We see two children – brother and sister – playing in idyllic woodland. The boy is riding a bicycle, circling trees. The girl is wearing a red Mackintosh and playing with a ball. She throws it carelessly and it lands in a nearby pond.
Inside their country home, the children’s father is looking at a series of photographic slides. He is studying one particularly closely, of a church altar. Sitting in the first row of pews with back to the camera sits someone wearing a red Mackintosh very much like his daughter’s. Perhaps it is his daughter, but the expression on his face suggests otherwise. He seems pensive. He takes the slide from the projector and examines it more closely, focusing on the person in red.
We see the girl again: running alongside the pond now and holding the now-rescued ball. The boy, still on his bicycle, rides over a pane of glass. It shatters and he falls to the ground. He picks himself up and examines his tyres for punctures whilst his sister continues to play, throwing her ball into the pond for a second time.
Back inside the house, their father throws his wife a pack of cigarettes and clumsily knocks a glass of water onto the slide he was previously examining. As he looks at the slide, the colour of the Mackintosh runs and bleeds across the image. He looks up, anxious.
As he rises from his seat his wife asks, “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he replies.
He runs from the house as his daughter disappears under the surface of the water. He wades in and lifts her lifeless body from the pond.
His wife, unaware of the events occurring outside, examines the slide he was holding and watches as the colour red continues to spread and bleed, engulfing the image until it is unrecognisable, destroyed, an abstracted mesh of colour. She does not react.
Outside, the father attempts to resuscitate his daughter but it is too late.
This is the opening scene of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now. Setting the mood and various recurring motifs for the rest of the film, this short sequence is drenched in an atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Whilst there is much to be said about the way the editing and cinematography of this sequence exemplifies these feelings for the viewer, it appears to be the photograph alone that stifles these emotions in the character of the father, played by Donald Sutherland.
Photography has had a long-lasting cultural relationship with anxiety and Don’t Look Now is just one example. In Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) and Hideo Nakata’s The Ring (1998), similarly to Don’t Look Now, markings on photographs allude to the forthcoming deaths of the image’s subjects. In the television series The Twilight Zone (“A Most Unusual Camera”, John Rich, 1960) and Goosebumps (“Say Cheese and Die!”, Ron Oliver, 1996), a camera is shown to predict the future and ultimately leads to the deaths of a number of characters. There are countless examples of narratives like these in the genres of horror and science-fiction, alluding to a conflation of anxieties surrounding the threat of new technologies. What is interesting about photography is that, despite its now ubiquitous social presence, it has retained its position as the flag bearer of these anxieties despite considerable technological advances in other areas. What is it about this technology that keeps us anxious?
To return to the opening scene of Don’t Look Now, we can say that the drowning of his daughter in effigy is enough for the father’s paternal paranoia to kick in, but there is also something altogether supernatural about his experience. This is arguably a leftover response of our very first encounters with photography and the moving image.
At the very beginning of cinema’s history there is an urban legend surrounding one of the earliest known ‘motion pictures’. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (often cited in English as Train Pulling into a Station) was one of the first films made by the pioneering Lumière brothers in the late nineteenth century. The 50-second film was first shown publicly in January 1896 and there were reports of audience members fleeing the screening room in panic for fear of being struck by the train projected before them. As Hellmuth Karasek wrote for Der Spiegel at the time:
One short film had a particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic … It was the film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat … Although the cinematographic train was dashing toward the crowded audience in flickering black and white (not in natural colours and natural dimensions), and although the only sound accompanying it was the monotonous clatter of the projector’s sprockets engaging into the film’s perforation, the spectators felt physically threatened and panicked.
The credibility of this story is contested and it is all too easy for us – constant purveyors of modern-day imagery – to ridicule those viewers of early cinema. Perhaps the reason that it has entered the canon of cinematic history is because it is a somewhat believable response to a measure of human experience never seen before. Even the early history of the singular, non-moving image is peppered with urban legends that we now consider to be irrational superstitions, such as the negative attitudes towards photography in Native American cultures, in which they believed that the photographic process could steal a person’s soul.
