Phenomena


by Joseph Anderson

Late afternoon-—4 or 5 PM—is the best time to capture the phenomena: diffuse light seeping in through the window of my apartment in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. The optical effect itself is intensified by an iridescent vase which is situated on a pedestal near the window. The result being an array of what can only be described as “pinwheels” of light. I made it my mission to photograph these radial displays shimmering across the back wall of my apartment. This was not the reason I was in Paris. I was actually on assignment to take photographs for an article tentatively titled: Top Ten Hottest Spots in Paris (or something equally banal) for an airline magazine. A freelance job. I would have taken anything at this point, the field was fast going dry. 

I began to think of the refractive effect as the opposite of shadows, these spangles of light which jittered like insects across the bumpy grooves of the apartment’s stucco wall. The crumbling plaster-frame of the narrow window echoed the general decay of the place itself. This, in contrast, seemed to only heighten the almost ghostly beauty of the light ephemera. 

Something was being summoned. In those brief, fleeting moments, in the reddish sunlight cast from the low orb of a sinking sun, an atmosphere formed, and something—though there was no hope in ever identifying it—was in the process of manifesting. 

My days revolved around this manifestation. I worked during the mornings, when the light was beneficial for photos. By afternoon—usually as early as 11 AM, I was forced to retire for the day, the positioning of the sun rendering everything in a stark, inhospitable light, not suitable for the assignment. I ate a meal in the Latin Quarter, took a walk along the Seine, visited the Passage des Panoramas. But all this was performed in a state of distraction, never for a moment did I forget my true directive, to return to my apartment no later than half-past three, in order to take a short rest and adequately prepare my equipment in my ongoing attempt to document the phenomena. This, despite the fact that my time would have been better served taking pictures on-site, taking advantage of the soft light of late afternoon and early evening, photographing overly-familiar tourist traps. That brief window of a few, scant seconds governed all, everything else was planned studiously around it. 

In many ways I was trying to capture a ghost. Illumined phantoms playing across the interior surfaces of that decrepit apartment. These movements, in certain moments, seemed to betray deliberate intention and served—one might convince themselves—as an indicator of consciousness. Observing these, I felt at times almost lulled into a state of hypnosis. And by the time I recovered it could be long after dark.

The phenomena produced in me another illusion, that of meaningfulness, not only inherent in itself, but in me as well. As witness I gained a sort of special status. All of this, the occasion, after all, was dependent on a specific confluence on time, place and angle of light, that (at least in my mind) could not be so uniquely duplicated anywhere else. The result was some alchemical admixture of joy and grief: a base of bittersweetness and an almost unbearable self-awareness of human fragility. It was like some unnamed drug, an opiate capable of inducing a state of possibly horrific transcendence. 

Still my days in Paris were growing short. If I intended to fulfill my assignment I would have to make up for the lost time or risk losing my paycheck, something I could not afford to do. In addition to this, on review, what pictures I had attempted to take of the phenomenawere unsatisfactory, as if the spectral effect refused to be pinned down, recorded, or in any way labeled as evidence. On film, it was negligible, the enchanted light which danced in such frenetic movements was rendered all but inert. Worse, it read as a defect of the camera, a flare in the lens, or as some other imperfection which could result for a dozen different reasons. In other words, the phenomena never appeared as the true subject, but as some unwanted distraction from whatever the true focus was intended to be.

Instead of being disheartened by this, I was relieved. In truth, I didn’t want to record it, I didn’t want to “capture” those phantoms of light. This, I decided, was something that could only be experienced in real time, in person. Your presence was required. You witnessed the manifestation and you witnessed the disappearance of that manifestation, perhaps never to be seen again. 

Soon, I too would disappear. From the decrepit apartment, from the city of Paris, only to—at least I hoped—reappear elsewhere in the world. 

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Writers Bio

I have an MFA from Florida International University and am currently working on a PhD in writing at the University of Sussex.


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