I first saw Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) in 2006, at about 3 a.m., probably in July, when it was too hot to sleep. I wanted something that wouldn’t wake Phil, my flatmate.
Before watching, I knew little about the film besides that it was made in 1971 and lasted thirty-eight minutes. It showed twelve of his photographs, from the first he took with the intention of making visual art, in 1959, to the last, seven years later, when his focus had moved from still images to moving ones. Each appeared for twenty seconds, in silence. As the narration explained what was captured, the pictures started burning. They were placed on a coil, and as the voice talked about when, where and how the images were made, they shrivelled – the only movement in the film.
The first image was of a darkroom. As it burned, a portrait of minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, taken in 1959, was discussed in detail, but the monologue did not connect to what was visible. After a reflective pause, the next picture appeared: a man holding a metronome.
‘I made this photograph on March 11, 1959. The face is my own, or rather, it was my own. As you see, I was thoroughly pleased with myself at the time, presumably for having survived to such ripeness and wisdom, since it was my twenty-third birthday,’ the narration began, but I wasn’t familiar enough with New York’s post-war art scene to know that the face was not Frampton, but Carl Andre. It was only when the next shot came up, of a young, serious-looking bearded man, with a voice-over about a cabinet-maker’s shop in West Broadway that I realised the sound and image were out of sync. Once each image had disintegrated, the description stopped.
I had no idea beforehand that the narrator of the pictures was not Frampton but fellow film-maker Michael Snow, whose Wavelength (1967), a forty-five-minute shot of four human interactions in a single room, I had recently seen. I didn’t appreciate Frampton’s method of distancing himself from the memories and emotions in his script in this way; I didn’t initially see the humour in Snow reading Frampton’s recollections of a photo taken in Snow’s studio in 1965, recounting a disagreement over the typeface on a poster that Frampton had designed for an exhibition of Snow’s art, concluding with ‘I regret to say [Snow] was right . . . I wish I could apologise to him.’
Snow’s voice-over did not match the picture on screen, but instead the one that would follow, and I had to try to retain what I’d just heard when each new picture appeared, only for another narrative to push it out of my mind. In the hazy dawn of that summer morning, I didn’t succeed. But I loved Frampton’s story of how he developed his art – tender, carefully phrased, full of wit and melancholy – and I was struck by his inventive approach to the unreliability of memory and the limits of its photographic representation, simultaneously addressing past, present and future.
The time I first watched (nostalgia) was the unhappiest of my adult life. I was twenty-four, living in Brighton, having finished my Master in Literature and Visual Culture, with no idea of what to do next. I had failed to get funding for a PhD and felt stuck in my data entry job at an insurance firm, doing what a colleague called ‘the work the computer finds too boring’, as my recent internship with artists’ video company LUX had gone nowhere. I had no money and couldn’t imagine an escape other than through writing, but none of my plays came together, and most of my journalism, for an Arts Council-funded magazine called Filmwaves devoted to avant-garde cinema, was not remunerative.
That year, I recorded every rejection letter and every workplace irritation – and there were many – in meticulous detail, as I kept a journal for the first time. ‘I have flirted with the idea many times before,’ I began in May 2006. ‘Two things have stopped me – laziness, and a youthful belief in the invincibility of my memory, which, I have always felt, serves me well in recalling names, facts and figures, melodies and (crucially) emotions.’ My eyesight was getting worse, and breaks to my skin didn’t heal so quickly; amidst this physical decay, I decided that I could no longer trust my mind to retain every experience, thought or idea.
I didn’t note everything important – while I reflected on plenty of books and films, a text search found no mention of (nostalgia) – but I did chart the origins of two big changes. Writing almost daily about my boredom and frustration, depression and anxiety led me into psychotherapy. I thought I needed to address my feeling of being emotionally constricted, but soon the sessions focused on developing a healthier relationship with my body. It was after this that I began to accept my lifelong need to transition from male to female, eventually starting the process in spring 2009.
A year after failing an interview for a job covering avant-garde film for Time Out in 2008, a friend suggested that I pitch a blog to the Guardian, documenting my gender reassignment. As my gender dysphoria took over my life, I felt a pressing need to write more about trans people and politics, because nobody in the mainstream media did so to my satisfaction. The blog ran in 2010: I instantly got typecast as a trans journalist, and I struggled to balance my desire to continue writing about artists’ film with my need to work for better trans representation. Three factors swung me towards the latter: more people were interested; it paid better than publications like Filmwaves, which had lost its funding and folded; and I genuinely liked the idea of turning my life into a work of art.
