On Photography & Sleep by Sarah Rees
On Photography & Sleep
Sleep is the hearth of the private realm. To go to sleep is to draw to a close. The sleeper is removed from the public sphere—quiescent and unavailable. To fall asleep is to surrender to a corporeal pull, to slide with relief into the pools of the subconscious mind. In this state we are laid bare—physically and mentally vulnerable—readily consumed by the night’s threats and pleasures. We sleep alone or with friends, with lovers, with partners, and with strangers—each configuration a different iteration of intimacy and trust.
Throughout history art has been intrigued by sleep for its confounding universality and mystery. Photography has given artists unprecedented access to the sleeping subject. The photographer is able to fluidly traverse public and private spaces, to stage or document the act of sleeping. The sleeping figure in photography is not presented as any common motif; rather, photography examines the sleeper through a myriad of subtle shades akin to the human condition.
Photography is unique in its ability to manipulate the power dynamics between artist, subject, and reader. According to Sontag, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”1 Photography may serve to physically objectify a person, yet the thoughts and dreams of that person remain inaccessible and unobtainable. Sleep emblematises the impervious subconscious—the last private realm.
In The Sleepers (1979), Sophie Calle uses photography to de-romanticise representations of sleeping and to highlight the remoteness of her subjects. For this work, Calle invited twenty-nine friends and acquaintances to each spend eight hours in her bed, which was occupied for eight consecutive days. Her subjects agreed to be photographed and to answer some questions. Calle took photographs of her subjects along with detailed notes, recording each encounter. The resulting artwork consists of twenty-three photographs with accompanying text. Calle’s use of serialism and repetition siphons the intimacy from the individual images; when viewed en-masse, the photo-text combinations loom cool, clinical, surveillance-like. Calle uses photography and text as apparatus to study the objects of her desire, yet she encounters a blind-spot: the sleepers’ dreams. Calle illustrates that, although the ritual of sleeping can be interrogated, the sleepers’ subconscious can never be captured through language or representation.
In contrast to Calle’s detached, systematic documentation, Nan Goldin photographs her subjects from within the world they both share. French Chris on the Convertible, NYC (1979) depicts a young man lying across the back of a convertible. His eyes are closed, his shirt unbuttoned, pale skin glistening under light unnatural. The reclining figure assumes a classical pose, arm elegantly draped over his head, his body exposed. During the Renaissance period, women were often represented in such repose, flesh unwittingly exposed for the viewer’s voyeuristic pleasure. The female was at once eroticised and inscribed as recumbent, passive, unconscious. In Goldin’s image these motifs are inverted. The male subject appears outside, not in a divine slumber amongst nature but passed-out in a public urban space. In the foreground of the image is the hand of another, raised in a symbolic gesture of youth solidarity. In this portrait of contemporaneity the sleeper is not passive; he is performing surrender.
Bill Henson’s photographic works explore the liminal space between nature and civilisation, day and night, male and female, youth and adulthood. In a photograph from his series Untitled 1985/86 (1985-1986), a sleeping figure appears suspended in the twilight-zone between sleep and consciousness, youth and womanhood. The black-and-white static of the television is the sole light source in this image. The unsettling movement on the TV screen and its artificial glow disrupts the night’s blackness, opening a portal for the viewer to look in. The sleeping girl is barely lit and parts of her limbs dissolve into darkness. Henson describes the in-between period of adolescence as being similar to the flux of dawn and dusk; he elaborates, “It’s also a macrocosm of society, because you’re no longer an extension of your mother’s hand; you’re going off into the world to find out who you are. That produces an incredible potential, and of course that’s a potential for things to go well or badly.”2 In this image the girl is pendulous in sleep, potential energy building as she draws nearer to adulthood and the outcomes of her childhood dreams.
In his series Does Yellow Run Forever? (2014), Paul Graham juxtaposes different iterations of three groups of images: rainbows above the Irish countryside, the facades of pawn-and-jewelry shops in New York City, and studies of his partner asleep. Graham’s photographs of Senami are achingly tender. They do not evoke voyeuristic pleasure nor the feeling of a guilty intrusion. Instead there is a sense of equality, a shared trust; perhaps this is because the private space of the bedroom is shared by photographer and subject. However, the scene does not tell of the absence of a partner; there is no evidence of another ever sharing the woman’s bed. She is recumbent in stillness and solitude. The photographer instates his presence through the staging of these intimate moments. In each image of Senami asleep, she is protectively wrapped in sheets and blankets, her body veiled in soft, undulating coloured fabric like the drapery that adorns classical sculptures. In context with the other photographs in these sequences, the sleeping images evoke a sense of longing. The ephemeral rainbows and the dispensable gold charms are but illusionary symbols. Graham expresses a yearning for something meaningful and permanent, and although it appears right before him, this moment of idle bliss too shall pass.
In his second book A Night in London (1938), of which few copies survive,3 Bill Brandt meanders through public spaces and private dwellings of London, capturing noir vignettes of disparate social classes. Among the sixty-four images of life at night, there is a photograph of a woman sleeping alone in her bedroom—Moonlight on the Pillow (1938). The setting is ordinary, yet the scene is surreal—paired with an image of a radiating moon hovering above silhouettes of smokestacks. Brandt meditates on her dream-state within tantalising proximity, yet he cannot evoke it. Seemingly dissatisfied with such limitations, Brandt subsequently made Nightwalk: a dream phantasy in photographs, which consists of seven images depicting a sleeping woman’s nightmare. It is a haunting tableaux, though purely speculative.
The surrealist poet Robert Desnos writes of dreams, “Sometimes at the moment of sleep strange figures are born and disappear/ When I shut my eyes phosphorescent blooms appear and fade/ and come to life again like fireworks made of flesh.”4 With such intimate access to the sleeping subject, photography has exposed the limitations of representation, highlighting what is inaccessible and can never be possessed. It is the mind and dreams of the sleeper that remain elusive, ever out of reach.
1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 14.
2. M Olijnyk, ‘Bill Henson: the in-betweener’ in Broadsheet, Sydney and Melbourne, 14th Nov 2013. http://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/arts-and-entertainment/article/billhenson-betweener-1985-86
3. Most copies of Bill Brandt’s ‘A Night in London’ (1938) were destroyed in a warehouse fire. A PDF copy of the book was made available to the author courtesy of David Campany, 2016.
4. Robert Desnos, Sleep Spaces, quoted in A Bulter, “Man Ray, the bird man”. In 125 Magazine, London, UK, n.d. http://www.125magazine.com/index.php?pg=641&p_id=300
1. Nan Goldin, French Chris on the Convertible, NYC (1979)
2. Sophie Calle, The Sleepers (1979)
3. Bill Henson, Untitled 1985/86 (1985-1986)
4. Paul Graham, Senami, Shambhala, New Zealand (2011)
5. Bill Brandt, Breaking Through the Clouds (1938) [Left] and; Moonlight on the Pillow (1938) [right]
Sarah Rees is a curator and writer based in Sydney. Her curatorial interests focus on the intersection between art and literature.