Fairy Dust on the Pavement – The Power of Glamour

This is an review of a book, The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel, which was published in Harper’s Magazine last year.


In the late 1970s I was pushing the pram down Heath Street, a vertiginous road in Hampstead with Heath at the top end and Hampstead Tube Station and the High Street full of fancy shops below. From the top of the hill I saw a bright glow down by the Tube, but it was too far to make out what was going on. Certainly, something. It was an aura of light easily outshining the broad daylight, shimmering, gleaming. People are always filming in Hampstead, using its quaintness to signify older times, when it was a village, in a garden of which Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale.  I supposed that was what was happening (although the tube station siting was a bit of a twentieth century give away). Arc lights and the strange mixture of limbo and fevered activity of a film crew on the street you are walking along, when your normal day bumps into them. As I descended, the light got brighter, increasingly dazzling but still contained in a small area. About halfway down the hill I could see there was no technical equipment, just a small circle of regular-looking people standing around the origin of the light. Eventually I got near enough to identify the source of the illumination. The brilliant shimmer I’d seen from the top of Imagethe hill transformed into an aura around two quite small people, still too far to see details, but nothing obviously special about them apart from that bright aura flowing directly from them. Closer still, the couple’s features became clear. The mysterious shimmer resolved into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Or as we called them then, ‘Richardburtonanelizabethtaylor’. They had been taking a stroll around Hampstead and were waylaid at the station entrance by a handful of people wanting autographs. These were the starriest stars I’d ever seen close to in ordinary life, top of the tree stars, and I still remember their physical aura as actually light. It/they sparkled and fizzed. It struck me that they had absorbed and accumulated all the decades of spotlight, arc-light, limelight that had shone on them, all the excitement of eyes that focused and peered at them, all the giant waves of attention, adoration and curiosity that continually engulfed them, and now, like fleshy batteries, they radiated it back as visible energy at the world. If it wasn’t true light, it was a core of specialness so powerful that it burned through them and out to the surrounding air. Without that brilliant aura, until I was close enough to recognise them, they would have been a slightly over-dressed (some priceless diamond or other on her hand lending an extra sparkle of its own, his hair more tailored than cut), moderately handsome though plump, couple of tourists, American probably, like many who had wandering around Hampstead on their itinerary. With the light, they were Marc Antony and Cleopatra, The VIPs, Faustus and Helen, George and Martha, the Oberon and Titania of Hollywood, stepping out of the big screen into the regular day and shedding some of their fairy dust over the pavement. 

That was my only face-to-face with indisputable glamour. Meeting ordinary famous people is different. They are what they do, what you admire or despise them for. It’s interesting or disappointing. You engage with them as experts or producers.  This high glamour encounter was different. It was electrical and electrifying. There was no way in which an onlooker could engage, only look and be amazed. It was also in one way, strikingly similar to my previous looking-at-a-distance encounters with glamour: in the audience at the movies with the added patina of time and vintage clothes. In the presence, unmediated by screen or page, the radiance functioned as an electric fence, a safety screen, as well as being an inner glow of stockpiled attention. I wondered if there was an on/off switch: either they were lit up all the time (even when they were alone together, or alone alone?), or their lights clicked on as soon as they were recognised and hands reached out, ostensibly for autographs, but really to feel the tropical warmth of their glamour glow. 

Virginia Postrel in her book The Power of Glamor would suppose the latter. Glamour, she tells her readers ‘does not exist independently in the glamorous object…but emerges through the interaction between object and audience….One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.’  According to her, Mr and Mrs Burton’s light would be in the eye of the beholder. A member of the Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t have seen their light, unless the missionaries and anthropologists had brought a copy of Cleopatra to their neck of the forest and given them a lecture on the cultural history of western cinema. Yet, what about that glow of specialness I perceived in the distance long before I had the faintest idea of its source?


