Photographic Memory: On Raoul Ollman’s “Reflections”
Whether it’s black and white shots of the Bay Bridge, portraits of friends, or lush color images of reflections in Manhattan windows, Ollman’s subject remains the same: he photographs time.
Photographing Facets of Time
Raoul Ollman seemingly photographs everyday people and urban scenes, mostly in San Francisco and his hometown, New York. But he doesn’t give us city life per se; these images aren’t Weegee or Helen Levitt. We see everyday things, sure, but that’s not what Ollman shows us. No, whether it’s black and white shots of the Bay Bridge, portraits of friends, or lush color images of reflections in Manhattan windows, Ollman’s subject remains the same: he photographs time.
To be clear, he does not photograph people and things in time. He does not capture the fleeting — a couple kissing against a building. Nor does he capture the momentous—Martin Luther King thoughtfully thinking. While Ollman points his camera at faces, windows, buildings, he sees one thing (that is, alas, many things): time.
In a show of Ollman’s photographs at a San Francisco gallery in 2016, I was struck by how he photographs the monumental (as distinct from the momentous) in the everyday. As I wrote back then:
Ollman doesn’t see a world in progress and try to capture the moment. I want to suggest, rather, that when he sees the everyday world, he sees something else: he sees the monumental already there, running through the world…It’s not, then, that Ollman is stopping something in motion. It’s that he sees a different world, one in which the everyday is pervaded, down to its very molecular structure, with a certain transcendental stillness: with the monumental.
That is, Ollman doesn’t take the everyday and elevate it to the monumental through the power of photography (think: Doisneau’s famous “The Kiss of the City Hotel” which elevates the fleeting to the eternal as one kiss becomes all kisses, all love, all romance). Rather, he sees the monumental that always lurks within the heart of the particular quotidian.
Which makes me realize that my description of Ollman’s work was partially wrong: there is no transcendence in Ollman’s photographs. On the contrary, they are radically empiricist. I’d say materialist but only so long as we understand materials to be both visible and invisible (bodies but also moods, intensities, affect).
The monumental, I have no come to understand, is not transcendent or eternal. Many photographers— too many—seek eternity, looking for a way beyond the everyday, to the transcendent (such as eternal Man, Humanity, the Feminine, Family, Love, etc). That’s not Ollman. He only has eyes for this world. Unlike the eternal, the monumental is distinctly temporal and material: monuments erode, collapse, change shape due to their conditions, their collisions, their collusions, their environment. The monumental never takes leave of this life; it endures this life—until it doesn’t. The eternal doesn’t move while the monumental moves so very slowly.
In fact, the monumental is defiance of eternity. The monumental declares: I will stand strong in this world as I inevitably decay! The monumental is the monumental precisely in that it weathers the weather, stoically. While the monumental is inherently fleeting, it is that part of the temporal that stands strong and confident regardless of what life throws at it. The monumental, then, is not a defiance of life; on the contrary, it’s a love of life—so much so that it persists through rain, snow, hail, heat. But it is unabashed defiance of the eternal, insisting on its temporality.
This is all to say that Ollman is a photographer of time as something we endure, that we live through—not time as an abstraction or idea. What Ollman argues is that within all things there’s a component of the monumental, a defiance of the eternal, a stoic insistence on this mortal coil.
When we see a father and son in Ollman’s eye, they are not “Father and Son”. They are not an idea. But nor are they this father and son in this passing moment. They are precisely this father and son enduring despite the inevitable decay of life. They are not eternal; they are not beatific. Ollman does not elevate them. They are human all too human—and that includes a stubborn will to persist through the trials of temporal existence. We know this man and boy will grow older, get sick, get fat, die. But this moment here endures, not to eternity, but as a stubborn declaration of itself in the face of the decay we know is coming.
In his latest series, Reflections, Ollman photographs a different aspect of time—memory in all of its multifarious, multihued complexity. As the title suggests, these photographs of shop windows don’t solely penetrate the glass but rather linger at its surface. We see what’s in the windows as we also see what’s reflected in said windows—the street, buildings, cars, trees, and if you look closely, the photographer himself.
But these are not photographs of reflections in windows. The reflections in the window are not the reflections of the series’ title. Everything in the images has more or less equal weight—the reflections are not the focus. There is no hierarchy here at all, not even its photographic version, the focal point. The result is startling, reorganizing space itself as we can’t tell what’s inside and what’s outside, what’s reflection and what’s real (whatever that means).
