… how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses.
The charm of memory, Proust says, lies in the fact that it can’t be re-presented for the senses. Memories live in the mind in a kind of whorl of perceptions, drawn up in a slightly different form each time they are recalled. If we were to try and photograph memories, what would they look like? And what part of their charm would be lost in the translation?
Sean Lotman photographs memories – not specific memories or events from his past, but memories in a more general sense: events, moments and scenes that may not be immediately recognisable to the reader, but that feel as though they should be. His photographs don’t seem to belong to any particular time or place, but to a kind of shared archive of times and places – as such, they have the slightly disorienting quality of a recollection that rushes up, unexpectedly, into consciousness.
As a book, The Sniper Paused So He Could Wipe His Brow is a singular object, and it deserves a detailed description here. It’s long and narrow – an unusual aspect ratio for a photobook – and divided into three sections. The first section consists of split pages on a medium-weight gloss that feels like magazine paper. In the second section, single photographs are printed as double page spreads on a slightly thicker matte paper. Amongst these double page spreads are gatefolds that open out to reveal diptychs. The split pages resume in the final section.
Sean Lotman photographs memories – not specific memories or events from his past, but memories in a more general sense: events, moments and scenes that may not be immediately recognisable to the reader, but that feel as though they should be.
The photographs in the center section are accompanied by single-line poems, printed vertically along the outside edge of the page. Unlinked to the images, they nestle next to them, masquerading as captions. Lotman wanted, at one point in his career, to be a writer, and these short verses feel like the traces of another life: fragments of thought that emerged half formed and settled on the page where they are transformed, by their proximity to the images, into something else.
All of the photographs in The Sniper Paused So He Could Wipe His Brow were shot with a Diana 20 – a cheap plastic camera that uses medium-format roll film – and then reproduced from darkroom prints. They are hazy and lo-fi, with the strong vignetting and soft focus typical of plastic cameras. It’s a process that some might consider pointlessly labour-intensive and nostalgic, but a photographic negative behaves differently in an enlarger than it does in a scanner. The journey from camera to negative to darkroom to print is always laced with a bit of magic – the sensation that something beyond the artist’s intention is at play. The effects that Lotman achieves could be mimicked digitally, but that’s not the point – there is something more organic and a bit occult about getting there in the darkness. The resulting images are as entrancing as they are resistant to description. As I looked through The Sniper Paused, I wondered about the sort of words that I could attach to the photographs – the adjectives, for example, that I might choose to describe the colours: undersaturated but verdant and velvety, set out as complementaries that make each other sing.
The journey from camera to negative to darkroom to print is always laced with a bit of magic – the sensation that something beyond the artist’s intention is at play.
Many of the scenes in Lotman’s photographs are of everyday things – cars, pets, a shopping trolley half-submerged in a canal, the shadowed corner of a room. Some photographs are blurred and dark to the point of abstraction. Others circle around the exotic or strange in a way that draws attention to how culturally specific the term ‘everyday’ actually is – the way that the idea of everydayness has been colonised by a kind of western vernacular of appliances, groceries, and middle-class interiors. The photographs in The Sniper Paused were made over a fifteen-year period, in various countries around the world, but the book does not read as a travelogue. It suggests, instead, that the everyday is simply what happens anywhere, on any given day, and that what we perceive as singular is really only a matter of who and where we are.
And this, in a way, speaks to the nature of memory itself: its capriciousness, its tendency to settle on things that we might not elect to keep in mind. Much as we would like to control memory, there’s no choosing what we recollect, or how. The design of the book reflects this mutability. There’s no image in The Sniper Paused that’s not interfered with in some way by another image – in the split page sections by the other images in close and shifting dialogue with it, in the single image sections by the intrusive presence of the gutter and the tight binding which prevents them from lying flat. Strategies like these – and, indeed, Lotman’s reliance on analogue methods – might read as gimmicks in a different context. Here, though, they come together in a way that mimics the feeling of remembering itself – that sensation of something being charmed out of our interior darkness and into the light, imperfect, often startling, never the same twice.