Posts Tagged ‘tableau vivant

02
Nov
18

Text: Marcus Bunyan. ‘Death and the image’ 2018

November 2018

 

This text was written in 2017 for a special issue of the international magazine Text on the subject ‘Writing Trauma’. While the text was accepted, the peer-reviewers wanted heavy revisions, including reordering the piece and editing out my personal stories. At the time, I was going into hospital for an operation on my hand and such revisions were impossible to undertake.

Now, over a year later, I have reread the text… and I have amended and extended it, but otherwise I am going to leave it as I wrote it in the first place. I like the way I write and I like my personal stories. While it is a long read the writing addresses an important subject with, I hope, some interesting insights along the way.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Word count: 8,137

Download Death and the image (4.3Mb pdf)

 

 

Abstract

This text investigates how the act of photography visually writes trauma. Through an analysis of the context of images of death by artists such as Alphonse Bertillon, Robert Capa, Alexander Gardner, and Walker Evans the paper ponders how the camera captures human beings ante-mortem, at the death point, post-mortem and vita ad mortem.

It seeks to understand that line between presence and absence where life was there… and now death is in its place. Death was one step removed, now it is present. How does the act and performance of photography depict the trauma of death, this double death (for the photograph is a memento mori and/or the person in the photograph may already know that they are going to die).

“The text of eternity that the photograph proposes, imparts and imposes a paradoxical state of loss. The secret of telling truth in a photograph is that the more truthful, “the more orgasmic, the more pleasurable, the more suicidal” the pronouncement of the perfect paradox (you are dead but also alive) … then the more we are strangled while uttering it. The language of deferral in the writing of trauma in death and the image becomes the dissolve that seizes the subject in the midst of an eternal bliss. In death and the image we may actually die (be)coming.”

Keywords

Trauma, photography, death, art, memento mori, war, execution, memory, victim, representation, Alphonse Bertillon, Robert Capa, Alexander Gardner, Walker Evans, ante-mortem, point of death, death point, post-mortem, punctum, empathy, vita ad mortem, life after death.

 

 

Death and the image

 

 

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“Photography, because it stops the flow of life, is always flirting with death…”

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John Berger1

 

“On the most fundamental level there are transitions from continuous to discontinuous or from discontinuous to continuous. We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that this evanescent thing should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is.”

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Georges Bataille2

 

 

German Gen. Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution

 

“German General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad in the Aversa stockade. The General was convicted and sentenced to death by an American military tribunal. Aversa, Italy.” Blomgren, December 1, 1945. 111-SC-225295. National Archives Identifier: 531326

 

 

Trial and Execution of General Anton Dostler

The still photograph (above) can be seen being taken by the flash from a still camera that occurs at 5.16 secs in the YouTube film. The photographer can then be seen walking off. Later in the film another angle of the execution is shown, again with the flash of the absent camera recorded, starting at 7.10 secs. The displacement of time and space, between one point of view and another, with the absence of the still camera in both instances (in the image and in the film), is uncanny.

 

 

1

One of life’s recurrent themes is mortality. As Bataille notes, we are discontinuous beings: we live, we breathe, and we die. Photography’s recurrent theme is also mortality. In a ghostly evocation, the medium possesses an odour of death that sticks in the throat. So how then does photography visually write the trauma of death – over time, through space, in different contexts, with multiple narratives and different points of view?

As a first point of reference, we need to define trauma. Trauma can be an injury to living tissue; a disordered psychic or behavioural state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury; an emotional upset and an agent, force or mechanism that causes all or any of these conditions.3 Atkinson and Richardson note that the work of theorists such as Nicolas Abraham, Maria Torok, Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, Dominick LaCapra, and Cathy Caruth in broad terms view trauma,

“… as the delayed manifestation of a psychic wound sustained during an experience that has happened too quickly to allow registration and processing of the event at the time of its occurrence. To study trauma in literary or cultural terms, then, is to be concerned with the tension between what is known and what is not known, and with the impact and dynamics of the woundedness and machinations of trauma – not only its purely physical instantiation, but in all its reverberations. This is what brings the study of trauma to the uncertainty of truth, the impossibility of bearing absolute witness to catastrophe, the multiplicity of historical narratives.”4

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Constitutive of trauma and its affects is the “piercing of the psychic shield” which protects a fragile subjectivity leaving in its wake shattered individuals, communities and even whole nations.5 Further, Michalinos Zembylas citing Kaplan (2005) notes that “an important distinction that needs to be made here is one’s positioning and context of encountering trauma,”6 between being a primary or secondary witness. Personally, I believe that a testimony (a formal written or spoken statement that something is true) in the first instance… becomes a testament (something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact) in the second.

When looking death in the face, we can state that death is a trauma not only for the physical body and the psyche of the person involved (the direct trauma victim), but also for the witness of the event, be they a primary witness – one who actually witnesses the traumatic event – or a secondary witness, a person “who has no personal connection to the victim but may encounter trauma through other sources such as the media and oral or written accounts of a catastrophe.”7

These secondary encounters can never be the actual experience of trauma but, acting through language (be it oral, written or visual), they may embody sensations that stimulate feelings and thoughts in the secondary observer. A social construction of a testament may produce an empathetic engagement in viewers as “secondary witnesses.”8 Through an understanding of spectatorship, experience, aesthetic effects, narrative strategies and temporal shifts in the polyvocal nature of language we can begin to understand how the affect of secondary traumatisation – on memory, history and the body – can break down the subject-object dichotomy, can break down the realist norms of representation to produce “a mode of cognition involving sensuous, somatic and tactile forms of perception.”9 Here language (the photograph in this case, reinforced by the title of the photograph) stands in for that which is absent, but it is not in opposition to an intensity of feeling. The language of the photograph can intensify the affect of the image, especially if the photograph becomes transcendent, embodied, in the vitality and “aliveness” of the viewer.10

This mimetic experience “promotes a critical and self-reflexive empathy” and knowledge in the secondary witness that LaCapra observes is a “virtual, not vicarious, experience … in which emotional response comes with respect for the other and the realization that the experience of the other is not one’s own.”11 Essentially, this is a social concept, a social construction of reality, a matrix-like view of the world that draws on relational and contextual dimensions for understanding trauma. This concept requires careful consideration of issues related to history, culture, race, gender, ideology, beliefs, agency and power.

“From a social constructionist and narrative perspective, people reconstruct their selves through the stories they tell about their past and the meaning they ascribe to the present in anticipation of the future. They shape their stories through active and creative interpretation of their lives and are in turn shaped by these stories. However, the self is not only a product of narratives. People are purposeful and moral beings, having the power and agency to change scripts, discourses and ideologies…”12

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Here we can ask, what are the machinations of the image in the affective dynamics of photographs of trauma and how are they situated in a certain relation to trauma? What do photographs actually do that give rise to a way of thinking and feeling about trauma?

Although no representation can fully describe the first hand experience of trauma because of the partial nature of language – its gaps, elisions and impossibilities of speech13 – it is because of these very gaps that new spaces of interpretation can open up. Rather than just representing the perceived reality of trauma (this happened, at this time, in this location – an ordering of reality), images have the unique ability to transcend their indexical relationship to the real, pointing and touching (as if with the index finger) to the relationality of trauma as it touches human emotion. With its ability to police and regulate it subject, the implicit violence of photography is a predatory means of taking possession of both its victim (the subject) and its viewer.

Anna Gibbs has stated that we live, “in a more or less continuous state of mediatized emergency and traumatic aftermath, desensitized by the onslaught of images … to the affect we ought to feel.”14 I strongly disagree. I would argue that the traumatic numbing15 and supposed “death of experience”16 allegedly present in the world of image circulation, translation, and accumulation only occurs if the witness lets it be so.

Personally, I believe that something in the image is transferred to the witness pre-cognition – intuitively, imaginatively – which can then be interpreted cognitively and relationally with regard to history and memory, art and culture, politics and experience through an orthogonal movement through time and space. As viewers and interpreters, we are not fixed at a particular point in time and space, nor do we observe from one particular point of view. Our existential engagement provides a space to close the gap between affect and enunciation.

“Facts can vibrate; they can give of colors, sounds, smells, images. To talk of these facts with no recognition of this is to lack any awareness of the act of enunciation, of the gaps between language and experience and the unpredictable ways that sparks can break out of language, leap across the gap and ignite the tinderbox of traumatic memory.”17

 

2

Surfing Pinterest (a photo sharing website) recently, I absentmindedly clicked on an abstract image of three hanging black shapes from the pantheon of image tiles that presented itself to me. Up popped this horrific image of three Afro-Americans who had been lynched in the Southern United States in the 1920s. I was shocked and dismayed. I had such a strong emotional reaction to the image. But more than that, my feelings and memories of the bigotry that I had faced as a young gay man growing up in the 1970s swelled in my consciousness. This story is a example of how exposure to an image can bring to the surface unresolved aspects of being ‘Other’, of being different, and being persecuted for that difference. I thought about the lives of these people that had led them to that point, their families, their histories and the terror that they must have experienced on that day. You cannot begin to understand that, but you can have empathy and anger against the systems of racism and bigotry that exist in the world.

Then the cognitive part of my brain linked the image to a report I had only just seen a few days before on lynching, which told of the thousands of Afro-Americans who had been killed between 1882 and 1968.18 Mentally, I then linked this to a Facebook posting which put forward the analogy that the current killing of Afro-Americans by police in the United States was akin to a contemporary and publicly endorsed and enforced form of lynching. Finally, in my head I heard Billie Holiday singing that famous song Strange Fruit, “a dark and profound song about the lynching of African Americans in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow Era, “strange fruit,” as they hang from trees, rotting in the sun, blowing in the wind, and becoming food for crows upon being burned.”19 I watched the video of Billie Holiday singing this song on YouTube.20 Every time I think of this image I have these associations of animate thought intrinsic to the original experience,21 where the micro and macro conditions of production work to “embody and register trauma,”22 a communicable language of sensation and affect, time and time again.

