Looking at Manuel Luís Cochofel’s photographs awakens a desire to find out how he prepared for the journey that produced them, to open a map and see routes marked in red that plot his almost 8,000 kilometres of wanderings, to hear about the places he stopped at, about where he wanted to go and where he arrived only to leave immediately. The accidents, incidents and trivialevents that informed and altered well-formulated plans and his vigorous obsession to seek out place names in America that derive from names of cities in Europe.
In these photographs, subtle threads create a narrative and call to mind commonplace moments during a journey, those we may not have fixed forever in our minds, but which, perhaps, will prompt at the time of our death our very last images or our final memory of living sounds.
Our eyes seek out narratives and drown in their absence. They cling for their dear lives onto yellow marks on some tarmac, a forgotten blue canvas lying on a lawn, aerial corridors of electric wires, a bizarrely-shaped domed roof,
a bottle of detergent pointing to dazzling white tiles. Meaning
finds shelter in these details and is constructed until appeased by the lengthy period of learning to return to the solitude of oneself.
Everything on this route circumvents main attractions in order to dwell on homes along abandoned motorways, lights shimmering at the end of yet another ordinary day, hedges around nameless gardens that no loving gardener ever visits, forgotten cars parked on kerbs overrun by weeds.
These photographs exude a sense of dejected waiting and call to mind hot, clammy summers tinged with mossy green, swamps, trees of heaven (ailanthus), those towering trees that Jesuit priests brought to Europe from China and which were then taken to America. They too grew without pruning or control, advancing over land and in the heavens, enduring dearth and pollution.
We must imagine their parched roots in an avid race to give life to a landscape that in itself conveys no movement. As the title of the book indicates, we are a long way from joyful and voluptuous Viennese waltzes. Joy and happiness might exist hidden and secret in the emptiness and long silences of the journey, a pure desire to discover beauty and geometry in a tamed and absent nature made of ruins, plastic and the forgotten.
The viewer must move away from what he or she is contemplating to imagine it to be beautiful. The female figure we see carrying out this remembrance does so absent-mindedly as she smokes with her back to a window, looking out onto
stripped concrete, car metal, the dark outlines of dilapidated buildings, Persian blinds that frame the aseptic interiors of motels with their coarse exteriors, spaces uninhabited by earthly feelings.
Nothing overwhelmingly relevant spurs on this traveller, apart from his own desire and the freedom that comes from the very modern habit of affirming, with no historical or journalistic claim, the remarkable.
“Photographs never show what we’ve really seen,” says Philip Winter, the journalist in “Alice in the Cities”, a film directed by Wim Wenders in 1974, which seems prophetic now when the visible is manipulated and optical equipment and devices organise thought.
We diminish artistic fields when we mechanise the world and alter nature, bending it to our despotic will to dominate. In the lopsided encounter between man and machinery, a space, albeit increasingly small, has survived for the artistic, made of divestments and a will to encounter the strangeness of the world.
As with the austere paintings of the artist and photographer Charles Sheeler, the founder of the American “Precisionist” movement, we are faced here with dispassionate images that seemingly have nothing to say and were taken with a kind of cool lethargy that freezes emotions. Fun and humour have withdrawn to the fringes and are invested entirely with what we all know and carry within ourselves.
This is clearly a territory inhabited by a powerful cinematographic imaginary. There’s a great deal of sky, immensely long roads, an image centre that seems to converge the light captured through the myopic lens of an iPhone camera. The US flag, which we first see in Wim Wender’s film “Paris Texas” through Travis’s binoculars, now emerges as an unimportant and depoliticised decoration, because even this reading has been devitalised by time and dust, which meanwhile has settled on memory and become healed.
Nothing now emerges to surprise us. Violence surfaces from the unmistakable clarity with which the absence of poetry shines reminding us that we are beings made of deserts that were prairies where buffaloes and savages once happily roamed.
This is a book of artifices and impossible combinations as absurd as the onomastics of the depicted places, which were given names by people who on some unrecorded day arrived with their hearts filled with longing for their old homes in Dublin, Syracuse, Florence or St. Petersburg, and in dizzying determination did not give up on their primordial dream.
As time passed, they kept their old memories, learnt new languages and gestures; the nooks and crannies of their lives darkened and they took care not to look into them. We will never see them or know them ourselves, although at times these sharp edges that have remained in the shadows escape from their frames and assail us with their invisible, frightened and injured
silence, and flinch from enquiring eyes demanding light.
Manuel Luís Cochofel’s photographs are soothing. They end up providing pleasure and enjoyment by showing discarnate and uprooted landscapes and so convey the lesson learnt by humans, whom we fail to see here but can imagine far away and fluid. They could well have been at the origin of Alberto Caeiro’s words: “There’s beauty enough in being here and not in any other place.”
Translation from portuguese: Carole Garton