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Narrative Surface

Photographs and Text by

GARY DWYER Introduction by

Keith Wiley

Narrative Surface Photographs and Text By


Introduction by Keith Wiley

Published by Angstrom Unit Works Introduction Copyright © 2009 Keith Wiley. All rights reserved. Photographs Copyright © 2009 Gary Dwyer. All rights reserved. No Part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without written permission from the publisher, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review. This book was composed using: Univers LT Std Minyon Pro, Acid Label, Sidewalk, Mistral, Stencil, A Font with Serifs, disordered, Zapfino, KarabinE, Cocaine sans, Lucida Blackletter, Evanescent, Celtic Eels, and Ruritania Warning and Disclaimer This book is designed to provide information to photographers, curators, arts administrators and students Every effort has been made to make this book complete and accurate as possible, but no warranty of fitness is implied. The information is provided on an as-is basis. The author and publisher shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damages arising from the information contained in this book. ISBN 978-0-9819987-1-8 Cover Photograph: Scrape corner, Matera, Italy, 2005 © Gary Dwyer Gary Dwyer Photography Other books By Gary Dwyer are available on and and on amazon books For the complete book list see:

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This book is dedicated to Anyone who has taken the trouble to look hard at something and wonder how it came to be that way. And to those who have taken the trouble to remember that place and that time and the stories that it told. It is also dedicated to Odile, Heather, Chelsea who have continually helped me see and have put up with my stories.

“The proper name of art is the telling of beautiful, untrue things.” Oscar Wilde

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Inquiry is a process of reaching a consensus on the best way of coping with the world, and truth is just a complement we pay to the result.

Introduction by

Keith Wiley

Jim Holt

The one photo of yours that exemplifies this, I believe, is the shot of the walls scored by years of Italian driving. At least that one really sticks in my mind. Keith Wiley

Street corner Matera, Italy

“Perhaps Kafka’s staircases lead elsewhere, but they are there, and we look at them, step by step, following the detail of the banisters and the risers. Perhaps his grey walls hide something, but it is in them that the memory lingers, on their cracked whitewash, their crevices. Even what the hero is searching for vanishes before the obstinacy of his pursuit, his trajectories, his movements; they alone are made apparent, they alone are made real.” Alain Robbe-Grillet ‘From Realism to Reality’

The house I was raised in is situated in a rural part of California along a winding road, the terminus of which is marked by a saloon. Inevitably, the one mile stretch near my family’s house, being the first straight piece of road after a lengthy sequence of curves, became a very popular place for people to crash their cars. Over time, I became intrigued by the events succeeding these unfortunate situations -- by what happened after the people, the witnesses, and the mangled autos had all left or been carried away: a highway patrolman would come out the next day and investigate the crash scene. Using an array of measuring and marking devices, the officer would paint lines like tic marks on the shoulder of the road in ten foot increments. After doing this, he would measure and map the skid marks, determining from these scars how fast the car was going and, perhaps, why it crashed. What struck me about this was that the investigator was, in effect, reading the scene by studying the marks and gouges -- thereby allowing him to recreate the story of the accident. An analogous event would be the swinging of a pendulum suspended over a box of sand in such a way so that each swing is recorded in the surface. It is recording and not describing that is the important act here because a mathematical equation could easily describe the skid’s arc (as could a drawing or a story), but these are abstractions that rely upon language and interpretation to recreate the object. The line in the sand is a record of the pendulum, a by-product of its primary function (swinging), and although much can be determined from its analysis, it is inherently enigmatic and incomplete. It strikes me that a spatial act can leave what is essentially a two-dimensional phenomenon in the landscape, from which the spatial act can be ascertained. Semioticians call this relationship indexical, where a signifier is not arbitrary, but is the result of a direct connection to the signified. Smoke, thunder, footprints, echoes, odors, flavors, headaches, itches, runny noses, thermometers, barometers, scales, door bells, ring tones, and photographs are all indices which point (hence the index finger) to the event which creates them.