 

 

Billie Holiday – Strange fruit

 

 

These chains of affect, the nexus between affect / feeling / emotion / cognition, are a form of synaesthesia where facts, emotions, feelings, memories, sounds and images vibrate against each other as an active and continuous engagement of the self with the world in which one lives. In a human being who is un/consciously aware, these real and mediated experiences may encourage a sensory intensification that elicits thought and empathic vision in the materiality of embodied experience, something (the punctum?) that takes us out of our selves into a higher register of being.

As part of this system of impressions, of an instantaneous, affective response triggered by an image,23 photographs force us to engage visually and involuntarily. “Impressions that force us to look, encounters which force us to interpret, expressions which force us to think.”24 Encounters which force us to comprehend. The conjunction of affect and critical awareness “constitute the basis of an empathy grounded … on a feeling for another that entails an encounter with something irreducible and different, often inaccessible.”25 This combination of affective and intellectual operations – about forcing oneself to look (and that process of looking/surrendering) but never forgetting your ‘point of view’, your memory, history and identity, is when empathy becomes that process of surrender, “but also the catch that transforms your perception.”26 How is this “catch” enunciated in photographs? I now want to look at a few images that explicate these phenomena.

 

Ante-mortem: present but absent

3

With the invention of photography in the late 1830s, the photograph as memento mori allows the spectator to observe death not at first hand, but through the representation of the image “taken from life.” Photographs provide a verification of reality through their apparent verisimilitude, while being woven into narratives – oral, textual, intertextual, spatial and temporal – that frame the event in multiple ways.

“Photographs … have come to stand in for reality … despite the fact that it is relatively easy to manipulate their meaning. As a result of their ability to project reality, images, and particularly those that depict death and destruction, are seen as potentially powerful pieces of documentary evidence…”27

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Photographs are embedded in “a context of the cultural circumstances at the time, and therefore exist rarely in isolation or without meaning”28 and can be seen as having a denotative level (what they physically represent) and a connotative level (the meanings attached to that representation).29 Photography quickly changed how death was displayed because it introduced a “reality” and immediacy of representation that was democratic, personal and everyday.30

 

Alexander Gardner. 'Lewis Paine' 26th April 1865

 

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)
Lewis Paine
26th April 1865
Albumen silver print from a Collodion glass plate negative

 

 

An example of the personal, everyday and documentary nature of photography can be seen in the photograph taken by Alexander Gardner in April 1865. This portrait is of Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Payne or Paine) who was one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which occurred the same month. The photograph has a background of dark metal, and was taken on one of the ironclads U.S.S. Montauk or Saugus, where the conspirators were for a time confined. The reality is Paine was executed in July 1865 just eight short weeks after this photograph was taken, so in effect (and in the affect on us of this knowledge), he is (already) a dead man walking. This is a double death – that death buried in the very act of taking any photograph, La petite mort or “the little death,” an idiom and euphemism for the orgasm of the photographic time freeze; and the fact that we know that he was going to die, those short weeks later.

The photograph forms the central panel of a three-panel Renaissance-like altarpiece, the form in which the three photographs are usually displayed. The left and right hand photographs were taken within minutes of each other, with the camera in the same position, whereas in the centre photograph the camera has been lowered to show more of the body, and the image has been cropped at the top. In the central plate the figure of Paine has been raised up in the frame – almost prematurely brought back to life by his placement. The centre image is the only one where Paine stares directly at the camera. He surveys the viewer with a gaze I find enigmatic.

 

Alexander Gardner. 'Lewis Paine' 26th April, 1865

 

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)
Three photographs of Lewis Paine
26th April, 1865
Albumen silver prints from a Collodion glass plate negative

 

 

This is a very modern face, a very contemporary face. His hair is similar to Justin Beiber’s. Who brushed his hair across for this picture, and would it normally be this long, or has it just been ignored because of his fate? He still has good muscle tone – has he been exercising in his ironclad cell? And finally, his clothing – are they navy issue, as his top appears to have been given to him, perhaps the coarse, navy blue wool of the Northern states. If we were to place this image within the metaphysical school of photography which peaked with Paul Caponigro and Minor White we could say: Hovering above his head, has his spirit already begun to leave his body?

One reading of his gaze is that he is interested in what the photographer is doing – almost the gaze of an apprentice wanting to apply these skills in the future. Given his fate is he insane because of his interest? Another reading could be that he is looking out to the future in the hope of finding that he will be judged in another way. And another is the immediacy of his gaze – it is a gaze that is happening now!

The other thing that I find mysterious is the distance of the photographer from the subject. Was it fear or the presence of the guards that stopped Gardner getting any closer, or are there deck fittings we cannot see that prevented his approach. Imagine being Paine, having a photographer point a damn great view camera at you, documenting your countenance for prosperity. What was going on in Paine’s mind – what is his perspective on this performance by the photographer? And what brought Paine to this place?

Michel Foucault calls the methods and techniques by which human beings constitute themselves, “technologies of the self.” Foucault argued that we as subjects are perpetually engaged in processes whereby we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. According to Foucault, technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge and strategies that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of immortality.”31 As we look into his eyes he knows that we know he is going to die, has already died but the intensity of that knowledge is brought into present time. In this instant, what Paine emanates is a form of i-mortality.

Roland Barthes in his seminal work Camera Lucida observes in Section 39:

“He is dead and he is going to die… The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.”32

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This is Barthes anterior future, a moment where truth is interpreted in the mind of the photographer, not out there but in here (your head and your heart), where past, present and future coalesce into a single point in time: his death and our death connected through his gaze, and the knowledge of our joint discontinuity. In this moment in time, what we are doing is making a list about the human condition when we talk about something that is remarkable. Language can never fully describe the human condition, much as it may try… and this is why this photograph is remarkable, because it is ineffable, unknowable. The photograph inhabits you; it haunts you like few others, because it is a memoriam to a young man and his present death. Here he is present but absent at one and the same time.

As such, this is an image as triple death – the death of the photograph (past time / memento mori / remembrance of death), the death of the person in the photograph and also a third death, the knowledge that Paine is going to die. Death, like life, can be cyclical. This is the catch that transforms your perception, in Barthes terms the punctum of the image, in which the wounding, personally touching detail (past pose, future death) establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.

“The punctum (a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma [my emphasis]) … inspires an intensely private meaning, one that is suddenly, unexpectedly recognized and consequently remembered (it “shoots out of [the photograph] like an arrow and pierces me”); it ‘escapes’ language (like Lacan’s real); it is not easily communicable through/with language. The punctum is ‘historical’ as an experience of the irrefutable indexicality of the photograph (its contingency upon a referent). The punctum is a detail or “partial object” that attracts and holds the viewer’s (the Spectator’s) gaze; it pricks or wounds the observer.”33

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This trauma, prick or wound that lifts the viewer out of themselves, out of their everyday existence, “points to those features of a photograph that seem to produce or convey a meaning without invoking any recognizable symbolic system. This kind of meaning is unique to the response of the individual viewer of the image.”34 This punctum also accounts for the importance of emotion and subjectivity in interacting with photographs; memory of that photograph displaces it from its moment of origin.35 Photography enacts the trauma of death even while being enacted upon.

Now we can read Eduardo Cadava’s comments on Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the photograph:

“As Benjamin suggests … the photograph, like the souvenir, is the corpse of an experience. A photograph therefore speaks as death, as the trace of what passes into history. I, the photograph, the spaced out limit between life and death, I, the photograph, am death. Yet, speaking as death, the photograph can be neither death nor itself. At once dead and alive, it opens the possibility of our being in time.”36

 

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Photography then, can be seen as death taken away from itself.

Through the oscillation between studium (historical, social or cultural meanings extracted via semiotic analysis) and punctum (those features of a photograph that seem to produce or convey a meaning without invoking any recognisable symbolic system) the traumatic photograph of death, death’s afterimage, transcends the initial shock inducing signifier leading to a more extended form of engagement that addresses the duration of trauma in memory – through the images elisions, slippages, and conceptual, political and historical complexities. Our negotiation with imaging and imagining, therefore, takes place within ever-expanding contexts of meaning – some relating to the past and some to the present – which impact future interpretations.

I believe that these negotiations are, firstly, linked to what Deleuze calls the encountered sign, a “sign that is felt, rather than recognized, or perceived through cognition.”37 A feeling that is a catalyst for critical enquiry or deep thought. “For Deleuze, affect or emotion is a more effective trigger for profound thought because of the way in which it grasps us, forcing us to engage involuntarily…”38 Secondly, I believe that these negotiations are linked to what Barthes calls the images “third meaning.”

“In Barthes’ view, the image’s third meaning compels viewers after they encounter and deplete both its literal/informational side and its symbolic dimensions. Barthes argued that the third meaning is difficult to locate, because it is not situated structurally or in a certain place of the image. It is similarly difficult to describe, because it involves what he called the image’s obtuseness, its accent or anaphoric side.”39

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Again, we have this idea of the catch, accent, or punctum that grasps us and takes us out of ourselves, that modulates the images “voice” (which is how the image takes on an already provided meaning upon its initial appearance), a voice which then also “helps us to understand both the image’s third meaning and the role of contingency in visual memory.”40

 

Death point

5

 

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“Ah, wretched as I am … to dwell not among the living, not among the dead.”

