Tenement in the 1940's or How Photography Makes History

The Library of Congress' photos on Flickr

 

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The act of taking a photograph is a way of preserving memories, but is also the way in which history (both personal and public) is produced.

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” (Roland Barthes)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes. The photograph as described by Roland Barthes allowed him to establish a relay between Jerome (in the 1850’s) and the modern readers of CAMERA LUCIDA This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of Barthes’s meditation on photography in CAMERA LUCIDA. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activi­ties as a viewer and as a cultural analyst. CAMERA LUCIDA is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMAGINATION. An extraordinary number of essays and articles have been written about CAMERA LUCIDA and Barthes’s work. My purpose here is to interrogate the photographic image in historical and cultural terms. Barthes is a focus, but this short piece is designed to raise a primary distinction between photographs and images. My premise is that this distinction will allow us to more clearly understand the role played by the viewer in the experience and interpretation of images.

One of the aims of the project of CAMERA LUCIDA is to discover whether there is an interpretive space betweeen image and photograph which will allow for if not encourages new ways of thinking and seeing. Barthes tests many strategies of interpretation with regard to photographic meaning, but much of the book is governed by an emphasis on death, the death of his mother, the death of photography as a form of cultural expression, the death of the interpreter. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more. Even if the person in the picture is still alive, it is a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed, and this moment is gone. This is an enormous trauma for humanity, a trauma endlessly renewed. Each reading of a photo and there are billions worldwide in a day, each perception and reading of a photo is implicitly, in a repressed manner, a contract with what has ceased to exist, a contract with death.”

This theme has been researched and commented on by a number of writers but my sense is that Barthes is exploring the meaning of death at the symbolic and imaginary level. Death in this instance speaks to the frailty of memory, but most importantly, Barthes follows the writings of Bataille in recognizing the silence of the photograph in the face of all that is done to it. “Death is a disappearance. It’s a suppresion so perfect that at the pinnacle utter silence it its truth. Words can’t describe it. Here obviously I’m summoning a silence I can only approach from the outside or from a long way away.”

The distinction then between image and photograph is about the cacophony of voices which engulf the silent photograph. My position is somewhat different from Barthes. He is worried about loss and absence. My concern is with the rich discourse which arises from the human encounter with images and the creative use which is made of photographs as they are placed into different contexts.

 

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