Sport 15: white horse black dog
As a child I watched the roads of the fifties from the back windows of cars that trailed dustclouds across landscapes whose features were observed through a kind of fog which also dropped a grey-brown patina on everything near at hand.
These dustclouds blew across nibbled plains or wide gravel riverbeds toward parched, blond foothills which themselves looked like mounds of sand; or toward gorse-covered slopes which often were burning.
Or else I looked outside windows whose sills cut off telephone and electricity poles halfway up their height, and reduced the perspectives of the Wairau Plains to distant horizons. The poles, as they stumbled past with their swooping rhythms of sagging wires, were superimposed on a distant prospect to which they were not connected. There was no middle ground.
At night, the headlamps would peer ahead into a tunnel of darkness which I could hear rushing past—the darkness had a sound, and it had an end-wall as well, you could see the beams of the headlamps flatten against it, pushing it forward of the car.
Eventually this end-wall became the back of the garage in Francis Street, Blenheim. It advanced right up to the car’s windscreen, and in the moment before the lights went out I’d see the makeshift stage-set there: a canvas grass-catcher with a wire rim that always resembled a mask, some shelves of dribbled-down paintpots, cast-up boating gear.
These apparitions, in the intense light of the headlamps on the end-wall of darkness, were given an extra reality, they were transformed into mysteries or dramas which the dim light of reality, next day, could only make banal.
But at night, at the end of the car ride, the sound of the dark that had rushed past like a tunnel was passed on into the crunching of gravel under my father’s shoes as he carried me down the path to the house. I page 151 pretended to be asleep then, existing like the garage-wall apparitions in some other place, or, as I would say now, in some other consciousness. But at the moment the house was entered and the lights switched on, I truly did fall asleep—did desire to—because the magic of seeing the world from a car window, and of hearing the rushing darkness, was finished. The middle grounds had all filled up. Everything was in its place, there was nothing to see.
Looking out the car window was a kind of dreaming, a dreaming I could know I was in and could direct—I could drive it—it was a trance or rapture, and the next best prolongation of that was actual sleep in which, as often as not, I would continue to be transported, but unpredictably and uncontrollably, sometimes attempting to brake a dreadful sensation of falling, or striving helplessly to run with limbs that had become paralysed, or striving to slow a pell-mell stampede toward another kind of end-wall, one I would be about to smash into.
Waking from these exciting nightmares, I would pound on the wall to my parent’s bedroom, and be told to go back to sleep, I was just overtired, it was the effect of the long trip.
What I didn’t understand then, as I lay half-heartedly resisting sleep, but understand better now, is that these nightmares of transport were the result of a way of looking: they were smearings or skiddings or warpings of the bliss of looking out the car window.
Because that serial flicker of insignificance, that remote, detached horizon, those unpredictable moments of startling revelation—some hallucinatory and sudden moment or detail, a billboard or gorse-fire, a strange animal, some transfixing expression or gesture or, almost, defect in a roadside bystander—that ribbon of hypnotic boredom, unfocused by speed and dust, interrupted by fleeting shocks, was powerfully in itself another kind of vision, which is to say another kind of truth, a truth approaching fiction, halfway between facts and rapture.
And this kind of looking, which was like a reclamation of the disregarded, had its most obvious corollary in the snapshots my father took, obsessively, in which years later I would recognise the same drift away from facts—seeing even the most mundane items of record (the car, the family, the beach) warped into another kind of consciousness, page 152 presenting themselves against the end-walls of another kind of vision. Even at its most organised, with domestic archival optimisms and sternness marking its features, this photography wore a fantastic expression; the banal became fabulous, unwanted or disregarded details would suddenly take over.
As a child, I loved the surprising makeshifts of foregrounds revealed when cars stopped and their doors opened—benzene pumps above oily gravel, boatshed litter, the ad hoc magnificence of disreputable sites: derelict farm machinery, the storm-beach of wrack and rusty tins on to which the car had advanced recklessly risking getting stuck, the kerbside theatre of feet, perambulators, dogs.
And as an adult I still respond with special affection to service station forecourts and the like—buy a bag of potato chips and some drinks for the kids and drive on as though into some frontier, with a hapless sense of optimistic adventure. Even the melancholy of these images—their sentiment, nostalgia, desolation sometimes, their inconsequentiality, their poor grip on time and purpose, their uncommitted souls, their deferrals of significance, their irresolute or offhand or even indifferent occupations of memory—even this melancholy becomes a kind of celebration: becomes an emotional passage as the car or bus sets forth again through what is at once so familiar and so piercingly strange.
I look at Peter Black’s photographs and recognise at once the rhythms of those power lines, a meridian marker that veers through a lateral perspective, scabby berms, the kerbside. There’s not a breath of wind to make important those self-important flags of significance. The word ‘sure’ has been edited from ‘sure to rise’. Nonetheless the sun does rise upon these disregarded sites, these insignificant theatres.
Every photograph by Peter Black reveals a drama. Children appear trapped in cars—a father clasps his baby beneath a toppling statue of Lord Plunket, protector of little children, leaning pensively upon an up-ended rifle—a sinewy old man, neck almost severed by one of those power lines, seems about to hurl himself off a railing into the mist beyond page 153 a hedge—another ageing man, in poor shape, plods past a similar railing, one hand checking the vault where his heart depreciates—two young men, one with a shaven head and the other heavily tattooed, seem involved in a stalking melodrama—a dyspeptic man with his jacket over one arm notices that he is being observed, and his hand hastens to straighten the tie he’s already removed.
