The Other Reality

Death and the Image

Posted in MFA by aryckman on December 28, 2008

Death and the Image

Sylvie did not want to lose me. She did not want me to grow gigantic and multiply, so that I seemed to fill the whole house, and she did not wish me to turn subtle and miscible, so that I could pass through the membranes that separate dream and dream. She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence, silent and ungainly though I might be. For she could regard me without strong emotion—a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in her thoughts, with pleasure and animation, even while I sat beside her—this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all.
But if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing.

–    Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

Photographs play an interesting role in our lives. We capture events, people, and places that we want to remember or that we feel we ought to remember. But long after those people, places and events have passed or changed the images still exist as they did in the fraction of a second that it took to record their likeness on film. This is bizarre. No matter how you look at it, being able to hold onto something, see something, as it existed 20, 50, or 100 years ago is a surreal experience. This is why it comes as no surprise that Roland Barthes would exclaim, shocked, “I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor” when he saw a photograph of Napoleon’s brother because it is an intrinsically surreal experience to have eye-contact with the dead (Barthes 3).

This strange experience of witnessing something that has disappeared from reality in 2D form is only felt in photographs or film because they are not an individual’s interpretation of life.  In other forms of art the subject matter can be an invention of the artist. In photography, however, the subject is necessarily real, the scene may be constructed but it physically existed. This is, of course, challenged by new digital technologies but the ramifications of that can be left for another time. “In Photography [you] can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and past” (Barthes 76). Photographs are replicas of life. Or, if you want the glorified version, photographs are the result of light emanating from the subject. What you look at may have undergone many processes to reach its final stage as a print but it originates from the light reflected off of that person, place, and event. You can touch something that has been touched by the light that touched the subject, giving the impression of direct contact. This is an incredibly romantic idea of the subjects relationship to photographs.

The referents relationship to the photograph is a curious one. First, it is unlikely that one will ever talk about the photograph because the referent dominates the experience of viewing the photograph. When viewing a photograph, we look beyond the boundaries of the paper it is printed on and “into” the image. We see our kid sister leaning against our dad’s 1969 Buick GS 400; we don’t focus on the granular black and white dots on paper that make up the graduations creating the 2D image. Photographs transform paper into the moments they represent. Even though a photograph of a pipe is not actually a pipe it is generally accepted to be a pipe. “A specific photograph is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent … it is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself” (Barthes 5).

The fact that the subject exists fixed forever the same today as it was yesterday in any given photograph confuses how time is perceived. Barthes describes this as “That-has-been.” As mentioned before, because the referent has been here (and is here in the photograph) it suggests two things: that it is real and that it is past. “What I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred” (Barthes 77). While photographs speak directly to the subject’s past state, they can also cause what Barthes refers to as a “temporal hallucination.” It is as if photographs contain a special tense all of their own, they do not relate only to one temporality, the past, present or future, but to all.

Any image you look at today exists, (obviously), the referent exists in that image and therefore it is easy to conclude that the referent exists in our present reality. Photographs show us “reality in a past state; at once the past and real” (Barthes 82). When we look at any photograph, we generally approach it in the present tense; Gloria is playing tennis. But because photographs can only show what has happened in the past, (even Polaroid or digital cameras are not fast enough to show us the instant as it is happening) we know that Gloria is not currently playing tennis. This duality becomes especially palatable when you know that the subject is already dead. Barthes describes one such image: “These two little girls looking at a primitive airplane above their village (they are dressed like my mother as a child, they are playing with hoops)—how alive they are! They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday)” (Barthes 96)

Understanding this strange tense changes the way we perceive every image, not just ancient photographs, where the subject is undoubtedly dead. Each photograph becomes a prediction of death to come. “Rather than reproducing, faithfully and perfectly, the photographed as such, the photographic image conjures up its death” (Cadava, 89). This is not necessarily a physical death, even though that certainly applies, but it can be the death of a moment or of an era, the changing of a season. Anything that can change acknowledges a future death in photographs and, as we know, everything does change. “Photography is the inventory of mortality … Photographs show people so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies” (Sontag 70).

