How the strange man lost his wife to the image
How the strange man lost his wife to the image
That night, it was the type of night rain was splashing downwards lacking real objective. I was the exact same. I was sitting at the bar drinking gin tonics without any goal. Just sitting there, staring into nothing, exchanging empty words with the barman, who really just wanted to play with his phone The music was dull and uninspiring, half-assed electronic-ish pop music with lyrics heard a million times before. The bar was almost empty, the bathroom sink flooded and it reeked of mold and stale cigarettes. It was as if the creator of this world had decided to take a picture in black and white, but forgot to use a camera. The night was ready to be thrown into the pool of ‘horrible drunk nights where nothing happened and could easily be forgotten’, when next to me came sitting a rather peculiar looking man.
He wore a purple trenchcoat, a leather hat and huge sunglasses. The ear that was right next to me showed a fluorescent green earplug. It was time to go. I was looking for some money in my pocket, when the man shook his head and said, ‘now just wait you young lad, I’ve got a story for you.’
This annoyed me to great heights. Why, of all the empty seats in the bar, did he have to pick the one next to me, right when I decided I was done for the night?
‘Sorry, I’m leaving. Gotta feed the cat,’ I said. But as I’ve told you; the evening was coloured by pastels and everything lacked conviction. My excuse sounded lame and half baked. If someone had said it to me I would have laughed and said.. well, nothing. The man was not impressed, he raised his finger and shouted, ‘one Goldstrike, and what is this boy drinking? Gin tonic? Pah! Two Goldstrike!’ He then hit the table with his hand, turned his head towards me and stared into my eyes. Or at least I think so, since the glasses prohibited me from seeing his gaze. Silence reigned, I dared not to leave my seat, caught by the two black holes in his face. The barman dumped our drinks on the bar and uninspiredly said, ‘eh, your drinks then,’ and returned to his phone world.
Out of habit I took a sip of my drink. I did not think, I just downed the odd cinnamon spiced liquid. A pause- the man smiled. What was he smiling for? And with dismay I realised that I had accepted the drink, and with the drink the story, and with the story an even bigger waste of time.
The man shook his drink from left to right, causing the obscure liquid to tornadofy. ‘Pah! I’m glad I can see you. You can never tell these days, you know…’
Well, I didn’t. He did not seem to need an answer though, and with a big sigh took a sip of his drink. Then, as if rushed by the importance of his thought, lowered his voice in secrecy and asked,
‘Do you think I’m crazy?’
I took another sip. Looked at him thoroughly, his leather hat was covered in little raindrops, the coat showed streaks of darker purple where the wetness hit. He might have been 50, maybe 60. It was hard to tell due to the fact that I could not see his hair and most of his face was covered by either glass or hat. And those glasses… They were of a kind I had never seen before. About the size of the handpalm of a large Asian woman, completely square, black as ash and with rainbow effect- reflections. I saw myself in his glasses; my eyes squinted with suspicion, rolling over the physical features of the man seated next to me. He looked absolutely mental to me. One of the more important lifelessons I’ve learned is that whenever somebody asks you whether you think he or she is crazy:
1. the person is always crazy
2. you can not by any means tell the person
Then, there are a few rules concerning crazy people.
1. Do not ever lie to a crazy person, they can smell this and will create mayhem.
2. Do not look them in the eyes, they will absorb your mindpower and drain your saneness in a pit of darkness.
Therefore, my cunning reply was: ‘The question is not whether you are crazy or not, the question is: what is crazy?’ He did not move and kept on staring at me from behind those glasses. Then he laughed:
‘Yes! You are ony of my boys. I can see that you have the vision. I can see that you are one of those ready to see what I see,’ he smiled almost viciously. His mouth showing a surprising set of straight, pearly white teeth. I did not respond at all, this man was bogus. A hotdog, a fried chicken that returned to live, a schizoidparapsychoborderlinelocopath. So I took a sip instead, slightly knocked back by the strength of this drink.
‘LAD!’ he shouted. The barman even looked up from his cellphone. In my surprise I choked on my drink and started coughing. He did not care.
‘Are you ready?!’ as my eyes teared up I nodded with great power. Please let this man stop shouting.
‘Are you!?’ he moved his head closer to me, his hands on his lap, his ass on the edge of the seat. What for? I did not even dare to ask.
‘Yes!’ I coughed miserably.
‘Yes, I’m ready.’
He smiled again.
‘Good, then we can start. You might find me a strange fellar, but I can assure you that everything, however strange, is true. You might not believe me at first, but hell. That’s your choice! Let me tell you where it all started. Or no: better turn it around. I’m telling you the story of how I lost my wife to the images.’