Narrative surface is a term I have come to use to refer to the accumulation of incidental (and accidental) markings upon the built environment. It has a close Latin equivalent in the word vestigium, referring to a foot-print or a track. These markings occur when someone or something comes in direct contact with a surface, and there are three types relevant to the images in this book. First, there are those left behind by wear, such as the undulations worn into marble from centuries of traffic, or the foot of a bronze statue polished smooth from the kisses of pilgrims. There are also markings which connote insignificance- impressions too small to be trifled with, such as the incision from a worker’s tool on a sloppy repair or even the subtle gestural sweep of the plasterer’s motion on a wall. Finally, there are the accidents. As prophesied by Marinetti, speed has become a one of the primary conditions of modernity, and its inscription is felt throughout the city. The automobile is the perfect writing instrument for he narrative surface, and the traces of its daily journeys leaves a matrix, in relief, of people bumping up against the physicality of their environment. All of these reliefs produce an indexical map and inscribes the city upon itself. Robert Rauschenberg poured paint on the tires of John Cage’s Model A and created a 50 ft. long print. The typical rush hour creates a city-wide gallery of these on a daily basis. The photographs that Gary Dwyer shows here are a document of the accidental calligraphy that exists all around us. A tire-marked wall in a California parking garage, a decaying plaster hut in Peru, and Roman graffiti all share the qualities of an empty and enigmatic stage set, post-performance; the operative question these questions ask being, “what happened here?” Unlike the crash investigator, the viewer does not know the events surrounding the images; therefore it is the beauty of the marks, scrapes, spills, and scars that comes to the foreground. The uncanny aspect of Gary’s photographs is the unmistakable impression that one likely would have walked right past the image without giving it a second thought, and it is this ability to frame that which is literally overlooked (and overwalked and overdriven), revealing its beauty and humor, that makes Gary not only a great photographer, but a great detective.

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What shall we do with all this useless beauty? Elvis Costello

FORWARD Gary Dwyer


first heard about ”Narrative Surface” in one of Keith Wiley’s lectures and I was immediately attracted to the ideas Wiley had developed at the time. I Started taking photographs of my interpretation of the “Narrative Surface.” The collection grew and in the process I put my own spin on both the surfaces and the stories they told. The results seen in this book occurred after I made a preliminary edit of the collection and gave it to Keith and asked him to put the images in some kind of order. He was given no information about where the images were taken or if the places had any particular significance. Of course captions change the meaning of images and some of these images have very powerful references, but the primary reason for selection was based on visual interest. Secondarily the image told me something of its story. Often I had no idea what the truth of that story was, but I imagined. The longer you look, the more stories you should see. You can think of these images as visual radio.

The Narrative Surface, like the photograph, is automatically about the past. It is about something that occurred when you were not there. Something you must read and interpret to garner anything from it. The first task, however is to separate the text from the surrounding library and this is the job of the viewfinder. Brian Dillon tells us, “For the Renaissance, the ruin was first of all a legible remnant, a repository of written knowledge.” And goes on to say, “in the eighteenth century, the ruin is an image both of natural disaster and the catastrophes of human history. RUINS are the three dimensional variety of the narrative surface. And they most often provide evidence of the contradictions and chaos of history. Things and places now useless and out of favor that once were so elemental and sacred.

Aristotle’s categories were: doing, thinking, making. We could have done a lot worse than these, but our current categories seem to need greater specificity and in the realm of seeing I want to note a few: (Some) methodologies of SEEing.

“A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book that has been scraped off and used again. The word “palimpsest” comes through Latin from Greek (“again” + “I scrape”), and meant “scraped (clean and used) again.” Romans wrote on wax-coated tablets that could be smoothed and reused. The term has come to be used in similar context in a variety of disciplines, notably architectural archaeology.” - Wikipedia

SINGULARITY is most obvious and it occurs almost as a fetish object. The one, the riveting, the thing set off against the field. The joke, but in reality, the punch line. The matter of obsession. There are no references, there is only the thingness. It is the matter that has always made sculpture and architecture so compelling and it is the presence of the self made real.

The narrations in these surfaces are palimpsests because time is a written language. The words of time are not strung together in sequence but written in layers and they usually reveal more than one story at a time.

LINEARITY presents itself as a process, a result of time. A consequence of things before and after where something is seen as particular, but only in relation to the flow and where movement is the greater idea. As though the individual image is a mere indicator, a flag, telling us where we are in relation to something bigger or more important. The context is more than what confronts us and it carries us both forward and backward in time. More than anything it is a reference to speed. Linearity is invisible, immediate nostalgia and an instantaneous projection into an endless future.

A narrative SEQUENCE is where one thing (or image) (or layer) or strata leads to another. As though they were rooms in a deserted house and perhaps they are. Yet it is difficult and perhaps impossible to know much of the house except the layers. The sequences allude to what happened inside each room and each image is a condensate of memory. These pictures are visual FRAGMENTS and they exist as though they were imagined when we saw pieces go by in our minds. We almost never take the trouble to put them together as a coherent story. The linearity is lost and yet we are fascinated by the shiny shards we see before us. If we take the trouble to actually think about what is really seen, we rarely get an answer, only continual questions and more imaginary stories.