The blog was successful enough for Verso Books to commission me to turn it into a memoir. Submitting the manuscript in March 2015 closed a six-year cycle of work dominated by first-person writing about transsexual living. It was only during the second draft that the key theme emerged: this tension around what to write about, my exasperation at not having time to pursue drama, short fiction or arts criticism, and how burnt out I felt after intertwining my personal and professional lives, feeling a sense of obligation to use my journalistic platform to address discrimination against trans people, as doing anything else seemed frivolous.
The confessional model of writing that I now had to use felt very different to the Structural film movement that I had been covering for Filmwaves. These directors, including Frampton and Snow, were aware that since its invention cinema had been used as a representation of reality. Their films focused on this, never allowing viewers to forget that the content was merely an illusion; in tone, they were often austere, keeping them at a distance. The confessional, on the other hand, relied on building an intimate relationship with readers by offering a warm, entertaining insight into the writer’s experiences, based on the trust that everything disclosed is genuine and the truth.
Frampton’s (nostalgia) fascinated me because of where it sat between the Structural and the confessional. The jarring of sound and image and the destruction of the photographs fitted the anti-illusory Structural criteria. The script itself, however, was unusually open, giving the viewer far more insight into the director’s personality than most other Structural works. It admitted Frampton’s problematic sexual behaviour, explaining how one of his self-portraits ‘looked like a leer’, and that he sent this to ‘a very pretty and sensible girl’ with ‘some sort of cryptic note’; he never heard from her again. Later, the narrator talked about how during the summer, Frampton would invent excuses to visit the painter living upstairs, just to stare at his girlfriend, who ‘went about nearly naked’.
I appreciated Frampton’s honesty about his creative failures, too. Snow recounted Frampton’s memory of taking six photographs of the cabinet-maker’s shop window over two years: ‘Each time, I had some reason to be dissatisfied. The negative was too flat, or too harsh; or the framing was too tight. Once, a horse was reflected in the glass, although I don’t recall seeing that horse. Once, I found myself reflected, and my camera and tripod.’ Frampton’s reason for including this story was that comparing the prints led to a revelation about his own practice. ‘In the midst of my concerns for the flaws in my method, the window itself had changed, from season to season, far more than my photographs had. I had thought my subject changeless, and my own sensibility pliable. But I was wrong about that.’ He had since destroyed all of them except one. ‘Now I’m sorry,’ said Snow on his behalf. ‘I only wish you could have seen them.’
After completing (nostalgia), Frampton published notes on the film, opening by stating that ‘The narrative art of most young men is autobiographical.’ He felt he had ‘little narrative experience’, though, so ‘it seemed reasonable to accept biography as a convention’. But even here, he undermined that convention. Generating even further distance from himself, Frampton described his present self in the first person and the former photographer in the third, coming to an ambivalent conclusion about the finished film: ‘In the end . . . I felt that I had made an effigy, at least, of his opaque young-man’s life, even if I had not wholly entrained his sadness.’
‘It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia . . . All photographs are memento mori,’ writes Susan Sontag in her essay ‘In Plato’s Cave’ (1973). ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ Perhaps the rise of photography and cinema accounts for nostalgia becoming one of the predominant ways of thinking about history, understanding the past in the present. ‘Nostalgia’ means ‘wounds of returning’ in Greek, although it only became widely used after Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer used it to describe a medical condition affecting displaced servants, students and soldiers in 1688, the cure being to get them home as soon as possible.
In her book on Frampton’s film, Rachel Moore writes that ‘nostalgia is customarily and by definition tied to place’, but that nostalgic narratives constitute a ‘wounded return’ to a place at a particular time. In right-wing politics, they are often restorative, proposing the recreation of a past that most likely never existed. In art, they can be redemptive, even if their utopian impulse is tinged with sadness at what has been lost: (nostalgia) reminisces about Frampton’s youth and abandoned career, and about New York’s art community in an early stage of the city’s gentrification, acknowledging the impossibility of recapturing that time by burning the record and concluding with ‘I think I shall never dare to make another photograph again’. Yet paradoxically, Frampton preserves it by making the work.
