‘If I like a photograph, if it disturbs me, I linger over it. What am I doing, during the whole time I remain with it? I look at it, I scrutinise it, as if I wanted to know more about the thing or the person it represents’.
(Barthes., R. 1980 p.99)
The book Camera Lucida, published in 1980 by Roland Barthes, has, at its core, several elements of importance regarding my research, not only as to the interpretation of the ‘real content’ of photographs, but as a search for knowledge at a far deeper, personal level. Although widely cited in photographic literature, the overwhelming feeling is the fact that Barthes spends the first half of his book presenting ways in which one can analyse, understand and elucidate the photograph, of all types of photographs, for what they really represent, however, for what aim does he do this? This becomes clearer in the second part of his book. It is to understand his relationship with just one photograph, a photograph that isn’t published in the book. Barthes begins his search for his mother.
In part one Barthes was interested in what ‘sets him off’, on this journey. (p.19). It seems the best word that describes this process, for him, his ‘temporary’ attraction is, ‘advenience or even adventurer’. Some pictures will ‘advenes’, some will not.
My work is perhaps, an adventure, a journey and search for knowledge, not just for myself, but as a document of what may be the ‘human condition’. For Barthes his search for knowledge about his mother, and for me, is perhaps, a search of knowledge about my internalised mother.
In describing a war photograph by Wessing, for instance, shot in Nicaragua, of two nuns walking behind soldiers in a deserted street in 1979, he describes that it is not the ‘literal concern’ that is providing the interest in this photographs existence but ‘its existence (its adventure) is derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world’ (p.xx) This disharmony, perhaps, is the conscious and unconscious world attempting to occupy the same space. These worlds, however, have been brought together by the viewer, providing a bridge between the photographer and the photograph, this creates a primitive link to these two discontinuous elements.
To Barthes, the naming of these two elements whose ‘co-presence established’ (p.25), was important, it seemed this was why he took particular interest in certain photographs.
The names that Barthes arrived at are his ‘stadium’ and ‘punctum’. Concepts of the viewing of the photograph. The stadium being the ‘special acuity’ based on human interest in an object, not as literal as just the study of, but ‘a kind of special enthusiastic commitment’ and it is this ‘element that rises from the scene’ and ‘pierces’, that Barthes calls ‘punctum’. ‘A photographs’ punctum is that accident which pricks me’ (but also bruises me, is poignant to me) (p.27)
The stadium is a process by which Barthes felt he could ‘know the operator’ and in reverse this is how he could experience as the ‘spectator’. In fact Barthes labours this point, of him ‘investing’ with the ‘stadium’ as a spectator and was keen to point out his importance to the relationship with the image, as a viewer. I will also discuss this in context of the transference within the therapeutic context later.
‘In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me: it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction, which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in ‘lifelike photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure. (p20)
For Roland Barthes to ‘make the measure of photographic knowledge’ (p.9) he decides the photograph has three objects of emotion or intention. Those of the ‘operator’, the photographer, ‘spectator’, the viewer and that of the ‘target’, or the subject of the work. The subject emitting ‘eidolon.’
In my practice and search for certain knowledge, I effectively take the role of all three of his objects of intention, as photographer, subject and viewer. I have titled the work, ‘The Mother in Him’.
In him as viewer and subject Barthes quotes:
‘The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of in-authenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).
This ‘sensation of in-authenticity’ comes from somewhere else; although Barthes is interested in the ‘history of looking’ the real history of looking comes from very first realisations of self from other, from the mirroring in early object relations, our earliest encounters with mother. I will be referencing psychoanalytical theories of looking and mirroring with research into Kleinian theories of mirroring and Winnicottian theories of the third space. Barthes alludes to this, ‘I want a history of looking, for the photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity’. (p.xx)
‘In terms of image repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a spectre.’