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SIMULTANEITY is the curious blend of right now and not quit yet. It lives where most of us do and it has more possibility than it does references. What it does, is ask questions. This questioning aspect irritates and intrigues us in ways more engaging than either the SINGLE thing itself, or the thing that is part of an (obvious) process [the flow] Two things at once means twice times. Something with enough contrast to stumble over. Pausing and pondering are part of this and it is perhaps why we seek quiet after having so many things happening at the same time. Perhaps we have learned to crave the chaos of the incessant now, perhaps it is simply the way we are.

NAVIGATION has to do with finding one’s way. It supposes direction and motion. Maps are about relationships. And not just between the observer and the map, but series of relationships connecting position, size, symbols, direction, and, indeed, the concept of the map itself. Maps always refer to position and space, but seldom and only obliquely do they refer to time. It does not matter if the narrative is obvious or not, a surface is not a map, but they are often confused. A surface, like a map has a particular time, but no direction. Some sense of scale, but in place of the clarity of the map’s intention the surface leads to confusion and ambiguity. Seldom does a surface come with “X” marks the spot, but a surface always arrives with specific conditions and some of those conditions are the groupings in this book. There is a place where the story of the narrative surface becomes alarmingly imprecise and slides off into muddy puddles of interpretation and those puddles all have an oil slick on top. While the map is a representation of something somewhere else, the narrative surface always tells us at least two stories in present time: it says, this is what you see, and also, this thing you see is a very small trace of what happened in the past. It makes little difference whether it is the tire skid marks referenced by Keith Wiley, or the track left by the San Andreas fault in the far distant quaternary, it makes no difference because what we are seeing is both now and then.

As many contemporary photography books have very few images, I am compelled to apologize for far too many in this book, but there are only two ways to reasonably look at the ocean: One is from the freeway, the other is by drowning.

I have never liked the freeway.

• • • Surprisingly, I am more interested in photography than I am in photographs. The process of taking a picture is something I do very seriously, but find it useless without a product. Perhaps the final product is the thought the photograph generates in the viewer‘s mind rather than the photograph itself. For many years I used drawing as my primary thinking tool, but in the last twenty years photography has moved to the forefront and is now my primary mechanism of attempting to understand the world and my place in it. The act of drawing is only superficially a method for producing a drawing as a product. One layer down and it becomes a way of seeing. Once photography gets down past the layer of mere recording it becomes not just a tool, but a method for letting more of the world into your eyes and your mind. It is the stratigraphy of our vision that makes the linkages to the strata of time so visible in Narrative Surfaces. Of course, the real trick is to understand which layer you are looking at and why. So, what then are we expected to do with this information. It would appear that seeing is a form of knowing and as a photographer I am working to understand that relationship. I would hope the reader comes away with an increased understanding of how much richness exists in the visual world, but the real reason for producing this book was to make me look long and hard at a compelling idea and to that end it has already been a success.

Losing Battles Gestural Landscape A Thousand Layers Incidental Traces Openings Abundance

Solitary Ordered Construct


& Abrasions

Intentional Narration


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Losing Battles

Shelley’s grave Protestant cemetery, Rome

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away”. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Loosing battles really means the battle has already been lost. The place, the thing, the idea is on the way to becoming a ruin. The reason we find ruins so engaging is because they leave space for the imagination. Not only do they allow and encourage us to imagine what happened, they pose the more provocative question of, “What if?” Fragments do almost the same things except they are often devoid of context and it is context that give ruins their emotional resonance. Our memories of cities are constructs we know are already in ruins. Like mirrors that only reflect us when we were young and vital. Seldom does a ruin have an odor. It is a quality that only comes from either life or recent life. Ruins smell like quiet carbon, grit and moonlight while the only way to tell stone from plaster is to put your hand on it. Ruins are legible libraries and we read them and they haunt us. Perhaps all I can do here is provide a list of vanishing points. Things now gone. And note that the farther away you walk from the light the longer your shadow grows.

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Tack Holes, wood wall, Dordogne Valley, France

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Stucco wall with grass reed reinforcing Puno, Peru

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Kauri Stumps Banks Peninsula, New Zealand

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Chicken shop Puno, Peru

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Dissolving wall Chan Chan, Peru

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Restaurant renovation San Luis Obispo, California

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Peeling paint Arequipa, Peru

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Adobe wall Puno, Peru

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Faded poster Portland, Oregon

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Defaced memorial to actor James Dean Cholame, California

