At a certain point, they stopped making images. Not all of them, and not that it was an absolute refusal, but an unexpected malaise set in, which cut through the enthusiasm for new routines. Yet, it was also a time of images. Confined, they saw long lines of despair on the streets through the lenses of others. It was as if there was nothing more to say, and often conversations moved in imperfect circles, trying to touch the edges and surfaces of things but never quite covering the distance. The closest they came is when someone recovering from silence said we are destroying the world in order to preserve it. That seemed true enough but there were things to do, and the afternoons were interminable. Through one such haze, he had a dream in which he was younger, and in the midst of autumn, burning a negative in front of a window he had never stood in front of. The feeling of having experienced a transformation elongated itself into the evening and confused him. He had indeed performed this ritual years ago, but in passing from one side to the other lost faith, failing to mark the event in his journal and forgetting all the insignificant and useful details of that day. Experiencing it once again through displacement, he felt the memory had finally entered him and that only sublimation allowed immaculate remembering. The idea aroused curiosity among others in the way that one seeks to observe from a remove the passions and preoccupations of an artist. And it gave the entire enterprise the appearance of alchemy, his own impossible quest for immortality through the transmutation of material. The word encircled him and it was fitting because matter after all is mater the mother. He had been thinking about her. His search for negatives yielded a photograph he did not think he had in his possession, and because the force of this image had always haunted him, he had never dared to look. There she was on the beach holding his brother aloft by his arms turning him around in the air. She was not yet his mother in that photograph and he was nor idea nor body but this image had somehow come to be a cherished memory of his own childhood. It established that joy however tenuous or fleeting could arise in a mundane moment. Rather, it affirmed the fact of joy itself—and its slippery nature. He had forgotten how charged this image had been for him but now it had returned with an invitation. He made a copy. He placed it on a table and looked at it through his camera, framing it in a way that he would see nothing of the surrounding surfaces. In that moment of encounter, he realised why he had returned again and again to that beach with his father, the author of the original photograph, to make images of the sand, of the waves and the vast grey expanse, and of him. And why the portrait of his father, holding up a camera against his face on the same beach, had become for a while his self-portrait to introduce his work to the world. He wanted to enter the scene with his mother and brother at the beach but he did not know how to secure that passage. So he let the copy sit on his table and gather dust, which he examined carefully every day. It was incredible how many particles swirled around in the air, how much people and things shed of themselves without really knowing it. If we were to attend to the evidence of disintegration, he thought, there might be little else to do but sit in front of a mirror and record time passing. A short duration after making the copy, he remembered two beliefs that had structured his vision of the world as a child: One, that before his existence there was a time when reality was simply made of black & white, and that there must have been a shift one day, like someone switching on a button. Second, that the thermal plant near their house in the countryside in the north was a cloud factory, releasing plumes into the sky every now and then through its two giant chimneys. Whenever their mother drove them past the plant, he would curse it, holding it responsible for any rain that would prevent them from going to the beach. Although he could not remember when these beliefs wore off, that certainly must have marked the end of his enchantment with the unknown. That day, he received a letter from a friend with just two lines: We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. Sometimes it is just the timing of things. He returned to the copy with an idea, and a kind of corrosive liquid that was lying around in the studio. He trained his camera on the photo, pressed the button to record, and then gently poured some amount onto the paper. The liquid began flowing across the image, gathering the grey-black ink with it and dispersing it into gentle waves and forms until his mother and brother were reduced to blotches that did not quite resemble any human form. Once it had done its work, he carefully poured all the liquid into a vial and stored it away. He had distilled a memory. He then watched the footage forwards and backwards as if looking at an act of magic. The outcome of the experiment remained mysterious to him—even if the process of dilution worked on the simple principle of cause and effect, he had triggered entropy. He was suddenly aware in a way that he had never been before that the light that makes photographs makes contact with bodies—and, perhaps, carries something of them into the image. The month that followed was a time of great activity. He was not making images but undoing them to see what they were made of. Photographs both his own and those of strangers were sitting in small jars of acid. He received another letter: A few days ago, I was paralysed in my sleep. I could not move but I was being chased by an ancient bear from The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Did you know that there are perfectly preserved claw marks in France? I am convinced it is because I have been drawing on the pictures in the album I found with you. I have been de-facing them. I think it is time I put an end to this project. He realised he had passed on his superstitions about the power of photography and the possibility of the haunting of the subject. Nevertheless, he conducted an experiment on one more photograph—of a steel plant in Bhilai taken in 1984. He thought of it as a cloud factory, and made many images of the acid corroding it to liquid. In a way, he was investigating the very foundation of Western civilisation, looking into the moral force of the Flood of Genesis caused by temperamental clouds. He imagined, in an incongruous mixing of myths, the flood being the work of Taoist deity Yun Tong, the Little Boy of the Clouds, the little boy on his way to the beach. It was on a rainy day in another city that he had found an album of photographs, drenched and lost, on the street. Those strangers had travelled with him, and stayed in a cupboard unopened, where they had, over time, almost disappeared. Some faces remained, some bodies floated in mid-air, and the colours had separated themselves from each other and grown more colourful. Echoing his thoughts, someone in the room called these photos amnesic because they had not only given up the fight for truth but also lost their grip on