Matt Slater’s Autumnal Glimpses
It’s time, says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in “An Autumn Day.” Let the fruit ripen to its fullest, and let the wine sweeten just a little more. Then onward to September’s equinox and the shadows on the sundials. There, the supplication ends, and in the final five lines, autumn’s god answers, but without the generous dispensation Rilke had hoped for. The response is a judgment and a curse.
He who has no house by now will not build one.
He who is now alone will remain alone a long time,
will wake, read, write long letters
and will, in the alleys up and down, wander
without rest, wherever the leaves drift.
It’s the great caveat to the autumnal season: Very well (it says) have your cooler days and leaf piles; but have this too: a vagrant mind, a disconsolate heart, and no clear sense of who or what or where you are. Be done with the dog days, and in your freedom, be incomplete.
Matt Slater’s series, “Autumnal Glimpses,” abjures all commercial, Hallmark falls. No red maples or perse sweetgum. Nothing picturesque. Obscured, discolored, soiled, torn and fragmented, stitched and reframed, Slater’s trees belong to that doleful impermanence meted out by Rilke’s deity.
Originally from a small town on the Eastern Cape of South Africa called East London, Slater studied at the Cape Town School of Photography, where his experiments in the darkroom turned into a signature curation of “mistakes.” Like Sally Mann, whose mastery of collodion is as much about perfecting the technique of imperfection as it is about the mastery of photochemistry, Slater exposes his photographs to corrosive agents—dyes, heat, bleaches, etc.—to unfix what the camera has made and to let the print recompose, then reinterpret, itself.
In his series “Efflorescent Cherry” and “Arboretum,” for instance, images of kudzu and saguaro, sometimes a human face or torso, dim beneath a tonal erosion not original to the subject being photographed. Taking advantage of the image’s vulnerability in the darkroom, Slater nudges each one toward a precarious balance between here and nowhere, introducing an Eastern asymmetry and an appreciation of time’s entropic rust.
“Autumnal Glimpses” takes the experiment a step further by tearing and cutting the photographs to pieces, then stitching, sewing, or re-adhering the scraps. No attempt is made to hide the damage. In fact, the photograph pronounces its scarred terrain as if it were a line of stressed words in a poem: loss, time, gone.
This kind of attention to fragmentation has a rich history in the arts and crafts. Kintsugi, the Japanese art of soldering broken ceramics with gold lacquer, has a number of practitioners in the West today. But the West is not without its own aesthetics of waste. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, rag economies often supplemented the incomes of working-class families. A rag picker might go door to door to collect a household’s tattered hand-me-downs and remake from that stock a dress, a sheet, or a hundred new kitchen rags.
But the fragmentation in both kintsugi and in rag-picking differs slightly from Slater’s glimpses. Repairing the bowl and remaking the dress keeps the intention of the material and design in view. Slater’s broken photographs also come back together, but in their recrudescence little of what’s been lost has been regained. As in life: no consolations in golden veneer.
The Japanese-American photographer Koichi Kurita works in a similar vein, somewhere between Slater’s glimpses and the art of gilded porcelain. In the 1980s, Kurita moved from Japan to Concord, Massachusetts. He had read Henry David Thoreau’s classic American wilderness memoir, Walden, and wanted to see the famous pond for himself—and not just to see it but to possess it, at least as much as it possessed him. He took his camera with him.
Kurita’s panoramic views of the woods around Walden Pond are pieced together by calotype negatives. The calotype, or talbotype, named after William Henry Fox Talbot, requires contact printing from negative to positive, which limits the size of the final image. To produce a wide panorama, the photographer must reconstruct the view from a number of individual details. Between each panel, slight misalignments introduce temporal disparity. The trunks of trees emerge from different histories. The angles vary by small degrees, setting the overall landscape into a kind of epileptic motion, like Duchamp’s nude, descending her staircase. But that’s exactly the way we see: not in detail or with precision, but through a fluid interference of memory, emotion, and distraction. In this way, Kurita echoes what Thoreau called a correspondence between the nature we see and the nature we feel. “We have a waterfall,” Thoreau wrote in his journals, “which corresponds even to Niagara somewhere within us.”
Slater’s term “glimpse” is as good a synonym for this correspondence as I can imagine. It’s not only what Slater’s image sutures together, it’s how the camera sees and how the eye possesses. By comparison, Slater puts greater emphasis than Kurita on our disjointed encounters with space and place. It’s not subtle, not serene. But subtle is not always the defining feature of the “glimpse,” and serenity not always a luxury afforded the eye.
In “Autumnal Glimpses no. 45,” for example, a single, straight, horizontal line divides the image a little above the horizon, splitting the view into what might be the sky and earth. Two equally-spaced, vertical cuts add to this artificial boundary a classical idea about beauty: that we should appreciate the landscape with a sense of proportion and symmetry. But each square, with its threaded craquelure, resists perfection. Slater, in response, balances the imposition of an ideal with the insistence of an experience.
In image no. 53 of the series, Slater shifts to a different kind of tension. Here we sense Thoreau’s correspondence between outer experience and inner perception. No pretense at all toward balance. Just the amoebic lens dividing itself into reflection, as we see at the center of the image, where a tree cropped on the horizon hovers above its sepia double below. Reflection doubles in meaning too. Like memory, this image selects a particular moment from a multifaceted view and reflects on it out of context. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and one repeated in this series with precision and skill.
Several photographs do away with the disrupted view altogether and dwell in the mind’s interior. Glimpse no. 57 may once have reflected a real place, but the background of sky, horizon, and earth have lost their distinction in the ash and umber tones of the tree. We are behind the eyes now. Here, memory assembles and reassembles until the image no longer corresponds to the outside world. The lines where reality must have detached itself now begin to shape a different reality. There’s a lightless sun in the top right corner. Lightning strikes the tree. And swimming on the surface is a strange, fluid geometry. Its unintelligible forms coalesce at the trunk where whatever story is being imagined will reach, at last, its unique conclusion.
There are other types of glimpses in this series, not all of them cut, torn, or sewn. Some retain a fairly clear view of the trees or leaves or fronds photographed, as if to say, sometimes the view reaches us intact and uninterrupted, despite our daily distractions. Probability likes a fork in the road, and there’s really no telling which way leads to the pristine image and which way leads to ruin. Slater glimpses both in this series, wandering like Rilke up and down those autumnal alleys, wherever the leaves drift.