The divisible present

The overwhelming number of photographs produced by Erkki give the impression that the world is constituted by an infinite series of images that surround him, and that he simply isolates, then frames. Immersed in a visual stream, his camera naturally continues (‘prolonge’) his eyes and periodically records it. As his eye blinks the camera’s shutter opens and closes. The camera becomes an extension of his retina. It also becomes a pressure meter that records the pulse of his ‘imaging’ activity. When he buys a VHS camera, the sensation is even stronger. No editing, long shots, camera in hand following his eye. He doesn’t look to film, his look films.

Erkki is not a reporter of his life. A reporter is an external agent that ‘covers’ an event. Erkki doesn’t cover his life, he is enveloped in it, and this envelope is an image stream.

Looking at the myriads of photographs, hours of unedited films one irresistibly feels the utopia of a divisible present, a present that can be archived while living it, the possibility of an archive in the present tense.

Therefore, even when their sexual charge is strong, the visual recordings are not so much about vision as they are about time. Looking for ‘good’ photographs, one would be disappointed. Most of them are mundane, they belong to established genres without challenging them: family scenes, erotic games, travel, etc. Although a digital pioneer, Erkki doesn’t seem interested in testing the possibilities of what a digital image could mean. He uses cameras as a ‘power user’, taking advantage of the built-in features, but rarely questions the way the digital visual workshop (camera, editing suite, bitmap editors) mimics the analog tradition of working with photography. Looking at it, the interest lies elsewhere. The camera acts as a clock [1]. But a clock that measures a particular time, the time of a divided present [2], a present which is simultaneously lived and deferred.

But the idea of a divisible present is a utopia, a fantasy. The nature of what we live changes when we record it. There is no seamless archiving. One never looks enough at the photographer’s body. We do not walk the same way when we take pictures every two minutes, we never drive a car the same way when we film and sexual arousal is heavily conditioned by the presence of the camera. The photographer’s body is always dancing, always adjusting to a frame, it also acquires a form of transparency, a diminished presence. It is there but to a lesser degree.

Where are you, Erkki? – In the picture.

This is why the camera is such an important device. It conditions the mode of presence of the photographer and his ‘subjects’. A device that allows us to take lots of pictures very fast implies a different mode of presence, of distance, more than a camera that allows only for a few shots and forces long pauses. To see the photograph we have just taken through the camera’s built-in viewer shows the event as already past while we are still living it.

When one takes pictures occasionally, this feels like a minor constraint, quickly brushed away from consciousness. But for Erkki who obsessively pictured his life, what looked to be a constraint may have become a key element, a deep motivation behind this large enterprise. Instead of being there two times, once in the present and once in the future, Erkki’s motivation could have been to disappear from both? Living one’s private life under the eye and through the filter of the camera implies to take a distance from it, to carve oneself out of it, at least partially. The experience of a recorded present is never accomplished until the recording is being watched. But when it is being watched, the present is already past.

Erkki filmed a series of erotic games with his different partners. Most of them contain the same ingredients that further complicate his relationship to time. The film begins with a discussion between him and his partner. It is a moment of anticipation and negotiation. Then the erotic scene begins. During the discussion the bodies are relaxed and behave freely, when the sex scene begins the movements become mechanical. The attention of Erkki goes to the framing. In the middle of the act, he changes the angle of the camera, and corrects the position of his partner’s body. The arousal seems absent in the scene. It is there latently during the preliminary discussion and probably later in watching the film. But did he really watch it?

We would make a mistake if we think that, in contrast to Erkki’s attitude towards presence, we could refer to a ‘normal’ sense of presence in the present: to an unmediated, integral presence. Nothing as such exists either. We are always anticipating and deferring, missing the presence. But if we all ‘live with it’, Erkki has articulated his life around it and explored the full consequences of the utopia of a divisible present in both existential and technological terms.

Films, images and videos, here, are time capsules. But not of any time, but the time of a deferred, diminished presence. To begin an archive based on documents of such a nature means first to negotiate a debt. An archive would need to give back the presence that Erkki took away from his life moment by moment. Archives are always summoned to give back time. But what if they are asked to give back presence?


1. For a the genealogy of the camera as a clock, see Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.
2. Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography, Jaques Derrida, Stanford University Press, 13 Jul 2010.