Death & the photograph

Camera Lucida by Roland BarthesBethany needed a camera for the digital film class she’s taking this fall, so of course I worried the Internet to death finding her just the right one.  I liked her camera so much that I just sold my year-old DSLR on eBay and bought one for myself, too.  I’ve discovered that I hate menus on a camera, and this new one has lots of dials and levers like my old film cameras, so it feels like a camera to me. It takes no better images than the one I sold, overall, but because it feels right, I find I’m taking pictures with it all the time.

We took our new cameras to a garden in Leesburg Saturday to try them out.  After shooting a bunch of veggies and flowers, Bethany started taking pictures of me.  I must have been posing, or at least appeared self-conscious, because Bethany told me what I petulantly say to my subjects: “Please just act like I’m not taking pictures.”

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, being Barthes, relates this self-consciousness before a lens to death, and because I make it a point of finding Barthes plausible, I’m with him.  It works like this (well, with Barthes, it works lots of ways, but I’ll pick the explanation I find most convincing):

From an anthropological standpoint, photography started in the nineteenth century at the same time that death lost its rites.  Coincidence?  Barthes doesn’t do coincidences.

For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps it this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.  Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.  Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose form the final print. (92 – 93)

The photograph is a kind of immortality, a kind of death-in-waiting, a monument-to-be.  Unlike a monument, however, the photograph lasts only as long as the paper it’s printed on (or, today, the drive and cloud it’s stored on) (93). So:

In front of a lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.  In others words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).  In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. (13 – 14)

Barthes loves paradox, and becoming four things at once (five if you count dead) makes his compulsive posing of the greatest interest to him.  Portrait photography itself (the entire subject of Barthes’s book) is always a paradox.  He looks at a very old picture of two young girls and has the vertiginous realization that “They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead (today), they are then already dead (yesterday).”  Therefore, “each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death.”

Barthes uses this idea of specter and death to explain another reaction he has to photography: he doesn’t care for color.  He says nothing about essence or contrast or shape or composition – things that most black-and-white photography lovers speak of when they explain their preference.  Instead (I love this):

I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.  For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). (81)

Though I suspect Barthes is doing here what he occasionally admits to doing throughout this brilliant and sentimental self-examination: he’s using theory to support (or at least to explain) what his heart has already decided.  He likes black-and-white photography for the same reason I like dials and levers.  It’s the way photography should be.

[This is the first of three posts on Camera Lucida.]