A Chechovian Photographer
In order to talk about Jill Hartley, I'll need to first make some comments referring to no less than people like Shakespeare and Chekhov. There is absolutely no doubt about the high artistic level of the two dramatists whom I have mentioned for didactic reasons only. They help me to demonstrate the difference between two types of photographers: the more histrionic ones which are like Shakespearean actors, who beat their chests, tear their hair and cry; and those who are like the Chekhovian actors who don't need all that noise to express their feelings. With a glance and a barely perceptible gesture, they are the ones who can transform the silence of pauses into the eloquence of a thousand words. The actors of Shakespearean characters, heroes born to die to satisfy tragic destinies planned for them by the author, act with a resounding voice, in the classic style and continually use stylish, solemn phrasing. While they are acting, from time to time, they turn to look at themselves in the mirror.
There are photographers like such actors who, while being good artists, due to a sort of professional deformation, when photographing always aim for the triumph of the "front page", not only for vanity but also because it pays the best. Thus we always see in their photos suffering, blood and despair. These are the subjects that bring fame and money, not so much exposed images as "overexposed" in order to attract attention. Even while photographing for themselves they behave as if they were working on assignment. Perhaps the taste of success drives them to this error, the pleasure of displaying themselves. Thus their photos are always shown with that self-satisfaction of the first in his class. Striking images which amaze us but which we soon forget because they are made in a hurry, skimming the surface of the subject, leaving unexplored all the richness that one can hold in a glance.
On the other hand, the photographers whom I put under Chekhov's protective wing are those who, like the Russian author, do not love the front page. They photograph more for themselves than for others and they do it in silence, without making a racket. Jill Hartley could be considered the Chekhovian photographer par excellence. Now to better clarify the points in common between the works of Hartley and those of Chekhov, I'll turn to Stanislavsky who studied the Russian writer's theatre texts and had this to say:
"The works of Chekhov do not immediately reveal all their poetic importance. On reading them you might say, well, there's nothing so special here, nothing incredible. Everything is as it should be, likely, probable, nothing new. Often, the first impression is even disappointing. It seems that, after reading these stories, they can't be told. What of the plot? the theme? You could describe them in two words. (...) But strangely, the more you forget them, the more you want to think about them. (...) You read them over and over and sense their deeper layers". *
To describe Jill Hartley's work, one could use the same words. Let's look at one of Hartley's photos, and try to discover what can't be seen on the surface.
It's not a portrait of a suffering child begging for our charity, or of an old tramp, or of some poor soldier killed at war. It just isn't a photo that attracts attention. Rather it's a photo that at first glance doesn't show anything. You can't even understand what it's trying to say. There are some people with their backs turned to us, what else? But then, like the works of Chekhov, you look at it and look again and you can't get it out of your mind. Why? Let's examine it more closely. It's getting dark and it's starting to rain. Someone has already opened an umbrella. People are hurrying on the street. The world seems full of life. In the sky black lines suggest new hope. In the air there's anticipation that something's about to happen, something exceptional, we don't know exactly what, but it's what we've always waited for. In the photo we can't see any faces. We can only imagine them. It's starting to get dark. We don't know where these people are going, nor do we know their stories. The photo is almost shimmering. All this conjecture, this vagueness and unknowing, leads us to the mystery of man and his fate, filling our hearts with a deep anguish. This photo, for me, is an authentic masterpiece. I don't know if contact with works of art increases one's sensitivity. I know for sure that it's good for our health.
Essentially, Jill Hartley is attempting a paradox: she photographs not showing but hiding , when photography does just the opposite; it demonstrates, informs and communicates. This "revealing by concealing" is not attained by the use of well-chosen metaphors; it is rather her spontaneous way of expressing herself confronting the mystery of humanity. I find Jill Hartley's poetic creed resembling that which Stanislavsky wrote of Chekhov: "...all these often untranslatable moods, allusions, inklings and shades of feelings, come from the depths of our soul. Here they come into contact with our deepest emotions: religious feeling, social consciousness, a higher sense of truth and justice, the impulse to investigate by our reason the mystery of existence. It is a field that seems to be permeated by explosive matter, and as soon as some impression or memory touches this depth like a spark, our spirit bursts into flames and burns with vivid feelings". * Jill Hartley is one of those exceptional artists capable of producing such sparks. And she provides them quietly without commotion, wrapped in the shy and reluctant modesty with which she seems to want to protect herself and her art.
P.S. " Je n'ai jamais poursuivi l'insolite, le jamais-vu, l'extraordinaire, mais bien ce qu'il y a de plus typique dans notre existence quotidienne, dans quelque lieu que je me trouve...Quête sincère et passionnée des modestes beautés de la vie ordinaire ".
* LA MIA VITA NELL'ARTE' di Konstantin S. Stanislavskij - Ed. Einaudi