Barthes spent much time associating the form of a photograph as looking into the past and of course in doing so looking at his own mortality head on, especially after the death of his mother. I also would like to postulate that we all look into photographs, family photographs particulary, as a record of our psyche. Past, present and future, within it, we find the human condition and as we look deeper into the eyes of ‘stadium’, whether it be a photograph of our mother, a landscape, or a picture of a transsexual man in a glossy magazine we are, ultimately, looking at ourselves. Our pasts, present and futures. The information is there, it’s just that we must find it, within ourselves. The ‘punctum’ states Barthes ‘is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’. The ‘punctum’, then, is a kind of subtle beyond –as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see […] Not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. (p.59). It is in our interest to be very careful about what we show to the world.
A photograph shocks or repels us because we are not willing to descend deeper into it. Often, confronting the past may be the reason, or the unpalatably truth of witnessing often distressing signs of our human condition, or being forced to delve deeper into ourselves. When the photograph is less than shocking but more ‘pensive’, states Barthes, ‘when it thinks’ we can learn more. (p.34)
Barthes writes, ‘….revealing what was so well hidden that the actor himself was unaware or unconscious of it. Hence a whole gamut of ‘surprises’ (as they are for me, the spectator), but for the Photographer, these are so many performances)’
Barthes ends the first part of his book with the admission that to really gain knowledge from the photograph he would have to look more into self. This would ‘allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness’. (p.55)
‘I had perhaps learned how my desire worked, but I had not discovered the nature (the eidos) of Photography. I had to grant that my pleasure was an imperfect mediator, and that a subjectivity reduced to its hedonist project could not recognise the universal. I would have to descend deeper into myself to find the evidence of Photography, that thing which is seen by anyone looking at a photograph and which distinguishes it in his eyes from any other image. I would have to make recantation, my palinode.
But as Barthes searched through his personal collection, he realised he couldn’t make these images ‘speak’ to his friends, he recognised ‘her gait, her health, her glow-but not her face, which was too far away.’
Nor could I omit this from my reflection (p.71)
Photography began as a representation of person, of identity, however as the production of the family albums became popular, a more powerful social and cultural tool emerged. Yes, it is there to attest to what really existed, the photographs essence is to ratify what it represents. But isn’t it more to attest to what we really want to exist, less about the past and more about the future. Barthes described the relationship with ‘his’ picture as ‘a sort of umbilical cord that links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze’ (p.81) this analogy is quite profound.
Barthes studies his photograph admitting that the more he studies it, the more he ‘needs’ to reach down into it, to, in effect, peal it away from the context of the album, and reveal something else. Barthes is both mourning and attempting to reveal his true relationship with his mother. ‘More than recognise her, in which I discover her’ p109
‘I live in the illusion that it suffices to clean the surface of the image in order to accede to what is behind: to scrutinise means to turn the photograph over, to enter into the papers depth, to reach its other side (what is hidden is for us westerners more “true” than what is visible.) Alas, however hard I look, I discover nothing: Such is the photograph: it cannot say what it lets us see. (Barthes., R. 1980 p.100)
As Barthes, I want to search for the essence of the family album photograph, and as different from him, I wish to explore its essence through the production and enquiry of self-portraits. Barthes states, ‘I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.’ going on to say ‘the essence of a photograph could not, in my mind be separated from the ‘pathos’ of which, from the first glance, it consists.’ (p.21)
‘I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, ie., in its essence, “as into itself….” Beyond simple resemblance, whether legal or hereditary. Here the Photographs platitude becomes more painful, for it can correspond to my fond desire only by something inexpressible: evident (this is the law of the photograph) yet improbable (I cannot prove it), This something is what I call the air (the expression, the look)….. the air being ‘ that exorbitant thing which induces from body to soul’ (p.109)
In searching for ‘essence’ in his pile of images of his mother, falling upon one image which had, he felt, could be the start of his enquiry. All the others where simply masks, then suddenly ‘the mask vanished: there remains the soul (p.109)
I am in process of making permanent the truth, the removal of the mask, the truth for me, non-the-less.