Webster’s Dictionary in 1902 defined glamour as ‘a kind of haze in the air making things appear different from how they really are’. This, rather nebulous explanation, would make glamour free-floating, existing prior to or separate from either object or beholder. Unattached fairy dust. Magic looking for somewhere to settle. This is not really glamour as we understand it in the 21st century, but it does have something of the etymology of the word. Glamour, first used by Sir Walter Scott in literary English, is a corrupt form of the word grammar from the French gramarye or grimoire. [see OED] From a book of spells, to forms of knowledge both occult and academic, to Burton and Taylor. Postrel finds the word in Jane Eyre who has ‘the glamour of inexperience over her eyes’ enabling her to see Rochester’s gloomy mansion as splendid. It is a veil that deceives. For Joseph Conrad, the young are susceptible to glamour. ‘Oh, the glamour of youth!’ and ‘the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort.’ A haze again, a charm that deceives. So the magic is there, but there’s more of conjuring about it than magic. A sleight of eye that deceives us about the humdrum world. In real life, according to the etymology, nothing is glamorous. We have been warned. Postrel then quotes Garbo, as the world-weary, loveless and disguised Queen Christina, discussing the differences between Swedish and Spanish methods of courtship with John Gilbert’s Spanish Ambassador, Antonio. She calls his Spanish ways ‘glamorous, and yet somewhat mechanical.’ 

Christina: Evidently you Spaniards make too much fuss about a simple elemental thing like love. We Swedes are more direct.

Antonio: Why, that’s civilization – to disguise the elemental with the glamorous.3 

(Films in 1933 trusted their audiences’ wit enough to play meta-fictional games around their most glamorous and disguised pair of movie stars.) 

So glamour is something that doesn’t exist in and of itself. It consists in yearning and lies. If magic’s not your thing, then call it editing, which some people, those concerned with ‘glamour businesses’ — film, photography, fashion, publishing —  feel lends respectability to their endeavours. George Hurrell, the Hollywood photographer during its glory years, who is repeatedly quoted, says, a little mysteriously: ‘All of us glamourize everything, including the documentaries [sic] who glamorize filth and squalor’. Designer Isaac Mizrahi follows up the attempt to dignify glamour workers: ‘If glamour is magic, if it’s really about casting a spell, one should happily confront the manipulation of it all. It’s adult to manipulate and only human.’ It doesn’t seem to me that the second part of the sentence is explained by the first, though it must be supposed to. There is, Postrel emphasises, ‘something civilized, and distinctly human, about glamour.’  You can’t really argue with the human-ness of glamour. Very few animals, as far as we can know, edit reality. If they could, it would presumably seriously hamper their life and reproductive chances. Survival in the natural world is about knowing what’s what and if it wants to eat you. But the word ‘civilized’ slips in to Postrel’s argument rather too easily. Phrases like ‘adult and only human’ and ‘civilization’ pack a lot of assumptions. Postrel signally fails to examine them.

This is odd because her stated intention in the book is to provide the popular understanding we all have of ‘glamour’ with the theory which has been lacking, even, apparently, for cultural-studies scholars. Her theory of glamour, she says, is needed to prevent these scholars from falling into such ‘ludicrous’ error as the claim by historian Stephen Grundle that Paris Hilton is “indisputably glamorous”, when clearly she was ‘the anti-Grace Kelly’ who, Postrel tells us, is indisputably glamorous. Her aim is to help us to sort the Kelly-wheat from the Hilton-chaff. Hilton was merely ‘rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, and stylishly dressed’.  ‘Subjectively speaking’, you might expect her to add, given her insistence, just four pages later, that glamour depends on the ‘perceiver’s receptive imagination’; but not so: with Hilton and Kelly and so much more we are being handed a Postrel-dictated objective truth.