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Sophocles, ‘Antigone’41

 

 

Commentators such as Barbie Zelizer observe that images, especially about-to-die images, easily “reduce complex issues and circumstances to memorable but simplistic visual frames.”42 The image,

“… depicts for its onlookers a moment in an event’s unfolding to which they attend while knowing where that unfolding leads. This means that visual work often involves catching the sequencing of events or issues midstream, strategically freezing it at its potentially strongest moment of meaningful representation.”43

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Other writers such as Susan Sontag note that these images have the potential to stir public emotions, simply because they freeze a moment in time and can be looked at again and again… but at the same time the repeated viewing of images of atrocity can have a numbing effect.44 The pain and fear evidenced in the photograph as seen in the victim’s eyes (for example in the photograph of the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy), expands the literal / informational side and its symbolic dimensions (chivalry, love, devotion, hope – Camelot!) into a Barthes’ third space. While Kennedy is a victim twice over (the victim of the assassin and the camera) in a guttural interpretation of the image he is to remain a victim for eternity in the contingency of the future, as long as we continue to look at this photograph.

For me, this is sad and painful photograph. I remember the day it happened. I was ten years old at the time. It’s one of those events that you will remember for the rest of your life – where you were, who you were with – like the moon landings or 9/11. I was in a car outside a small newsagent when the news came on the radio. Robert F. Kennedy had been shot: first aural, then visual on the black and white TV that night, then textual in the newspapers and then visual again with this photograph, then associative. The pain of the loss of those heady days of hope lessens not.

 

Boris Yaro (American, born 1938) 'LOS ANGELES. KENNEDY MOMENTS AFTER SHOOTING' June 5, 1968

 

Boris Yaro (American, born 1938)
LOS ANGELES. KENNEDY MOMENTS AFTER SHOOTING. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Lies Gravely Wounded on the floor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after midnight today, moments after he was shot during a celebration of his victory in yesterday’s California primary election
June 5, 1968
Gelatin silver print
17.2 x 21.1 cm (6 3/4 x 8 5/16 in.)
Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2010

 

While photographs of the actual moment of death are rare I have been able to find around ten images that capture this vital moment, a freezing of reality at the point of death, the death point: that line between presence and absence where life was there… and now death is in its place. Death was one step removed, now it is present.

However, I would argue that in the contextual language of the photograph, there is no singular death point. I would propose the idea of an extended period of time and space embedded in the spatio-temporal matrix of the image, so that there is no single point, no singular resolution to the traumatic moment of death – either for the person involved, nor the witness or viewer.

Setting aside the concept that the image could have been staged, in Robert Capa’s famous photograph Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936 (below), there is something about this image where space or some basic element is being democratised at the moment of death – or maybe in the choice to struggle with death. In an ontological sense of becoming, perhaps it is this that becomes the pure representation of time. In contrapunto, there is an anonymous image of a German soldier at the point of death on the steppes of Russia that is totally unknown. Why has one become famous and the other not?

Has it to do with the fame of the photographer, the pose of the person, or the agency of photography itself, where one photograph regarding the pain of others is too damning a legacy and of too plain a purpose to bare contemplating, while the other – with its masked face, outflung arm and falling, quasi-religious nature – has become possibly the most famous of war photographs through its proliferation in newspapers and magazines.

Whatever the merits of each image, these death point photographs are noteworthy for what is not said: the violence that is being perpetrated on the victim every time a person looks, and looks again, at the photograph. The writing of trauma by photography never ends, is always and forever infinite.

 

Robert Capa (1913-1954) 'Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936' 1936

 

Robert Capa (1913-1954)
Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936
1936
Gelatin silver print
Photograph by Robert Capa © Cornell Capa / Magnum

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Falling German Soldier, Eastern Front' c. 1942

 

Anonymous photographer
Falling German Soldier, Eastern Front
c. 1942
akg-images / Interfoto AKG138118

Caption: A German soldier pays the ultimate price of war. German casualties were less than those of the Red Army, but the steady attrition suffered by the Wehrmacht began to undermine its effectiveness.46

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942' 1942

Anonymous photographer. 'Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942' 1942

 

Anonymous photographer
Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942
1942
Rare Historical Photos website 2013

Caption: A Soviet spy laughs at his executioner in a picture taken in Rukajärvi, in East Karelia, in November 1942. It has been thought within the Finnish Defence Forces that the decision to withhold pictures of the fate of Russian POWs and spies may also have been prompted by concerns that pro-Soviet elements in Finnish society could have used the images for propaganda purposes. This picture was declassified by the Ministry of Defense of Finland in 2006, with the description: Unknown Soviet intelligence officer before being shot, Finland, 1942.

It’s a pretty amazing picture. To capture the last few moments of life. He knows he will die in a few seconds, in a forest in the snow. And there he will bleed out and be forgotten. His life, his experience, has come to an end. What else could he do but smile? That smile was his final defiance. Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.47

 

 

6

Here we might ask, is it possible, through the use of encountered signs, “voice”, punctum, catch or accent, to extend the unreal time of death?

Personally, I believe it is and I would argue for a sense of a Buddhist “no-time”. A transcendent time embedded into the fabric of the image. In Walker Evans’ terms an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminates in amazing accidents of composition, where things constantly rub up against each other “in the desire to create a type of friction that tests the boundaries of representation.”48 An example of this spatio-temporal dimensionality, third meaning or Thirdspace, can be seen in the interplay between the still image and film footage of the execution of German General Anton Dostler by a firing squad in the Aversa stockade December 1, 1945. By examining the film we see a flash of light at 5.16 secs, which is the still photograph at the top of this text being taken by the flash of a camera. The photographer can then be seen walking off. Later in the film another angle of the execution is shown, again with the flash of the absent camera recorded, starting at 7.10 secs. The displacement of time and space, between one point of view and another, with the absence of the still camera in both instances (in the image and in the film), is uncanny.

The fluidity of Barthes’ third meaning, where the image’s obtuseness compels viewers, has obvious links to Edward Soja’s conceptualisation of “Thirdspace”, which emerged from the spatial trialectics established by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space and Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Soja defines Thirdspace as, “an-Other way of understanding and acting to change the spatiality of human life, a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness that is appropriate to the new scope and significance being brought about in the rebalanced trialectics of spatiality-historicality-sociality.”49 In this amorphous space, “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.”50

A further example of the presence of a third meaning in a still photograph can be seen in the image by an unknown photographer Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans (1944, below). Caught like a rabbit in headlights, the flash illuminates the collaborator kneeling, bound, and masked but it is not quick enough to freeze the explosion of wood, the dynamic breaking of the rope or the slight movement of the hands. The body seems to float on a bed of leaves. The cheap, dirty shoes and striped trousers leading up to the material that covers the victim’s face. Is that his hair, or a hat or another hood over his head? Although we know the what, why, and where of the photograph – an encounter with both its literal/informational side and its symbolic dimensions – the placing of the image, its accent and obtuseness is much more difficult to understand. The photograph and its protagonist seem to exist beyond time and space, the anonymous man surrounded by a death bed of leaves, bursting the bonds that wrapped him and held him tight. Like the mystery of Man Ray’s L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse (1920), the photograph has disturbed the trialectics of spatiality-historicality-sociality, destroying the imploring label, “Do not disturb.”

 

Unknown photographer. 'Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France. 21 November 1944'

 

Unknown photographer
Photo taken at the instant bullets from a French firing squad hit a Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. This execution took place in Rennes, France. 21 November 1944
1944
Silver gelatin photograph
U.S. Army Signal Corps
National Archives Identifier (NAID)

 

 

Post-mortem: absent but present

7

 

Letherolfsvile Oct 29 AD 1859

This is the likeness of Catherine Christ

When I am dead and in my grave

And when my bones are rotten

Remember me

When this you see

Or I shall be forgotten

The grass is green The rose is red

here is my name when I am dead 51

 

 

This short poem written on a piece of paper hidden underneath an image in a daguerreotype case implores us to remember the person – a plea to the future to remember them – through a composite narrative of portrait and text. Through the creative addition of text, the language of photographs can be supplemented which adds to the functionality of the photograph as an effective memory object.52 But what if the scene of the text (the photograph) contains an absence, no depiction of the person who has died? What happens to the writing of trauma in images of the dead then?

If we acknowledge that a photograph of a person always prefigures its subjects passing then what we are doing “in reality” is deferring the death of an/other onto the foreseen death of ourselves. In this process, we must remember that every photograph is a construct, a performative act by the photographer. What the photographer chooses to record is an act of will, whether ethical or not. Photographers have the presence of mind to attend to a certain manufacture of history. When viewing this instant narrative the viewer must acknowledge a loss of a sense of time:

“This lost sense could manifest as reliving a traumatic episode as if it is taking place in the present … In the context of trauma… a loss of sense of time deprives one of the ability of remembering and telling one’s narrative in a chronological order.”53

 

Emmet Gowin (b. 1941) 'Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia' 1972

 

Emmet Gowin (b. 1941)
Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia
1972
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Emmet and Edith Gowin
© Edith and Emmet Gowin and courtesy of Pace MacGill Gallery, New York

 

 

One way that artist’s upset this chronological order is by playing with the fragmentary nature of time, space and memory – of present absence/absent presence. In Emmet Gowin’s accidentally double-exposed negative, Avebury Stone and Rennie Booher, England and Danville, Virginia, 1972 (above), the photograph combines “a funerary image of his wife’s grandmother, Rennie Booher, with the surface of a Neolithic monumental stone he had photographed in England a few days earlier.” Floating through eternity, encased in ancient rock that nourishes her spirit, Gowin’s photograph acts as a kind of testament of absent but present, neither here not there. This loss of sense of space and time can be deeply disturbing (like trauma) as it questions one’s physical presence in the world, but it can also have a transcendental dimension as both time and space are inextricably bound to the very specific conditions of the material world. Photographs like the one of Booher have the potential to draw together what would otherwise seem to be incompatible. To form what Jacob Bronowsi calls a “hidden likeness”, one that transcends time and space, one that is reactivated with every looking.

