Emily Graham - The Blindest Man (2020)

Commissioned by Splash & Grab

The first image in Emily Graham’s new photobook, The Blindest Man, is a dark landscape. Deep green foliage hangs down in the foreground, an incomplete archway to pass under. The light is long, and low, its source unclear; it must be evening, the last rays of the sun just managing to touch the branches and the ground with orange light. The perspective leads us nowhere. Past the hanging foliage is only the side of a building, and we can just make out its windows, also dark. Like other landscapes in the project, this one is blank, impenetrable, revealing nothing. But what happens when nothing is revealed? What space is opened up by that nothing, and what happens when you can’t find what you’re looking for?

Sur La Trace de La Chouette D’Or is one of the world’s longest-running unsolved treasure hunts, and is the framework around which Graham’s project is loosely based. In 1993, an anonymous author published a book with eleven riddles to be solved, pointing to the location of a buried statue of a golden owl somewhere in France. Hundreds of thousands of books were sold, and the hunt was very popular; twenty six years later it remains unsolved, and the participants (“chouetters”) have dwindled to between fifty and a hundred people, meeting yearly to discuss clues and theories. The hunt has become something of a modern-day legend, with theories and counter-theories, sub-narratives and red herrings springing up around the hunt like so many mushrooms; there is a sense that participants are becoming lost or overwhelmed by the abundance of counterfactuals and murky evidence. For example: there is a rumour that, on the way to bury the statue, the author met a woman walking a dog named Dracula, and so a faction dedicated themselves to scouring the French landscape for a dog of that name; pursuit of the treasure has led to attempts to blow up a chapel, and dig up a bank floor; the author died, in 2009, on the anniversary of the statue’s burial. There have been so many seeming coincidences and serendipities over the years that the statue has gained a mythic power, despite the author of the hunt originally estimating that it would take between four months and a year to solve. For some, the hunt is very literal, a competition to find and unearth an object, but others remain tethered to it as a source of community, or have even adopted a more spiritual interpretation: the hunt representing a means of living life attending to signs and symbols.

This latter interpretation is mirrored in Graham’s approach to her own project, one which is rooted, not in any material reality, but rather in the act of looking itself. “I was never trying to make a document of the hunt,” the photographer describes. “It was a framework for how I got here, to thinking about interpretation and dreams and fantasies, the slippery nature of such things.” Her images suggest so many competing fictions, possible solutions that overlap and muddle one another. They are rich in frustrated suggestion, in symbols that hint at meaning but ultimately point nowhere: in a view through a phonebox, the handset rests off the hook; a spiral staircase stands isolated in a sandy landscape, hardly climbing at all before it stops abruptly, leading to nothing. One image shows letters scratched into the bark of a tree. There are disembodied S’s and B’s, all so familiar, but even a long look at the frame won’t reveal a fragment of a word, or even the shortest name. The letters have been written over and around one another, perhaps over a period of years, but jumble together so closely as to become meaningless. Here even letters become blank signifiers, not communicating, only scattering themselves about like leaves in the wind. While the author was still alive, he started a Minitel page (the French equivalent of Teletext) where people could ask him questions about the hunt; he answered more than 100,000, threading his answers through with false leads and misinformation. Like the letters written over one another on the bark, the glut of information has only led the chouetters to further bewilderment.

Graham is interested in photography itself as an analogy for a hunt for treasure. The medium is limited and suggestive, claiming to have a direct bearing on reality, but almost more capable than any other to distort or fragment: a photographer makes a choice to frame one particular thing, but limitless additional choices to exclude everything outside the frame. Photography’s apparent limitations — its reliance on at least a surface reality — provoke a misguided trust. The photograph is ultimately suggestive, but coy; it obscures and obfuscates as much as it reveals and, just like the hunt, it is incomplete. This kind of photography project, borrowing the conventions of documentary practice only to dissolve them, encourages the viewer to take an active role in interpreting its subject matter, parsing it with the help of their own inner network of associations. Much of Graham’s practice as a photographer is centred around walking, and so her own ongoing search for pictures is here correlated with the activity of the chouetters. The photographer describes the way that she used failed routes of the Chouette d’Or as “a guide for looking for pictures in France”, and the language she chooses is revealing: in her handling, photographs are treasures to be found, hunted down, rather than made. The project is ultimately designed to reveal itself, as is the hunt; the photographs cannot be generated or plucked from thin air any more than a statue of a golden owl could be.