These first impressions have firmly stuck. The medium’s most lauded critics and commentators have written at varying lengths on “photography as the inventory of mortality”, as Susan Sontag described it, or how, for Roland Barthes, photography “reproduces to infinity [what] has occurred only once; the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially”. Photography both is death and a way to cheat death.
In the films and television programmes mentioned previously, photography’s ability to produce anxiety can be put into two categories: the anxiety of taking a photograph and the anxiety of looking at a photograph. The latter is particularly pertinent to Don’t Look Now’s opening scene. However, in the referenced episodes of The Twilight Zone and Goosebumps, it is the act of using the camera, and the camera itself as an object, that causes anxiety. Whilst all these examples may lie in the realms of science fiction and horror, they nonetheless speak to a quality of the photographic that is very real.
One of the most poignant examples that remains in my mind is an article by Charlie Brooker for The Guardian in which he reacts to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty children, six adults and then himself on the morning of December 14th, 2012:
The news displays the faces of the children and I have to look away. That feeling, still relatively new to me, becomes overwhelming. The basic parental urge to protect. They are other people’s children. Faces in photographs. Gone now. But still: the urge to protect. And I can’t. I’m helpless. It hurts.
As a parent, Brooker is traumatized by the faces scrolling across his television screen, almost in the same way that Donald Sutherland’s character in Don’t Look Now is traumatized by the destruction of his child in photographic effigy. However, whilst Sutherland’s character may literally jump into action, the more potent form of anxious photography lies with us in the real world, where demonic cameras and ghostly premonitions cannot be exorcised or altered. We must live with our images – these signifiers of violence and death – whose subjects were once there, now gone forever.
In Roland Barthes’s seminal work Camera Lucida he coins two terms: studium and punctum. He defines studium as “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment… without special acuity”, referring to a photograph’s cultural or historical significance and the viewer’s objective acknowledgement of this giving the photograph its meaning, whilst punctum is “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”, referring to a photograph’s sudden but lasting effect on a person, the certain something about an image that connects with us subjectively.
The term punctum is important here and particularly the words that Barthes assigns to it – “this wound, this prick, this mark”; “sting, speck, cut, little hole” – words that are not particularly pleasant and yet describe a moment that grasps our attention as well as being suggestive of a perverse affection, creating a desire to look and keep looking. In essence, these are anxious words for photography’s lack.
The word ‘anxiety’ can be defined as both an “uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event” and a “strained or solicitous desire”, and the two definitions are surely closely linked, especially in relation to photography. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, desire is inseparable from ‘lack’: lacking something provokes the desire for it, and it is the uncertainty of when or if this desire will be fulfilled that causes anxiety.
In his essay The Object Lost and Found, Matthew Thompson explains how this desire relates to photography. He says that it is “not desire depicted in photographs, nor the desirous gazes they reveal, though an understanding of those mechanisms can and should inform our interpretation of photographs.” He describes the desire depicted by highlighting the following quote from Jean-Louis Gault:
To my question about your desire: “What do you want from me?”, you can answer pointing at something and say: “I want that.” But do you really want “that” or do you want something else beyond what you answer to me? So, here is a new question, to which you could give a more precise answer, and so on after the second answer and a new question. That impossibility to give an ultimate answer to the question about desire maintains desire as a question. That question without answer is the cause of anxiety.
Thompson goes on to explain that
photography’s anxiety stems from the fact that photography becomes this question without answer. A photograph needs to be completed. It is designed to be taken in. It is motivated. That question without answer can be reframed as “what does the picture require in order for you to understand it, to fulfil it… in order for it to do the work it was designed to do?
This question without answer can be seen throughout Barthes’ writings. In Camera Lucida, Barthes is struck by the ambiguity of a portrait: an image by André Kertész known as Ernest to which he gives the caption: “It is possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where? How? What a novel!”
