Barbara A. Diener

Issues and Images

Bayard, Barthes and Boltanski

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From what I understand the correlations between this week’s readings are remembrance and immortality through photographs, mortality and the different ways we read and understand photographs.

Considering that Roland Barthes’ Photographic Message is the earliest one of these texts it offers a comprehensive overview on how to read and interpret the photographic image, specifically relating to the press photograph. Every photograph depicts something, that was in front of the camera when the picture was taken (at least at the time Barthes was writing this. Jumping ahead to the text about Bayard, although the image is not really showing a dead man, Bayard was in front of the camera when the picture was taken). The photograph has a denotation and a connotation, a signifier and a signified, which together form the sign. The meaning of a photograph is reliant on the audience who is viewing it, what historical time and in which cultural context and, especially in press images, the text accompanying the image has a huge influence on how the image is read. Even the truly traumatic photograph, which Barthes entertains as a possible image without a connotation is automatically connoted when the viewer has to assume that the photographer was really at the traumatic scene when it happened and he took the picture.

The text by Amelia Jones talks about the photographer Hippolyte Bayard who was one of the first to reproduce a positive from a negative. But J.L.M. Daguerre was credited with the invention of photography. Bayard created a self-portrait in which he looks dead, drowned to be more exact, immediately disputing the notion that photography depicts something real because “His body could not have been both places (in front of and behind, or at least guiding the camera) and in both states (alive an dead) at the same time.” Therefore it is clear that he is not actually dead, although that is what the photograph is depicting. To him this was a comment and criticism on the fact that Daguerre was credited with the invention of photography.

As Jones points out photography had the inherent ability to capture and therefore hold on to something that would disappear sooner or later. Although a photograph can make us feel closer to immortality and can give us the illusion to eternalize something it simultaneously makes us aware of the fleeting moment we are capturing. This moment and/or the person being photographed will no longer exist after that moment is over.

This can be linked back to Benjamin “The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture.” And going back to early photography, I have always been fascinated with the phenomenon of the memorial photography in which people have their recently deceased loved ones photographed.

Another very interesting idea Jones points out in her text about Bayard is the fact that we experience other people first and foremost through their appearance and that this is a breeding ground for racism and stereotyping. Maybe it is because of all the Benjamin reading about Fascism and reading about Boltanski but I especially had to think about how images were used for propaganda in Nazi Germany to brainwash people into thinking that Jewish people were the enemy. Photographs were used to point out ‘Jewish’ features.

The first exhibition I worked at SITE Santa Fe was The Disappeared/ Los Desaparacidos. Reading about Boltanski’s work reminded me of this exhibition because it touched on several issues mentioned by Marjourie Perloff in What Has Occurred Only Once. Bultanski’s class photo reminded me of Marcelo Brodski’s installation, the main part of it consisting of a large reproduction of his old class photo.

Brodski is an Argentinian photographer and his brother was one of the people who was disappeared during the Dirty War. Thousands of dissents were kidnapped and either held captive or killed, usually being thrown out of an airplane over the ocean, so their bodies would not be found. Brodski drew and wrote on this large reproduction of his class photo and identified the subjects by name and whether he could find out if they were still alive and what they were doing. If he was able to contact them, he went back and photographed them holding a small reproduction of the photo. Many of them had disappeared and know one knew for sure whether they were dead or not.

When reading about Boltanski’s installation Lycee Chases it reminded me of another installation in the exhibition The Disappeared/ Los Disaparacidos. The installation was by an Argentinian art collective and consisted of  hundreds of black and white images of people who had disappeared. The text underneath each image read where the person was from and what their occupation was. A lot of the people who were disappeared were teachers and students. In between the photographs there were mirrors, so the viewer looked at the faces and then saw his/her own face in the mirror. Most of the women in the photographs were pregnant, gave birth in captivity and their babies were taken away and raised by the people who had abducted them. The connection I made to Bultanski’s piece was the fact that one man recognized himself in the Lycee Chases photograph and the Indentity/Identidad installation has actually helped many of the displaced children figure out their real identity and who their parents were. I am blanking on the exact details but there was a DNA test involved once someone came forward believing that they might be the child of someone in the photograph.

The main difference between Barthes and Boltanski that Perloff points out is that Barthes believed in the very personal, intimate read of an ordinary object, for example a snapshot and Boltanski on the other hand believes that the artist using ordinary objects such as snapshots has a responsibility to make them as universal as possible so that each viewer can have their own experience with it. Unlike Barthes, for whom mourning was a very personal experience Boltanksi assumes a collective mourning is possible. “Personal tragedy, the loss of an adorned mother gives way to a more collective scene of mourning; individuality matters less than positionality in the larger space of inscription.” p.40

If I had to sum up Camera Lucida and focus on one central point it would be the relationship between studium and punctum and more generally the way photographs are read and understood. All photographs posses studium, it is why they are made and in which historical and cultural context they were taken. Some photographs go beyond just being historically, politically and culturally interesting, they can touch the viewer on an emotional and often personal level. Barthes describes this as a prick.

I can relate to the Winter Garden photograph on a very personal level because I just recently discovered a photograph of my father as a boy holding his dog. I remember him talking about this dog with tears in his eyes because he didn’t know what happened to him during the war. (WWII Germany) That photo of my father functions in similar ways for me, I can see a truth about him in that photograph that I can not see in a lot of images of him. There are a few images that I took of my father who show him in the way I knew him but those photos also show the effect that life has had on him. The photo with his dog was taken before the war and has a sense of innocence about it that could never be captured after that.

I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for
me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the
thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute
the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in
the positive sense of the term; at most it could interest your studium:
period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound. (Camera Lucida p.73)

I don’t really want to go in to the aspect of Barthes’ mother becoming his child because I do not fully understand it but the rest of how he talks about this image is true for me, as well. The fact that the punctum of the photo of my father is mine alone, maybe my mother’s, too, makes it even more special and stronger. Like Barthes I can create a perfect father for myself, because he is dead and I have the possibility to censor my memories. I can edit out all our fights and arguments and focus on the good memories and on the little boy holding his dog.

Here are some pages from Barthes’ Mourning Diary, just because…it’s so good.


Written by Barbara Diener

February 7, 2011 at 2:01 am

Posted in Moving Image

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