“The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again…”54

.
An important fact about the nature of trauma is the compulsion of the human psyche to repeat traumatic events over and over again. The reproducibility of photographs and the ability to look at them again and again – their machine-like repeatability, their citationality or iterability to use Derrida’s signature term – feeds into this repetitive “death instinct” (Thanatos). However, Bronowsi’s “hidden likeness” (also the name of one of Emmet Gowin’s exhibitions and a form of punctum) is perhaps a liminal moment, one that may upset the death instinct. These liminal moments may occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. By disrupting the threshold – between life and death, between past, present and future time – they are requisite of the ghost (the soul) in the machine (the camera).

As Derrida observes, building on the work of Barthes,

“It belongs to it without belonging to it and is unlocatable in it; it never inscribes itself in the homogenous objectivity of the framed space but instead inhabits, or rather haunts it: “it is the addition [supplement]: it is what I add to the photograph and what is none the less already there.” … Neither life nor death, it is the haunting of the one by the other … Ghosts: the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the studium, the dead other alive in me.”57

 

8

In this scenario, perhaps the act of writing trauma through death in the image becomes the true act of learning, and the interpretation of that act becomes an act of creation rather than one of rote memorialisation. These are images that require contemplation, time, analysis, and sensation, where the subject of the photograph is transformed “from somebody merely seen to someone really felt,” which is, as Batchen says, “an emotional exchange transacted in the heart.”58

This emotional exchange can take many forms. It can be triggered when the dead body is only metaphorically represented in the image, when the physicality of death has been transmuted. For example, photographs such as Walker Evan’s Child’s grave, Hale County, Alabama (1936, below), or the documentary image Place where the corpse was found (1901-8, below) by the French photographer Alphonse Bertillon, propose a re-imaging and re-imagining of the life of the person. They do so through an un/ambiguous photographic context, that is, through the marking of place in the photograph. In the latter case, this marking of a life is represented by two pieces of wood lying on the ground and two pieces of wood propped at 45 degrees against the wall. As though this is all that is left of the existence of Mademoiselle Mercier in a street (Rue de l’Yvette) that still exists in Paris to this day. A photograph of pieces of wood and an empty space.

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975) 'Child's grave, Hale County, Alabama' 1936

 

Walker Evans (1903-1975)
Child’s grave, Hale County, Alabama
1936
Silver gelatin print
7 3/8 x 9 7/16″ (18.7 x 23.9 cm)
© 2016 Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Attributed to Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914) 'Place where the corpse was found' 1st November 1902

 

Attributed to Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914)
Place where the corpse was found
1st November 1902
From Album of Paris Crime Scenes
Gelatin silver print
Overall: 24.3 x 31 cm (9 9/16 x 12 3/16 in.)
Page: 23 x 29 cm (9 1/16 x 11 7/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 2001

 

 

Other photographs picture the place of death nearly a century later in order to commemorate the traumatic death of “deserters” at the hands of a firing squad during the First World War. These are some of the most traumatic photographs of death I have seen, for they require me to imagine the mise en scène that was enacted at dawn almost 100 years ago, in the very place where these photographs were later “shot” at dawn.

The artist, Chloe Dewe Mathews, realised that “I was placing my tripod around the same spot where the firing squad had stood and looking directly at the place where the victim was placed.” It was, she says, “a solitary and sombre undertaking,” an undertaking (with that name’s etymological link to the word undertaker) which the viewer is invited to partake of, a re-imaging of those traumatic events that requires an active imagining, and thinking, in the neo-spectator. It is this duration of trauma in cultural memory which calls for an active negotiation in ways of seeing, a re-negotiation which can produce an empathic vision that “changes the terms of our engagement” with the image.

 

Chloe Dewe Mathews. 'Former Abattoir, Mazingarbe, Nord-Pas-de-Calais' 2013

 

Chloe Dewe Mathews (b. 1982)
Former Abattoir, Mazingarbe, Nord-Pas-de-Calais
2013
Eleven British soldiers were executed here between 1915-18
From the series Shot at Dawn
© Chloe Dewe Mathews

 

 

Vita ad mortem: life after death

9

 

.
“… the life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”

.
George Wilhelm Frederich Hegel61

 

 

The absence/presence contained within all photographs speaks to the ultimate affect: that of la petite mort – the “little death” – the sensation of orgasm as likened to death, a short period of melancholy or transcendence as a result of the expenditure of the “life force.” While Barthes metaphorically used the concept to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature, it can also be used when some undesired thing has happened to a person and has affected them so much that “a part of them dies inside.”

A photograph can also contain this melancholy transcendence, a catastrophe that has already occurred.

“Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe… This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die… At the limit, there is no need to represent a body [in photographs] in order for me to experience this vertigo of time defeated.”63

.
Barthes’ concept of an extended punctum may be useful here, when he states, “I now know that there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmatum’) than the ‘detail’. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’), its pure representation.”64

Here Barthes is proposing a punctum of intensity; a punctum as lacerating “detail”; and/or “the vertigo of time defeated.” This “temporal hallucination” embedded and embodied in the photograph – the temporality of the “will-have-been”, they are dead (today), they are already dead (yesterday), Barthes’ anterior future – represents a symbolically mediated subject bound up in three extases of time (past, present, and future).65

The subject becomes lost in the language of the photograph, the intersection of Lacan’s the Imaginary (in which the human subject creates fantasy images of both himself and his ideal object of desire), the Symbolic (the social world of linguistic communication and inter-subjective relations), and the Real (defined as what escapes the Symbolic, the Real can be neither spoken nor written, it is impossible, but is ceaselessly writing itself). These concepts serve to situate subjectivity within a system of perception and a dialogue with the external world.

According to Lori Wike, the experience of punctum and the structure of iterability can be aligned to Lacan’s concept of the death drive (or death instinct) present in the Symbolic order, in which the signifier “materializes the agency of death.”66 This may account for the role of the photographic punctum as trauma, in which the punctum opens up “a kind of subtle beyond” where “a blind field is created (is divined)…”67 As Barthes notes, “Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.”68 Further, we can say that, “unlike the symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as “presence” and “absence”, there is no absence in the real,” for the real is undifferentiated, “it is without fissure.”

“The symbolic introduces “a cut in the real,” in the process of signification: “it is the world of words that creates the world of things.” Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: “it is that which resists symbolization absolutely.” The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality.”69

.
The “mark” of photography is eviscerated in the intensity of the real, a traumatic loss of time that confronts us with our own mortality and the knowledge that we will not be remembered. This is where images of death can take us once the initial affective connection is established – to a noumenal space where in the play of representation, the point of origin becomes ungraspable (Lacan’s différance).70

“In French, différance simultaneously contains within its neo-graphism the activities of differing and deferring, a distancing acted out temporally as well as spatially.”71 Where the moment (the time freeze of the shutter) turns in, on and around its own fulcrum, where there is always difference at the point of origin. For all of its instantaneous nature, in photography there is always a perverse moment of displacement and deferral. In its history, “a perverse complicity of continuity and resemblance with its supposed opposite, discontinuity and difference”72 … the latter only existing in a reciprocal relationship to the former.

The circle is closing and we return to where we started.

 

10

Human beings in their longing for lost continuity are mirrored by their photographs which transition from continuous to discontinuous and back again. While we yearn for our lost continuity, we must acknowledge that death is an unedited event, one that we cannot look back on. There is no following event to blank out that moment… and the dead are always dying. But what images of death in photography do is this: they allow us to approach the noumenal, that state of being of which we can have knowledge of, but can never know. We can approach, touch, feel, analyse, and have empathy for traumatic events in the representation of an unknowable reality. The photograph has the ability to go beyond the symbolic, to approach the impossible, the real.

The photograph may proffer a ‘releasement toward things’,73 a coexistence between a conscious and unconscious way of perceiving which sustains the mystery of the object confusing the distinction between real time and sensual time, between inside and outside, input and output becoming neither here nor there. As Martin Jolly notes, citing John Thompson, “… images of death can be seen a form of “mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space” in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time.”74 Further, John Thompson observes, “While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.”75

In the sense that the photograph becomes la petite mort, the little death, it embodies our desire for the soul to become eternal in the form of this mediated experience… the displacement of the soul via the ghost in the machine, the soul remembered throughout time in the traumatic trace of the photograph. Death in the language of photography is always postponed and deferred: into the physicality of the photograph; into cultural memory; into the gaze (of the photographer, the camera and the viewer); and into the body of the observer. Here, a relationship exists between an impossible reality (an encounter with an “outside” which is unknowable) and a floating referent in an image that is both formative and transformative. And in that relationship, as Donna Haraway observes, “Relationship is multiform, at stake, unfinished, consequential.”76

The text of eternity that the photograph proposes, imparts and imposes a paradoxical state of loss. The secret of telling truth in a photograph is that the more truthful, “the more orgasmic, the more pleasurable, the more suicidal”77 the pronouncement of the perfect paradox78 (you are dead but also alive) … then the more we are strangled while uttering it. The language of deferral in the writing of trauma in death and the image becomes the dissolve that seizes the subject in the midst of an eternal bliss. In death and the image we may actually die (be)coming.

© Dr Marcus Bunyan 2018

Word count: 8,137

 

 

Addendum

“Empirically acknowledged as tragic, the photographic print was really just that when, at the turn of the century, it became the instrument of the three great authorities over life and death (the law, the army, medicine). This is when it demonstrated its power to reveal the unfolding of a destiny from the word go. As deus ex machina [god from the machine or, providential intervention], it was to become just as ruthless for the criminal, the soldier or the invalid, the conjunction between the immediate and the fatal only becoming more solid, inevitably, with the progress of representation.”

Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine (trans. Julie Rose). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 43.

 

“Written with her trademark flair and force, Sontag’s book [On Photography] inaugurated a wave of criticism, much of it influenced by Foucaultian theory, that underscored the instrumentality and implicit violence of photography, its ability to police and regulate it subjects, especially those lacking social and political power: the poor, presumed “deviants” or “criminals,” and workers. As Sontag herself acknowledged, however, photography is not only a predatory means of taking possession, but also a mode of conferring value; it can potentially be put to counter-hegemonic uses, used to see and frame in ways that affirm and legitimate, rather than strictly contain and control, the presence of culturally disenfranchised persons.”