These are surely unanswerable questions that Barthes has proposed. However, leading on from the question posed by Gault, we may wonder if these are the questions that Barthes really wants answered.
The defining context of Barthe’s book is that, at the time of writing, he had been very much affected by the recent death of his mother. At one point, Barthes writes:
In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: She is going to die: I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.
The book is seen as both a seminal academic text and personal treatise on photography’s relationship to mourning. For Barthes, all pictures of his mother are now images of death. This then extends, for him, irrationally, to all photographs of people.
What is most strange about Barthes’ book in light of its context is that, as a work of literature, it jars with his own literary analysis. In S/Z, for example, Barthes describes two categories for written texts: “readerly” and “writerly”: the literary equivalent to Barthes’ studium and punctum. Readerly texts that written to be read, meaning that the text is purposefully crafted for us to consume at face value and to enjoy as a fully-formed piece of writing that can be absorbed passively. Writerly texts are intended to be read actively since not everything is presented to us by the author and it may require further efforts to fully comprehend, allowing the reader to form their own ideas and opinions on what they have read and interpreting the text however they wish.
Where does Camera Lucida sit within Barthes’s own dialectic of literary criticism? In some ways, it feels contradictory to his own ideas. It is scholarly and theoretical, whilst also being deeply personal and self-indulgent. How should this text be read? Is its position as a central text for undergraduate photography students appropriate? How does one begin the answer the countless questions that fill its pages?
It is clear to me that a full answer to Camera Lucida cannot be an academic essay: three decades of scholarship have not yet produced such an answer. And it is clear that an answer cannot be a work of fiction, a memoir, or anything proposed as creative or experimental writing. The only way to reply to a book as strange as Barthes’ is to write another one even stranger.
This is how the first chapter of James Elkins’ 2011 book, What Photography Is, ends. In the chapter Elkins criticises the personal nature of Camera Lucida resolutely, in a manner that some have taken to be too polemical – for instance, categorising Barthes’ use of Kertész’s photograph of Ernest as “soft-focus romance”. He does not say that Barthes is wrong in addressing images in this way but he believes he has missed a more important question: “where, exactly, is the photograph itself in all this romance and novelization?”
Elkins is initially concerned with the physical materiality of photography and he feels that, in order to discuss photography in the way he sees fit, he must first place himself in a world of photography that is free of Barthes’ critical legacy: a kind of photography that can be looked at for what it is “in itself” without being watered down by the unrelenting sentimentality he accuses Barthes of cowering under. It is a near-Kantian approach to the materiality of photography: the photograph as object versus the photograph as representation.
Elkins begins his quest by pointing to the unintentional additions to archive photographs that Barthes references in the text: fingerprints, dust, hairs; physical damage such as dog-eared corners; other marks and creases. Elkins suggests that the effect Barthes believes photographs have on the soul – their “punctum” – is physically apparent on the photographs themselves and criticises Barthes’ omission of this from his text. As previously quoted, Barthes uses a number of words to describe a photograph’s impact on a person but fails to acknowledge how the photographs themselves are wounded, pricked and marked, too enthralled in and blinded by his own melancholy. This melancholy is subsidiary to the representational nature of the photograph of Barthes’ mother. Elkins writes:
[Barthes’] demand for realism is a demand, if not to have [his mother] back, then to know she was here: the consolation of a truth in the past which cannot be questioned.
In the introduction to The Burden of Representation (1988), John Tagg also addresses Barthes’ overbearing quest for an image that exists as adequate evidence of his mother’s existence. However, as Tagg believes we should all know, “the existence of a photograph is no guarantee of a corresponding pre-photographic existent” and “on a more subtle level… we have to see that every photograph is the result of specific and, in every sense, significant distortions which render its relation to any prior reality deeply problematic and raise the question of the determining level of the material apparatus and of the social practices within which photography takes place.” Brushing Barthes’ romanticism aside, here Tagg is referring to how our consumption of photography is wholly dependent on its technical, cultural and historical context. Barthes calls this the “studium” but he fails to translate (or does not at all consider) just how broad this context truly is.
