Adolescent boys struggle with an aggressively visceral reaction to the visual world; they are at war with the reality in which they find themselves and their imagined prowess, which they cannot reconcile. Being trapped in such a prison, they are taunted by the Alpha Male paradigm that is pushed at their fragile ego from movie heroes to musician bad boys to present (and equally so absent) father figures. As pack animals, peers who seem to be satisfying all their combined yearnings with authoritative ease fill their minds with tall tales of macho achievements. Young men find themselves in a phallic cult, and under its influence they are victims to their own obsessions – wet dreams and boners are the curse of the adolescent male’s lot.
So many of these formative years are spent vicariously living through other outlets. It prepares the mind, trains the hand, and comforts the soul. There comes a time however, when the young man is not so young anymore and those long longed-for dreams have since become realities and soured or passed almost without thought. What happened along the way? What was all that sweaty strident anguish for anyway?
Charles Johnstone’s photobook The Girl In The Fifth Floor Walk-Up is the fantasy every straight young man has dreamed about during a Geography lesson, while staring out their bedroom window on a summer day, or riding the bus home some October evening. A collaboration with actor/writer Heather Malesson, a blonde femme fatale with classic Scandinavian looks, the book is a modest collection of intimate Polaroid portraits taken, one presumes, in her apartment with the red reinforced metal door on the fifth floor of a walk-up building.
In its second edition with 16 additional images, and published by Sun, it is an elegantly designed and understated book in itself. The content is an exercise in performative voyeurism as the unseen photographer, while making instant photographs, faithfully follows the protagonist, complicit in the act, around her apartment. It has the tone of a pulp fiction movie, the kind young boys dream of one day recreating. One would assume because of the nature of the Polaroid process, both photographer and subject engaged in a continuous discussion as to where and how the next image would be made.
Indeed some poses are repeated; some are quite obviously staged performances while others appear fragmentary and off-guard. There is a contemporary yet nostalgic feel to them: one or two are similar to the Polaroid’s one can pick up for cheap at a New York flea market. Heather never hesitates, even when her back is turned. Heather likes to flaunt. Heather likes U2. Heather also looks like she is in control; the very first picture in the book depicts her unamused expression while holding a Polaroid in her hand. She obviously had something to say to Johnstone (maybe a puerile joke was made).
A collaborator in earnest, Heather spends much of her time in a state of undress, teasing though not really doing anything of any consequence. She talks on the phone, does a lot of lying down and mooches about the place, occasionally smirking, occasionally laughing innocently but rarely unconscious of the camera. Johnstone for his part keeps the pace moving. He remains insistent on capturing something about his muse, obsessively captivated, enchanted, submissively at her mercy. This is the kind of project a man makes when he can, when he is allowed. It is the work he produces almost in retaliation for all those years he couldn’t, when he was too young, too shy, and too inexperienced to make before. It is a photographic moment of personal re-enactment.
Ultimately, The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walk-Up is an expression of male inadequacy, as outlined by the few lines taken from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940), reprinted in the back of the book, they begin: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Of course. This is not a portrait of Heather per se, it is a portrait of a character portrayed by Heather; that has haunted men, both young and old for as long a time as they can remember. You’ve seen her in Film Noir movies, television shows and read about her in crime books and detective comics. This is the blonde bombshell, headstrong but vulnerable, that breaks the hero’s heart and lives to tell the tale while he dwells in ruin or worse. To quote another great Film Noir line by Van Heflin in Johnny Eager (1941), “You knew when a woman loves you like that, she can love you with every card in the deck and then pull a knife across your throat the next morning.”
If he ever dreamed of being a maverick cop, or down-at-heel private eye, locked in a New York apartment with the girl the villains are after, this is the story that plays out. Johnstone has found her, you can see his hat hanging on her chair, and for a brief time he got to make the pictures he probably dreamed about making when he was a boy.