Further Reflections on Photography

essay
  1. In the past half year or so, I have immersed myself more deeply in the art of photography than ever before. A lucky acquisition of a flatbed scanner from Craigslist meant that I could develop and scan photos all from the comfort of my own studio apartment. (The onset of the pandemic had put a temporary halt to my photography, as the Harvard library, which I relied on for its scanners, had shut down for the foreseeable future.) Now that I was able to shoot a roll of film during the day and see the results that very evening, I was more motivated than ever to explore the art of photography rather than simply photographic technique.

    Internet forums are unfortunately a poor place for finding such discussion. Just like guitar forums are more concerned with tonewoods and amplifier circuits than dynamics and phrasing, photography forums are replete with information on the optical characteristics of lenses, but lack discussion on how to make use of them. Some suggested that the best way to improve was to study photos from master photographers, much like how a studious jazz musician learns classic solos by heart. However, I have yet to find exactly how one is supposed to study a photograph — do you simply stare at it until it’s burned into the back of your retinas?

    Others suggested that the way to improve photographs is to study composition rules from painting. It seemed to me like a reasonable way to learn, but it also feels like taking advice on writing a novel from a screenwriting handbook. Both are forms of textual storytelling (the raw screenplay at least), but the way that the two mediums interact with audiences are vastly different — a screenplay must be able to be consumed in a two hour session, while a novel could be something the reader lives with for months, spending devoted evenings together like lovers. Structuring a novel like a screenplay would be selling short everything a novel is capable of accomplishing. The essence of the novel is precisely in the moments of quiet and digression that any competent screenwriter would immediately slash from the text.

    Similarly, there is a categorical difference between the mediums of painting and photograph. There is good reason why the pictorialists of the early 20th century, who tried to elevate photography by attempting to make photographs more like painting, lost out to the tack-sharp landscapes of Ansel Adams. But of what that difference was exactly, I could not say. I am, after all, both a novice photographer and a novice consumer of photographs. Outside of advertising, the only photographs that I am regularly in contact with are from social media feeds, which hardly warrant serious study. In fact, I have noticed that most of the aesthetics that I try to recreate in photography are drawn from cinema, another related but wholly different medium. Thus began my recent readings and ponderings on photography.

  2. To me, the first and most intuitive understanding of photographic technology is as a form of externalized memory. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, photography would be an extension of human capacities; just as the wheel extends the foot in speed and distance, the photograph extends the capacities of memory in duration, fidelity and distribution. It could be argued that the lens is an extension of the eye, but I would categorize that more as “optics” rather than “photography”. Indeed, what the camera sees through the lens is (almost) always reflected into the eye, so that what is recorded on film or sensor is still an object of memory.

    This is the quotidian usage of the photograph, intensified by the infinite number of photos we can now take from our phones. We no longer need to memorize a wifi password, shopping list, or PowerPoint slide; the photograph has replaced that function of memory. When we take a snapshot of friends at a party, the purpose is never aesthetic, but solely for the purpose of remembrance at a later time. When these photos eventually make their way to social media, the only people for whom they will hold any significance are the people who were present at the time of taking; it is a way of distributing memory among a group. It’s telling that when social media sites show you old photos, they’re referred to not as “photos” but as “memories”.

  3. For me, photographs function as a trigger for memory as well as a store of memory. Contrary to the common phenomenon of “source amnesia”, viewing a photo often brings back not just the scene being framed, but also the experience of taking the image. This is especially true of photos taken with film SLRs; the act of carefully framing, focusing and metering seems to cement these moments in my mind.

    So it seems that photography holds an intimate connection with memory. And of course when discussing memory, we cannot help but notice the flitting spectre of death at the corners of our vision.

  4. Walter Benjamin makes a distinction between the “ritual value” and “exhibition value” of pieces of art. The exhibition value of art is based on public exposure to the work; the more widely a work is consumed, the more it is valued. In contrast, the ritual value is based upon scarcity and secrecy, like the stolen masterpiece hidden away in a private collector’s home. With the advent of photographic reproduction, Benjamin was optimistic that the exhibition value would fully replace the ritual value of art, rendering the work of art to the proletarian masses rather than being held hostage by the bourgeoisie.