In his book, Tagg extensively defines the scope of photography’s technical, cultural and historical contexts, particularly the technical aspect, breaking down with considerable detail the mechanical and scientific nature of an analogue camera and the processes of capturing an image, developing a negative and making a print. The pervasiveness of digital photography has perhaps led to modern culture taking these complicated analogue processes for granted. Not to say that digital photography is any less complicated in its inner workings. If anything it is more complicated, but has become automated to such a degree by subsequent technological developments that we need not think of these processes which create many of the images we see every day. Tagg exemplifies the fact that all photographs are not representational of the world we see by their very nature. On top of all this, the decisions made by those holding the camera further complicate the issue:
How could all this be reduced to a phenomenological guarantee? At every stage, chance effects, purposeful interventions, choices and variations produce meaning, no matter what level of skill is applied or whatever division of labour the process is subject to. This is not the inflection of a prior (though irretrievable) reality, as Barthes would have us believe, but the production of a new specific reality, the photograph, which becomes meaningful in certain transactions and has real effects, but which cannot refer or be referred to a pre-photographic reality as to a truth.
Elkins similarly refers to these representational burdens throughout What Photography Is, subverting Barthes’ own use of photography with his own. He reproduces a photograph of a selenite window taken in an adobe village in New Mexico in 1927. Selenite is a translucent mineral often used to make windows at the time. Unlike a typical clear glass window, the selenite offers a distorted and blurred view of the world outside. Echoing Tagg’s assertion of photography’s problematic two-dimensional translation of the world around us, Elkins initially believes that photography “can be compared… to that selenite window. It promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are lodged.”
Then Elkins changes his mind on a personal whim – forever mocking Barthes – declaring he prefers black lake ice as his chosen metaphor on the problematic nature of photography’s physicality. Either way, Elkins chooses these examples as counter-metaphors to the usual examples of “perfect windows, lucency, transparency … the pinhole camera, the camera obscura … all metaphors of the ease with which photographs are thought to capture accurate images of the world.” He writes:
We show photography what to show us, we feel we see what photography shows us in the faces and things that it shows us. But photography also always shows us things we would have preferred not to see, or don’t want to see, don’t know how to see, or don’t know how to acknowledge seeing.
Elkins goes on address some of these “things that photography shows us.”
Offering an alternative appropriation of photography to Barthes’, Elkins chooses to discuss photographs that are “hard to see”. To do this he disregards and says farewell to
photographs of strangers and photographs of people I love, farewell to vernacular photography, street photography, found photography, and fine art portraiture. My attachment to all those images is sickly, in the end… I am tired of the unending, persistent need to see images of people. I want to go on to whatever photography might be when it is not compelled to bear witness to our ordinary lives… Farewell to pictures that burst with emotion, affect, sentiment, nostalgia, sweetness, warmth… These are all distractions.
Elkins’ previous criticisms of Barthes’ sentimental approach to photographs, influenced by the death of his mother, are turned on their head here. He considers microscopic photographs of bacterium and photographs of atomic bomb tests. All the examples are unusual, but further demonstrate the representational problems of photography that Barthes previously failed to acknowledge.
Above is a photograph of an atomic bomb test taken by Harold Edgerton with a rapatronic camera. The camera, developed by Edgerton himself, was able to make exposures on film as short as 10 nanoseconds, allowing for scientists to study the very early stages of an atomic blast and its subsequent fireball. Elkins chooses this image and the images of microscopic bacterium because they were “not made to the measure of human experience.” The images encourage metaphors to adequately describe them – Elkins invokes rotting fruit, star constellations, watercolour paint, the human brain, a tumour, a wound, a tide pool – but the image resists them all: it is not quite like anything else perceivable to the human eye. As Elkins points out, this is an imperceptibility exclusive to the rapatronic photographic process – “even a mushroom cloud looks like a mushroom” – which creates a new photographic reality made in real time but representing a moment beyond empirical experience.