Entin, Joseph. “Milton Rogovin’s Approach: Photography, Class, and the Aesthetics of Making Space (2008),” on the ASX website July 12, 2010 [Online] Cited 27/10/2018

 

Adrien Constant de Rebecque (Swiss, Lausanne 1806-1876 Lausanne) '[Man in Chainmail Tunic Posing as a Dying Soldier]' c. 1863

 

Adrien Constant de Rebecque (Swiss, Lausanne 1806-1876 Lausanne)
[Man in Chainmail Tunic Posing as a Dying Soldier]
c. 1863
Albumen print from collodion glass negative
17.9 x 24.2 cm (7 1/16 x 9 1/2 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 2012
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo. 'Ouvrier en grève, assassiné (Striking worker, assassinated)' 1934

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
Ouvrier en grève, assassiné (Striking worker, assassinated)
1934
Silver gelatin print

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002) 'La Buena Fama Durmiendo (The Good Reputation Sleeping)' 1939, printed c. 1970s

 

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1902-2002)
La Buena Fama Durmiendo (The Good Reputation Sleeping)
1939, printed c. 1970s
Silver gelatin print

 

 

One of my early heroes in photography was Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Many Mexican photographs tell such stories based on the mythology of the country: there are elements of the absurd, surrealism, macabre, revolution, political and socio-economic issues, also of death, violence, beauty, youth, sexuality and religion to name but a few – a search for national identity that is balanced in the photographs of Bravo by a sense of inner peace and redemption. This potent mix of issues and emotions is what makes Mexican photography so powerful and substantive. In the “presence” (or present, the awareness of the here and now) of Mexican photography there is a definite calligraphy of the body in space in most of the work. This handwriting is idiosyncratic and emotive; it draws the viewer into an intimate narrative embrace. Two famous photographs by Bravo illustrate some of these themes (Apollonian/Dionysian; utopian/dystopian). When placed together they seem to have a strange attraction one to the other.

 

Anne Frank, photograph inscribed with her wish to go to Hollywood, October 10, 1942

 

Anne Frank, photograph inscribed with her wish to go to Hollywood, October 10, 1942

 

 

References

Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson 2013 ‘Introduction: At the Nexus’, in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 1-21

Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson (eds) 2013 Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Barthes, Roland 1981 Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography New York: Hill and Wang

Bataille, Georges 1962 Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo New York: Walker and Company

Batchen, Geoffrey 2004 Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Batchen, Geoffrey 1997 Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography paperback 1999 Massachusetts: MIT Press

Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press

Berger, John 1985 The Sense of Sight New York: Vintage International

Brett, Donna West 2016 ‘Damaged: Ruin and Decay in Walker Evans’ Photographs’ Walker Evans Symposium Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography

Bronowski, Jacob 1958 Science and Human Values New York: Harper and Row

Brown, Andrew (ed. and trans,) 1987 Sophocles: Antigone Wiltshire: Aris and Phillips Ltd.

Cadava, Eduardo 1992 ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’ Diacritics 22 no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter), 84-114

Chaouat, Bruno 2005 ‘Image malgré tout’ (review) L’Esprit Créateur vol. 45 no. 1, 110-111

Deleuze, Gilles 1964 Proust and Signs New York: George Braziller, 1972 in English

Edwards, Janis L. 2012 ‘Visual Literacy and Visual Politics: Photojournalism and the 2004 Presidential Debates’ Communication Quarterly vol. 60 issue 5, 681-197

Foucault, Michel 1988 ‘Technologies of the self’ in L H Martin and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 16-49

Gibbs, Anna 2013 ‘Apparently Unrelated: Affective Resonance, Concatenation and Traumatic Circuitry in the Terrain of the Everyday’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 129-147

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect and the Images from Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 125-142

Hanusch, Folker 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan

Haraway, Donna and Cary Wolfe 2016 Manifestly Haraway Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Hegel, George Wilhelm Frederich 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit Preface (trans. A. V. Miller 1977) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Heidegger, Martin 1966 Discourse on Thinking New York: Harper & Row

Houlihan, Kasia 2004 ‘Annotation on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography’ New York: Hill and Wang 1981 in Theories of Media, Winter

Jolly, Martyn 2015 ‘An Australian Spiritualist’s Personal Cartes-de-Visite Album’, in A Maxwell and J Croci (eds) Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 71-87

Kopelson, Kevin 1990 ‘Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth’ in GENDERS no. 7 Spring, 22-31

Lacan, Jacques and Jeffrey Mehlman 1972 ‘The Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter” in Yale French Studies no. 48 French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis Yale University Press, 39-72

Martin, Luther H and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) 1988 Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press

Maxwell, Anne and Josephine Croci (eds) 2015 Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing

O’Hagan, Sean 2014 ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews’s Shot at Dawn: a moving photographic memorial’ The Guardian website

Papastergiadis, Nikos and Mary Zournazi 2002 ‘Faith without certitudes’ in M Zournazi Hope: New Philosophies for Change Annandale NSW: Pluto Press Australia, 78-97

Randell, Karen and Sean Redmond (eds) 2008 The war body on screen, New York: Continuum

Rastas, David and Maria Schlachter 2016 Art as a Sanctuary for the Mad: Six characteristics of mystical experience and their visual accompaniment in contemporary art

Rogobete, Ileana Carmen 2011 Reconstructing Trauma and Recovery: Life Narratives of Survivors of Political Violence during Apartheid PhD thesis Cape Town: University of Cape Town

Rutherford, Anne 2013 ‘Film, Trauma and the Enunciative Present’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 80-103

Sontag, Susan 1977 On Photography New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Staines, Deborah (ed) 2007 Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Strawberry 2013 ‘Roland Barthes: studium and punctum’ Museum of Education website

Thompson, John 1995 The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media Cambridge: Polity Press

Virilio, Paul 1994 The Vision Machine (trans. Julie Rose). Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Walsh, Stephen 2000 Stalingrad: The Infernal Cauldron, 1942-43 London: Simon and Schuster

Wike, Lori 2000 ‘Photographs and Signatures: Absence, Presence, and Temporality in Barthes and Derrida’ In[]Visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies issue 3, 1-28

Zelizer, Barbie 2002 The Voice of the Visual in Memory Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania

Zembylas, Michalinos 2008 The Politics of Trauma in Education New York: Palgrave Macmillan

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Berger, John 1985 The Sense of Sight New York: Vintage International, 122

[2] Bataille, Georges 1962 Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo New York: Walker and Company, 15

[3] Anonymous 2016 Definition of Trauma by Mirriam-Webster, at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trauma (accessed 8 November 2016)

[4] Atkinson, Meera and Michael Richardson 2013 ‘Introduction: At the Nexus’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 5

[5] Rutherford, Anne 2013 ‘Film, Trauma and the Enunciative Present’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 82

[6] Michalinos Zembylas 2008 The Politics of Trauma in Education, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 4

[7] Ibid., 4

[8] Rutherford Op. cit., 87

[9] Rutherford Op. cit., Footnote 49, 93

[10] Rutherford Op. cit., 94

[11] Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 9

[12] Rogobete, Ileana Carmen 2011 Reconstructing Trauma and Recovery: Life Narratives of Survivors of Political Violence during Apartheid PhD thesis Cape Town: University of Cape Town, at https://open.uct.ac.za/handle/11427/10884 (accessed 8 November 2016)

[13] Rutherford Op. cit., 85

[14] Gibbs, Anna 2013 ‘Apparently Unrelated: Affective Resonance, Concatenation and Traumatic Circuitry in the Terrain of the Everyday’ in M Atkinson and M Richardson (eds) Traumatic Affect Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 130

[15] “Perhaps rather than numbness, what we actually feel is our own helplessness or impotence, and the shame of helplessness, which robs us of agency. Helplessness is what Tomkins calls an affect complex, and within it distress is the dominant affect, although there may be admixtures in it of fear, anger and shame… Helplessness immobilises, and this is what induces the shame which, as a reduction of interest, makes us lower our gaze and look away.”

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect and the Images from Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 139-140

[16] “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetize…”

Sontag, Susan 1977 On Photography New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 20

“Are we making too much of images? Are we lured by our own voyeurism and iconophilia, numbed as we are by the democracy of the spectacle? Or, on the contrary, do images open the eyes of our conscience? In other words do images merely entertain and anaesthetize us or do they shame us and awake our conscience?”

Chaouat, Bruno 2005 ‘Image malgré tout’ (review) in L’Esprit Créateur vol. 45 no. 1, at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/265181/pdf (accessed 8 November 2016)

[17] Rutherford Op. cit., 89

[18] Anonymous 2016 ‘Lynching in the United States’, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States (accessed 11 November 2016)

[19] Anonymous 2016 ‘Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday’, at http://genius.com/Billie-holiday-strange-fruit-lyrics (accessed 11 November 2016)

[20] ‘Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit’, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlTHvJBeP0 (accessed 11 November 2016)

[21] Rutherford Op. cit., Footnote 55, 95

[22] Bennett, Jill 2005 Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 4 quoted in Rutherford, 95

[23] Ibid., 11

[24] Deleuze, Gilles 1964 Proust and Signs New York: George Braziller (1972 in English) 7, in Bennett 161

[25] Bennett Op. cit., 10

[26] Papastergiadis, Nikos and Mary Zournazi 2002 ‘Faith without certitudes’ in M Zournazi Hope: New Philosophies for Change 94-95, in Bennett, 10

[27] Hanusch, Folker 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan, 55

[28] Ibid., 56

[29] Ibid., 56

[30] Randell, Karen and Redmond, Sean (eds) 2008 The war body on screen New York: Continuum, cited in Hanusch, 30

[31] Foucault, Michel 1988 ‘Technologies of the self’, in L H Martin and H Gutman and P H Hutton (eds) Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 18

[32] Barthes, Roland 1980 La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida) (1981 in English) New York: Hill and Wang Section 39, 94

[33] Houlihan, Kasia 2004 ‘Annotation on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography’ New York: Hill and Wang 1981 in Theories of Media, Winter at http://csmt.uchicago.edu/annotations/barthescamera.htm (accessed 12 November 2016)

[34] Strawberry 2013 ‘Roland Barthes: studium and punctum’ Museum of Education website 12 March, at https://educationmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/roland-barthes-studium-and-punctum/ (accessed 11 November 2016)

[35] “For memory is always in a state of ruin; to remember something is already to have ruined it, to have displaced it from its moment of origin. Memory is caught in a conundrum – the passing of time that makes memory possible and necessary is also what makes memory fade and die.”

Batchen, Geoffrey 2004 Forget Me Not: Photography & Remembrance New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 78

[36] Cadava, Eduardo 1992 ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’ Diacritics 22 no. 3-4 (Fall-Winter), 110 in Batchen 172

[37] Bennett Op. cit., 7

[38] Ibid., 7

[39] Zelizer, Barbie 2002 The Voice of the Visual in Memory, at http://www.sas.upenn.edu/folklore/center/ConferenceArchive/voiceover/voice_of_the_visual.html (accessed 13 November 2016)

[40] Ibid.,

[41] Brown, Andrew (ed. and trans,) 1987 Sophocles: Antigone, lines 850-52 Wiltshire: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 91

[42] Edwards, Janis L 2012 ‘Visual Literacy and Visual Politics: Photojournalism and the 2004 Presidential Debates’ Taylor Francis Online at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01463373.2012.725000 (accessed 13 November 2016)

[43] Zelizer Op. cit.,

[44] Sontag Op. cit., 18 cited in F Hanusch 2010 Representing death in the news: Journalism, Media and Mortality London: Palgrave Macmillan, 105

[45] See ‘Robert Capa: The Falling Soldier’, The Met website, at http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283315 (accessed 13 November 2016)

[46] Walsh, Stephen 2000 Stalingrad: The Infernal Cauldron, 1942-43 London: Simon and Schuster, 23

[47] Anonymous photographer 2013 ‘Russian spy laughing through his execution in Finland, 1942’, Rare Historical Photos website 29 December, at http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/russian-spy-laughing-execution-finland-1942/ (accessed 13 November 2016)

[48] Brett, Donna West 2016 ‘Damaged: Ruin and Decay in Walker Evans’ Photographs’ Walker Evans Symposium Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography October 7, 5 at https://www.academia.edu/29201498/Damaged_Ruin_and_Decay_in_Walker_Evans_Photographs (accessed 13 November 2016)

[49] Soja, Edward W. 1996 Thirdspace Malden (Mass.): Blackwell, 57

[50] Ibid., 57

[51] Batchen Op. cit., 47

[52] Ibid., 48

[53] Rastas, David 2016 Art as a Sanctuary for the Mad: Six characteristics of mystical experience and their visual accompaniment in contemporary art, at http://www.davidrastas.com/kunstglaube/madness&mysticism/essays.html (accessed 19 November 2016)

[54] Bronowski, Jacob 1958, Science and Human Values New York: Harper and Row, 31

[55] Anonymous 2015. ‘Hidden Likeness: Photographer Emmet Gowin at the Morgan’, The Morgan Library & Museum website May 22 through September 20, 2015 https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emmet-gowin (accessed 08 May 2018)

[56] See Turner, Victor 1966 The Ritual Process: Structure and Antistructure Chicago: Aldine. For a definition of liminality see Anonymous ‘Liminality’, Wikipedia website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality (accessed 08 May 2018)

[57] Batchen, Geoffrey 1997 Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (paperback 1999) Massachusetts: MIT Press, 194

[58] Batchen Forget Me Not, 94

[59] O’Hagan, Sean 2014 ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews’s Shot at Dawn: a moving photographic memorial’ The Guardian website 29 June, at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/29/chloe-dewe-mathews-shot-at-dawn-moving-photographic-memorial-first-world-war (accessed 25 November 2016)

[60] Bennett 2005 Empathic Vision 69

[61] Hegel, George Wilhelm Frederich 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit Preface (trans. A. V. Miller 1977) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 10

[62] Anonymous 2016 ‘La petite mort’ Wikipedia website at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_petite_mort (accessed 25 November 2016)

[63] Barthes Op. cit., 96

[64] Barthes Op. cit., 96

[65] See Wike, Lori 2000 ‘Photographs and Signatures: Absence, Presence, and Temporality in Barthes and Derrida’ in In[]Visible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Studies issue 3, at http://www.rochester.edu/in_visible_culture/issue3/wike.htm#BackFromNote10 (accessed 25 November 2016)

[66] Lacan, Jacques and Jeffrey Mehlman 1972 ‘The Seminar on the ‘Purloined Letter’’ in Yale French Studies, no. 48, 53 quoted in Wike 2000

[67] Barthes Camera Lucida, 57-58 quoted in Wike 2000

[68] Barthes Camera Lucida, 31-32 quoted in Wike 2000

[69] Anonymous 2016, ‘The Real’, Wikipedia website at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Real (accessed 25 November 2016)

[70] “Derrida sees differences as elemental oppositions working in all languages, systems of distinct signs, and codes, where terms don’t have absolute meanings but instead draw meaning from reciprocal determination with other terms… Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other… the a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation – in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being – are always deferred.”

Anonymous 2016 ‘Différance’ at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Différance (accessed 25 November 2016

[71] Batchen Burning with Desire 179. Information on photography and differance 178-179.

[72] Batchen Burning with Desire 186

[73] “We stand at once within the realm of that which hides itself from us, and hides itself just in approaching us. That which shows itself and at the same time withdraws is the essential trait of what we call the mystery… Releasement towards things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way…”

Heidegger, Martin 1966 Discourse on Thinking New York: Harper & Row, 55-56

[74] Thompson, John 1995 The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media Cambridge: Polity Press, 208 quoted in M Jolly 2015 ‘An Australian Spiritualist’s Personal Cartes-de-Visite Album’ in A Maxwell and J Croci (eds) Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 84

[75] Thompson 233 quoted in Jolly 2015

[76] Haraway, Donna and Cary Wolfe 2016 Manifestly Haraway Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 122, at https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed 26 November 2016)

[77] Kopelson, Kevin 1990 ‘Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth’ GENDERS no 7 Spring, 26

[78] You are dead but also alive, the dissolution of the distinction between objective and subjective realities, “the image is an interface connecting inner and outer, past and future, affect and cognition.”

Gibbs, Anna 2007 ‘Horrified: Embodied Vision, Media Affect And The Images From Abu Ghraib’ in D Staines (ed) Interrogating the War on Terror Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 130

 

 

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11
Apr
18

Vale Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)

April 2018

 

My god, what a loss.

I am very sorry to hear of the passing of Polixeni Papapetrou. Sadness indeed…

Poli was a wonderful spirit and an incredibly gifted artist. Condolences to Robert Nelson and all of the family.

A selection of some of my favourite Papapetrou images are posted below – but really, there are so many memorable images, she leaves behind an indelible and lasting legacy.

From an earlier posting:

 

“What we should do is honour this talented and determined artist for creating so many memorable images over the years, for following her passion and her heart with courage and conviction. For the rest of my life I will always remember the spaces, the ambiguous vistas, the fantastical archetypes, the fables of her work. Images of drag queens and Dreamkeepers, Ghillies and goblins are etched in my memory. I will always remember them. You can’t ask much more from the work of an artist than that.”

 

You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream.

Marcus

 

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Drag queen wearing cut out dress' 1993

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Drag queen wearing cut out dress
1993
From the series Drag Queens 1988-1999
Gelatin silver photograph
28.5 x 28.5 cm
Courtesy the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

 

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

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Paul Klee. Creative Credo [Schöpferische Konfession] 1920

 

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Three young men paying homage to Elvis on the 13th anniversary of Elvis’ death, Elvis Memorial Melbourne' 1990

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Three young men paying homage to Elvis on the 13th anniversary of Elvis’ death, Elvis Memorial Melbourne
1990
From the series Elvis Immortal 1987-2002
Selenium toned gelatin silver photograph
40.7 x 40.7 cm
Courtesy the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Mr Wrestling' 1992

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Mr Wrestling
1992
From the series Wrestlers 1992
Pigment ink print
100 x 100cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Indian Brave' 2002

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Indian Brave
2002
From the series Phantomwise 2002-03
Pigment ink print
85 x 85 cm
Courtesy the artist and Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Lost' 2005

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Lost
2005
From the series Fairy Tales 2004-2014
Type C print
100 x 100 cm
Courtesy the artist, Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney + Berlin and Jarvis Dooney Galerie, Berlin
Reproduced with permission

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'In the Wimmera 1864 #1' 2006

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
In the Wimmera 1864 #1
2006
From the series Haunted country 2006
Pigment ink print
105 x 105cm
Geelong Gallery Collection

 

 

In the Wimmera 1864 #1 from the Haunted country series is amongst the earliest works by the artist to have been staged in the Australian landscape and is one in which she explores the narrative of the ‘lost child’. The work references the story of three children lost in Mallee scrub near their home outside Horsham in the Wimmera District and is reminiscent, as the artist intends, of Frederick McCubbin’s late 19th century paintings of children lost or at least wandering absent-mindedly through the Australia bush. (Text from the Culture Victoria website)

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'Hanging Rock 1900 #3' 2006

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Hanging Rock 1900 #3
2006
From the series Haunted country 2006
Pigment ink print
105 x 105 cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Provider' 2009

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Provider
2009
From the series Between Worlds 2009-2012
Pigment print
105 x 105cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Mourner' 2012

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Mourner
2012
From the series Between Worlds 2009-2012
Pigment print
105 x 105cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Joy Pedlars' 2011 from 'The Dreamkeepers' 2011

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Joy Pedlars
2011
From the series The Dreamkeepers 2012
Pigment print
105 x 105cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Wanderer No. 3', 2012 from 'The Dreamkeepers'

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Wanderer No. 3
2012
From the series The Dreamkeepers 2012
Pigment print
105 x 105cm

 

Polixeni Papaetrou (1960-2018) 'Ocean Man' 2013

 

Polixeni Papaetrou (1960-2018)
Ocean Man
2013
From the series The Ghillies 2013
120 cm x 120 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

Polixeni Papaetrou. 'Scrub Man' 2012

 

Polixeni Papaetrou (1960-2018)
Scrub Man
2012
From the series The Ghillies 2013
120 cm x 120 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2013

 

 

Review of the exhibition Polixeni Papapetrou: Lost Psyche at Stills Gallery, 2014

When “facing” adversity, it is a measure of a person’s character how they hold themselves, what face they show to the world, and how their art represents them in that world. So it is with Polixeni Papapetrou. The courage of this artist, her consistency of vision and insightful commentary on life even while life itself is in the balance, are inspiring to all those that know her.

Papapetrou has always created her own language, integrating the temporal dissemination of the historical “case” into a two-dimensional space of simultaneity and tabulation (the various archetypes and ancient characters), into an outline against a ground of Cartesian coordinates.1 In her construction, in her observation and under her act of surveillance, Papapetrou moves towards a well-made description of the states of the body in the tables and classification of the psychological landscape. Her tableaux (the French tableau signifies painting and scene (as in tableau vivant), but also table (as in a table used to organize data)) are a classification and tabulation that is an exact “portrait” of “the” illness, the lost psyche of the title. Her images lay out, in a very visible way, the double makeover: of the outer and inner landscape.

These narratives are above all self-portraits. The idea that image, archetype and artist might somehow be one and the same is a potent idea in Papapetrou’s work. What is “rendered” visible in her art is her own spirit, for these visionary works are nothing less than concise, intimate, focused self-portraits. They speak through the mask of the commedia dell’ arte of a face half turned to the world, half immersed in imaginary worlds. The double skin (as though human soul, the psyche, is erupting from within, forcing a face-off) and triple skin (evidenced in the lack of depth of field of the landscape tableaux) propose an opening up, a revealing of self in which the anatomy (anatemnein: to tear, to open a body, to dissect) of the living is revealed. The images become an autopsy on the living and the dead: “a series of images, that would crystallize and memorize for everyone the whole time of an inquiry and, beyond that, the time of a history.”2

Papapetrou’s images become the “true retina” of seeing, close to a scientific description of a character placed on a two dimensional background (notice how the stylised clouds in The Antiquarian, 2014 match the fur hat trim). In the sense of evidence, the artist’s archetypes proffer a Type that is balanced on the edge of longing, poetry, desire and death, one that the objectivity of photography seeks to fix and stabilise. These images serve the fantasy of a memory: of a masked archetype in a made over landscape captured “exact and sincere” by the apparatus of the camera. A faithful memory of a tableau in which Type is condensed into a unique image: the visage fixed to the regime of representation,3 the universal become singular. This Type is named through the incorporated Text, the Legend: I am Day Dreamer, Immigrant, Merchant, Poet, Storyteller.

But even as these photographs seek to fix the Type, “even as the object of knowledge is photographically detained for observation, fixed to objectivity,”4 the paradox is that this kind of knowledge slips away from itself, because photography is always an uncertain technique, unstable and chaotic, as ever the psyche. In the cutting-up of bodies, cutting-up on stage, a staging aimed at knowledge – the facticity of the masked, obscured, erupting face; the corporeal surface of the body, landscape, photograph – the image makes visible something of the movements of the soul. In these heterotopic images, sites that relate to more stable sites, “but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect,”5 Papapetrou’s psyche, “creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation.”6 In her commedia dell’ arte, an improvised comedy of craft, of artisans (a worker in a skilled trade), the artist fashions the raw material of experience in a unique way.7 We, the audience, intuitively recognise the type of person being represented in the story, through their half masks, their clothing and context and through the skilful dissemination of collective memory and experience.

Through her storytelling Papapetrou moves towards a social and spiritual transformation, one that unhinges the lost psyche. Her landscape narratives are a narrative of a recognisable, challenging, unstable non-linear art, an art practice that embraces “the speculative mystery of ancient roles…  They’re all souls with divided emotions, torn between dream and reality, who like us, converge on the collective stage that is the world.” They are archetype as self-portrait: portraits of a searching, erupting, questioning soul, brave and courageous in a time of peril. And the work is for the children (of the world), for without art and family, extinction.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

Footnotes

1. Adapted from Didi-Huberman, Georges. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere (trans. Alisa Hartz). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003, p. 24-25. I am indebted to the ideas of Georges Didi-Huberman for his analysis of the ‘facies’ and the experiments of Jean-Martin Charcot on hysteria at the Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris in the 1880s.
2. 
Ibid., p. 48
3. Ibid., p. 49
4. Ibid., p. 59
5. Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces,” in Diacritics Spring 1986, p. 24 quoted in Fisher, Jean. “Witness for the Prosecution: The Writings of Coco Fusco,” in Fusco, Coco. The Bodies That Were Not Ours. London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 226-227
6. Fisher, Ibid., p. 227-228
7. “One can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.”
Benjamin
, Walter. Illuminations (trans. by Harry Zohn; edited by Hannah Arendt). New York: Schocken Books, 1968 (2007), p. 108

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Immigrant' 2014

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Immigrant
2014
From the series Lost Psyche 2014
Pigment print
100 x 150 cm

 

Polixeni Papapetrou. 'The Storyteller' 2014

 

Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)
The Storyteller
2014
From the series Lost Psyche 2014
Pigment print
100 x 150 cm

 

 

Polixeni Papapetrou website

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23
Feb
12

Review: ‘Looking at Looking’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 30th September 2011 – 4th March 2012

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“The paradox is the more we seek to fix our vision of the world and to control it the less sure we are as to who we are and what our place is in the world.”

Marcus Bunyan 2011

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This is a delightful, intimate exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria that examines how looking through a camera directs and structures the way we see the world. The exhibition mines the same ground as one of my top exhibitions from last year, In camera and in public that was presented at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy.

Numerous artists use photography to examine the ways in which gender, race and sexuality have been ‘looked at’ in visual culture, including the politics of looking in relation to Indigenous cultures and identities. In I split your gaze (1997) by Brook Andrew, the artist has split the face of an Aboriginal man down the middle, and reassembled the face ear to ear. No longer can we look on the man as a whole because our gaze is split. Andrew is said to have “reclaimed” the image from colonial scientific, anthropological documentation but this presupposes some holistic whole existed a priori to white intervention. The split photograph does alter perception but to what extent it promotes a different reading, a postcolonial gaze that is understood as such by the viewer, is debatable.

Chi Peng poses more interesting gender reversals and masquerades. In Consubstantiality (2004, below) misaligned pairs of people, of androgynous face and hard to distinguish gender, are “reflected” in a pseudo mirror. Consubstantiality references the Christian principle describing the intertwined relationship of the Trinity (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) as being of one essence, one being.

“Chi Peng uses digital technologies to manipulate photographic surfaces and often uses his own body and identity as a homosexual man living in China as a means of creating new ways of looking at himself and at the construction of identity… With powdered faces and bodies, the naked ‘reflections’ press the palms of their hands together across a pane of glass. At first glance, it is as though the photographer is intruding on a private scene, a moment of self-scrutiny in a mirror. However the hands do not quite align and the gazes diverge…”1

This self-reflexivity and its relation to the Lacan’s mirror stage in the development of male and female identity – in which the mirror can be looked at and looks back in return – lends these ethereal images real beauty and presence as they explore the psychology of identity and gender reversal.

“Photographers Ashley Gilbertson and John Imming, and collaborative artists Lyndell Brown and Charles Green have all used cameras to document war, and their works off three distinct views.The common link appears to be an engagement with ideas of the observer and the observed and questioning who is looking at whom, and why?”2 Attempting an apolitical view of the war in Iraq, Gilbertson was embedded with different US military outfits on numerous visits to the country between 2002-08, reliant on them for his safety. Many of his “objective” photographs deal with representations of surveillance and covert looking from ‘within the ranks’. But not from within enemy ranks. The very fact of his embedding, his lying down within a disciplinary system of control and power, to shoot from one point of view, politicises his gaze.

Brown and Green’s painterly photograph features a tightly choreographed scene, “a market within a military camp in which traders were invited to sell their wares. The scene is indicative, however, of the ‘strained atmosphere’ prevalent when different cultures interact in military situations – seemingly harmonious but concealing the ‘control that was exerted in the selection of traders’.”3 This traditional tableau vivant sees the traders become actors on a stage, their gaze directed towards the female officer at the centre of the group holding a piece of clothing which is blocked from our view. We the viewer are excluded from the circle of gazes; we become other, looking at the looking of the traders. Their gaze and our gaze are at cross-purpose; we wish to become a player on the stage but are denied access and can only observe the spectacle from a distance. Excluded, the viewer feels disempowered, the photographic mise en scène leaving me unmoved.

John Imming’s photographs use found images from the Vietnam war, the first war in which photographers had unrestricted access and were given absolute freedom to record what they saw. Vietnam was a stage for intense exploration, photographers bombarding the public with images of extreme violence. Imming rephotographs images from the television screen using a Leica camera, abstracting them into darkly hued creatures, the borders miming the shape of early television screens. “The images become abstracted and our gaze is ‘reduced’ into blurred shapes of contrasting tones … His photographs force us to slow down the memories of the somewhat ephemeral television imagery and look deeply at what is being portrayed, and how.”4 These photographs fail in that task for they are very surface photographs. The photographs do not have the structure to support such a vision nor the support of beauty to prick the consciousness of the gaze. They are ugly images because war is ugly and abstracting them in order to ask the viewer to look deeply and have an incredible insight into the condition ‘war’ and how it is portrayed simply did not work for me.

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The two standout works in the exhibition are Thomas Struth’s luminous photograph Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin (2001, below) and Bill Henson’s seminal (perhaps even ubiquitous) series Untitled 1980/82 (1980-82, see above) – these photographs seem to be everywhere at the moment, perhaps a change is as good as a rest!

Struth’s magnificent large colour photograph is an investigation into the theatre of seeing. In the photograph Struth directs his cast and choreographs the visitors, the arrangement of the spectators re-assembling the open-ended narrative of the 2nd century Telephos frieze behind. “Similarities between the poses of the audience members and the poses of the carve relief figures gradually emerge, suggesting an unconscious dialogue between the viewers and the objects they regard. The result of Struth’s directorial mode of working is the creation of a type of theatre based on intersecting viewpoints, raising questions about the gaze of the spectator and the process of looking at works of art and each other.”5

Beholders observe beholders and the subjects of vision become historical, according to art historian Wold-Dieter Heilmeyer.

The suffused light that falls from the skylight leaves no shadow.
A man who casts no shadow has no soul.
The shadow according to Jung is the seat of creativity.
Here there is no depth of field, the sculptures and the figures feel like they are almost on one plane.
None of the viewers looks at the camera, they avoid its probing gaze, passively becoming the feminine aspect – like the central raised figure, robbed of head and arms, being gazed upon from all sides. We, the viewer, are looking at the spectacle of the viewers looking at the frieze. Looking at looking the observer becomes the observed (surveillance camera where are you?)
Consider the freeze frame of the models as they posed for the sculptor all those years ago; the freeze frame of the sculptures themselves; the freeze frame of the spectators posing for the camera; the freeze frame of the photograph itself; and then consider the freeze frame of time and space as we stand before the photograph looking at it. Then notice the women in the photograph videotaping the scene, another excoriating layer that tears at the fabric of time and looking, that causes lacrimation for our absent soul. What a photograph!

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The Henson photographs are presented in a wonderfully musical installation, mimicking the movement of the crowds portrayed. I republish below my comments on this series from the review of the In camera and in public exhibition.

“A selection of photographs from the Crowd Series (1980 – 82) by Bill Henson. Snapped in secret these black and white journalistic surveillance photographs (‘taken’ in an around Flinders Street railway station in Melbourne) have a brooding intensity and melancholic beauty. Henson uses a flattened perspective that is opposed to the principles of linear perspective in these photographs. Known as The Art of Describing6 and much used in Dutch still life painting of the 17th century to give equal weight to objects within the image plane, here Henson uses the technique to emphasise the mass and jostle of the crowd with their “waiting, solemn and compliant” people.

“When exhibiting the full series, Henson arranges the works into small groupings that create an overall effect of aberrant movement and fragmentation. From within these bustling clusters of images, individual faces emerge like spectres of humanity that will once again dissolve into the crowd … all apparently adrift in the flow of urban life. The people in these images have an anonymity that allows them to represent universal human experiences of alienation, mortality and fatigue.”7

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Henson states, “The great beauty in the subject comes, for me, from the haunted space, that unbridgeable gap – which separates the profound intimacy and solitude of our interior world from the ‘other’… The business of how a child’s small hand appearing between two adults at a street crossing can suggest both a vulnerability, great tenderness, and yet also contain within it all of the power that beauty commands, is endlessly fascinating to me.”8 His observation is astute but for me it is the un/awareness of the people in these photographs that are their beauty, their insertion into the crowd but their isolation from the crowd and from themselves. As Maggie Finch observes, it is “that feeling of being both alone and private in a crowd, thus free but also exposed.”9

In the sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms the photographs can be seen as examples of what he calls “civil inattention”10 which is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement, the “facework” as we glance at people in the crowd, holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other.

“Civil inattention is the most basic type of facework commitment involved in encounters with strangers in circumstances of modernity. It involves not just the use of the face itself, but the subtle employment of bodily posture and positioning which gives off the message “you may trust me to be without hostile intent” – in the street, public buildings, trains or buses, or at ceremonial gatherings, parties, or other assemblies. Civil inattention is TRUST as ‘background noise’ – not as a random collection of sounds, but as carefully restrained and controlled social rhythms. It is characteristic of what Goffman calls “unfocused interaction.””11

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This is what I believe Henson’s photographs are about. Not so much the tenderness of the child’s hand but a fear of engagement with the ‘other’. As such they can be seen as image precursors to the absence/presence of contemporary communication and music technologies. How many times do people talk on their mobile phone or listen to iPods in crowds, on trams and trains, physically present but absenting themselves from interaction with other people. Here but not here; here and there. The body is immersed in absent presence, present and not present, conscious and not conscious, aware and yet not aware of the narratives of a ‘recipro/city failure’. A failure to engage with the light of place, the time of exposure and an attentiveness to the city.

As Susan Stewart insightfully observes,

“To walk in the city is to experience the disjuncture of partial vision/partial consciousness … The walkers of the city travel at different speeds, their steps like handwriting of a personal mobility. In the milling of the crowd is the choking of class relations, the interruption of speed, and the machine.”12″

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

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Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Bill Henson
Australian 1955-
Untitled 1980/82
1980-82
from the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-82
gelatin silver photograph
43.0 x 38.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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Bill Henson
Australian 1955-
Untitled 1980/82
1980-82
from the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-82
gelatin silver photograph
43.0 x 38.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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Bill Henson
Australian 1955-
Untitled 1980/82
1980-82
from the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980-82
gelatin silver photograph
29.2 x 47.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Anonymous gift, 1993
© Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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“On 30 September the National Gallery of Victoria will present Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze, a unique exhibition exploring how photography can construct particular ways of looking. Looking at Looking will feature works by 10 Australian and international photographers including 20 photographs from Bill Henson’s Untitled 1980-82 series.

Drawn entirely from the NGV Collection, this exhibition will bring together a fascinating selection of photographs inviting the viewer to consider the diverse nature of the photographic gaze and explore the complex relationships between the subject, the photographer and the audience. The displayed photographs will include observations of people in crowds, surveillance images from war zones and photographs that explore different ways of looking at gender, race and identity.

Maggie Finch, Assistant Curator, Photography, NGV said: “The act of photographing people involves a process of observation and scrutiny.  At times, photographers remain detached and anonymous while at other times they are complicit, directing their subjects and encouraging specific actions.”

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, NGV, said: “In the NGV’s 150th year this exhibition allows visitors to explore the dynamic relationship between the observer and the observed. This is a rare opportunity to view these photographs in a truly unique context.”

Looking at Looking will consider the anonymous photographer, one who is able to look without being looked at in return and consequently see more than otherwise possible. This idea is explored in Bill Henson’s series Untitled 1980-82, where the artist photographed people on city streets. Hung in a dense display, these photographs provide a psychological study of the nature of people when in a crowd.

Looking at Looking will feature works by Brook Andrew, Chi Peng, Anne Ferran, Ashley Gilbertson, Charles Green and Lyndell Brown, Bill Henson, John Immig, Thomas Struth and David Thomas.”

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria

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Thomas Struth
German 1954-
Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin
2001
type C photograph
144.1 x 219.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with the assistance of The Bowness Family Fund for Contemporary Photography, 2008
© 2011 Thomas Struth

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David Thomas
born Northern Ireland 1951, arrived Australia 1958
Amid history 2 (Large version)
2006
enamel paint on type C photograph on aluminium and plastic
100.0 x 145.0 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2007 © the artist

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Ashley Gilbertson
Australian 1978-
A member of the Mahdi Army RPG team
2004
from the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot series 2004
digital type C print
66.5 x 99.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2009
© Ashley Gilbertson / VII Network

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John Immig
Dutch/Australian 1940-
No title (T.V. images)
1975-76
from the Vietnam series 1975-76
gelatin silver photograph
20.2 x 25.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board, 1977 © John Immig

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Chi Peng
Chinese 1981-
Consubstantiality
2004
type C photograph
87.5 x 116.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the NGV Foundation, 2004 © Chi Peng, courtesy of Red Gate Gallery, Beijing

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Charles Green
Australian 1953-
Lyndell Brown
Australian 1961-
Afghan traders with soldiers, market, Taran Kowt Base Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan
2007 printed 2009
from The approaching storm series 2009
inkjet print
155.0 x 107.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2009
© Courtesy of the Artists and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

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1. Finch, Maggie. Looking at Looking: The Photographic Gaze. Catalogue. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2011, p.10.

2. Ibid., p.16.

3. Ibid., p.21.

4. Ibid., p.24.

5. Ibid., p.7.

6. See Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. University Of Chicago Press, 1984.

7. AnonBILL HENSON: early work from the MGA collection. Education Resource. A Monash Gallery of Art Travelling Exhibition [Online] Cited 14/10/2011. www.unisa.edu.au/samstagmuseum/exhibitions/2011/docs/HENSON_edukit.PDF

8. Henson, Bill quoted in the exhibition catalogue. First published as a pdf for the exhibition In camera and in public Curated by Naomi Cass. Centre for Contemporary Photography, 16 September – 23 October 2011.

9. Stephens, Andrew. “Who’s watching you?” in The Saturday Age. 23rd September 2011 [Online] Cited 14/10/2011.
www.theage.com.au/entertainment/whos-watching-you-20110923-1kot7.html

10. See  Goffman, E. Behaviour in Public Places. New York: Free Press, 1963.

11. Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, pp.82-83.

12. Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p.2. Prologue.

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NGV International
180 St Kilda Road

Opening hours
10am – 5pm. Closed Tuesdays.

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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