Postrel’s position and arguments throughout the book are often opaque. She chides the cultural-studies scholars for lacking theory, but has an evident animus towards what she calls ‘intellectuals’: ‘Sophisticates often kid themselves that they’re realists immune to [glamour’s] influence…’ She is responding to historian of science Rosalind Williams’s contention (Postrel calls it ‘lecturing her readers’) that ‘Truth is not found in dreaming’. Postrel continues: ‘One job of intellectuals is to puncture glamour by reminding us of what’s hidden. But intellectuals are by no means exempt from glamour’s effects. They simply have their own longings and hence their own versions of glamour, including in some cases the ideal of a life without meaningful illusions.’  She nowhere shows that intellectuals exempt themselves from the concepts with which they engage and analyse. I’m not aware that there is a unified job description for ‘intellectuals’, but if there were it would be to do with examining ideas, their origins and development, not merely with bursting everyone’s favourite balloons. Postrel sets up the intellectual as her straw man who is out to do battle against her truth of the positive virtues of glamour. In fact, she references only two ‘intellectuals’, cultural historian John Berger and Rosalind Williams in order to dismiss their negative views and failings. This lack of substantial sources makes her text as light as whipped egg white. She counters Berger’s association of glamour with social envy with a quote from Jay-Z ‘that dream-self we all long to be’, and a eulogy by Naomi Wolf, in Harper’s Bazaar, on Angelina Jolie. ‘Over the course of the essay, Jolie’s life functions as proof that the longings that inform Wolf’s own oeuvre are attainable’7, blindsiding the 99.9 recurring of the world’s population who have not and never will attain an iota of Jolie’s life. She gives us Cate Blanchett’s view from an interview in Glamour UK, and designer Norma Kamali’s view of 1930s glamour. She references to pop singer Fergie’s 2007 video for her song ‘Glamour’, but nowhere do we get anything of Lacan on the unconscious gaze, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology or Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, all looking towards our perception and creation of icons. Nor is there any mention of  Guy Debord on The Society of the Spectacle from 1967, or Walter Benjamin’s 1939 key essay Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility both of which reflect directly on the idea of representation taking over from direct experience, and rendering it a distortion. The nearest we get is an Annie Leibovitz advertisement for Louis Vuitton bags, in which Angelina Jolie sits moodily alone on a deserted jetty in Cambodia with nothing but some designer fatigues and a completely inappropriate LV bag, explained by Postrel as intended for a high end audience that dreams authenticity but rarely tries to live it. It evidently is enough to prove her point that glamour is about transformation and escape. Either she believes that intellectuals have nothing to tell her whatever they say, which is more arrogant than any intellectual I’ve come across, or she doesn’t want to muddy her book’s potential with anything that might look ‘difficult’.

For Walter Benjamin, the revolution in reproducibility (mass publishing, photography, cinema, all forms of popular media) that started to become technologically available in the 19th century, is the very source that brings glamour to the cultural fore around that time, and what strips the individual – the ‘authentic’ – object, of its ‘aura’ as he calls it. 

The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for the sameness in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.

There are many seriously and interesting ideas in philosophy and cultural studies available for a thorough discussion of the theory of glamour, but Postrel doesn’t seem to have delved into any of them or thought them worthy of mention. It seems impossible to write a book on the nature of glamour without a single reference to Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp, at least, or some philosophical, historical background on the nature of beauty and taste. All this is absent in any serious way in Postrel’s book. Instead she seems satisfied to limit her theory and make glamour virtually synonymous with the function and activity of advertising: ‘By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure even as it heightens our yearnings. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.’  This she directly equates to the undeniable fact that advertising is the heart (if that’s the right word) of capitalism. Her first precondition for glamour is ‘the willingness to acknowledge discontent with one’s current situation along with the ability to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances’ And western commercial culture is what facilitates this. ‘By opening up opportunities for economic advancement and offering goods and services that beautify, educate, and otherwise promote self-improvement, modern, commercial societies provide many such avenues’. Sometimes it reads more like an advert for the advertising industry.

She wants to rescue the concept of glamour from any accusation that it is malign and to show that glamour ‘is a life-enhancing force for the good.’ In the end, being able to take seriously Postrel’s theory of glamour depends on whether you can take her complacent view of the social and economic society in which glamour thrives. In order to rescue ‘glamour’ from its negative aspects, she sets up John Berger as her arch intellectual villain. She does so by reducing his ground-breaking and humane 1972 investigation into the social perception of art and advertising, Ways of Seeing, to a single sentence. She calls it ‘an influential theory’, rather undercutting her claim to be providing the first theory herself. But she tells us, Berger (who has read Benjamin) argues that glamour ‘elicits social envy in order to sell commercial goods, by showing us people who have apparently been transformed…and are as a result, enviable”. Although she admits that his description captures ‘glamour’s transformational promise’ it seems his ‘desiccated view’ misses many of its most potent appeals. ‘He is blinded by envy, conflating it with desire.’  There are few people less dried up in their thought or their being than John Berger, whom she also, later, refers to as ‘crabby’. His chapter on what he calls publicity in Ways of Seeing, proposes that advertising offers images that ‘make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life.’ It offers pictures of how the spectator’s life could be; ‘glamorous day-dreams’, Berger calls them, which leave a palpable gap between an individual’s reality and what he would like his reality to be. Envy and desire in a sense that Postrel fails to comprehend, are indeed coterminous in the image he sees of the dream on offer. He envies his own future, dream self, as if he were present in the advertising image, and links that to the idea of being envied by others – of himself becoming that distant unachieved object that seems to constitute happiness and success. ‘The happiness of being envied is glamour’ he says. This is parallel to the modern desire to be famous: the state of being known and envied by others who you don’t yourself know. We want to become these glamorous creatures, but we don’t want everyone to be them; we want the exclusivity, the unreachability that makes glamour glamorous. What Postrel variously calls glamour’s necessary mystique or mystery. ‘Publicity does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable – yet could be,’ says Berger, whose thesis is hardly different from Postrel’s: ‘[Glamour] reminds us what [sic]we find lacking in real life and who we want to be. It stokes discontent.’