I began my transition memoir with my move to Manchester in September 2000, aged eighteen. Writing with hindsight, I realised it was nostalgia that brought me there: a longing for a Canal Street gay world of butch men and drag queens, and a transgender subculture buried within it. This was already vanishing after Queer as Folk, broadcast on Channel 4 the previous year, made the area more attractive to ‘straight’ people and to businesses pursuing the ‘pink pound’, leading to its ‘regeneration’. An obsession with Joy Division and New Order, The Smiths and The Fall, and the post-industrial bleakness that spawned the city’s post-punk scene also influenced the move.
Soon, I got annoyed that Manchester seemed fixated with an alternative past: the late 1980s, Ecstasy-fuelled ‘Madchester’ bands, particularly The Stone Roses, more laddish and upbeat than my favourites. Some friends and I formed a label in the vein of Factory Records, hoping to counter what we saw as this reactionary culture with a strange, contradictory brand of retro-Futurism, repeating the pattern in which the modernist acts of the late 1970s had aimed to blow away the previous decade’s guitar-led pop.
The key friendship in my narrative was made on this scene – with Joe Stretch, lead singer of Performance, a band who represented everything that I thought twenty-first-century pop music should be. Their early gigs were thrilling: a high-octane mix of synth sounds, digital beats and poetic lyrics, with two men in suits and two women in vintage dresses, which instantly made the blokes shambling on stage in tracksuits with acoustic guitars seem ridiculous. But radical as they felt, Performance’s sound and image deliberately recalled the New Wave acts of the early 1980s, and simply attracted a different type of nostalgia.
I didn’t realise much of this at the time, being so lost in my delight at finding something that felt like it was for me, and had made few pictorial aids to my memory. I’ve always hated being photographed, feeling that a part of me is being taken each time, and if I could destroy every one of me in existence I probably would. I did have a handful of myself, useful reminders not just of what I looked like but how I carried myself, very differently before transition, when I had to relearn how to dress, talk and move – processes recalled in my book. Otherwise, I had to do Google searches for venues or sift through friends’ Facebook archives, most of which didn’t go back to 2003, before camera phones became ubiquitous and the effort and expense of getting pictures developed meant that, mostly, events retained a transitory, ephemeral feel.
It was only when I started interviewing friends for these opening chapters – Joe and Sarah from our label – that I achieved the necessary distance to be able to construct a narrative into which I incorporated their memories and perceptions of me, and to see myself as a character. That was when really interesting things happened: writing the first chapter, I grew infuriated by my nineteen-year-old self, wanting to scream at my protagonist to not put up with so much transphobic mistreatment. Later, writing about social navigation as a woman, I felt a strange, detached sympathy with myself trying to deal with the kind of male attention described by Frampton: when I’d first seen (nostalgia), I’d only read in film theory about how oppressive the male gaze could be. Experiencing it first-hand, in the form of catcalls and unwelcome advances, was a very different matter.
I was surprised at how little use my journals were in these reconstructions. The 2006–2007 one recorded little more than my own psychosis: once I’d taken what was useful, I wanted to get rid of it, but deleting the Word document seemed so undramatic that I decided to just hide it on an external hard drive. I thought I’d also transferred my 2008 diary onto that drive in October. I soon found I hadn’t, and had lost 50,000 words on an eventful year when I got rid of my old PC; I was so distraught that I didn’t keep a journal again until April 2010, meaning I had no notes on my first year of transition beyond what I put in my short Guardian articles. Once again, I ended up piecing my life together through other people.
The memoir ended up being the story of how and why I documented my transition, at Joe’s suggestion, and how I felt about the career changes it brought. I had always been told to keep myself out of my academic work, and my Filmwaves articles were strictly impersonal. I wanted to write about trans politics for the Guardian, but they would only permit this within a first-person narrative. After my editor asked me to make my second piece ‘less theoretical and more personal’, there was a constant tension. I did, grudgingly, but from then on every article became a game where I tried to include as many relevant issues as possible without being told to redraft.
