What is so empowering about the stillness of a photograph? Is it the uncertainty of time standing still? This constant referent theme to photography and death - death being the only certain thing in life yet it is the most uncertain, unknown ‘term’ to man. Is this why we prolong looking at a photograph because we are attracted to the uncertainty? Why as a society do we have the need to hoard so many photographs? Are we scared that we will ‘forget’ what our grandfather looks like, or ‘forget’ that 80th birthday we went to. This idea of forgetting is quite daunting in the fact that we have to preserve objects to preserve memories within our mind. Does this mean the mind hasn’t got the capability to remember such a significant amount of information that a photograph can hold? When describing a deceased family member we use phrases such as ‘you’ve got his nose’ or ‘he had beautiful blue eyes’. We have this capability to remember parts of the face, maybe a certain mannerism they had, yet we still have to look at a photograph, the image that depicts them to who they really are.
We hoard and preserve these memories keeping them in the attic, closed in a photo album. Is this a comfort we need to give the mind the satisfaction it requires, a comfort to know they are there when our mind requires the gratification of viewing and touching a photograph.
The lens has captured a certain frame from a certain time - with real life people and events taking place. Yet the photograph provides us with a limit, a limit on what we know and what we see. We try to put together a picture of what was happening outside of the frame, but we just see a silence, a stillness which unsettles us.
Of course, there is a nature to the family album which implies the oral histories that traditionally accompany photographs- the stories that were told while turning the pages together with a member of the family. Will this tradition disappear with the digital era society is currently engaging with? Our albums are now kept as data on social media sites, computer hard drives and mobile phones. For me, a photograph album holds a unique aura. The smell of an album can trigger the brain to reminisce more powerfully, while we get to touch the album and feel the dusted sticky pages as we turn to the next photograph. In comparison to just looking at a computer screen where a small percentage of our senses are utilised, how can this possibly evoke emotion?
Is the human mind fascinated by the empowering emotions that a still image in correlation with silence?
Is photography a medium that defeats time?
The vulnerability behind a photograph is something that attracts me to discover thoughts within my mind that I never thought could exist. Having a conversation with someone today, someone who I believe has a rare power to unleash these thoughts, gave me a rush of energy to dig deeper into why I am fascinated by the relationship between photography and death and the emotional power that a photograph can create. This is something I want to explore in huge depth and not just in a couple of blog posts (which is why I am currently writing a book). However, I feel the need to write my thoughts within this format to help create the narrative to my work and writing. Many writers and theorists always in some form relate the photograph back to death. One book in particular came into mind, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. A fascinating read.
In Roland Barthes Camera Lucida there is quite a consistent referent to the theme of death and its relationship to photography. Barthes talks in great deal about the photograph being a ‘mortal’ commodity. Not just as a physical object in regards to its ‘perishable’ material but in relation to its subject, it’s ‘punctum’ the ‘what has been’ that is now dead.
Many photographs can leave us feeling emotionally unsatisfied, we see the person we love, we contextualise the image, we remember the event yet sometimes nothing triggers that spark inside of us. Barthes talks about one photograph in particular which explores his grief of his recently deceased mother and the image which would give both “justice and accuracy”. “The Winter Garden Photograph” was a picture of his mother as a child, five years old, alongside her brother, seven. “The distinctness of her face, the naïve attitude of her hands, the place she had docilely taken without either showing or hiding herself, and finally her expression, which distinguished her”. Barthes had finally, after looking through many photographs, “rediscovered” his mother.
What interested me about this chapter was not just the fact Barthes had found “The Winter Garden Photograph” and the emotions it triggered, but that it reminded him of his own mortality. “The only ‘thought’ I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting”. We photograph a moment we want to remember yet as soon as the shutter is released the moment is dead, the snapshot is a confirmation that death has defeated time in that one second of the photograph being taken. When looking at an old photograph, perhaps a child, the future is portrayed before our eyes as already dead “they have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday).” As Barthes describes “for death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intensively) in religion, it must be elsewhere perhaps in this image which produces death while trying to preserve life”.
Moving on through Camera Lucida, Barthes talks about the portrait of Lewis Payne by Alexander Gardner (see below). This particular portrait is one of the most remarkable and haunting I’ve seen. Lewis Payne attempted to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward and was photographed within his cell. “He is dead and he is going to die…” the caption reads underneath the photograph; which provides us with a trigger of emotion. Barthes describes this as the “punctum” the fact he is going to die and the “studium” as the handsome boy within the photograph. Not only do we see death in a visual form of the past, not just the reminder of our own death, but the photograph provokes a saddened emotion knowing this handsome young boy is about to be hung due to his actions and we now see death in all forms within a photograph. We see him as alive, yet dead, we see his future before him, yet he is going to die and we see our own death within the photograph, “the photograph tells me death within the future”.
Reference: Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.
Objects, material possessions and photographs are the only things left behind when a loved one dies. We fear if we get rid of these possessions, we are forgetting and destroying the memories shared with the deceased because they are gone forever. Keeping photographs of loved ones and trying to preserve the past is a huge social practice nowadays. Looking at a photograph is a very satisfying way of reminiscing. Satisfying because we can instantly remember what the person looked like and the social context of the photograph, however, we have something to hold, to touch. Personally, one could suggest that the idea of ‘touch’ plays a big part in my own fascination with keeping objects from the deceased. When viewing and touching an object which has been passed down to me, I feel an instant connection to the person who it belonged to, even though I haven’t met previous ancestors. I get a compelling need to find out more about the relative, touch more objects and build up a physical presence in my mind. As much as an object reminds me of the loss and emptiness of a personality it brings about a presence of the dead.
Christian Metz draws a parallel between photography and death in his essay ‘Photography and Fetish’. Metz explores the relationship between photography, film and fetishism. The fact that film plays on fetishism with its constant changing of frames and auditory element, yet photography is adequately more suited to becoming a fetish with the immobility and silence that comes with viewing a photograph. Metz refers to the constant movement in film which signifies time, in contrast to the ‘timelessness’ of photography which is “comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious and of memory” (Metz, C. 1985, p.83). The snapshot being another relation to death; ‘immediate’ and ‘definitive’, terms which all signify death.
Metz explores two meanings behind ‘the fetish’. Firstly, metonymically, “it alludes to the contiguous place of the lack” (Metz, C. 1985, p.86). Secondly, metaphorically, raising Freud’s theory of the penis “the primordial displacement of the look aimed at replacing an absence by a presence” (Metz, C. 1985, p.86). The death of a loved one ignites the need to replace an ‘absence by a presence’. The presence being an object, (a fetish), which one can touch or feel. One has an indescribable spiritual connection to this fetish which Metz refers to as the “object-libido” (Metz, C. 1985, p.85) attached to a loved one. The object becomes a ‘past presence’ and “the inner struggle is we need to transform the very nature of the feeling for the object, in learning progressively to love this object as dead, instead of continuing to desire a living presence” (Metz, C. 1985, p.85).
I find it interesting to see themes within my work to justify this theory. I find that holding a photograph of an object, as well as producing the photograph, is as satisfying as holding the actual object itself. The intimacy of the touch is still present when viewing a photograph but as a photograph is a still image, and photography itself creates ‘death’ of the past, will it emphasise the feeling of loss more than the presence of the physical object with the addition of touch. Metz explores some fascinating ideas in relation to photography, death and the connection to a fetish, an object. One starts to realise when reading this text that we do have a ‘fetish’ for touching, archiving and preserving a family history, something I wish to continue to explore within my work.
Reference: Photography and Fetish Christian Metz October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90