The Lost Steps
Sun, Nov 10, 2013 at 1:41 AM
I’m watching the weather report for California. I got that app on my phone that says smart-ass things about the weather. “It’s hot as fuck out,” it told me today. “Wear a fucking tank top.”
I looked up your name last night, scrolled through the fifteen or so links I’ve already clicked and then went to bed. I fell asleep heavily and dreamed, in soft, heady colours that I was at a carnival with your sister. She was licking her ice cream lazily as she leaned in and told me that you used to dress as a girl. She said that later in life you tracked the frequency of your irregular blinks in a journal and instructed the barber to cut your hair based on the notations that you recorded: snip-snip, pause, slow snip, pause snipsnipsnip. I woke and flipped through a photo album to check if the hair on the back of your neck was actually look uneven like that. It wasn’t.
I was staring at the back of your head when we saw that Milagros de la Torre exhibition titled Observed at the Americas Society in New York. Your hair was wet because that day it’d been raining while we walked down 68th Street. I think I took a photo at the door but I lost it. Do you remember that day? I loved that show. De la Torre is an Peruvian photographer; born in Lima, she’s been practicing conceptual photography since the early 1990’s. Her work is derived from experiences and stories from South American cultures with long histories of brutal violence and heavy censorship. While her interests lie in political disorder, her photographs are passive, stark, quiet and thoughtful. In a catalogue essay about de Torre’s career, curator Edward Sullivan noted that pain plays a prevalent role in her work. Once, for a year, she photographed every blossoming bruise on her body. Once she photographed several separate pieces of bulletproof clothing worn by government officials at high risk of assassination. Our favourite piece that afternoon (and we’ve rarely been able to agree on things like that) was called The Lost Steps. A 1996 series, The Lost Steps is a collection of fifteen 16”x16” photographs of solitary objects. The items include single articles of clothing, a slip of paper, a knife, a flag. The series began in the early 1990’s when de Torre acquired special permission to search through mountains of files in the Palace of Justice in Lima. She dug through decades worth of archives and photographed several objects used as evidence in trials for crimes of passion and terrorism. The resulting images are remnants of tragedies; as you and I stood looking at them, leaning against one another, we became tertiary witnesses to extreme human events. You pointed to an incriminating letter from an evicted prostitute to her terrorist lover. A belt used by a psychologist to strangle a rapist during questioning, the shirt of a murdered journalist, a police identification mask of a criminal.
Much of de Torre’s photographic repertoire is informed by 19th century photographic techniques; in the 1800’s, camera lenses couldn’t reach the frame of the square silver iodide paper, so each photo was framed by a cloudy black circle. De Torre calls these circles “halos”, and says that they remind her of the “the dark side of human nature”. Each picture was accompanied by textual descriptions as if the images couldn’t reach their complete potential until paired with fact and history. By photographing the objects in isolation, de Torre abstracted the emotionally charged objects from time or place. I turned to you and said that they looked like delicate meditations on devastating subjects. I can’t remember what you said back.
The words “the lost steps” translates to los pasos perdidos in Spanish. The Lost Steps is also a 2001 Argentine and Spanish drama film directed by Manane Rodríguez in which a famous Argentinian writer travels to Spain to reclaim his abducted twenty-year-old granddaughter. The Lost Steps is also a 1956 novel by Alejo Carpentier telling the story of a composer fleeing an empty existence in New York City to take a journey with his mistress to the upper reaches of a great South American river. The title of de Torres’ series, The Lost Steps, refers to the name given to the hallway in the Palacio de Justicia through which the detainees pass on their way to receive their sentences.