Saturday, April 10, 2010

Photography Post I: "He is dead and he is going to die..."

Death is a common trope in photography theory. (Perhaps it is even plausible to say that the first "theory of photography," coinciding with the early taking of photographs, is the folkloric belief that the camera could steal the soul from the body). In Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which since its publication (in French 1980; in English 1981) has been a dominant point of reference for photography theory at least in the United States and Britain, death is constant theme. Granted this is largely due to Barthes' subtextual mission to locate personally and theoretically a single photograph authentically representative of his then recently deceased mother. (The photograph he finds is titled Winter Garden Photograph. The image is never visually revealed in the book.) However, Barthes' theorising of death is also related to his idea of the "punctum," the unintentional element in a photograph that meaningfully pierces the viewer: The "second sight" of the photograph, which "does not consist in 'seeing,' but in being there" (47). The punctum constitutes the internal grammar of the photograph.

In Alexander Gardner’s Portrait of Lewis Payne (1865), Barthes' identifies the punctum as the simultaneous past perfect and future tense of the photograph. Lewis Payne, charged with the murder of Secretary of State W.H. Seward, awaits hanging. From a seated position, wrists shackled, leaning slightly left, Payne stares forward pensively. Barthes captions the photograph: “He is dead and he is going to die.” Payne has long died when Barthes views the photograph, but in the image Payne still waits to die. The photograph thus contains an internal grammar: "this-has-been" -- He is dead/"this-will-be" -- he is going to die (96). For Barthes, at the root of every photograph is this "catastrophe which has already occurred" (96).

1 comment:

  1. And that is simultaneously re-occurring in the equally catastrophic (ie, self-shattering) act of looking at the photograph and being pierced by it in Barthes' sense of the punctum: in you that which was now is (again).

    Which is why I think historical photographs and photographs of literal catastrophes (including atrocities of war) are so affecting.

    Very thoughtful post, Suzanne.