The break between them comes in their underlying positions. Berger is a Marxist thinker who relates social and cultural formations to power and authority structures. Advertising and glamour do not use the discontent they stoke to suggest other social possibilities, on the contrary they use it to sell both the product and to use the desire for it and the life they propose in order to maintain the status quo. They offer snippets of the glamorous life (a scent, a handbag) to those who will never in their lifetime have the means to buy the couture dress the model is wearing to sell them the real money-making product. Maybe if you save up, you could buy the Louis Vuitton bag that the whole life of the astronomically rich Angelina Jolie is being paid to sell. Commerce offers to make you happier in the world as it is, rather than proposing another world in which desires might be different and less constituted by envy. Postrel appears to be quite content with the world as it is: 

To understand glamour as no more than deception is to miss the psychological truths – and the real-world possibilities – it reveals…Every unironic evocation of the American Dream is an exercise in glamour and, however illusory the dream may sometimes be, the country is better off for the inspiration.


What are those psychological truths? Apparently the virtue of glamour is that it can ‘point its audience towards a better, more satisfying way of life…’ Such as sitting alone beside a Cambodian river (not a Cambodian in sight) with a Vuitton bag? But the key here is her word ‘unironic’. An unironic evocation of the American Dream is one that would need to deny almost all discussion over the past half century of the nature of the American Dream and how it has actually worked out for individuals, America and the rest of the world. So much passionate and serious discussion around the idea of the American Dream, in the form of written debates and the literary, dramatic and visual arts of the 20th and 21st century, would have to be disregarded in order to speak unironically of the American Dream that it is impossible to imagine how America or anyone trying to think seriously about the world could be better off for it, or how such a deluded, partial, narrow view might inspire a nation. As it stands, her statement says no more than that an unexamined sentimentality is what keeps America dreaming. Actually, it’s worse than that, according to Postrel the nature of the dream offered by glamour, then and now, seems to depend not only on dusty, pinhole-visions, but on the most spirit-draining, life-crushing clichés. She says that although ‘We may appreciate the longings stirred by the New York skyline, a red carpet moment, or a sports car on an open road,’ her ‘fuller theory of glamour allows us to expand beyond the obvious’. It ‘lets us understand what a little girl sees in a princess or a young man imagines in the Marines…’  We really don’t need a theory of glamour to understand that. The mystery that Postrel seeks to comprehend requires (and has received) the attention of social historians, cultural analysts, political theorists, philosophers and feminists. Looking at the nature of the gloss which is glamour’s form does little to explain anything except its superficial effect. Postrel’s book never gets beneath the skin of her subject, and this must be because she has not really seen what her subject is. She is content to accept the world that the glamorizers portray, even when they themselves have started to move on from notions of little girls and princesses, and young men and the Marines. She looks backwards and likes what she sees, but that world has for a long time been the object of struggle by little girls who have grown up to examine their desires and to whom or what those desires really belong.  


Jenny Diski 

September 2013


Nothing Is Hidden

This is the Introduction to Nothing Is Hidden, a collection of photographs by Lynne Cohen, published by Steidl in May 2012.


