this photograph, even without a title or the context of a date, we know what historical event is linked to this photograph. The image, on its own, calls up a horrific world memory that we all, collectively, feel, whether or not we experienced it. While this brings up many questions about humanity, recollection, the power of image, etc, I simply want to ask, when does a memory become collective?