memory. What function did they have left then after being rescued from a flood? They were ruins demonstrating their own decay, pointing to the materiality of their bodies. They were also entirely new objects, now detached from the past. He was wary of any interest in authenticity that these lost strangers might arouse because he looked at the surviving prints not as originals but as specimens—which, in being worked on by moisture and mould, were no longer frozen in time but, at last, experiencing time themselves. He brought them with him on an excursion with friends. One of the first things they did was jump into the pool. As he was swimming, he found that the floor beneath him began to disappear and that gave him the feeling that even this contained body of water could swallow him up and make him submit to its own laws. He described this exhilarating feeling to a friend there who said that the pool was fourteen-feet deep at one end and that might be why he felt somewhat unmoored, but being sensitive to such experiences added that it was true that bodies of water appeared in many myths as forces separating this world from that. He realised then that what he had been doing this whole time was making thresholds visible and that it was fitting that he had found himself drawn to water in one form or another. Although he was taken by ideas, he tried to remember that in any system of thought, ideas do not simply exist by themselves, but they are attached to places, and that some of the places where his ideas were attaching themselves were entirely unexpected. The pool was perhaps a portal. After that trip, he went to the River Lima, which the Romans identified as the mythical Lēthē, the River of Forgetfulness or the River of Oblivion, from which the souls of the dead must drink in order to let go of their earthly lives. Forgetting and oblivion appeared interchangeable, but reaching from one word to another required covering the distance from loss to destruction. Is that what it was to lose one’s memory while still being alive? What is the view of the landscape in experiencing this transition? He hovered over the river and followed its course but no aspect of it seemed remarkable to him. The lesson he learned from the exercise was that one of the ways to deter plunder was to surround a place with an air of fear as the people of Lima had once done. But the Romans caught on, and crossed the river. That same day, he decided to look for other bodies of water, and by changing the settings he could see how each of their courses had altered over a decade. That these were all thousands and thousands of images collated into an experience still felt remarkable to him, and it prevented him from tiring of the repetitive act of scrolling in this direction and that. It is with this curiosity that he arrived at a golden pond. The pond was so golden that it was hard to believe such a thing would not have a secret behind its existence. He captured an image. But as soon as he looked, its existence was demystified: the pond was attached to a mine; the mine was abandoned but it could not disappear because a pond attached to it was meant to continue holding the mine’s waste; the pond overflowed during cloudbursts, sending rivers of acid into the surrounding forest. Another mine across the world, had a remarkably similar story—rains, overflow, acid contamination— although the colours were not all the same. The end of things, the apocalypse, seemed to rearrange not only relations and elements, but also the aesthetic experience of the world. He captured an image. And then found another pond and then another. All the copies lay on his desk gathering dust. He found the corrosive liquid he had used on the photograph of his mother and poured it onto these prints, recording the way in which the colours were dispersing themselves as if it were raining. He liked to think that it was the toxic water of the ponds themselves acting on photos of the ponds—material encountering material in a final act of revenge. These ponds were designed for permanent containment. They were meant to last forever. They existed because the process of extracting metals and minerals from the earth could not be contained within itself and left residue, which while stored in faraway places was always close. He listed the metals mined by those ponds and then began listing the purposes they served. This was a period of madness for him because there were so many ways of organising the information. That is, there were many ways of looking at the world and undoing it. He tried to go as far as he could knowing that the end would remain elusive. He sent pages of the list to a friend: I have found a way to write a history of the world while simultaneously making a portrait of an individual. Here it is—your portrait. Or mine. What he had found, in fact, was that many of these metals and minerals were used in contemporary digital technologies and its supporting infrastructure. If looked at closely, the camera was an amalgamation of tiny bits of earth that we all carried around as if it were one thing. In the same way, the distribution channels for images and the digital clouds in which they were supposed to be infinitely stored were aggregates of substances drawn from beneath the ground requiring energy to keep them going. Technology was not only an extension of the human being but also of the earth; there was no separation. It made him realise that the ponds he had been looking at over and over again were pools of remembrance, evidence of the longing for eternal memory. What could the material of memory look like? He returned to the question anew while looking at images of the process of dissolving photos of the ponds. He then used some of the photos captured at the beginning of his wanderings to make cyanotypes. This was his cloud atlas, he thought, but one that did not reduce clouds to types as an amateur meteorologist had done at the beginning of the 19th century. In his atlas, the composition of each cloud was so varied and so threatening that those living around them could only feign ignorance, pretend the cloud did not exist at all, until it would rain and overflow into their lives. The ponds contained the possibility of erasing their surroundings, making the land and its creatures forget what functions they could perform, how they could grow food, or have blood circulate without tumours inhibiting them from living. But, these ponds were also critical to the architectures of remembering, critical to all around him. His work had turned into the expression of a conundrum. He received a letter from his friend: I saw myself. Because I saw myself, I began preparing a manifesto for my oblivion. The fantasy of total recollection is an affliction. I am looking for a cure, somewhere in the vicinity of blankness. This was not exactly what he had meant when he had sent her his last letter, but there were always other perspectives, and they often set him on a new course. By now, there were many prints around him—on the walls, and on the tables and ledges—but there was still a void among them. As he turned in circles, he realised what was missing—a picture of a cloud, simply that.