There was a game we used to play at gatherings in the mid-Sixties in the arty middle-class world I found myself in during my teens. After supper and smoking a little pot (garden grown, cured in the airing cupboard), sitting on the floor in a circle, we’d begin turn by turn. You are walking along a path…describe it. You get to a house…describe it. A room…A table…A cup on the table…What are they like? Do you drink from it…what is it, how does it taste…you meet someone…who are they? And so on. It was a psychological inner truth game, played by people who prided themselves on their sensitivity and insight. Everyone made their path, house, table, cup, person as ornate and mythic as they could manage. The house a traditional timber or ginger bread cottage deep in the woods, or a multi-crenellated castle, the cup a bejewelled goblet, each gem sparkling a meaning, the meeting peopled with a figure of powerful Jungian significance. Imagination was at a premium. One evening we were playing it with a stranger in out midst (you see how this kind of role-playing gets into your head and prose?). He was a young German guy I’d met somewhere that day and brought back to the house (things were very liberal as well as psychological). He was travelling Europe, a little older than I was, and brought up in post-war Berlin, with all that meant. While the rest of us strove for intricacy and psychological depth, my new friend answered immediately and with a note of contempt in his voice. Path? A three-lane motorway. House? A post-war pre-fabricated concrete high rise. The room? Empty, damp, paper hanging from the walls. The cup? A tin mug. ‘Oh, come on,’ someone said. ‘Use your imagination. Make it special.’ ‘OK,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s chipped.’ Person? An American soldier.

Everyone disapproved of my sour young man’s lack of a vivid imagination and complex psyche. Evidently shallow. A disaffected youth. Disaffected of the wrong sort, since they were all in favour of complicated young people working through their difficulties (which was why I was there). But interestingly, if you don’t mind. This young man did mind. I was impressed. He wasn’t playing anyone’s game. He really knew how to be angry, and it struck me that his objects were as vivid, and perhaps more truthful than the older people who thought they knew so much and had such special inner lives. He wasn’t a very nice person – finally he disappeared with my beloved typewriter – but why should he be? It was a memorable lesson in dissent and a certain kind of clarity, that made better sense to me than the fol-de-rols of a supposedly fascinating psyche. Both approaches were knowing, but his, I thought, actually more knowing than the others And, too, essentially comic in the face of our sententiously elaborating elders. His inner landscape has stayed with me, call it his vision, but a vision that insisted on looking at the minimal, and at what he really knew, in its examination of what kind of creatures might create and inhabit such a landscape. It may be chilling, sometimes quite alarming, nevertheless the stern gaze can conceal a wry humour that speaks of something more substantial than style alone. 


I think my heart beat faster when I had finished leafing through Lynne Cohen’s photographs for the first time. My young German friend came back to me, along with a degree of panic which I needed to suppress, along with bursts of laughter which I didn’t hold back. So many rooms that I didn’t want to be in. Places in which, if I were placed in them, my spirit would sink to a grim low. No surprise that they are empty. Who wouldn’t flee from them? But perhaps my spirit sinks low too easily. Put me in an anonymous prefabricated hotel room, or a practical waiting room, and I have to gasp for breath I become so dismayed. I made an effort to look again.

There are many rooms and most have furniture or fittings of some sort in them, both of which must indicate human beings. What else on the  planet needs walls with ninety-degree angles and specially designed machines such as chairs, desks and shelves to oppose the gravity that would otherwise have us and everything at the lowest possible level? They are formal, practical rooms, mostly it would seem designed without much concern for the spirit of those who might be in them, working at the desk, lying on the bed, or sitting in the armchair. They all have some human purpose. All human rooms (and there are no others, I suppose) have a purpose. There’s a reason to be in them, desk work, improvement of the body, developing and practising skills of hand-eye coordination, or simply waiting – that essential human activity. However no one is in these rooms. They are purposeful rooms, but without anyone making use of them as they were designed to be used, they defeat their purpose. All done up and ready to go, they look not just empty but also ridiculous, comical, absurd, sinister, often quite frightening. They are rooms at a loss. Excessive in their muteness.

I find myself thinking about all the rooms on the planet that are empty. It worries me, and again gives me that vertiginous feeling of the mind spinning out of control I used to get as a child when I lay in bed and tried very hard to imagine infinity. The brain is not designed to take in the concept of all the empty rooms in the world. But now I’ve thought about it, I have to wonder if there are any empty rooms in the world. What about that tree standing in the park, the one Bishop George Berkeley wrote about in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710?

