Final Residues of the Image: On Marcus Reichert

By Stephen Barber


The attention given to Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly awarded the Best Director prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, calls to mind the extraordinary artist/filmmaker whom Schnabel credits with having given him the impetus and confidence to execute such a radical shift of discipline, from figurative painting to filmmaking: Marcus Reichert. Reichert, like Schnabel, broke from an ongoing career in painting to enter filmmaking, and grafts onto film an intensive concentration with the boundaries and layers of the visual image – but in many ways, Reichert is the more compelling figure: still oscillating between disciplines, and always driven by unsubduable and irreconcilable obsessions with the corporeal and the urban, most recently propelling his work into the zone between film and photography.

Reichert’s most celebrated film is Union City (1980), a hyper-noir evocation of urban paranoia and disintegration, often lauded as having launched the pre-eminent imageries of darkened urban space and isolated, near-comatose human figures that have inhabited American and European film of the subsequent decades. Shot in the rundown periphery of New York and lovingly probing the unravelling lives of its deranged, distrustful human figures, enclosed by blighted urban facades and garishly-lit interiors, the film appears suspended in space, as though a malign miracle had somehow brought it into existence.


In fact, the film simultaneously forms a miraculous presence among innumerable abandoned, absent film projects pursued by Reichert since the early 1970s, most infamously Wings of Ash, his project to film the life of the legendary Surrealist poet Antonin Artaud. Having begun the film-project in 1971, Reichert spent most of that decade developing his script and attempting to cast Artaud from wayward rock-star material – he shot a fourteen-minute pilot with Mick Jagger in the role of Artaud in 1978, and also discussed that role, in a palatial hotel by the Wannsee lake in Berlin, with David Bowie (a long-term admirer of Artaud’s transformational performance theories), before finally abandoning the project.

Reichert’s lost Artaud is a far more vulnerable figure than the vitriol-spitting, combative Artaud played by Sami Frey in the version of his life eventually filmed by Gérard Mordillat in his 1993 In the Company of Antonin Artaud. In Reichert’s film script, Artaud is a deeply fragile, fraught presence, harassed by psychiatrists even before his decade-long asylum incarceration; seen weeping over his filthy socks in a scene with fellow Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. Artaud disintegrates so profoundly, in Reichert’s conception of his life, that the filmmaking process itself falls into disintegration.

In Reichert’s work, film’s dissolution in many ways demands and instigates another image, and that is the photographic image. But the photographic image inhabits a zonal perimeter still infused by film and its power, notably the power to transmutate the face of the city. Over the past seven years especially, Reichert has been incessantly photographing building facades, abandoned areas and tenement surfaces, mostly depopulated of any human presence, as though seized by an almost Ballardian preoccupation to minutely scan the sets for films that have already been erased, even before their conception: cinematic photographs of denuded, often ruined facades, like the traces of films from which the interiors and figures have been excoriated, in an all-engulfing human apocalypse of the kind that Artaud, too, dreamed of, and attempted to find imageries for. Reichert collectively titles some of those ongoing images his Human Edifice project, to accentuate the absence of the corporeal, which may somehow find a way to insurge back into the image, after its eradication.


All of Reichert’s Human Edifice photographs experiment with ocular power and its rapport with urban and corporeal surfaces. The photograph retains a filmic charge, generating an incandescent screen upon which that three-way confrontation – between city, image and body – is deployed, accentuated by the voiding of the body from it. The photograph is the volatile medium able to delineate the uniqueness of that rapport, its awry power fraught with cancellation just as it exacts strategies of subjugation on the eye, and existing primarily to tear itself away from every other image.

The photograph forms a fixing of sensation, welded from its disparate components. The image’s ocular urban power is, above all, infinite in its impacts and in its capacity for creative seizure; but the surface of the human body, even more than the urban surface, is subject to dereliction and transformation. Every image-surface holds the sensory accumulations that the passage of time embeds in the layers of the city; the photograph performs a delicate operation to extract the matter of the temporal, to sift it out from the multiple furore of the visual. The formation of time is exposed in the photographic image, as in the filmic image.