Indeed, these images are exquisitely disorienting. Rather than situating us in time and place to reaffirm our position as viewers with all that entails—a body and self who works, loves, eats, shits, lives—these images unsettle our ego position. They refuse a firm ground, center, and clear focus. We don’t as much see images of windows in the city as much as we are confronted by an impossible (yet actual) origami of perception and reality.
Ollman’s photographs in fact belie a ready distinction between perception and reality. As the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, maintains perception is an intertwining of seer and seen. The act of perception is not absolutely separate from that which is perceived: we take up the world just as the world takes us up—perception and reality intertwine.
Looking at these Reflections, can we say that the world is not folded just as it is in these images? These are photographs, after all, not fanciful paintings; Ollman’s camera sees the world like this—and now so do we. Of course, there is another order of perception in which the streets are not inside the café. But there is an order of seeing, right here, in which they are. Such is the play of reflection throughout the universe, the way things inflect each other, mirror each other back even if the play back is highly distorted. Reflection is one way a thing wears another thing; it’s a mode of interaction, another force between bodies such as osmosis, mastication, attraction. It’s a force Ollman photographs.
Look: so much is folded into the frame, often at different angles. What is foreground and background? What is inside and outside? Sure, if we took the time we could perhaps put everything in its place. But Ollman’s images evade such ready consumption and identification, such desires to situate and know once and for all. In these images, these reflections, Ollman asks something else of us—and of photography.
Note the colors in these Reflections. They forge a field of intensity that is simultaneously of the city and an independent plane. While working for so long predominantly in black and white, it’s striking to see Ollman’s saturated yet nimble colors. The richness and interplay of so many hues: these images lead with temperature and intensity that can’t be reduced to meaning or emotion. Writing about the artist Gérard Fromanger, the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze writes that we don’t just see
[…]the painter’s progress past the shops, but the circulation of exchange value, the voyage of colours, and in each painting there is a voyage, a circulation of tone. / Nothing is neutral or passive. Yet the painter means nothing, neither approval nor anger. The colours express nothing: green is not hope, neither is yellow the colour of sadness, nor red the colour of cheerfulness. Nothing but hot or cold, hot and cold.
To some extent, we can say the same of Ollman’s Reflections. We don’t see “Raoul” seeing the city as he walks—such and such a person in such and such a time and place seeing such and such scenes. Rather, we see an active circulation of colors that verges on the chaotic. As Ollman makes his way through the city, he does not give us a glimpse into the lives of those he sees. Nor does he capture his personal life in Manhattan, a photographic memoir of sorts. No, what Ollman gives us in Reflections is the city as a swarm of circulating intensities, a torrent of color and form that flirts with chaos—and even occasionally careens into it.
The play of color exceeds any form or easy identification of this or that—a building, chair, car. Look at any one image and you will be unmoored, taken up in its swirls and folds, perhaps even a bit nauseated by the vertigo (as happens with most great art: it ungrounds us, freeing us, at least for a moment, from the tyranny of the familiar). Looking at these pictures, we don’t see the city as much as we come to dwell in its climate.
And yet, to be clear, these are not psychedelic, DMT-inspired images of colors obliterating form. On the contrary, there are forms everywhere we look —a plant, a shop selling clothes, buildings, cars. The colors don’t efface the forms; they qualify the forms.
Indeed, objects in these images are oriented and organized through the refraction of reflection, juxtaposing forms with each other spatially and intensively. A car is at once inside and outside a café as a city block is folded, orgami-like, until we can’t tell which way streets are going, where a building is situated, where we are situated. Throughout these dazzling spatial folds, a field of colors swirl and play, a kaleidoscope.
Ollman argues that we are never only looking at something. Perception is not a 1:1 relationship of me looking at you, a flower, a window; it’s always many to many—all the things of me and all the things of you and everything around us and in between. When we peer inside—a store, a person’s eyes, a book—, we are always reflected along with the world around us: we are always looking at ourselves and our environs. We never simply see something there; we are always already taken up by what’s there. To see in a city, says Ollman, is to be enmeshed in an ecology of forms, colors, and affect—including ourselves.