“What could be more interesting…?” Elkins proclaims.
Elkins does not stop at scientific photography in his exploration and later takes his subversion of Barthes’ interests to abject levels, addressing violent images of suffering.
Throughout Camera Lucida, Barthes presents us with images of personal, psychological pain, which we may empathise with in the context of his mournful prose. Ultimately, though, his pain is too subjective. Elkins decides to present us with visceral images of physical pain, a pain that he feels is represented with particular strength by photography. It is this strength that Elkins thinks “Barthes most feared, the one he was most anxious to cover over in the soft blanket of memory and nostalgia.”
For Elkins, these truly successful photographs of “bodily pain” are not immediately recognisable to us. He disregards the faces of death that we are culturally most familiar with. For example, Eddie Adams’ Pultizer Prize-winning photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon in 1968 or Nick Ut’s image of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, naked and crying, fleeing the village of Trảng Bàng following a napalm attack that burned her clothes from her body. Both taken during the Vietnam war, these are two of the most famous images of pain, suffering and death in the history of photography. Faces are distorted into tense grimaces or unrelenting cries of pain. However, facial expressions can be deceiving, and interpretations of them are subjective. We can only assume what these faces portray to us in the context of the situation in which they were taken. In essence, the resulting empathetic response is emotional in a way that is similar to those we may have to the images found in Camera Lucida.
Instead, Elkins lists entirely different categories of imagery: medical photographs of birth defects; images from the dark recesses of the internet; scatological pornography; images of self-harm and mutilation; orifices; graphic images of war casualties. With the internet being a relatively lawless zone where legal and cultural rules and regulations of censorship are purposefully flaunted by many, there are countless other examples that Elkins could choose to elicit a visceral response of terror and anxiety, many of which I’m sure some readers of this essay will no doubt be aware of. Dare I mention goetse.cx?
At this point Elkins introduces Georges Bataille, a familiar presence on this blog. One of Bataille’s theories is particularly important to this discourse: that of l’informe or the formless.
Formless is … a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape … On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
This notion of the formless suggests an aesthetic quality to Elkins’ photographs that are “not made to the measure of human experience.”
“Art is concerned with form,” says Remko Scha on Radical Art, “but in the course of the twentieth century, this very notion (form) has become suspect.” Indeed, it is here that many of the tensions discussed by Elkins and Tagg on the topic of representation reveal themselves. In the case of Elkins’ images of bacterium and atomic bomb tests, we can attempt to likened these images to things we can see in the world around us, but our inability to adequately do so only highlights their “intrinsic worthlessness as well as the unredeemable futility of our thinking about [them]”.
In Elkins’ text he discusses the final chapter of Bataille’s The Tears of Eros, in which he includes five images of Chinese torture known as lingqi, ‘slow slicing’ or ‘death by a thousand cuts’, in which a person was tied to a wooden post and a knife is used to methodically cut the skin and remove sections of the body over an extended period of time. It is perhaps one of the most shocking and abject forms of documented torture. The images have featured in many publications in the past, usually indirectly through graphic descriptions. Elkins reproduces one of the images in his text – which, you have been warned, is also featured below – and describes their power and reputation amongst scholars and intellectuals at the time, which is arguably unmatched in pre-modern photography. These are images of real horror and suffering, devoid of any sentimental or nostalgic overtones. Considering Barthes’ melancholic musings, it is easy to imagine him devoting a great deal of time to each image in Camera Lucida, pondering them at length. The same cannot be said for the lingqi photographs.
With images this strong, it seems normal, even healthy, to look as little as necessary … [to use] one of Bataille’s own metaphors, they are like the sun: they actively hurt my eyes, they are hard just to see without wincing.
