Why I Love This Piece: S.A. Bachman's "Untitled"
I look at the mouth. What I see first when I meet someone, anyone, is their mouth. I always have, and I’m not sure why. So it makes sense that I saw those jaws first, the dog lunging out from some lightless nowhere, suffocating everything—like a dream where you wake up just in time. Or a split second too late.
It was 1994. I was holding a two-year-old copy of Aperture—issue #127, titled Our Town. I’d never looked at it before but the copy was a bit ragged, like most of the magazines in my parents’ large second-hand collection. I always found a lot of interesting things that way, stuff that came to me after they’d passed through other people’s hands.
On page six I saw it, spread across two pages: a single work of four images pressed in a row. The caption, very tiny, read: S.A. Bachman, Untitled, from the series “Attraction/Repulsion,” 1988-1991.
As an artist, my favourite interview question—and people seldom ask it—is this: What picture is most important to you? By that I don’t mean what’s your favourite picture, or what’s the best picture you’ve ever seen. The question I’m thinking of goes like this: What picture really nailed you the hardest, took your breath away, crawled under your skin and stayed there? I’ve looked at thousands of pictures and I can narrow my answer down to two. Bachman’s Untitled is one. (The other I saw when I was five years old—another story.) For nearly twenty years this image—of a pie and a dog, a pair of hands and a nice old lady plus some kids—has never left my thoughts.Untitled had me from the start. But I didn’t know what it would grow into—a totem and an inspiration, a comfort and companion. I didn’t know that a few black and white photographs could epitomize the hushed breath of a life, an Everyman’s life in four panels butted against each other. A life that for long stretches we find a way to forget is like our own.
That last frame of Untitled looked so idyllic and, taken on its own, it still does. A grandmotherly figure—coiffed, and packaged in a 1950s suit—smiles and greets two children who rush towards her. We see the kids from behind. They look perfect—carefully dressed and nicely balanced, one boy, one girl. Grandmother’s arms open wide.
The first and third frames are idyllic too. A freshly baked pie sits cooling by an open window with pulled-back gossamer curtains. We practically feel the warm summer breeze drifting in from a tended and spacious kitchen backyard. And here comes a pair of child’s hands, reaching from outside to snatch the pie. It’s the kind of kitsch mischief you’d find in Leave It To Beaver or a Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.
The pie-on-windowsill image is idyllic except for one thing—that raging dog crashes in, cleaving this domestic scene into two unequal pieces. Released from darkness, the dog fractures the bright and ethereal tableau of panels one and three. Placed between those two childish hands is an animal with polished coals for eyes and a throat reduced to a black tunnel framed by teeth.
Are we in the territory of dreams or memory here? Either way, things start out fine—at home on breezy summer day, where stealing a pie may get us sticky fingers and a tummy ache, a scolding and wink. But then the impossibly violent scene of the second panel imposes itself. Maybe it’s there for just a moment—like in a nightmare or a flashback—and just as suddenly we’re back, back home, with that pie on the windowsill. But once we’ve seen it—that primal rage coming for us—once we’ve seen it, felt it, that split second makes all the difference. Home’s a different place now, a different world, and we know it. Maybe we’ve known it for a long time. And there’s something else we know—it makes sense, and that might be the worst thing of all.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between dreams and memories.
In Untitled there are three complementary formal elements that strike quickly, amplifying the whole piece. The reaching hands of frames one and three mirror Grandmother’s hands, which also reach out. And Grandmother’s arms open wide—just like the dog’s jaws. Bachman has placed each of these elements on different spatial planes, ordering them: the child’s hands are close and Grandmother far. The dog is in between, if only for the fraction of a second it will take for the animal to close that distance. Three elements—emblems of home, love and family, primal rage and destruction—connect to each other across every frame. Rage is at the center.
The two foreground figures in the last panel, because of their framing and proximity to the camera, are towering and faceless, like columns that impose themselves on the image. The dark tones of these figures contrast with the lightness of the pie-on-windowsill panels and the high key tones of the Grandmother and the doorway that frames her. But the two figures’ heavy shadow echoes the darkness of panel two.