    However, Benjamin identified one area of photography that was still dominated by ritual value: portraiture. The portrait photograph belonged solely in the realm of the ritual, what he terms the “Cult of Remembrance”. Like the Victorian practice of keeping locks of hair from the dead, the portrait photograph is an attempt to hold on to a departed soul. The candid portrait is perhaps the most explicit example of this. In attempting to capture the “natural” micro-expressions of the face, the candid portrait tries to grasp something of the transcendental subject. And in accordance with the ritual use of art, candid photos usually stay safely and secretly on our phone camera rolls.

  5. In fact, there is an almost direct analogy between photography and the practice of taking death masks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just as the mold is in a direct physical relationship with the face of the corpse, so too are the grains of film in a direct chemical relationship with the subject. Both form a negative image which bears little resemblance to the original, but with which a likeness of the original can be recreated via casting or printing. As Marcia Pointon notes, while the mold of a death mask is in dialogue with the corpse, the cast is in dialogue only with abstract curves. This poses a problem for our conception of the photograph as a store of memory: the photographic print is already secondhand.

    Unlike the death mask, photography is able to be reproduced infinitely. With every duplication of the cast, the death mask loses resolution, while the film negative will hold its form indefinitely. Perhaps this is the full realization of the Victorian dream, especially if we consider the term “death” loosely: death as simply the permanent absence of people, things, places, and times. Now, more than ever, we have opened up the doors and windows for ghosts to stream in, ghosts not of those that have passed, but ghosts of likenesses.

  6. Roland Barthes also links the portrait photograph to death, but for different reasons. In Camera Lucida, Barthes poses that having a photo taken is like experiencing a “micro-death”. The subject is instantly collapsed into an object, analogous to the reduction of the subject to corpse in death. In fact, the moment that the subject of a photograph knows they are being photographed and adopts a pose, the micro-death has already occurred; in that instant, the subject has already viewed themselves as object.

    This puts a disturbing spin on scrolling through your Instagram feed. Discourse on so-called “selfie culture” has been beaten to a bloody pulp, but I don’t think I have read any analysis of the phenomenon not as an expression of narcissism, but as an expression of the terror of death. I think that it’s uncontroversial to note that American culture has a particularly unhealthy relationship with aging and death. This is often framed as America sweeping death under the rug and refusing to acknowledge its possibility, but perhaps the exact opposite is true: American culture is death obsessed. The compulsive taking of portraits and usage of social media is not from a place of vanity but from the fear of being forgotten. If I distribute my likeness and share my thoughts as widely as possible, then physical death will not be the end of me. And if I have a photograph of you, I will still possess you even after you leave forever. The rituals of the Cult of Remembrance have become one and the same as the rituals of modern American culture.

  7. Concomitant to my renewed enthusiasm for photography was the brief revival of a doomed relationship. The first time we met again, we spread out a picnic blanket in the center of the Common. We were both unprepared for the autumn chill that had just begun to creep in, I, in my office clothes with only a raincoat, and she in a striped summer dress with only a thin cotton jacket for warmth.

    I know this with precision because I had brought my camera that day, had recorded it all on Kodak Tri-X 400 speed film, push-processed to 1600 ISO to account for the waning light. I had tried to catch her on her way to a smile, eyes glancing up and to the right, a classic candid portrait, but had mistimed the shot so that instead her mouth is open in a look of semi-surprise. (Later, when I showed her the photo, she apologized for being unphotogenic, and I apologized for being a poor photographer.) I had asked her to take a photo of me as well. I showed her how to read the light meter, set the shutter speed and aperture, and pull the focus. But she had missed the focus entirely, and I appeared as nothing but a faded smear of gray.

  8. To reduce photography to memory and death still feels unsatisfactory. There is something in the photograph that is in excess of memory, and this reduction also neglects the fact that there is often a mismatch between what is remembered and what is represented in the photograph. The camera focuses on the wrong object, the subject is not in frame, a pedestrian passes in front of the lens. This is completely antithetical to the way that memory operates; we almost never remember what we are not trying to pay attention to.