This is perhaps because they “succeed” where other images of horror fail. Elkins mentions images of people being led to the gas chambers during the Holocaust, discussed in Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All. These images still do not have the same effect as the lingqi images, argues Elkins. As horrifying as they may be, they are still too far removed from the horror itself – “they are still too much about representing the unrepresentable, witnessing, obliterating, and the ability to say and show, and not enough about what photographs can do when they are about pain that is registered directly in the photographs”. As such, pain engulfs and surrounds the lingqi photographs.
Looking at the images themselves, as reproductions, is a difficult task. There is further weight given to the images when we consider their context for Bataille. He physically owned these images. Not just reproductions in a book, but as physical objects – prints from negatives. Elkins offers an explanation for Bataille’s macabre fascination with the images:
Everyone who studies surrealism becomes entangled in ideas of transgression, shock, and genuine otherness of experience and representations – all the things exemplified, for Bataille, by the lingqi photographs.
This reasoning contextualises the images in a recognisable art historical narrative. They are akin to Goya’s Disasters of War or Francis Bacon’s violent figures – works that subvert through revulsion what has classically been for pleasure. Cézanne once said that “to paint after nature is not a matter of copying the objective world, it’s giving shape to your sensations.” In his book on Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze expands upon these painterly “sensations” when faced with one of Bacon’s grotesque figures:
At one and the same time I become in the sensation and something happens through the sensation, one through the other, one in the other. And at the limit, it is the same body which, being both subject and object, gives and receives the sensation. As a spectator, I experience the sensation only by entering the painting, by reaching the unity of the sensing and the sensed.
In contrast to this, what Bataille owned were not paintings but photographs – arguably far more easily entered. The series of photographs owned by Bataille that Elkins includes in his book show a step-by-step progression of the violence wreaked on the unknown man’s body. Large sections of flesh are removed, revealing his rib cage underneath. On the following pages, limbs are removed. With each successive cut, the man’s expression changes from shock to something that strangely resembles bliss. The sensations that Deleuze relates to Bacon’s figures are compounded to a new and unprecedented extreme.
It is difficult to convey the emotions that Bataille, Elkins or indeed anyone feels when faced with these images. The sensations felt are beyond words; formless and abject. In her 1982 essay, Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva writes:
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the unthinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects.
What Kristeva is describing is similar to the old adage of comparing something to a car accident (an alternative to Bataille’s sun analogy referenced by Elkins): the tension between wanting to look and wanting to look away; the perverse desire to look at something you shouldn’t. Don’t look now – but when? It is this surreal paradox that fascinated Bataille, and indeed Elkins himself, when considering these images.
Just as the images themselves produce sensations that make us enter their frames, so to do the commentaries and formal analyses of photographs of this nature. It is difficult not to think about the writer’s own position. In the last few pages of What Photography Is, Elkins addresses his own feelings towards the lingqi photographs and choosing to write about them. He notes that formal analysis “is taken to be effectively neutral”; “appropriate for elementary pedagogy”; “bureaucratic because it is systematic and thorough”; “affectively noninvasive”; “cold”. It also increases the pain of looking at these photographs, but it also creates pain in any photograph, any image.
My desire to understand the image, to feel what it has to say, becomes a regimen, and like any regimen it is uncomfortable and finally even painful. Normally, when I am responding to fine art I am unaware of any opposite to pleasure. But formal analysis reveals that the pain of interpretation is inseparable from the pleasure the image is expected to yield.
This pleasure is perhaps more potent when it is not pleasure at all; when it is displeasure. In commenting on his own personal responses, Elkins breaks the academic ‘fourth wall’: acknowledging and commenting upon the very act of writing his book. This particularly personal comment reveals the emotional effect that writing on such a graphic and disturbing subject matter can have – something that critical and academic writing purposefully avoids in order to be objective. Despite beginning his book with a criticism of Barthes putting too much of himself into Camera Lucida, Elkins feels that, in regards to images of this nature, not to include a personal addendum would feel inhuman, and in the face of such inhumanity it is hard to blame him.