And always, in these dramas, as they veer from fact toward rapture, as they disclose that other truth of fiction, Peter Black discovers fragments of language, markers, signs. They (the word ‘veges’ erected comically in a plantation) are almost the hallmark of his work—these wry, affectionate, offhand emblems of confusion. It’s not just that Black’s love of accident in photography throws out these chances. The word-fragments, road markers and the like are also evidence of his exceptional sharpness of observation—a way of looking that can seem tranced but which, in the course of its dreaming transport, will dart instantly in at the roadside sign reading 120 with an arrow: This way to everlasting life, or as near as you’re ever going to get to it; and the elderly man leaning against the indicator seems to be looking back the other way, perplexed and a bit sceptical, as though unconvinced by the admonition to go on getting older.
And sure enough, ‘back the other way’ a young mother and father embrace at the gate of their house, and their indicator reads 36, which is a long way back from 120.
And there are other signs: like the suburban fence across which two women are gossiping, but which stops illogically short of the section’s end. And they both, the young one and the older, seem to be gazing in some astonishment at a strange phallic outgrowth from the turn of the berm—
—the international TV dish outside a Hastings motel—followed by another icon, the item of Maori statuary (transit homage to Mark Adams) on the front lawn of a house a sign-fragment tells us is up for sale—followed by a man seeming about to rip in half a newspaper whose glimpsed headline reads ‘Treaty of Waitangi Supreme Law Urged’— followed by a shot of Maori gang members outside a Trusteebank whose windowfront promotes travel to London.page 154
There’s a narrative here all right, there’s even a hidden agenda, as these dramas slip one by one past your field of vision, as they slip into each other—each one marked by some small flicker of acute attention, each one folded into the ongoing rapture of transport.
What makes these dramas of age and time, of lyrical excursion through the providing countryside filled however with images of entrapment, fences (a sign in the middle of nowhere reads ‘Thank you’), of surreal or comic or sinister mischance (‘135 oblivion’ lettered on the wall of a tumbledown country shed—this is Oblivion—this is the name of the place—as the car’s shadow hastens on), of politics (‘Aotearoa was Maori land’ graffitied on a rural water-tank), of desolation (a hawk flung against the huge sky above one of those empty vistas straight out of car-bliss childhood)—what makes Peter Black’s dramas work is that alliance of the disregarded or void or insignificant with instances of piercing surprise—of boredom with sudden shocks of incongruous truth.
This is of course the perfect model of childhood car-dreaming, that training-ground for fictionalists.
But it is also a fully-paid-up adult site, where we may read, with adult attention, the stop-frames of this transport—
—framed by the passing car’s window-frame, a billboard framing the frame of a TV set, whose image has reframed another frame, the painting of the Mona Lisa. Gas in the background. In the foreground, warped beyond recognition, roadtop indicators of which way to go.
‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’
Thus wrote Jack Kerouac in his introduction to Robert Frank’s classic 1958 portfolio The Americans—that poignant, tender, sad lament and celebration which invented, or revealed, a new American inconography: a lean cowboy relocated to Madison Square Gardens, New York City; teenagers swooning by a juke box; the automobile, the gas-pump, lunch-counters, funeral furniture, movies, and the road to the frontier divided by that white meridian all the way to infinity.
There are several images of Peter Black’s that declare themselves to be page 155 Robert Frank’s—to be more than homages to The Americans: to be inside the frame provided by Frank. As Robert Frank was in his way inside the frame by Walker Evans. Another journey.
An example would be the Road Services busdriver stopped in a misty rainy countryside, the road surface gleaming, those power lines running away to a little country school, lichen on the fence-battens, the far horizon sodden and vague—and the patient driver, taking the chance for a smoke, looking back down the road past his luggage compartment, is about to climb back inside his bus. You hear the whoosh of the hydraulic door, he’s gone. But the after-image of the man and the bus and the murky, gentle countryside remains: it’s so familiar, you’ve known it all your life, yet it pierces you strangely with a sensation of affection and desolation.
Peter Black’s placing himself inside Robert Frank’s frame (inside Walker Evans) is a deliberate act. As deliberate as the window-framing-billboard-framing-television-framing-Mona Lisa photograph at the outset of his journey (an instruction or sign, certainly). Black’s actual Frankish car journey is also a journey into a way of seeing. The images it discovers are not as romantic as Frank’s now seem, but that is partly because Frank’s vernacular icons have become fully accredited signs of America, with even a mist of nostalgia over them.
But Peter Black has wanted Frank’s way of seeing—has wanted to say, We already have it, let’s use it. And so he has—noting the vernacular signs and marks along his route, finding a rhythm whose thematics or chapters flow calmly under the bustle and flicker of changing facts. Until we pass finally from that blurred countryside the bus stopped in, past the pylons and smokestacks that are now, also, nature, to different kinds of dwellings, monuments, the windows and forecourts of discount stores, the city—a suite of old man portraits, a family eating in McDonald’s (another Frank image), a suite of old lady portraits, journey’s end: a man with suitcases walking off the city’s main street. Back in town. Been around and seen the country, as Robert Frank did.
These final moments have a lovely dying fall to them; a graceful, reluctant relinquishing of the bliss of transport and its piercing, sad truths. Fortunately, we can do it again—we can turn back and start again, page 156 because Peter Black has, like Robert Frank, kept a record of the trip that passes the merely vicarious. It returns us, as adults, to the learning-to-see of children. It teaches us to read with special tenderness the disregarded evidence around us—a lament and celebration, a poem.