Disappearing into the Past by Astrid la Cour
The title Disappearing into the Past refers to memory as a dynamic, never-ending process. Kruse Jensen’s works challenge our notion of the photograph as a moment frozen in time. Instead she makes the medium part of an ongoing process where subject, photographic material and memory merge – and become part of a larger narrative about cognizance and living memory.
In this series Kruse Jensen seeks whole new perspectives in her approach to photography. Whereas she used sophisticated photography technology in her earlier projects, she has now turned to the Polaroid camera, which has neither the same capacity nor the ability to reproduce fine detail. Behind the choice of imperfection and lack of control lies not only a desire to challenge the traditional working methods of the past 14 years, but also an unmistakable acknowledgement of personal vulnerability, a desire to let go – and relinquish herself to a medium that is impossible to control. In an earlier project, The Construction of Memories, she focused on memory. She continues to do so, only now she has abandoned control. In the past she used contrived means to set the scene. Every element of her motif was carefully constructed and everything under her control. Artificial light pierced the darkness of night. In Disappearing into the Past she allows the diffuse light of day, the technical imperfections of the Polaroid camera and the outmoded chemistry to play their role in creating the final motif.
A general aspect of Kruse Jensen’s work is that she does not photograph places as they would appear to us in reality. In several of her earlier projects, light and dark meet in a way we would never experience with our own eyes. Long exposures give the light in these pictures a dense, textural and almost intense vitality that seems unearthly. In this way, the photograph captures more than the human eye can perceive, opening up a visual space that exists solely by virtue of the photographic eye.
Among the interiors photographed in Disappearing into the Past we rediscover the deep, enigmatic darkness that dominated her earlier works. However, in this series it is primarily light, often in the form of overexposure that casts a veil, blurring distinctions in much the same way as the cloak of darkness was used to conceal in the earlier works. For example, in one of the works a girl’s blond hair fuses with the interior, and in another reflections in a car window dissolve a face, which spreads like a luminous halo across the image and opens up towards an eternity. Or at least to an era alien to our time.
This sense of disappearing and intangibility beguiles us, rousing a narrative desire that forces us to try and place each individual motif in a process – a before and an after. But at the same time we are captivated as viewers. As in other projects by Kruse Jensen, these wordless, touching images embrace a sense of indeterminate time – as though the progressive beat of time is punctuated by horizontal openings.
Unlike literary narrative, the photograph has no connection with linear forward movement. The traditional aim of photography is to freeze a moment in time. At the very moment the photographer clicks the shutter, the subject becomes part of the past. The act of photography thus implies a form of ‘loss’, an unspoken narrative of loss inherent in the photographic act. In Disappearing into the Past the dynamic moves in the opposite direction. Kruse Jensen strives to collect sensations, moods and impressions in a subject that is not a ‘here and now’ but rather a ‘once upon a time – perhaps’.
Light penetrates dense forest trees, steps descend into the dark all-engulfing water of a lake, a little girl swings up towards the sky, and a woman sits in a boat gazing across the lake – simultaneously absent and present. The faces in the photographs are either turned away, blurred or overexposed. It is unclear whether this is the same person photographed as a child and as an adult. Or is it mother and daughter? Is this a contemporary or a far distant time and place? Is it a big, single pictorial narrative or a collection of random fragments?
Spaces and landscapes bask in an enchanted light, inviting us on a journey of moods, recollection and time that evokes memories of endless, carefree childhood summers. But a sense of unease disturbs both mood and subject. A sense evoked not only by the content of the photographs and their distinctive aesthetic but above all by the spots and trails of irregular traces that the chemistry of the photographic medium leaves in its wake. These chemical traces weave their way into the dense forest and the dark depths of the water. In some of the photographs the contours of leaking chemicals trickle across the surface; in others they crystallise into fantastic formations. Many of these shapes resemble organic living structures, combining with the subject to create an autonomous abstract image – a form of double exposure. The ethereal appearance of the photographs and the visible chemical traces make them seem part of a process: being developed yet at the same time fading away.