“It all began with me being a student of photography at the art academy in Beckleton. Now, this might not ring any bell with you, but back then it was an internationally renowned art academy. Especially famous for its photography program. At the time, I was lucky enough to have been lectured by Maximilian X. Vermouth. He had created a special method, called Verminization, that was all the hype then. I was one of his biggest fan, using this with every photo I took. I will not get too technical or theoretical, but it basically meant that whenever an object or a person was being photographed, it created its own aesthetic world. When looking at those pictures, the observer would feel immersed in the photograph, feeling that there was a different reality which was almost tangible. Have you ever seen a picture that would grab you, made you look twice? Big chance that it had been Verminized. In order to grasp this effect, one had to use a special prism in the darkroom, shine through it with a laserpen and reverse the beam of light with a mirror. When done properly, the pictures would seem more alive. I adored the darkroom, I adored the method. Being in that space, creating my own worlds with the images I had chosen… there was no greater feeling of power for me. Never had I made such great pictures before and in mastering the art and expanding my collection, I met my wife.
She was buying a banana at the fruit stall, wearing a red dress and a green hat. I told her the magic words, “Woman, you are a primary coloured banana split and I shall not rest until I verminize you into my existence.”
As she posed, she smiled and said, “Pure colour cannot be fully seen through sunglasses, it will always filter something out,” referring to the sunglasses I was wearing on the brilliantly bright day. She was an illustrator, her focus lying on simplifying detailed matter into abstract forms. We were perfect, more than perfect. Now, everything might sound like a celluloided arthouse dream, but things soon spiralled towards pulp.”
The strange man did a dramatic pause, a bitter twitch created a web of fine lines around his mouth.
“BARMAN! Gimme two more of those golden bombs.”
Now, I have to admit that I was genuinely curious about the rest of the story. This man was intelligent indeed and perhaps more sane than I had envisioned at the beginning. My feelings started creeping towards fascination and interest.
“So, what happened?” I asked, trying to mask my eagerness with a cool stance.
“What happened was digital photography. We’re fast forwarding a couple of years. By now we had established ourselves in the city. My photographs were doing well, we were doing well. Leather sofa, two bathrooms, a view of the city park and fish twice a week. It was a good life, until… Before I continue I must explain to you the condition I am suffering from. It started about twenty years ago and no doctor has ever found a cure. For some reason, there are times that I cannot filter input the way a ‘normal’ person might. And with input I mean everything: noises, smells, people, conversations, ingredients, animals, tastes. Whenever I am physically in a place, I absorb all the information around me. It makes my head explode, drives me nauseous, I start shaking, cold sweat… During these fits I need to abort all input. One of the few places where I could still exist during those episodes was the darkroom. Spending time there seemed to be the way to balance my life. When spending more time surrounded by input, I had to spend more time in a place without any. It worked fine at first, but then again, the digital revolution had started. Instead of celluloid, light and magic, photographs were zeros and ones. The whole essence of the medium had changed dramatically. Photography had turned into a quick paced business, accessible for everyone. I tried to Verminize the photos, but it was of no use. They seemed dull, lifeless, cheap, plastic. Meanwhile, competition rose and the magazines demanded fast delivery, they wanted now and edited and digital. As it was my source of income I had to adapt as well. The only times I could Verminize my pictures were when I had the time to snap for leisure. This meant that less time was spent in the darkroom and more behind the computer. Not only did I change, my surroundings changed too. With my attacks growing more frequent and powerful, I was less able to be in the city atmosphere. I was being bombarded with images. Billboards, giant screens, videos, online content, posters, websites, more images everywhere! I’m not saying these were not here before the digital burst, but the whole cycle of demand and satiation had accelerated to a speed I could not keep up with. My wife seemed to cope just fine, but I grew literally sick of my surroundings. Once, I had gotten an attack right after a city-wide metro failure. The streets were jammed and I had to walk home for forty minutes. I went into catharsis and stayed in bed for three weeks. My eyes covered with black silk, my ears plugged, eating only tasteless smoothies and moving as little as possible. The only thing I could look at were Verminized pictures. It was right then that I vowed never to look at an image that wasn’t Verminized. Meanwhile, a silent distance had grown between me and my wife. In this state I couldn’t even handle her existence and she sought attention in her job. The city had absorbed her and I stayed in bed, mentally paralysed. Things had to change. It was beyond my power to change my surroundings nor the way my brain worked. Desperately, I tried to find a solution but I failed again and again. Then, I had a visit from Maximilian X. Vermouth.
I wore sunglasses in the curtained house, earplugs and a nose blocker to lessen the input he gave off. He had grown old and thin, crooked and smelly. Maximilian took off his strange looking sunglasses, revealing eyes with a fierce radiance that were running over my sad appearance.
“I have noticed that you are not publishing anymore. You were my prime student in Verminization, I’ve always kept an eye on you.”
“Please, could you whisper?”
He lowered his voice, “I’m sorry lad. I tried to reach you but you never pick up the phone.”