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Gestural Landscape

Tire tracks Fumel, France

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The incessant metallic tack, tack, tack of rain hammering the windshield. The Firs sprouting among the taller Alders. The woman with long brown hair and a blue coat walking on the railroad tracks in the rain. The momentary blindness when opaque white-water sprays from the passing sawdust trucks. The green of moss on the roof shingles. the smoky cloud in the distant trees and the 2 story house by the river at the end of a one lane road made of dreams. ••• Spiky winter growth in the distant dullness grey gulls on green grass behind the manure spreader. Grey rivers sliding past last season’s beige grasses everything that can be made from wood is while aluminum and vinyl are the only alternative to rain. Choke setters and unemployed green chain draggers scramble in broken windfall and slash piles and stump lands having long forgotten the illusions of dry and safe. Tall snags share ridge tops with microwave towers while McCulloch and Husqvarna give way to Kubota and Kawasaki The rhododendrons rage while the Rogue River rolls and white painted rocks indicate the entrance to someplace. The alders mossy leaflessness never quite masks the clearcut and the skidder cats and the deadfall from last week’s windstorm still dangles at the roadside blackberry rims everything and trailers that never trailed anything sprout extensions and extrude themselves searching for home but only making shelter. The sea rages with offshore back-spray and is only interesting when you can hide from it and the condos and the subdivisions take the names of what they erased Pelican Point, Rocky Creek, two word testimonials to the gobbled, the greedy and the gone.

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Road bulge, unexplained San Luis Obispo, California

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Back road Santa Cruz, California

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Road patching San Luis Obispo, California

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Road patching, 2 San Luis Obispo, California

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Switch back turn Dordogne Valley, France

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Erratic stone tracks ‘The Racetrack’ Death Valley, California

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Oil field McKittrick, California

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Truck tracks on alkali flat Searl’s Lake Trona, California

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Thousand Layers

Interior wall, demolished apartment Paris

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One of the ways to look at the idea of layers is as a collection of parts. The obvious analogy is to the onion and less so to garlic. Onions, like most people, have the thinnest layer on the outside. The layer that has to rub up against other things (and other people) is the most brittle, the most transparent and the least capable of resisting abrasion. The further one probes beneath the surface, the thicker and more pungent the layers become and they are similar all the way to the center. There is no obvious core. The lower layers are more distant from the present and have more density and gravity. Garlic doesn’t make you cry when you slice it and the layers it has are in time, not in physical configuration. Garlic just sits there and waits. When it gets crushed it becomes something other than what it was. Time and conditions have transformed garlic and our perceptions of it. Unlike the physical layers of onions, the pungency of crushed garlic is perceived as an additive component of change. These are transformational layers of process.

The First time you visit a place you surround yourself with misinformation and mistakes in judgement. The Second time you visit a place you avoid the mistakes you made the first time and you make new ones. Also, you notice with sadness how the place has changed for the worse since your first visit. The Third time you visit a place you have forgotten the earlier mistakes, you find the place almost unrecognizable and you are angry and sad about how much you yourself have changed You never visit a fourth time. Someone else does.

To engage the narrative of a surface, the first surface needs to be seductive, but understanding requires at least some of the layers to be peeled back like turning the pages of a book. In this book there is a different story on each page.

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Shipyard Syros, Greece

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Interior wall, demolished apartment Paris

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Restaurant interior Arequipa, Peru

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Graffiti Trastevere, Rome

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Incidental Traces

Night shadows, parking lot San Luis Obispo, California

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3 Dec. 9 AM Erice. Blew clear last night but clouds lurk off the Egadi islands to the west. A virtue of living with a distant horizon is that you can see what is coming. The longer I am here the less I can see coming and the easier it is to pick up the language. Fah da te - do it yourself. I should be writing songs, at least the poetic swirls that come from my dreams would be entertaining. Old stones shone a slippery gleam last night as we were the last walkers on the street. The time on my watch was 1650 AD, the archers were at the ramparts, and there were microwave towers behind me. Just stones and a long distant time. My nostalgia wallows in the stink of a stone cutter’s sweat, a soldier’s rage and the shit in the street. And even in this brittle wind of night the stones still glisten.

Passed over, circumstantial, vague and ephemeral are the lies we tell ourselves about the visions we have no way of remembering. We saw these scenes, these events, but the manager of our perceptual storehouse said there was no room for these memories and he announced to us that we should let them slide on by. We didn’t see the need. We didn’t even acknowledge his edict, rather we assumed it to be true and got on with whatever was next. If there is a shock associated with an instance of intentional forgetting, we realize that our brains are like computers: they never forget anything, they just intentionally misplace it. That storehouse manager just swept it off in a corner, out of the way. It is still there. Shadows, weather and sloppiness craft many incidental traces and they beg for little fragments of our attention.

Capitoline plaza paving Rome

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Narrative Surface