The Polaroid Photograph as Medium
The pivot of Kruse Jensen’s Disappearing into the Past series is the Polaroid photograph, the result of a photographic technique that produces a finished picture minutes after shooting.
With its distinctive format and subdued colour palette, the Polaroid photograph became synonymous with the immortalisation of everyday occasions, big and small, capturing in its heyday of the 1970s and 1980s the childhood memories of an entire generation. The invention of this ‘instant camera’ was introduced in the USA in the late 1940s and in Europe a decade later. Polaroid discontinued producing instant film in 2008, and anyone prepared to pay exorbitant prices can find original films on the internet, although they are obviously beyond their expiry date. Kruse Jensen used these expired films to create Disappearing into the Past.
In its time, the Polaroid camera gave people the same opportunity as today’s digital camera to view subjects and events as images when they happened and before being stored away as memories in the photographer’s mind. Using the instant Polaroid photograph to produce a lasting memory here and now, Kruse Jensen deliberately photographs subjects that evoke lifelike representations of events that perhaps happened somewhere else long ago – a glimpse of memory.
In recent years, a group of enthusiasts have initiated efforts to resurrect Polaroid photography. This revival is an extension of the apps we can install on our mobile phones or PCs to add a nostalgic retro look to our digital photos – and perhaps an exotic dash of past photography technology to our modern lives. Kruse Jensen clearly moves in a different direction. Her photographs embrace the distinctive aesthetic of Polaroid photography, which references the childhood universe but can in no way be labelled as ‘nostalgic retro’.
Because the film Kruse Jensen uses has expired, the photographs develop unpredictably, and the final expression of the image depends on random chemical reactions. It is this unpredictability that interests her – the lack of control over the final outcome. Kruse Jensen allows the photographic medium and chemistry to pervade and shape the pictures on equal terms with the indexical connection to the reality that is the subject.
The chemical, optical and automatic nature of photography is traditionally perceived to reflect the understanding that images of the world are reproduced via the camera onto a passively receptive film frame. ‘Disappearing into the Past’ challenges this perception of the photograph as a neutral representation because Kruse Jensen gives full emphasis to the chemical origins of photography. The chemical irregularities act as a filter for the end product – a filter that influences the final expression of the motif – while chemistry continues to be instrumental in fixing and preserving the motif in the first place. Furthermore, depending on the type of film, the photographs come out largely in shades of magenta, cyan or yellow – some will be almost monochromatic. This non-naturalist reproduction of colour partly explains the artistic and specifically photographic appearance of
If we view photography as a common means of preserving the past and fulfilling a desire to store memories for posterity, then the chemical traces in Kruse Jensen’s photographs become a disruptive and impermeable filter for clear recollection. Thus chemical change processes become an image of our inability to remember – a forgetfulness that permeates and shapes our impressions of reality.
This is how Kruse Jensen links the process of visualising memory with the chemical processes of the photographic medium. When Kruse Jensen interferes with the chemical process of decomposition in the Polaroid films by scanning them, she captures a subject in its interaction with the chemistry of the moment. The carefully selected image fuses with chemical unpredictability, reflecting the ongoing nature of the process of memory: nothing is static or final, but a process that we constantly review, recreate and reconstruct.
I remember two images from my father’s funeral almost 20 years ago: my father’s best friend weeping and the hearse driving away from the church. When I recently met the friend’s daughter, she told me her father had never made it back from Mozambique to attend the funeral. How can memory record an incident as an image when the incident never happened? It can do so because we remember, construct, select and desire memories, perhaps life-changing moments most intensely of all. All these elements converge into recollections – glimpses of the past which, like the fragmented collisions of dreams, represent a random mix of reality and imagination.
I do not want to lose the image of my father’s friend at the funeral, but at the same time I can no longer deliberately cling to it now it has been proved wrong. There may be images of other occasions that we wish to forget, but which persist as glimpses ruthlessly evoked by certain smells, sounds or emotions. Events happen and are stored in our memory with varying degrees of intensity, and just as a photograph is not a cardinal witness, nor is memory. Memory is self-experienced recall – a subjective and loosely connected collection of events or separate episodes.
Photography seeks to store memories for posterity. However, by far the majority of childhood memories are never photographed; they remain as an accumulation of assorted impressions in the child’s memory. Usually, therefore, the things we think we remember from our childhood are not purely visual impressions, and when Kruse Jensen examines and works with the photographic reconstruction of memory, she does so by visualising feelings, sensations, moods and details because true reconstruction is impossible and – when all is said and done – uninteresting. Such a visualisation inevitably has surreal undertones that help question whether memory exists in any other form but as an imaginary space in memory.
In her earlier series The Construction of Memories Kruse Jensen constructed memories from the world of the child with surreal twists such as small swings hanging from thin branches at the top of a tree which would never be able to bear the weight of even a small body. Here, improbability underscores the fact that staged fantasies never really exist but are an abstract visual processing of fragmentary impressions. The question is, of course, whether memory and reality could ever meet, or whether memory has passed for ever into another world, the definitive fusion of imagination and reality.
Kruse Jensen has not only accepted the challenge of an uncontrollable photographic medium, she has pursued new approaches to her subjects. She seems to be closing in on them, more so than in her past work. However, she still manages to maintain a form of innate distance. Unlike the photos we take for the family album – a child’s birthday, a picnic party, the face of our beloved – the photographs in Disappearing into the Past are what we might call ‘transitional moments’ – ‘right before’, ‘right after’, or ‘right beside’ the subject we would normally choose for the photo album. These ‘non-subjects’ incorporate a sense of the attraction of the unknown, of adventure, of our desire to lose ourselves in the world at large and our own inner vulnerability.
By recreating something that may have happened somewhere else long ago and which can in no way be reproduced with photographic accuracy, she questions the medium itself and its link to reality – questioning our belief in the photograph as a cardinal witness, related to confidence in the empirical and objective rationality of technology. Indeed, the Danish encyclopaedic work Den store danske encyklopædi cites the concept of photographic accuracy as the opposite of the subjective nature of memory – a contradiction that holds true only in the sense that a photograph is perceived as the preservation of a visual glimpse bound to a reference point in reality.
When Kruse Jensen photographs and subsequently scans these constructed glimpses of memory, she stops a chemical change process. With expired film, you never know whether the chemical process will aberrate and thus alter the subject – which can be seen as an image of living memory that immediately disappears into the past and becomes inaccessible in solid form. The image we remember here and now is the product of time, place, wishes, repressed emotions and re-writings. Although we strive to capture visual images or emotions through our inner mental images, they are in a continuous process of disintegration – we cannot be certain of being able to etch a given inner picture on our retina. It is this mental filter – a membrane made up of equal parts of memory, forgetfulness and re-writing – that the out-dated chemical process of disintegration underscores in Kruse Jensen’s photographs. Subjects appear but are also on the verge of fading away – on the way to being re- or over-written.
As well as the photographic works, the project includes a spatial installation in the form of wooden constructions on the floor of the exhibition rooms. Each construction appears to be either growing out of the floor or sinking into it. The essentially temporary constructions resemble playhouses, but are out of proportion and impregnable. You cannot enter them, but neither can you ignore them. They are placed in the room as inescapable building constructions with no purpose. There are no obvious signs of use, no drama – merely a quiet arrival and a simultaneous disappearance. Disturbing premonitions arise in this field of tension, and, like the inscrutable buildings Kruse Jensen photographed for an earlier series, Indefinite Spaces, the wooden constructions in the exhibition rooms are like stage sets – choreographed landscapes located in the no-man’s land between play and obscure reality.
Kruse Jensen’s exhibition Disappearing into the Past conveys the impression that more is at stake than the photographs and choreographed landscape imply. Here, as in many of her previous projects, the theme is the encounter between the unknown and the familiar – between reality and imagination. Similarly, as in some of Kruse Jensen’s earlier photographs, they portray a poetic dislocation of reality. A dislocation that gives the parallel world of the imagination a chance to edge its way into reality.