And yet this is the point of photography. “There can be no photograph without the withdrawal of what is photographed” (Cadava 90). If everything stayed the same, what would the point of photographing anything be? If your Aunt Edna continued to exist as she does now, then a photograph of her would become redundant, trite. It would be like a skipping record, the same thing over and over (in a photograph, in life, in a photograph). Who enjoys receiving identical gifts for their birthday? Inevitably one of them gets exchanged because it is pointless to have two of the same thing. This may be taken to an extreme here because photographs would still act as keepsakes, reminders of a loved person or place. The point is we photograph because we understand that what is in front of the camera cannot always exist in that specific form. Even with static objects like buildings or monuments because they can be viewed in different seasons or various lighting conditions we still find value in photographing them. It is because of potential change that we photograph, and transversely photographs indicate that things will change. “The image already announces our absence” (Cadava 90). Once the referent is physically absent (or changed) the photograph’s strength is increased.

“We need only know that we are mortal—the photograph tells us we will die, one day we will no longer be here, or rather, we will only be here the way we have always been here, as images…This is why what survives in a photograph is also the survival of the dead—what departs, desists, and withdraws” (Cadava 90). We can continue to exist. The photograph becomes most powerful after the referent has undergone dramatic change, like death, because now something exists and continues to exist that is impossible in reality. The photographed subject is the original and all the photographs are copies, but once the original is removed the photographs take the place of the original, they become the ultimate source of information on the subject, even if that information is fallible or incomplete.

Photographs are similar to the inscriptions on tombstone memorializing the deceased. The words do not change but continue to speak about the individual, existing much longer than the subject ever could. The inscription may be meaningful but it is incomplete because it cannot summarize the essence of the person it remembers. The same applies to photographs. They may be able to recall the person but it can never be a complete understanding of them, it will not ever make them exist again. Yet photographs and grief go hand in hand because the referent can appear real, they do not appear dead in the image. Through photographs the referent survives, cheats death in a way.

What kind of existence is it, though? Photographs can overpower the individual referent, they gain the ability to speak for the deceased. Being able to experience someone, something in life allows you to see the flaws in a photographic reproduction of them. You realize the subject is posed or that they have dressed differently to be photographed. “Ultimately a photograph looks like anyone except the person it represents,” but you can only know this by knowing the subject firsthand (Barthes 102). After the referents death, in most cases a physical death, the truth about them slowly fades. Because they can only be revisited through their photographs those images begin to replace memories of them. Soon that posed photograph is the image that we recall when thinking about the referent.

It is interesting to think of this in relation to why people photograph. So often it is a way of preserving life, an attempt to hold onto something that is important to us. It is ironic that photographs not only show us death and what cannot last forever, but also that photographs endanger our memories. “Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory … but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes 91). It is easy to remember something seen in a photograph and accept it as a real memory of an event. The question becomes: are you remembering posing for your sister’s camera while you’re dressed up in your parents old clothes, or are you remembering the photograph of yourself posed in your parents clothes? Not only do photographs prove that we are incapable of preserving or holding onto anything in life but also that we may be incapable of maintaining a true memory through photographs.

Although there are obvious flaws associated with photography, especially in relationship to the false sense of preserving the tangible and memory, the photograph as a signifier of death is important to my studio work. In the past I have been somewhat obsessed with the concept of immortality. I understand that I am mortal and will therefore die but I have wanted to linger on in some form. I wanted to be photographed, to be sketched, to have music dedicated to me. And it is not that I need to be remembered as I actually am, I’m ok with the romantic notion that someone might come across something, an old photograph maybe, and wonder who I am and what I was like, that would have been enough for me. I wanted to leave traces of my existence. My obsession has shifted slightly and I think the change has been a natural progression from a childish perspective to one where I understand that I am not the only thing heading towards certain death.

In my imagination I am a train. Everyone and everything in my life are trains and we are all traveling in the same direction on parallel tracks. As a child the speed of each train seems the same so that I do not notice that we are even moving, looking to either side it is as if we were standing still. I take it for granted that we will always be traveling as such which means that I can focus on trying to preserve some aspect of myself for the world so that somewhere in the distant future someone will know that I have been here.