In Reichert’s post-filmic photographs, the gestures of the eye delineate the dynamics (often, the ailing dynamics) of space. Those gestures of the photographing eye are attuned to the dilemmas and split-second intuitions that also determine the gestures of the filmmaking process. But photography opens out a contrary issue. At the moment of the historical origin of photography, the desire to paralyse space and time through the intervention of the image rendered the nineteenth-century Parisian boulevards frozen, while the corporeal figures that traversed those spaces, blurred by the interval of exposure, preserved their own gestures of movement: gestures that would be taken up and revivified, as though seamlessly sustained, by the figures crossing Leeds Bridge in the very first filmic image, shot by the French inventor Louis Le Prince in 1888.


The history of photography itself, from its origin to its digital form, has pivoted on those seminal aberrations and separations between urban surface and corporeal surface, and between the image and movement – as well as between the intention of the photographer or filmmaker and the urban accident or caprice that always inescapably eludes the subjugation of the image. Reichert’s photographs encompass all of the vital contradictions that make up the contemporary image: the intention to still the gesture of movement, and that intention’s self-refutation; and the integral ambivalence of seizing and losing images of urban and human surfaces. From those contradictions, only final image-residues and eroded components of time and space survive.

The human body often forms the primary locus of all forces of dereliction, in film and photography, but the urban image, too, possesses its own, contrary collapses and abrasures, which Reichert’s photographs painstakingly irradiate. That contradiction, in marking out the vital collapsings and absences at the heart of urban and corporeal forms, impels Reichert’s images. Each image is an element in a chain or sequence that accumulates voids in space. Reichert’s photographed facades hold a particular charge of corporeal memory, so that memory and its compulsive obliteration form a volatile mix within the conception of the image.

In Reichert’s photographs of emptied-out Madrid tenements and the salt-seared Georgian terraces of the English south-coast, the urban surface is imprinted with its own cancellation, multiply enacted across that surface. Often, the main body of the building has vanished entirely, that void barred-across by wooden erasure-marks of negation, and only the shredded carapace remains, in a blaze of light: the body without organs, figured in urban terms.


The future of photography itself, in its rapport with film and the digital, is a medium faced with its own eradication, mutation and transformation, and that status meshes it with the status of the urban and the corporeal. Such processes require perpetrators of terminal images that themselves unleash and propel forward untold and unscreened visions. Reichert’s façade-photographs focus on surfaces that have been impacted-upon (by memory, by damage) so intensively that surface mutates into another material, which the spectatorial eye then has to explore, to open out – into the corporeal substance of a new image-skin, and into an accentuated form of visual immediacy and engrained memory. Together, the images form a carapace of wounds in intimate juxtaposition with the surface carapace of the urban.

To collect and assemble images of the urban and the voided human form demands a tenacity in that search, and an intuition in gesture. The recording eye, both in film and photography, itself forms an eminently abrasured and wounded surface, with its own densely impacted layers of memory. Reichert’s images exist in a medium in flux between film and photography, in which those inflections of the eye upon the image generate essential surfaces: urban spaces stripped to the bone, compacted to their raw architectural components.

Photography, throughout its history, has been a medium both of death and of the arresting of time - its seminal revelations generated by the image’s power (noted by Roland Barthes) to inflict its own deaths, damagings and resuscitations upon the spectatorial eye, and to make that eye propel itself at a terrible velocity (in ecstasy, in loss) through the delirious passages of time. Reichert’s images form a seismography of that ocular flux, stopped-dead on the face of the image and upon two of its critical forms: the urban and the corporeal. The eye, above all, is itself a visual detritus of time as well as a medium for deifying its own vision.

The survival of the image demands aberrant, contrary textures, together with the creation of insurgent amalgams of the urban and corporeal for the lost, powerful eye. Reichert’s images form an excavation directed into those textures and amalgams, between the filmic and the photographic – an excavation that rigorously scours all vitally excessive and contaminated surfaces, until only the primary gestures of the eye remain, held by the image.

Stephen Barber is a prolific writer on urban and counter-cultures. He is published regularly by Berg, Marcus Reichert’s Union City is out on DVD from Tartan. Visit Marcus Reichert" href="" target="_blank">

Creation and Reaction. His most recent books are Tokyo Slaughterhouse and London Eyes