The Exertions of Close-Ups

by Brian Bergen-Aurand


Tention—condition of being stretched or strained, or in which pressure is exerted

I have a penchant for exhibition catalogues. Ever since my first encounter with Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, written to accompany the 1990-1991 exhibition of the same name he arranged at the Louvre Museum, I have found such books to move between image and text in some of the most important ways because of their concision and concentration.

Exhibition catalogues reflect on the objects on display as well as the act of display and have to get to the point of the matter in the most poignant of ways. Because catalogues supplement the visuals on display while arguing about the vision of that display, they specify a point of view that provokes while always remaining incomplete—a skeptic’s point of view, perhaps, or a true regard—a true looking at and caring for—what we see that never ends with a simple overview.

Close-Up: Proximity and Defamiliarization in Art, Film and Photography, a catalogue Dawn Ades and Simon Barker written to accompany the 2008-2009 exhibition they curated at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, is the latest such book to catch my attention. The exhibition and catalogue survey the deployment of the close-up image from its medical and scientific beginnings in the early nineteenth century, through avant-garde and modernist developments, to contemporary conceptual and aesthetic uses. In their book, Ades and Barker provide individual articles that both focus on the paradoxes of different theories and pieces in the installation.

Close-ups are always located between the near and far, the intentional and contingent, the identifiable and alienating. They bring us into proximity—sometimes extremely proximity—in ways that alter our observations through the alteration of what we observe. We almost always encounter close-ups through the question: What is it? And almost always leave such encounters with the question: How did I miss that? In this way we come face to face with the idea that, as Barker writes in his essay, “any extreme close-up inevitably involves a corresponding failure or collapse of perspective” (101-02). And, this failure or collapse might just lead to a readjustment of our perception.

We change in the process of looking at close-up images. This is the pressure these most essential of images exert on us. Perhaps, this is the ethics of close-ups; they do not capture the world for our examination as much as they disorient our very desire to engage in such totalizing observations. I know, like exhibition catalogues themselves, close-ups stick in my mind in the most curious ways.

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