As time passes I get older and so do all the other trains. As each train ages the speed increases exponentially to their individual age, the older the family member or memory the faster that train goes and the greater the distance becomes between us. The things that I assumed would always be there begin to change more rapidly than I could have imagined and I begin to realize that I’m going to be left behind. I no longer need to preserve myself; I need to preserve everything else. This notion of being left behind while everything changes around me is terrifying.

It is possible that I am coming to terms with the concept of change a little late in my life, other people seem to “grow up” without a problem but I seem determined to cling to an optimistic naiveté that my life will remain as happy as I remember my childhood with nothing of value disappearing from it. Now, with this new understanding that absolutely everything is racing towards an extinction that I will probably witness in my lifetime, I need to figure out how to preserve what is left of it. Things have already changed so that they do not match my memories but I have to take what I can get. It is like trying to bottle the steam left by a train as it disappears. Even though the steam is not nearly as satisfying as the train itself it is as close as I can get and I’ll be damned if I let that get away. It is a huge lonely process. I look at people as if they have count down timers floating above their heads, trying to determine what and whom I will lose first.

Maybe it is because I find myself taking an inventory of mortality of the contents of my life that I find photography so fitting to what I want to do. “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag 15). It is fitting and ironic that I use photography in my studio practice.

Fitting in that it is the closest I can come to preserving anything, a photograph can trick me into accepting it as reality. It is not an interpretation of an aspect of my life, it is a flat version of my life. But it is ironic in that the more I try to preserve things through photography the more I realize how things change. From one day to the next things pass into oblivion, little changes are made, changes that would and should go unnoticed by any reasonable person but they seem devastating to me because it acknowledges that bigger changes are to come. Photographs offer a side-by-side comparison that those changes are real, they have happened, are happening, have already happened. The faster I photograph the faster things seem to change. You’d think that would make me put down my camera.

Even though photographs are proof and a reminder that things change and progress towards death I still find them meaningful and romantic. “As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality. Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past” (Sontag 71). If I cannot keep my life from changing then I will at least memorialize (and even glorify) my present and past. “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (Sontag 16). A photograph reminds me of what has/is changing but still allows me to posses the memory in a physical form.

I’ve chosen to start the preservation of the vanishing aspects of my life by recording my own memories and then using those as a starting point, a direction for my photographs to take. I want to speak of the past. I want my photographs to remind me of specific events in my life, conjure up the memories that induced me to make them. But by photographing these places, objects, and people it is with the realization that the role they played in my life is now obsolete, or becoming obsolete, and they can only function in my (fallible) memory. Speaking of the death of the referent is an intrinsic part of photography’s nature and it works for me here because I am intentionally speaking of the death, or loss, of the things that have been meaningful in my life. Using photography I can also speak of the things that I am going to lose, in this way the photographs act as a way of premeditated mourning.

I want my photographs to represent and bring back memories of my past experiences or preserve things as they are before they become extinct. Along with this is the terrible and real fear that the photographs will become stronger than my memories and it is difficult to know what is better; is it better to allow my memory to distort and change over time as I age or should I allow myself to make photographs based on my memories as they are now with the possibility that they will eclipse other aspects of my memory, replacing it altogether with a static image. At this point I find that I crave physical representations of my memories. I need something tangible, intimate, something to be cherished but I have no way of knowing how this will affect my memory years from now.

So what does this leave us with? What does this leave me with? Photography’s relationship with death can be seen in a positive or negative way. On the one hand if death is foretold in every image it may be devastating or morbid but I don’t see that it would be anymore so than seeing the person in life, in each circumstance you have the knowledge that their life is progressing in the only direction that it can go and it leads to change and eventual death. It is not morbid it is reality and photographs echo that. Photographs also are an instant nostalgia. After the referent is gone the experience of viewing the image may be unsettling because they appear so real but it allows them to outlive their body and continue to exist for us. It is a forced memory which may endanger our own version of their existence but it is also a reminder, a call for us to remember them. How we chose to view, use, and understand photographs determines how we interact with them. I know that photographs predict death and it is for this reason that I find photography an appropriate method to reflect on the changes that have and will happen in my own life.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light: Theses on the Photography as History” Diacritics Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1992): 85-114.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973.