Windows on the Unexpected

"All photography is a challenge, an opening, a perhaps"

Text by Julio Cortázar translated by Tony Wood

Best known as the author of the short story on which Antonioni’s Blow-Up was based, Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) was one of the leading figures of the 1960s Boom in Latin American fiction, alongside García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. He has been a towering presence among the continent’s writers ever since – Roberto Bolaño declared himself “permanently indebted”, citing Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch (1963) as a major influence on The Savage Detectives. Cortázar’s short stories, with their fantastical elements and meta-fictional reversals, shifted the boundaries of the genre as much as those of Borges had before him. In “Windows on the Unexpected”, he describes how photography can make us chance witnesses of strange, unbidden revelations. Originally written in 1978 but unpublished in Spanish until 2009, it appears here for the first time in English.

Photography is often thought to be either a document or an artistic composition. Sometimes these two purposes merge into one: the document is beautiful, or its aesthetic value also includes a historical or cultural value. But sometimes the unexpected slips in between the two poles of that dual proposition, like a cat jumping onto the stage in the middle of a performance, or like that little sparrow that kept flying over Yehudi Menuhin’s head while he was playing Mozart in a Buenos Aires theatre when I was young. (All things considered, this wasn’t so unexpected: Mozart is the perfect proof that humans can form an alliance with birds.)

There is the deliberate search for the exceptional, and then there is what appears unexpectedly and is only revealed when the photo has been developed. How this comes about is not important. Although the most beautiful and intense intrusions might be those one has not sought out, it is also good for the photographer to be a lightning rod, to go out into the street in the hope of finding them. Sometimes there are benefits from trying to provoke forces beyond one’s control – though the reward can take the form of surprise or even terror.

Tell me how you take photographs and I’ll tell you who you are. There are people who over the course of their lives collect only predictable images (in general they’re the ones who bore their friends with interminable slide shows), but others capture the uncapturable, either knowingly or by what people will later call chance. Brancusi was probably aware of this the day a young, unknown painter, Romanian like him, came to his studio asking for lessons. Before agreeing, the master handed him an old Kodak and asked him to take photos of Paris and bring them to him. Nonplussed by this behaviour, the young man went and took whatever pictures he felt like, and Brancusi gave them his approval – as if he could tell from them that the young man was already Victor Brauner. What neither of them knew was that one of the street scenes he had shot included the facade of a hotel where, years later, after an excessively boozy night, a glass thrown by the sculptor Domínguez would take out one of Brauner’s eyes. Here the unexpected played a complex game of billiards, slipping into an image that seemed to have a purely aesthetic function, getting ahead of the present and fixing its gaze – there was a viewfinder, and behind it an eye – on an unsuspected fate.

Ever since I began to take photos, in my distant youth in the Argentine pampas, I have felt a sense of the fantastical in that magical moment when the sensitised paper, floating in the developing tray, repeats in miniature the mystery of all creation, of all births. Negatives can be read by professionals, but only a positive image contains the answer to the questions that photos themselves are, at the moment when the person taking them interrogates reality in his or her own way. I lacked the gift for capturing the unexpected with a camera; apart from a few minor surprises, my photos were always amiable replicas of what I had been pursuing at the moment I took them. For that reason, and because I was condemned to writing, I took out my disappointment with my photos on literature, and one day wrote “The Devil’s Drool” – not knowing that the unexpected lay in wait for me beyond the story. I would be returned to the realm of photography the year  Michelangelo Antonioni turned my words into the images of Blow-Up. Here the unexpected threw its slow boomerang: my hopes and nostalgia, as a photographer unable to master the strange forces that manifest themselves in snapshots, made a film-maker want to show how a photo into which the unexpected has crept can alter the fate of the person who took it, not knowing what lay hidden there. In this case the exceptional had no impact on external reality; unable to capture it through photography, I was handsomely compensated by someone like Antonioni turning my writing into images – by the boomerang returning to my hand after a slow, unforeseeable flight lasting 20 years.

I’m not especially drawn to photos in which the unexpected element appears thanks to artful composition, or through the contrast between disparate things; ultimately, by artifice. While it’s true that the unexpected causes surprise, it too has to be caught unawares by the person taking the snapshot. Spontaneity is the rule of the game, which is why the photos of this kind that I most admire are technically bad: there is no time to lose when the unfamiliar makes an appearance at a crossroads, in drifting clouds, through a half-open door. The unexpected can’t be invented; at most it can be helped along. In this respect photography is no different from literature or love, zones where the exceptional and the fortuitous like to occur.

In photography as in life, the unexpected can happen without anything to distinguish it violently from the habitual. We’re familiar with those moments when something puts us out of joint or is put out of joint – whether it be the traditional feeling of déja vu, or that instantaneous slippage that happens inside or outside us, shifting us into an atmosphere like that of a blurred photo, in which a hand moves slightly beyond its own outline to brush against an area where, in turn, a glass glides like a dancer into another region of the air. There are, then, photos in which nothing is in itself unexpected: pictures of birthday parties, of street demonstrations, of boxing matches, of battlefields, of degree ceremonies. We look at them with the indifference that the mass media have fostered in us: yet another photo after so many others, a daily recurrence in newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, where a famous singer shakes the hand of a Norman peasant at a street market, or where a Wall Street banker celebrates his silver wedding in a ballroom with spectacularly stupid decor, the eye that knows how to see will catch, at the very back of the room, a waiter’s horribly greedy gaze at a woman burdened with a feathery hat; or it will dimly make out, through the doorway of an austere tribunal where a horse thief is being tried, something that could be a bridal veil.

I have seen photos like this throughout my life, in the same way that, as a child, I discovered mysterious, revelatory corners in the engravings accompanying tales by Jules Verne or Hector Malot. These were magical corners, the barest vanishing line turning a trivial scene into a special space of encounter, a crossroads where other forms, other fates, other reasons for living and dying awaited.

Perhaps, in the end, photography proves right those who, in the 19th century, believed that the eyes of murder victims preserved the final image of their killer, advancing on them with dagger held high. I may be wrong, but I think that in Rocambole, a character photographs a dead person’s eyes and retrieves an image that identifies the guilty party; in any case, I remember it as one of many things that terrified me as a child. This may be why I still look at every photo as if it could provide me with an answer or a clue that would stand outside of time: that bridegroom grinning at the altar, isn’t he already the killer of the woman who now gazes lovingly at him? In a sense, any photograph can be explored infinitely, since – like everything else – it allows for multiple interpretations. Yet the unexpected nearly always lies in the most prosaic and most innocent reading. We are in a no-man’s-land where there are no limits to the combinatorial possibilities, apart from the imagination of the person entering the territory of the photograph, a paper mirror that is always turned away from us. The difference between seeing and looking, between turning the page and lingering, is the same as that between a life spent accepting and a life spent questioning. All photography is a challenge, an opening, a perhaps; the unexpected awaits the visitor who knows how to use the keys, who does not accept what she is offered and instead chooses, like Bluebeard’s wife, to open doors that habit and indifference have closed.

A conventional photographer trusts that his snapshots will reflect, as faithfully as possible, the scene he has chosen – the lighting, the figures and the background. I have always found myself wanting the opposite: for reality to be suddenly belied or enriched by the photo, or for an unexpected element to slip into it, turning a birthday dinner into a collective confession of hatreds and envies or, still more deliriously, into a railway crash or a papal council. After all, who can be sure of the faithfulness of images on paper? You have only to look at them closely to sense that there is something missing or added, something that shifts their usual centre of gravity. It’s disastrous when school photos try to show, a posteriori, the illustrious presence of an Alain-Fournier or a Rómulo Gallegos, even as other faces impose themselves on the scene more forcefully. The only remedy is to indicate with a cross the person who is least present, the least interesting in the group.

Polaroid cameras have heightened the vertigo experienced by those who sense that the unexpected may intrude into their images. There is nothing more astounding than seeing colours and forms emerge; than seeing a silhouette, a horse, a bicycle or a parish priest advance from the depths of the paper and slowly take shape. As they come together, these forms seem to struggle to define themselves, to replicate what they are outside the camera. Everyone accepts the result, and very few people see that the model is not exactly the same as the original – that the aura of the photograph shows other things, laying bare other human relations, building bridges that only the imagination can cross. In one of my stories (as we know, I’m not a photographer), a person who has taken snapshots of naif canvases painted by peasants in Nicaragua discovers, on projecting the slides in Paris, that the results are different: the images reflect the daily reality of Latin America’s drama in its most horrible and extreme forms – the persecution, torture and death that have established their bloodstained headquarters there. As you can see, my sense of the unexpected in photography is not very easy to verify. But isn’t that precisely the mark of the unexpected? § 

  • Windows on the Unexpected