Sunday, October 16, 2011

Barthes, Perloff, Critical Terms for Art History, and Blow Up

I have a terrible memory.  I am sure this is one reason I was originally drawn to photography.  I wanted to not only make sense of my world by capturing it visually and then trying to find meaning in the representation, but also to hold on to the things and people I loved.  When I was a child I photographed my things as well as the people I cared about- favorite teachers, classmates- in an effort to hold on to them and have them with me all of the time.  But what of that?  How much of these people or memories am I really holding on to?  How much of the self can a photograph truly represent?  Am I re-writing my own memories, my own truths, as Boltanski will later say that he has done about his own childhood?

Starting with the readings...

In Critical Terms for Art History, I was intrigued by the description of Hippolyte Bayard's portrait of himself as a drowned man.  I can't imagine how frustrated he must have been to have been left out of the history of the invention of photography in the way he was, and for all of the credit to have gone to Daguerre.  It is fascinating that his response was to make this kind of image.

But, moving on, it leads into a discussion about the "body in relation to the image," which is related to all of our readings this week.  The article speaks to "the desire for the image to render up the body and therefore the self in its fullness and truth."  What is the connection between the self and the body?  It is a slippery construct, one that we in our current culture seem to have forgotten completely.  Representations of the body are assumed to capture or portray the self. 

The article states, "the photographic portrait seems to reaffirm the body's never-ending 'thereness,' its refusal to disappear, its infinite capacity to render up the self in some incontrovertably 'real' way," continuing on to say, "we tend to interpret and experience others through their appearance."  Interestingly, regarding self-portraits, the article states, "the self-portrait image points to a fundamental aspect of our desire to make and look at visual representations." 

I thought of the self-portrait work I have done of both myself alone and myself with others.  I was always trying to get at an understanding of myself through a representation of my physical body, and more specifically, how that physical body related to others, whether through a representation of desire/compassion/intimacy, as in "Fighter," or through a comparison of difference, as in the image of me and my mother. 

Fighter (self-portrait with Corinne), 2005

Self-portrait with mom, 2005

The last quote in the article that struck me is as follows:

The individual photograph paradoxically points to a telescoping series of unfulfilled desires: our desire for, desire to know, desire to have, desire to make.  

I am thinking a lot about the role of desire in my work, as well as the desire to image or look at certain things, so this quote struck a chord with me. 

 In Marjorie Perloff's piece "What has occurres only once," I was interested in how she juxtaposed Barthe's views on how a photograph functions versus Boltanski's views.  Beginning by describing relatively commonplace photographs, she writes, "their appeal, therefore, can only be to someone personally involved with their subjects, someone for whom they reveal the 'that-has-been' that is, for Barthes, the essence or noeme of photography."

Quoting Barthes, she writes, "In Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there."  But what does that mean?  And what significance would the thing itself have if we did not ascribe our cultural code to it?  It is interesting how Boltanski played with these questions, counting on our cultural code of understanding to call into question what images mean and how we interpret them depending on the knowledge we are given.  When shown a group of people and told that half of them are murderers and half are victims, we immediately try to figure out who is who.  But what are we basing this upon?  Boltanski ultimately proves it is an impossible and futile task, implying that there are limits to how much of "the self" a photograph can truly capture when it is stripped of context or authentic information. 

Again quoting Barthes, Perloff writes, "I was struggling among images partially true and therefore totally false."  Continuing in her own words, she writes "Barthes understands only too well that the punctum of this photograph is his alone, for no one else would read the snapshot quite as he does.  The 'emanation of the referent,' which is for him the essence of the photograph, is thus a wholly personal connection."

I was interested in how the knowledge we are given about a photograph affects our interpretation of it.  Perloff writes, quoting Boltanski, "what especially interested me was the property granted to photography of furnishing the evidence of the real: a scene that has been photographed is experienced as being true.  If someone exhibits the photograph of an old lady and the viewer tells himself, today, she must be dead, he experiences an emotion which is not only of an aesthetic order." 

Again quoting Boltanski: "photography lies, that it doesn't speak the truth but rather the cultural code."  To paraphrase Boltanski, he also speaks about how even today, modern photographers only photograph happy things- children running in fields, smiling faces- and is re-creating images he has already seen before.  This is an interesting idea to me- are we creating true memories or memories we think we should be having?

I had a friend who did an interesting project called "my real family album" where she photographed her daughter as she was growing up- not in an idealized, happy, traditional photo album way of capturing only smiling faces and big events- but by capturing all of the little moments that really make up one's life.  I wonder, in this way, is she getting closer to capturing a truth about experience and the self?  Do more images of genuine moments get closer to truly knowing someone?  Or are we still experiencing an edit (perhaps a subconscious or nontraditional edit) of experience?

In this vein, I enjoyed this quote:

"For whereas Barthes posits that what he calls 'the impossible science of the unique being' depends on a given spectator's particular reading of an 'ordinary' photograph, Boltanski enlarges the artist's role: it is the artist who creates those images 'imprecise enough to be as communal as possible'- images each viewer can interpret differently."

This called to mind a Diane Arbus quote:  

"There are an awful lot of people in the world and it's going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them... It was my teacher Lisette Model who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it will be."

I was also interested in Boltanski's investigation of identity through objects, having photographed all of the possessions of a college student after he passed.  "Photographed against a neutral background, these objects take on equal value: the pope's photograph, a folded shirt, a suit jacket on a hanger, a set of pamphlets, a toothbrush.  The question the inventory poses is whether we can know someone through his or her things...  Is there, in other words, such a thing as identity?" 

I will end with Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blow Up," which was an odd film to me, but perhaps that is because of the cultural context in which it was made. 

A scene from "Blow Up"

It called to mind issues of photography as a form of proof- of showing something real- which is illustrated in the photographer's efforts of enlarging his photographs to an almost unreadable size and scale in an attempt to "prove" that a man was murdered by showing his corpse.  The resulting photographs are ultimately taken from his studio, again reinforcing the notion that photography can prove something true about real life.  It was an entertaining film, but I must be accustomed to the speed at which things move in our society today, because it felt like a very slow telling of a somewhat vague story.  But perhaps that is the whole point. 

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