These two figures—the Parents arriving with the kids for a weekend visit?—carry valises that presumably contain clothing, slippers, toothbrushes—the paraphernalia of Home. They bring up the rear. They do more than just stand there or walk towards the house—they overshadow. They loom, with their large hands. Were we looking at that last frame by itself, this interpretation might sound too dark . . . except that the second panel has changed everything. That second panel charges everything, with an unholy and threatening undercurrent.
Some of us—many, really— grew up in those apparently genteel surroundings permeated by secrets that were anything but decorous or gracious. We know what Untitled awakens, not just in our brains but in our nostrils and nerve endings. It gives off that mild but familiar stench of cosmetic normality—a stench because we know that what other people called “normal” never smelled right at all. We know that all this normalcy was a screen, a curtain—a loose and delicate one even, gossamer—a cover over something gone very wrong, something even savage and grinding. Whatever it was, it might emerge for just a moment or a minute or an hour, perhaps only once in a while. But when it did, it defaced and lacerated, and the shadow it cast didn’t disappear after the deed was done. It, It, packed a blow well above its weight in time. It never left, just retreated. For a while. And each time it implanted another set of its marks inside us.
Those of us who knew this kind of home also know that sickening taste of posturing, of sentimentality and convention. It comes from the stuff force-fed in great dollops so that the illusion that things are just fine can prevail. Especially to people on the outside, who were—and are—easy to dupe because even if the curtains are parchment thin they’d rather pass by without looking inside.
Like the deadest of stars, the darkest part of a person’s life can look so tiny as to hardly exist yet contain so much mass that in the end—at three in the morning or by an early evening deathbed or just alone in our thoughts—it pulls everything, everything, into its center. That dog—our dog, with its dead eyes, focused and blinded at the same time—covers less than a quarter of Untitled’s space. But that dog—that primal and raw undertow, whatever it is, wherever it comes from—that dog commands everything. It’s coming, for us, again.
Who was it that said, the terrible thing is that nothing is really that terrible?... It’s true, and that’s terrible too. That’s how we kept going, how we've always kept going. That’s how we lived life in a pretty white-bread house with a kitchen garden, running into grandmotherly arms on the weekend. Once in a while we even dared to make a little mischief, stealing a pie here, giving some lip there. (The grimmer and more serious bits of mischief we left for dispensation on ourselves.) But we knew, and still know, where we really lived—behind those gossamer curtains, light years behind them. Sometimes we almost forget—hearts and minds are built for that—but then another night comes, a night that’s as long as any.
I’ve often thought that the most underrated part of photography is its acoustics. I look at that black dog and I wish I could hear him bark, or growl. That would help to make him a real dog. But in Untitled, I know he’s far beyond that. He’s a raw accretion of rage and hatred, panic and destruction. Dead silence, no warning—it springs from the inside—and I’m there again. Just as panel two punctuates the entire piece, that dog represents what can punctuate a person’s entire life.
Keeping Bachman’s Untitled close came to feel like coming home, insofar as such an impossible thing is possible. By home I don’t mean the infernally idyllic version, but, rather, the kind of place where I didn’t think I was discreetly but mostly mad. Untitled walked with me, saying what only a special work of art and maybe one out of a thousand shrinks can say: that I experienced something real and that I wasn’t completely alone in that. And that no matter how painful that reality—and, yes, no matter how painful, and lonely, it remained—it was mysteriously better to engage that reality than accept the rank bill of goods most everyone tries to sell everyone else everyday. Over the years, it helped me tune into that most elusive of frequencies—the one that carried my own voice, along with a very few, precious, others.
Untitled struck a chord similar to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, with its white picket fence posts impaled into manicured lawns that cover up killing fields, with the deranged id-spitting Frank Booth occupying the same space as our black dog. Lynch swung Kafka’s axe to say what he had to say; no timid skittering around with overrefined constructs. Go for the artery. Same for Untitled—it doesn't try to jerk us around, or make us whole, or play it safe by blunting the edges.
So, here’s to you S.A. Bachman. And here’s to “Untitled, from the series ‘Attraction/Repulsion,’ 1988-1991.” And here’s to those artists and, more importantly, their work—all the pictures, poems and stories, paeans and dirges, that did for others what Untitled did for me.
I often think you did nothing less than keep us alive.
Visit S.A. Bachman's website.