I had a similar challenge with the book, struggling for months to work out how much theory to weave into the narrative. I wanted to break character and directly address the reader, pointing out clichés in the transsexual memoir genre, asking if their interest was prurient or voyeuristic. There was friction: my editor didn’t like this, instead wanting me to build a closer relationship with them by providing more emotional depth. I worried about how family, friends and the trans community might react if I went as far as he asked, particularly in early drafts of chapters about my childhood, and I desperately wanted to use the distancing techniques of Snow and Frampton to give me some protection.
Eventually, when we found the right starting point and the right form, I wondered if the Structural and the confessional really were so far apart, remembering that I’d only been asked to rewrite two of my thirty Guardian pieces. Just as I’d explored territory between male and female in my life, I entered space between austere, ‘masculine’ avant-garde film and intimate, ‘feminine’ first-person journalism in my writing. Then I thought back to how (nostalgia) struck that same middle ground, and the divide between Frampton’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ artistic lives. On coming out and legally changing my name, I had the strong sense of a break and wondered how to handle it in the text. In 2006, I read Crossing: A Memoir by Deirdre McCloskey, an academic named in one of my industrial revolution lectures in Manchester as ‘History’s most famous transsexual’, and found the way she used ‘Donald’ and ‘him’ to talk about her pre-transitional self particularly jarring.
I opted against this, avoiding my ‘old’ name entirely, and wrote about how I resolved this dissonance in 2012, when Sarah showed me a picture of Joe and me in Manchester in 2004: I was wearing lipstick, eye make-up, head scarf and 1920s-style dress. In it, I could see a path, not smooth but definitely continuous, between my early twenties and my early thirties. I had seen that person as a confused young man, angry and frightened, but now I viewed her as a young woman, tentatively finding her feet, and I felt a warmth towards her that neither she nor I had ever known.
(nostalgia) is a beautiful lament for several friendships. One of the most touching sequences is about American pop artist James Rosenquist. Frampton stated the exact date they met, where and why, detailing the image and atmosphere with equal precision, closing with: ‘James and I live far apart now, and we seldom meet. But I cannot recall one moment spent in his company that I didn’t completely enjoy.’ (For the record, I feel the same about Joe Stretch.) But there was another version of (nostalgia), in which a new narrative obliterated the preceding one. Frampton died of cancer in 1984, aged forty-eight, and years later Michael Snow presented screenings where the soundtrack was silenced. Instead, he read the text he wrote for Frampton’s funeral, and the film turned from an effigy into a eulogy.
My unhappy 2006 has been reshaded and restaged several times. At the time, I felt like a failure, as I abandoned most of what I made, shooting but not editing a single Super-8 film as I tried to emulate my cinematic heroes, and found no audience for what little I finished. In 2010, it seemed an aberration before I found my calling as a trans writer. By the start of 2015, it looked like a crucial stage in a path towards the person I always wanted to be, and I remembered my youthful experiments in writing about and occasionally trying to make avant-garde films more affectionately than ever. I felt the most fondness when I spoke at length to Joe about how he perceived me when we first met, and what made him want to be my friend. ‘You seemed utterly of the counterculture,’ he said, and I thought back to my undergraduate insecurities about not having read the right books or watched the right films or listened to the right music, and how absurd they seemed to me after a decade of writing about the arts.
However much I write about other things, I still haven’t escaped the typecasting, and the memoir might even reinforce it. Whenever there are flashpoints in mainstream media coverage of trans politics, I struggle to keep out with a clear conscience; on several occasions I have had no choice but to get involved. When I tell friends about how draining this is, I have tended to say, semi-seriously: ‘I just want to write about video art again.’
Earlier this year, a new friend asked what kind of journalism I did. I explained about my last few years and said I missed writing for Filmwaves, explaining what it was and when it disappeared. He laughed, and said the idea of a publicly funded avant-garde cinema magazine now seemed as distant as the National Coal Board.
I told this to Phil, who replied that if I was looking back fondly to Filmwaves then something was seriously wrong. I remembered how often it was published late, sometimes with spelling mistakes on the cover, and how my fifty pounds for spending a week on a 3,000-word article about the Structural/Materialist film movement would often take months to arrive, by which time I’d have usually spent it several times over. Now I am far more integrated, creatively and personally, than ever, and perhaps I have even found a way to write about both trans issues and video art. Still, though, my nostalgia can’t be cured.
Image © Hollis Frampton