But there’s something else happening here. Unlike Fromanger who uses photographs but makes painting, Ollman gives us photographs through and through. Which is to say, there is an insistence on being there and then, a sense of in situ. It’s not that photography is in any way more real (what would that even mean?); it’s that photography enjoys a different architecture of artist, world, image, and viewer than painting—a different distribution and organization of the perceptive act. Street photography, in particular, declares a position there and then—an always present implication of the photographer’s participation in the image. Ollman and his camera can’t step out of frame. Nor does he try. These are reflections, after all.
We see traces of Ollman’s body throughout. We are not exterior to perception, Ollman tells us proudly, not hiding his presence. But nor are we masters; we are subjects of the photograph as much as those building, trees, and shops. We are inherently situated in and of the scene, constitutive of the very world we perceive. We don’t stand back to perceive the world. As Merleau-Ponty says, we can only see in as much as we can be seen. Our “ground” of seeing is in the middle of things—a ground and ungrounding at the same time. To see, Ollman argues, will never have been to master. To see is to participate.
Now, photographs have always been mnemonics, a reminder of things we’ve done (Socrates, in the Phaedrus, argues that as we write more and more— externalizing the act of memory— we remember less and less. I, for one, can vouch for the veracity of this). Photographs inherently make a claim to the here and now even if photo software extends, and even undermines, this now; unlike painting, a photograph is fundamentally tethered to place—or else it wouldn’t be a photograph.
One of the main reasons we take and see photographs of events is that we want to remember—a graduation, wedding, a night out with friends. In this case, the photograph is truly a mnemonic: it is a marker for a memory that lives elsewhere, presumably in me. We see that photograph of friend doing a shot of Fortaleza and we say: I remember that night! It was fun!
Of course, a photograph always exceeds mere mnemonic. It may be a great shot of your friend, Eloise, capturing her particular form of social shenanigans. Or it might be a beautifully composed image, the composition just right. Which is to say, photographs are always a multiplicity, a complex reckoning of time and our place in it.
In Reflections, Raoul Ollman gives us the photograph not as mnemonic but as memory itself. These are not images of individual events that point to something “real”. These Reflections, and reflections, are the very world impressing upon us. Such is memory: a folding of space, experience, and affect with and through ourselves as the world enters us from every angle, always.
Memory is not just recollection. We sometimes say, “I can’t remember” when what we mean is, “I can’t recall—I can’t see the particular details of who was there and what was said.” But the memory of it is not just in you, it is you, whether you like it or not. Memory is the imprint of life on us —and us on life. We can’t always recall our memory but that doesn’t mean we can’t remember it. We are our memory in as much as it defines who we know, what we like to eat, our taste in music and films and love. Memory isn’t the past; recollections are. Memory is a living thing, a folding of past and present, a mode of being impressed with the world.
And that’s what Ollman gives us here. These are not photographs of a certain time and place, of certain events and people. They are not images of anything, actually. Ask yourself what the subject of these photos is. What do you say? Well, they’re images of reflections in Manhattan windows. But does that answer the question? Would that give anyone a sense of this series?
No, as these images belie representation, they become memory itself. They are the very manner of the world impressing us, imprinting us—and us, in turn, imprinting the world. Perception will never have been as organized as our knowledge. While we break things into categories and organize them spatially and conceptually—that’s a building, that’s a chair, that’s a street—our perception bears it all at once, folding building, streets, and chairs into a mishmash of elements.
And of course we never just see the world. There is an intensity to all of our perceptions—an intensity that is usually ignored by keepers of knowledge. We see a building, sure, but there’s no such thing as only seeing the building. We see, we sense, we experience intensity that is different from, but includes, emotion. When we see things, they impress upon us with varying intensities, with varying temperatures, with varying affect, emotion, and mood.
As we make our way through the world, the world inundates us with bodies and intensities—all the leaves, clouds, faces, windows, tchotchkes, cracks in the pavement. The act of perception doesn’t keep the world at a distance; on the contrary, it takes the world in—and the world, in turn, takes us in. But we never just perceive things in isolate, one thing at a time. And we never take things up absent intensity. We see, we remember, the world as folds of place and intensity.
What we see lingers in us, lives in us, becomes us. Memory is the endurance of perception. And unlike knowing or recollecting, memory moves, folds, refracts, reflects. Just look at Raoul Ollman’s Reflections: that’s memory right there before your very eyes.