“The noise… can’t stand the ringing, can’t stand the companies trying to sell me crap.”
He did not seem to listen and his voice returned to the usual loudness.
“So I called your wife. She was easy to locate, far too easy if you ask me. Well, she told me about your condition, and lad, do I feel sorry for you.” A wave of yellow sadness went through my body. My hero pitied me, which was both comforting and hurting at the same time.
“I’m suffering too, you know. My technique cannot be applied to digital photography, it will be lost in the erosion of time. In this age, well, you’ve seen it; the world has changed. But do not be sad, my lad. You, you are different. You can see thing the way I see them. Even with your condition.”
He handed me the sunglasses. I took mine off and placed them on my head. My eyes were still shut completely, afraid that these sunglasses were of a bad quality and too much input would seep through.
“Come on, take a look.”
Three, two, one: I opened my eyes and looked at an empty book Maximilian was holding in front of me.
“Yes?” I asked, not understanding.
“It’s a magazine, a glossy,” he smiled broadly.
“Well, there’s nothing in it.”
“Correction: there’s nothing of significance in it, take off your glasses and look again.”
I took them off and was instantly attacked by a white pain in my eyes as I saw a glimpse of silky hair and a film ad. I quickly put them on and looked again; nothing.
“What… what…” I could only mumble.
“What this is? This, my lad, is the Verminizor X-3.0. These glasses use a tiny layer of prism and infrared treated superior glass to filter unnecessary information. What is left is all you need; purity, basics, blankness.”
“You’ve managed to use your technique in a device like this?” My boy, I cannot begin describing you the happiness and excitement I felt that very moment.
“This is only the third prototype, there are some minor malfunctions, but these should not interfere with the freedom it will give you. These are yours, my lad. I’m working on a patent for the final version, ha! When people will find out that they are looking at trash, Verminized photo’s will be back in fashion. It’s only a matter of time,” he smiled, “I have no cure for the ears, but I am sure a sound purist will come up with something similar soon.”
I took his hand in gratitude, unable to tell him what it meant to me.
“I know, lad. Now, there’s one last thing I need to say. Your wife, how shall I put it… she did not sound content at all.”
The only thing I could do, was respond with a sad nod.
The glasses were a gift from above. I could now cross the street in utter peace, no more images that hurt my head. With earplugs in I could even start photographing again. Now, the glasses did have a side effect. There were people I could not see anymore. When walking the street, it sometimes even felt as if I were completely alone, leading to hilarious situations where I bumped into people almost constantly. But I did not care, I almost had my life back.
Almost, because my wife seemed to be further away than ever. She lived on a different wavelength with her smart phone and online blog and tv-shows. I had even caught her taking pictures of herself. The silence had grown deafening and I stared at Verminized pictures of her with alarming frequency. Instead of looking at her expensive high heels, I looked at the old pictures of her bare feet in the lake near Beckleton. Her eyes, now heavily make-upped, were swapped with the photo of her looking at the flowers in the off-screen space, twenty years ago. One day, she saw me staring at the first picture I took of her, the one with the banana and the hat. Something snapped.
“Is this it, is this what you are doing? Looking at pictures of a lost time? Being lost in this stupid world of yours that is not real anymore? Please, look at me, here, in this day!” she started shouting.
She exploded with emotion, hysterically, pulling her hair down with claws. Hot tears blending with her mascara.
“Please! Be here! Ever since you’re wearing these awful sunglasses you don’t see the real colours anymore. Remember, our first meeting?”
“You are shouting, I can’t handle it. It’s too much,” my brain was starting to overload. I had to get rid of the input. My head was lowered into my hands, and I was shrivelling a couple of inches.
“You are ruining your world, your life, my life! It feels as if I’ve lost you… Snap out of it! Look at me, please look at me, I am here, I am not fake!”
So I looked at her and then it happened. Her image disappeared. I was staring at blank space, hearing her voice shouting at me. I took off my glasses, stared at the horrible woman I almost did not recognise, and put them on again. Tears welled up inside of me, a big black hole had consumed my chest. Slowly, I started walking away. My wife screamed hysteria, started throwing things to get my attention, but it was too late. She had turned into unnecessary information. All I have left of her were the Verminized pictures. That’s it my lad, it is over. This is how I lost my wife to the image.”
With open mouth I stared at the man next to me. A violent urge took control of me.
“Yes, young lad?”
“Can I try on those glasses?”
He smiled, took off his glasses and with handed them over with squinted eyes. With shaking hands I put the heavy glasses on. My eyes were shut, wild excitement roamed through my body. I waited three seconds
Piece performed at Tales of a Dirty old Man (Amsterdam).
Aura, authenticity and materiality- Engaging with digital collections Introduction This January 2020, students of the MA Media Studies: Digital Cultures from the University of Maastricht