What Comes Through?
Kathleen Stewart


These images make a still life of the clothed body. A body part touches a membrane, blooms into specificity, erupts into light and texture. The part held back shrinks, is gray, lurks in the background, a shy or menacing shadow of its full self. A cheekbone comes through fully freckled. The hands, caught in precise detail, are in the process of buttoning or unbuttoning a lab coat. They look older, as if the hands and the freckled cheek had led different lives within the one body. Surprised, we look again. An eye pressed into a literal eye contact leaves its mark on the membrane while the rest of the body becomes the withered limb of an awkward afterthought. A woman with a black-and-white scarf brings part of a forearm into vivid contact with the skin threshold, but her legs, left behind, now seem too far back on her torso, a little off angle, too small to do their own work. What comes through is an opening onto contact, slippage, surprise: a wondering.

People lean in and then away. One physicality thrusts forward into focus; out of scale, another physicality waits in an amorphous atmosphere. A man looks up, his neck held rigid, his head extended a little off center. He looks down (the neck still rigid, the head again angled). His eyes are huge, beautiful, the shoulders and arms strong, but his legs wither. In other images, a head looks too big, a face looks like a paper doll cutout, or a gigantic hand looks disembodied. As in a primitivist painting, the composition builds on one object, then another, each one discrete and bounded. What comes through is a fabulous woodenly dream of life captured in an instant. The body becomes a scene of elements in proximity like the painting of a village in the snow with a barn and skaters on a pond, and trucks loaded with logs and running dogs and ducks and winter clothes. This body is a rough-cut collection of things out of scale with each other, each in the middle of something and in their own different states of composition and decomposition. But there is still a body in the midst of something undeniable. What comes through is a puzzle for the jumping eye, a wondering machine for the mind figuring out what to make of things in the encounter with an image.

What comes through is the clarity of a body that has things to say. Body parts perform themselves as things already fully textured and sentient, loaded with significance but cut free of the heavy hand of explanation, the dead ground of knowing something because you’ve seen it before. What comes through is the fingertips of a hand framed by beautiful black nail polish. Other fingertips hold a little bouquet of white flowers and green leaves. The colors and the tendrils are supernaturally crisp against a background like dense fog, and deep back in the fog we see the blur of a back turned. What comes through is a gift of specificity, powerful and weighted with precision. What’s in a fingertip, a flower, a freckle? Hair cascades down a woman’s back, every strand present—thick and straight, or white and curled, pulled back tight or entangled. The simple happiness of a mother swaying with a baby swells out of the ordinary. What comes through is contact. 

What comes through is already formed and moving on its own but it’s not alone. Body parts are wrapped, entangled, adorned, veiled, accompanied by companions, and resonant with other possible presences and absences. The hands carry a harmonica, a rag doll, the flowers; they wear nails, a ring, a tattoo. Wrists are covered in bracelets, or, unadorned, show the tender subtlety of a vein under the skin, a delicate bone protruding just slightly. Necks and shoulders are wrapped in necklaces, dog tags, scarves, and shawls. There is a blood pressure cuff, an eye patch, keys worn around the neck on a cord, a hospital wristband, the frill on the front of a blouse, a sharp pink tie setting off a dark suit and white, white shirt. The slowness of attention these photos perform is a pause that’s poised between the way looking extends into touching and feeling and a speculative wondering about what might be going on in an ordinary situation made a little stranger by a membrane of skin and captured by a camera. What comes through is the way a sensory touch meets a fabulation. The world becomes a series of ordinary encounters in which hands hesitate, and drop back, or venture out like emissaries to a threshold.

What comes through is the possibilities lodged in a stranger intimacy. A public of eyes and hands attunes itself to instants of touch and trouble. In a contact zone of first encounters, touch is a reason for surprise, pleasure, and concern. Its ephemerality is frightening, or sad, but also comforting. Here there is just the reaching out to touch a membrane that separates and connects. Or not. Reactions ring out like the chorus of a song. Here we are. This is it. And it’s here that the hands always seem to look a little worn, the eyes a little wide, the soft-focus background sharpening the impact of the finger poking or brushing the shoulder that leans in. What comes through is the human ordinary caught in a single frame of sidling up to what unfolds. A body part pulled into focus is cut out but not alone. An army of companion species comes along: the bracelets, the tattooed arm, the dimple, the colors and the textures of skin and cloth, personality fragments in a smile, a raised eyebrow, a turned elbow. This is it, now, and with it a backlog of pasts and the suggestion of a future. 

Kathleen (Katie) Stewart is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes and teaches on affect, the ordinary, the senses, and modes of ethnographic engagement based on curiosity and attachment. She is the author of the books A Space on the Side of the Road and Ordinary Affects.