A fictional short story inspired by the exhibition Lethe by Philippe Calia.

Joan Fontcuberta, Kintsugi (Barcelona: RM Verlag, 2021).
“The camera has always been a resource for conserving memories. So, what happens when photography not only gives up the fight for truth but also loses its grip on memory? What happens when photography becomes amnesic?”
John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 257-8.
“There was no more central theme in nineteenth-century British, French, and German literature, science, and art than clouds. A recent exhibit on clouds in Vienna starts in 1800, premised on the idea that 1800 marks a rough historical break when clouds became secular; and it is tempting to say that clouds stood in for the disappearance of God, but we have already seen how mixed sky motives are. Nonetheless, something did happen around this moment, most notably the establishment of a scientific nomenclature for clouds by Luke Howard in London in 1802.”
Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes, His Memory,” in Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 91-99.
Jussi Parikka, The Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 46.
“Benjamin Bratton’s words could not be any more apt when he writes how we carry small pieces of Africa in our pockets, referring to the role, for instance, of coltan in digital media technologies...Besides Africa, iPhones are, in the words of mammolith, an architectural research and design platform, “geological extracts” drawing from the planet’s resources and supported by a multiplicity of infrastructures. The geological bits you carry around are not restricted to samples of Africa but include the material from Red Dog pit mine in Alaska, from where zinc ore is extracted and refined into indium in Trail, Canada.”
Italo Calvino, “The Adventure of a Photographer,” translated by William Weaver, in Difficult Loves (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 220-235.
Louse Glück, “Nostos,” in Meadowlands (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998), 43. “We look at the world once, in childhood./ The rest is memory.”
Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 24-5.
“..the Taoist religion developed an entire Ministry of Thunder for its pantheon. This divine administration included the gods of Thunder and Lightning, the Earl of Wind, and the Master of Rain and his young apprentice, Yun-t’ung, the Little Boy of the Clouds, whose job was to keep the floating reservoirs piled up, replenished, and full.”
Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 7.
“Media are finite, in the sense both that, as matter, they are inevitably tied to physics, especially the dimension of time; and that their constituent elements—matter and energy, information and entropy, time and space, but especially the first pair—are finite resources in the closed system of planet Earth. Because they are finite, media not only cannot persist forever; they cannot proliferate without bounds. There are not enough of certain metals already for everyone on the planet to have the same access to equipment as Western consumers have become used to in recent decades. To create new materials means using up a finite stock of energy sources. The obsessive accumulation of everything that characterizes our era has limits.”
Les Photos d’Alix, directed by Jean Eustache (France: Mediane Films, 1980), 00:00:32.
“De toute manière, tu sais, les seules vraies photographies sont des photographies d’enfance.”
Sans Soleil, directed by Chris Marker (France: Argos Films, 1983).
Ari Phillips, “Mexico Mining Spill Leaves Thousands Without Water”, Banderas News, August 19, 2014.
“Both spills have been at least partially attributed to heavy rains in the area that taxed the overflow ponds’ capacities.”
“Chilling Images Reveal Acidic Orange Streams Near an Abandoned Mine in Russia,” Science Alert, 17 July, 2020.
“The mine ‘is flooded and now acid rivers flow from it, poisoning everything they touch’, the blogger zamkad_life wrote to describe the series of images which have since gone viral”.
Nina Lager Vestberg, “There is No Cloud: Toward a Materialist Ecology of Post-photography,” Captures (May 2016).
“...we are now living in a literal iconosphere, where we are in some way able to “inhabit the image” ourselves, whilst images have somehow acquired the capacity to inhabit, in other words to live, in us. What would it mean to approach this system of images and their relationships as ecological in a non-metaphorical sense? How might we grasp the iconosphere as a natural rather than cultural environment? To what extent could our conceptions of the post-photographic condition benefit from an appreciation of the natural resources and material infrastructures that enable contemporary image practices, and an awareness of the environmental effects that accompany them?”
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