    Barthes calls these accidents the punctum, which are opposed to the studium. The studium is the intellectual subject of the photograph, say, a subway train. The studium is coded by social and linguistic structures; I cannot take a photo of a subway train without being implicitly in dialogue with all other photos that have been taken of subway trains, as well as all paintings of subway trains, all videos of subway trains and all books that mention subway trains. In contrast, the punctum is that which breaks through the domination of the studium. The punctum is the unexpectable, the uncontrollable, like if a pigeon were to flash its wing across the frame right as I took it. This immediately separates the photograph from the painting. The painting (the more classical form at least) is all studium; every brush stroke is considered by the artist, filtered by the rules of culture and the language of painting.

  9. Barthes’ distinction between the punctum and the studium is reminiscent of Jacques Lacan’s division of subjectivity into the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The Imaginary consists of the ego and its projections; this is what we experience as quotidian reality. The Symbolic are the sociolinguistic structures that shape what can and cannot be experienced. Finally, the Real is that which cannot be captured within the Symbolic and Imaginary registers.

    Thus, the studium belongs to the Symbolic and the Imaginary, while the punctum belongs to the Real. Memory is strictly bounded by the Symbolic and Imaginary, and this is the essential difference between memory and photography. Memory cannot freeze a bird in flight or retain minute details. On the other hand, the photograph, in its ability to capture and represent the uncontrollable and un-experiencable, is a way to make contact with the Real.

  10. Very recently, I decided to start developing color film in addition to black-and-white. I had always been scared off by the need to control water temperatures precisely, but I realized that a few rolls of poorly developed film were a small price to pay for a new mode of expression.

    Roland Barthes was distrustful of the reality of color images. He said of them, “For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).” This seems like an unfair characterization to me; although the physics and chemistry involved in forming a color photograph is more complex, the underlying mechanisms are the same. In fact, I would argue that color photography is more real than black-and-white, and by that I mean that it is more Real. By capturing the extra dimension of color, there emerges a new field of operation from which the punctum may appear.

    I recently took a photograph of a subway platform. I was near the end of the roll after a journey to Carson Beach in South Boston. I have a habit of rushing through the last few frames in a roll, impatient to develop the film and see what I did and did not capture. Thus, the last five or so frames are always meandering photos of chance, often subjectless snapshots of wherever I might have found myself. Before the platform photo, I had captured stairs, girders, the railway tracks looking out from a high window. I expected the platform photo — a train approaching headlong and a woman in a beige coat facing it — to be rather trite, given the exhausted subject matter. However, when I developed the frame later that evening, I found something unexpected, a punctum if you will: the red paint of the train and the red of the signs correspond perfectly with the woman’s red hat (which I had not noticed in the moment), forming a triangular kinship in the center of the frame.

  11. Barthes closes his book with an exploration of photographs of his recently deceased mother and takes solace in their undeniable reality. His mother was once a girl, once a young woman, once a new mother; she lived, and the photographs are proof. For him, that is the true value of the photograph. It is undeniable proof that things existed and that events happened. It is not disturbing that photographs and memory are mismatched; in fact, there is no stronger evidence that a photograph is incontrovertible proof than the touch of the Real.

    I must admit, I have little experience of real death; my grandparents died far across the ocean, too far away to mourn properly. My closest experiences are with volunteering in a hospice. Those that I met there are surely dead by now, and the very idea of taking a photograph of any of them feels viscerally repulsive. Their ghosts are not mine to possess.

    I do, however, have as much experience with permanent absence as anyone else. I had lent her a camera (an automatic point-and-shoot this time) for a hiking trip she was taking with her roommate. She returned it to me the last time I saw her. She had taken seven frames: two too underexposed to be seen, a road sign, a cloud, a building at an intersection, her roommate posing with hands under chin, her face flatly and unnaturally lit by the flash. A handful of flyaways on the back of her head stood on end.