The Pillar is a sort of follow up, sort of, to Stephen Gill’s Night Procession, if only that 1) it came, as it has, two years or so after the previous volume; 2) that it likewise employed a motion-activated camera and little (active) authorial input; and 3) that the format of the book (jacket design) and text (from Karl Ove Knausgård) are very similar. You can also find it in a bundle with Night Procession direct from Gill’s imprint Nobody Books.
But that’s where similarities end…
Like Night Procession the idea for The Pillar came from Gill’s move to a remote part of Sweden and subsequent difficulty finding ways to photograph the place. With Night Procession, he looked for, and found, ways to capture wildlife at night in the forest. For The Pillar, he turned his fascination skyward.
Gill pounded two pillars into the ground some distance from his house. On one, he mounted a motion-activated camera to capture birds that he hoped would land on the other pillar from time to time.
And land they did… and preen, nap, look around, make funny faces, flap about, dance, whatever birds do on a pillar in a field in Sweden (or anywhere else, for that matter).
The pillar itself, and therefore the birds that land on it, is out of focus, too close to the motion-activated camera for its fixed focus and tiny aperture to capture, and so the titular subject, the pillar, and the stars of the show, the birds, take something of a backseat to the landscape, which, with its little stream, distant buildings and farmhouse, and trees, grasses, and etc., changes with the seasons, changes day to day, minute by minute. It’s de rigueur at this point, in any of the reviews or blurbs I’ve read, to mention something about the river of time, the constant change, the irreproducibility of any given moment. And it’s true: each millisecond is unique, or, rather, is unique as-far-as-that-goes. Gill himself was “struck by how the relatively fixed pre-composed rectangle of the camera offered a reminder of the infinite variations of a single scene over a period of time, suggesting that nothing happens twice.”*
I’m tempted, here, to go back to Intro to Philosophy class and mention Heraclitus (paraphrasing: you can’t step in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and you’re not the same person) and one of his students (you can’t step in the same river once, for the water is always already flowing), but I follow Wittgenstein here, and, really, the Trinity River is always the Trinity River, just like the Elba is always the Elba, even if the various atoms of water are different at every given moment: the water is not the river.
In the same way, the pillar is the pillar and the field is the field and the little farmhouse in the distance is the little farmhouse in the distance (persistence of identity) and what changes is the wind, the weather, the seasons, the birds, the river of time.
Really, much like Night Procession is about nighttime wildlife behavior, The Pillar is mostly about bird behavior, what birds do when they think there’s nobody watching. Do birds think about such things? Well… probably not. Still. It’s hard not to project our own concerns and attitudes on the birds. As Gill writes, “Some were small, some were large, and some had distinctive personalities, completely vivid, and resembling people I knew.”** Now, just to be clear here, and only because I’ve done it myself, birds do not have personalities. Persons, actual human persons and not corporate persons, have personalities. Birds, like corporations, have some other thing. Birdality, ornithality, perhaps. Actually, bird ethology… Birds behave like birds, like sparrows or swallows or seagulls, and never ever ever like persons.
But, still, the birds are goofy and fun, clumsy and acrobatic, proud and shy, and it’s nice to catch little milliseconds of their stream of activity.
Karl Ove Knausgård’s text, again one of the best texts on a body of photographs I’ve come across, brings in Jesus, peace be upon him, Kierkegaard and Heidegger to talk about this bird-ethology, this difference between bird behavior and human behavior. Where Kierkegaard (following Jesus in some ways) praises the bird’s apparent joy with whatever befalls it (“unconcern” would be a better word than “joy”), living purely and simply in accord with nature, Heidegger sees birds, and other animals, as missing out on what experience of the world, living in the world, has to offer. They’re slaves to circumstance, much like we are, but we humans can see the circumstance, can see the slavery. Birds just are, the poor things.
But they don’t look poor in The Pillar. They look vibrant and individual and vital.
The Pillar is at turns fascinating and funny, it’s well printed, and a worthy, if not better than, follow up to Night Procession. Overall, I give it a solid 4 stars.
The Pillar is available direct from Gill’s self-publishing house Nobody, and at fine booksellers everywhere. Really, get it from Nobody, as Gill has the best prices around. Prices are a bit crazy right now in the secondary market.
*Gill, Stephen. “Small text about The Pillar by Stephen Gill (not featured in book).” retrieved from https://www.nobodybooks.com/product/the-pillar-stephengill 22 September, 2020.
And, speaking of birds, let me just leave you with this: