For Barthes, every photograph, rather than being a representation, is an expression of loss. The photograph, like all art which precedes it, attempts to eternalize its subject, to imbue it with life-forever, to blend the beautiful with the infinite; but it fails, it reminds us only of mortality (death is the mother of beauty
). Try though it may, and despite its resemblance to life, the photo can never extend a life which is lost, or a life which is passing.
I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.
I think of the vain art of aesthetic preservation at the end of Lolita
: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
" Humbert has failed to give his Lolita immortality, she is dead and gone from him forever, even when her life remains throbbing in her veins, Humbert's Lolita is dead to him, passed, and that is the effect of photography: a vain snatch at passing beauty. For Barthes, the photograph is irrevocably the servant of Time, the momentary click
of the photographic instrument is the shuddering tick
of time, as the photograph-frozen object dies away - the object that-has-been (ça-a-été
) dies away every indivisible moment and is born over in what-is-now. Barthesian Time, for the photograph, is instant death. What has been photographed can never occur exactly the same way, for that momentary coincidence is past, but in the photograph it is falsely repeated infinitely. Every photograph is an epitaph.
For Walter Benjamin too, as with his successor Barthes, the clicking-photo and the ticking-time are inseparable melodies of the same fugue. He tells us: "...image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical...
" The image exists extemporally, but it is helplessly pinioned to the edifice of time. Every momentary photo has a following moment which is unphotographed, and another and another through infinite moments until Now. From the singular snap
of the camera, there is an infinity of moments, a constant constellation across time, bridging the distance between what-is and what-was. And as Barthes notes, that distance is immeasurable, it is infinite: you can never retrieve, never relive, that which has passed, that which is gone, that which is dead. The shock, the punctum
of a photo, is a "posthumous shock" as indentified by Benjamin:
Of the countless movements of switching, inserting, pressing and the like, the 'snapping' of the photographer has had the greatest consequences. A touch of the finger now sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time. The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock, as it were.
Throughout, Barthes provides us with a number of photographs which touch, or fail to touch, him. No matter the photographic subject: political, journalistic, personal, professional or amateur: Barthes approaches each with a reverence and solemnity, like a man walking through a cemetery: head downcast, hands intertwined, heart in his throat. Despite the many provided photographic examples, the photo which moves Barthes, and which most moves the reader, is not included, and it exists to us only in Barthes' words: the photo of his mother as a child. This photograph belongs to a history which excludes him, which is totally unfamiliar to his image-repertoire because it is outside of Time as he knows it. This image is a private history, but a privacy which is removed from his own, irremediably by time and space. And he sees in her image that-which-was and simultaneously that which has died and that which is going to die
. The girl in the photo is gone, but the woman she has become has a limited mortality of her own, and the photo is a death-knell calling her to the grave, calling her back to the history which she has left behind her.
In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.
Every photo is a commingling of love and death, a realm of life lost and life left for losing. There is a beauty in life which is lost when it pinned down in art, art of any kind, but especially Photography. While literature, painting, drawing, music, all take life and attempt to pin it down, they also add something that life hadn't had before. In photography, nothing is added, it is frozen life, it is death, there is nothing which supports it, nothing which adorn it, we see nothing added, we are only reminded of what has been removed.
When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.
Calvino warns us that "memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased
" and that is the operation of photography: to erase memory, to anesthetize it, kill it. The photograph is a conscious attempt to remember, but it cozens us, it tricks us, and it makes us forget. I defer again to Benjamin, in his essay on memory in Proust:
When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of a lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering each day unravels the web and the ornaments of forgetting.
Our purposive remembering, our memories which we force-fit into words, into images, die - they are no longer what they were, they have been forced to change mediums, and something is lost: the beauty of life. The photograph only appears a representation of reality, it is only, rather, an expression of loss, of what can never be again. It is often in art that the afflatus of creation is to exorcise, to kill away, that which burns inside the artist, to cleanse the spirit of the past. But there is a danger in this, in the abundance of photography, that our memories will become extinct.
Ultimately — or at the limit — in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight,’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.
Photographs, unlike other arts, are too immediate, seem too real (though they are unreal): the kill memory forever. Photographs do not shut the eyes, but gouge them out: we become Oedipus fleeing reality as it is, in a vain blindness which forces us to remember only what we hoped to lose, and lose only what we hoped to remember.
Here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with the Photograph, my certainty is immediate: no on in the world can undeceive me. The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality.