Max Ferguson — Whistling for Owls

Looking at a photograph of something that has passed is a peculiar thing. In doing so, we are able to bring whatever it is into the present, abruptly and with such clarity that the past seems no longer over there but here and now. It is as if, through an image alone, we can delay the passing of something and reanimate it endlessly at will. Yet for all this allure, for the promise of control over time, a photograph of something passed also reminds us of its absence, simultaneously and often painfully. As Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum (the acute and personal effect that a photograph has on the viewer) — it “bruises me”. This capacity to wound is born out of the duality of presence and absence in images, a capacity made even more potent by the fact that it can arise from something as trivial as a piece of paper or a handful of pixels.

Whistling for Owls – the debut book by Max Ferguson and his new imprint Oval Press – is a book of photographs that speaks to this idea of presence and absence. Of course, the same could be said of all images, but in each of Ferguson’s photographs there is a palpable feeling he has found something in front of the lens that affects, evokes, bruises. This feeling doesn’t derive from anything specific in the photographs as such, but precisely because they cast aside the specific. They are simple images of ordinary places and objects, images that reside in the general, the everyday. A chair left slightly away from the table. A whitewashed window. Teacups wrapped in newspaper. Yet in choosing such prosaic moments from the infinite number of moments, Ferguson hints, albeit obliquely, that he has seen and felt something in them that we cannot. He has redacted these moments; singled them out and given them meaning through the very act of erasing the world around them. In this way, looking through Whistling for Owls is like peering through frosted glass; aware that there is something on the other side but unable to see it clearly. Whilst for us the chair is only a chair, for Ferguson it is someone’s chair, the window is that window, the teacups are her teacups. Each becomes a token of absence, made present through images and revisited over and over through the pages of a book. In turn, I wonder what Ferguson has lost.

There are two more things in Whistling for Owls that make this feeling of presence and absence inescapable. First are the photographs themselves; understated and hushed, each possessing a tenderness that comes from knowing a place intimately and completely. Such places can be physical – a childhood garden or a family kitchen – but they can also be psychological. Memories are one such place; a reservoir of moments that have been played, paused, rewound and played again without end in our own private cinema. In Whistling for Owls, there is an acute sense that Ferguson has traversed both kinds of places, driven by the pervasive stillness of his photographs and by the palette of muted colours and endless greys that manifest the feeling of nearness and distance.

Second is the terse, fragmented prose that litters the book, sometimes no more than a few words on a page and arranged as a loose haiku: “glasses of water / plant pots overturned / dead butterflies”. In other places, Ferguson’s words coalesce to form uprooted passages from an untitled novel, whilst in another, a single word sits alone on a blank page — “daydreaming”. What is most intriguing about the words in Whistling for Owls is their relationship to the images. Whereas most words found next to photographs seek to clarify or define (captions are perhaps the best example of this), Ferguson’s words do the opposite. Instead of the words giving a voice to the images, as we expect them to do, they imbue them with a wistful melancholy, allowing them to remain open and incomplete. Put another way, the words in Whistling for Owls do not anchor the images in anything or anywhere but set them adrift in a sea of unnamed stories from some uncertain past.

Whilst nearly all of the text in Whistling for Owls is anonymous, there are two exceptions. One is the excerpt that begins the book, and the other is the excerpt that ends the book. We are told on the final page that both are from Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf’s The Third Lie, with the second excerpt following on from the first. By doing this, Ferguson brings Whistling for Owls full circle, enclosing all that is inside in a proxy cover made from words. Not only does this invoke a poetic framing but evokes an unavoidable sadness too, blanketing the work in a cloud of longing. It is as if Ferguson has sat down at a piano to play something in a minor key, practising a few notes before starting in earnest.

After reading Whistling for Owls, I’m still not certain what Ferguson has lost. Perhaps he hasn’t lost anything at all and Whistling for Owls is simply a work of poetic fiction. After all, photography’s relationship to memory is imperfect, an idea that the final excerpt in the book alludes to: “and so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.”. Maybe then, I should revise the statement I started with that Whistling for Owls is about presence and absence. Instead, perhaps it is a book about an absence too painful to bear, revised in the present as a means to heal.