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding… But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than raming in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them?…The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden, or the chairs in the parlour, no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.


 Later the question was put a little differently: if no one is there to hear a tree in the forest crash to the ground, does it make a sound? Common sense says  it does, George Berkeley is adamant that it doesn’t. Of course, if it’s not there, it can’t crash to the ground; but let’s give a little leeway to more recent thinkers who insist there will certainly be a sound wave. Even so, if ears don’t perceive it, there can be no sound. Sound requires the translation of the sound wave. It isn’t a sound until it is ‘heard’ by ears or machines that emulate ears (and even then, what if the machine doesn’t play the sound back to human ears to hear?). I’m not sure if rooms, just being there, doing nothing, with no one in them, make a sound. Certainly they would ‘sound’ different to a person who has just come in from outdoors or from another room where a CD of Tom Waits was playing. Lynne Cohen’s rooms are present in the book, in an exhibition, but silent. For your eyes only. 

Unless the book or the exhibition space is closed. And then?

So another question emerges. Do empty room exists when not only are they not seen, but they are not even being thought about? The book is closed, put back on the shelf, and it’s time for you to meet up with some friends for a drink. Those pictures you were just looking at are there somewhere in a coded form in your hippocampus – later to be transferred to the frontal lobes for long term storage. If something should spark their recall, or for no obvious reason, they will suddenly come to you while you are listening to your friends discussing the merits of Tom Waits. Once you have seen, you can’t unsee. You can only archive or repress. 

But what if you haven’t looked at them yet? For some reason, you’re reading this before you look at the photographs. Still, someone has seen them. The editor, printer, others who have been to previous exhibitions by Lynne Cohen. The photographs or their content exist in other brains. And even if they didn’t exist in others’ frontal lobes, if she had chosen not to exhibit them, they exist, because Lynne Cohen has not only seen the photographs – they are in her head as original concepts. She took the pictures; she made them, chose and arranged them in the first place (though the actual first place is the creation of the room and its own history). The photographs have Cohen’s consciousness as a basic insurance of their existence.  Just as Cohen’s existence is assured by the material-world fact of her photographs. 

Once they have been captured on film, the rooms in that form remain undisturbed. This is true of all photographs. But we are more used to people frozen in time. We have a ready-made set of responses. There is a sadness about old photographs of people. Old photographs of old people, old photographs of young people. And new photographs of the old and the young, which will become old photographs. Every portrait is a memento mori, its model, even if an infant, ageing or already dead. Photographs of people point to a direction and to a terminus. They freeze a moment and in doing so remind us painfully that we can’t restrain time. What of a photo of an empty room? Perhaps it’s not so very different, apart from our ability to project on to peopled photographs. Rooms and everything in them decay. Even without people, entropy hovers over a held moment. Objects don’t die, though they outlive their usefulness and deteriorate for lack of (human) attention. When rooms run out of people to inhabit them, they become potential ruins. And ruins, once again, tell us stories of how time and things and we ourselves pass. You can be one of the tourists clambering around the Acropolis marvelling at history, or you can stand back and watch the tourists and the Acropolis together and then imagine all those people gone, and the ruins ruined with every passing generation. Many people who take pictures on holiday say they want to show that they’ve been there, prove they’ve had the experience. It must be so, because the beautiful or stark places they go to in order to bring photos home, have excellent images available on postcards, in books and on the Internet, without the need to make the effort of going yourself to take the picture which assures you that you were there. What sort of experience does Lynne Cohen retain? Those tourist shots, like old photos and portraits, aren’t narrative as such. They are mute until a human mind turns them into stories. And for the most part human minds can’t help but make up stories, even where stillness and silence offers them a way out of narrative. Does Lynne Cohen take her photographs to prove that she has been there, or to prove that photographs exist, to document a fact that will alter, to suggest a story? Does she care what happens when others see her photographs? I suppose she must, or why else would she show them.? But does it concern her what we do with them, how we understand them, feel them, turn them into narration, interpret her intentions or even deny them? Sometimes I’m at a loss faced with art. I can see why it is made, why someone would want to make it, but I don’t understand why it is exhibited. Or at least why anyone who makes art wants to know the response from others. Empty rooms don’t care, but people taking their photo offer them up to their fellow humans. To share, as they currently say in such a way that makes the notion of sharing sickly? To task others to look as well or to give the stuff inside your head material reality by putting it in front of others’ eyes?