In this way, The Blindest Man has only an indirect relationship to the Chouette D’Or; the latter is a kind of blueprint, but the former sits apart, unable to be mapped directly onto it. The project is an embodiment of its subject matter: the act of looking itself, and the state of being lost. The author of the hunt said that if the chouetters put all the extra evidence aside, and used only the original book, the treasure would be found quickly, and yet the participants have led themselves only deeper into perplexity in their obsession with finding more and more clues. Graham’s pictures summon a textural, affective experience of what it means to be lost in search of treasure. Her attention to light, in particular — which is often rich and golden (suggesting promise, hope, reward) yet dappled, or casting strange shadows (fickle, mysterious) — reflects a belief in the aesthetic value of uncertainty. The project brings to mind Keats’ concept of negative capability, the prizing of intuition and instinct — as opposed to certainty and knowledge — in pursuit of beauty or art. Both the chouetters and Graham herself seem yoked to negative capability: the undiscovered is the substance of the piece. The Blindest Man pertains to fictions, to potentiality. This is also why Graham chose not to cleave too closely to her subject matter. A faithful documentary approach to the phenomenon would be too straightforward, and would not allow the viewer space to experience this same curiosity and pleasant disorientation. The book asks the viewer to go on a hunt for themselves, positioning them as a participant, not in looking for the statue, but in looking for something; in attentiveness itself. “In the end I felt that if you include too much of the real story it becomes disappointing,” Graham explains. The images needed the same allusiveness as the riddles encoding a treasure map.

To write about a project whose matter is suggestion or potentiality is its own extrapolation. In its interpretation of a work that is itself about interpretation, this article sits at a further remove: it describes the vantage point of one writer, but — like a photograph — does not describe the many other potential readings that a different viewer might have, coming to the work with different associations and references and visual histories. If the making of The Blindest Man mimics the Chouette D’Or, but imperfectly and indirectly, then the writing of an essay about the work does the same: it is an imperfect, indirect rendering. By the time it reaches the reader, the subject matter has unravelled further. The reader of this piece is further from the treasure than the photographer, and the photographer is further than the chouetter, and yet none has anything in his or her grasp; each is as close to (or as far from) some shimmering idea about truth. The truth, or the treasure, is all so ephemeral to begin with. Included within Graham’s book is an insert, which comprises photographs and notes taken by the chouetters themselves. Unlike the careful, considered, rhythmic layout of images in the book proper, the insert adopts a kind of anti-aesthetic, where photographs are inlaid on top of one another, the images printed full-bleed. No golden dappled light to speak of: these are images of raw earth, of empty holes, the spoils of so many failed attempts at digging up the prize. It is strange how much a puzzle based on mental work (riddles that must be thought over and solved at home), on flights of fancy, on acceptance of the language of fiction and of myth, can have such coarse realisation. The gap between the two — the myth and those empty holes in cold French soil — is where the work takes place.

The title of Graham’s book is taken from one of the clues: “the blindest man is the one who refuses to see”. (How much is the failure to discover the statue a kind of refusal, or a kind of blinding?) Graham tells me that many people she met said that they were just on the cusp of finding it. (How long has each person believed themselves to be just on the cusp?) One participant has gone as far as suing the estate of the author, so convinced he is of his own solutions. He believes that the hunt must be fraudulent, given that his efforts have not turned up the owl. This notion of failure is central to the work: unsuccessful routes were Graham’s starting point, and then the psychology of failure informed the project more as she pursued it. The people that are still involved have, after all, failed at finding their prize for more than twenty years, and this kind of dedication attracts a particular type of person. Where nature, in this project, is knowing, mysterious, man is fallible. Graham’s portraits are unusual in their emotional quality: her few subjects often look startled. One has his eyes closed, others are seen from behind. One man, towards the end of the book, has fallen to his knees, leaning, hands upraised as though playing an invisible flute, or trying to conjure something: he is lit up by a flash in the darkness, and he looks vulnerable, even mad. But, here, madness is not just a kind of unravelling; it can be hopeful. On one of the pages of the book’s insert there is a transcribed fragment of an interview with a chouetter, and it reads like strange poetry, stopping and starting, repeating, looping and fragmenting. It is lyrical even where it makes little sense. “The sun tells me all the story, everything I was — oh — I don’t believe what I see…” The hunt may never be solved, its treasure never discovered. The Blindest Man is not a report on a phenomenon, but points to something else. The unnamed interviewee goes on: “I see everything… it’s early and here, everything, I am crying. Every time, crying. So beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”