It’s often the little things that spark a fleeting memory; the scent of a passer-by’s perfume takes you back to a faceless figure from your past, a song playing on the radio in a café releases an emotional trigger that rushes through your veins, a particular spice somehow vividly but briefly conjures up a sense of familiarity. These occasional glitches of the mind vanish as quickly as they appear, leaving an ungraspable but palpable sense of longing. It is a strange and unreliable mechanism, remembering.
Bill Jacobson’s photographs offer a visual meditation on this process. His blurred images of New York street scenes in Untitled (2000-2001) are immediately striking but quietly contemplative. The colours melt into one another, and what can be recognised as a figure is no longer a person, but instead a figment, a play of light. His street scenes are not inhabited by subjects and objects, but rather by shadows and ghostly blurs.
There is beauty in these out-of-focus recordings; not simply because of the softness of the image, but because of the sorrowful unattainability of its details. You can almost make out the scenes, but are ultimately deprived of certainty. Instead, the palette of the images offers glimmers of urban life, pulses of memories that drift through the city’s streets. The resulting compositions are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings and even Paul Strand’s Wall Street (1915), yet offer no pictorial clarity. The images are imbued with nostalgia, yet they never fully articulate just what it is they are alluding to.
The Untitled series was the first colour series of Jacobson’s artistic career. It marked a departure from both black and white photography and the predominant use of the human body. But what all his work has in common is the emphasis on absences. His Interim Portraits (1992-1994) was his personal response to the AIDS pandemic, and consists of similarly blurred portraits with a particularly mournful tone. Later, he turned to landscapes and still scenes to explore an even more abstract expression of remembering. One of his most recent series, A Series of Human Decisions (2004-2008), refers to the human subject only through its absence in carefully composed, sharply depicted still lifes. A person’s presence is felt through the arrangement of objects, graffiti scrawled on walls, and clutter in empty living spaces. There is loneliness in these images, but this loneliness is more curious than melancholic.
Instead of attempting to represent a truth, Jacobson internalises his subject matter and manipulates the materiality and subject matter of his medium to express this. To him, the photograph is not an accurate document, but a means of expressing a brute effect. In his urban scenes, the hazy glow of the streets becomes a sensual trigger for a brief stillness in time, where the past is temporarily revisited through the effects of the present. You try to savour it, but the perfume evaporates into thin air, and the music comes to a halt, the taste disappears from your tongue. All you are left with is a vague sense of a moment gone by, a faceless memory that will never materialise no matter how hard you try to uncover it. In that moment, forgetting and remembering become one and the same.