But to return to those rooms, waiting silently for attention.

In fact, the rooms in this collection are certainly not empty. It only seems that way. All of them invisibly but necessarily contain Lynne Cohen and her quite cumbersome camera, her lights, and they have been seen, picked out, and managed. They are far from empty, actually. Moreover, most of them have their own lights on. To elaborate on the popular description of an vacant person: the lights are on, so somebody must have been there. Did they leave and forget to turn the light off? Even so the expectation is that someone will come and turn them off. And if they don’t, the trace of someone who has acted on the room is there in the bright bulbs. These lighted rooms conjure up people in every way. How could we see a bed or a gurney in a room without imagining a body? A tank filled with uncannily untroubled water is patiently waiting for the disturbance of a person diving into it, or making some vibration that will cause the surface to ripple. Machines wait for flesh to be shut inside them and sweated by creating steam. They have no other purpose. Reception halls cause anxiety without a receptionist at the desk. You may not be there now, but you need to know you will be received. The rooms in the photographs all, however vacant they appear, evoke people, and are at the very least always and already peopled by the unobserved but ubiquitous photographer, and then by the implications she imposes on the static scene. 

The rooms do not even all lack human figures. It’s true that there’s nothing of flesh and blood here, just as there’s no ‘outside’. There is an inside-out room carpeted in a grass substitute and painted green, a forlorn undersized Christmas tree in a corner, two blinded windows facing each other. A chilling marble hallway is wall-papered with a forest, or hideously painted with a waterfall. Humans getting their own back on Nature. An hilarious arrangement of tall branches hung with a variety of decidedly desirable hats rests in a corner. It’s a relief, actually, to get back to the unambiguous interiors. As with outside, so there are flesh and blood substitutes dotted around. Sometimes they are flat, two dimensional images, of soldiers or passers-by in what we recognise as military shooting galleries. Some are to be killed, pointing their guns at you, some to be avoided, harmless old ladies (a sad assumption) with their shopping bags, but all of them are stand-ins, a practice for the real thing. There are images of people on walls, or hanging silhouettes, that seem to be little more than wisps or decoration – though decoration requires someone more sensate than these mere slivers to appreciate it.

Sometimes there are more substantial figures. In one room a drama seems to be playing out, albeit statically, but surprising nonetheless in these generally unpeopled roomscapes. It’s as if you’ve turned a quiet corner and found yourself walking the mean streets. Three life-size characters in a barely completed makeshift room look anxiously towards another window, curtained, so again that there is nothing to see. (Though now I think, why life-size, why shouldn’t they be tiny in a miniature room?) They seem alarmed, waiting. But all figures seem to be waiting if they are immobile and made of plastic or fibreglass. Think of those brides, party girls and lolling sportsmen waiting expectantly in shop windows for life to happen to them. A man and a woman in this ceilingless room are complete although strangely disjointed. They barely hold together. Another women is only a torso on a cupboard with a balloon attached to her dress, pregnant or armed with an exploding device. All of them are spattered. Naturally, we think of blood. A large whitepad on an easel waits in the corner for someone to write on it. There’s a story here somewhere. In another picture four female torsos lie in open suitcases. Inconsequential and definitely not human, but if they were they would tell of unspeakableness and tragedy.

And here I am persistently making meaning. A writer’s curse, I think. Most writer’s envy visual artists. What can you do with words when confronted with a picture or the world but assign it a story? The only alternative is to anatomise it structurally. I would prefer to let them be, Lynne Cohen’s photographs, also the world, but it’s impossible for me to let things be. I notice when on a sea voyage a constant attempt to describe the sea I gaze at day after day: it’s like this, then that. The similes queue up to get their turn in the spotlight. One day I thought: the sea is like the sea. It doesn’t leave me with much to write about. I think I might have preferred this essay to have been 11 rather than 3000 words long. 

Lynne Cohen’s photographs are like Lynne Cohen’s photographs. Look at them.