Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Photographic memories: Barthes on mother, Smith on Mapplethorpe

It’s been 30 years since the publication of
Camera Lucida. This 25th of March marks 30 years since the death of its author, French literary theorist, philosopher and semoitcian Roland Barthes. After having lunch at François Mitterrand’s he was hit by a laundry truck and died exactly one month later. Truthfully, I have yet to really delve into Barthes oeuvre, to get a firm grasp of the breadth of his achievement. Yet however limited my understanding of his work in totality, I attest to his final book’s enormous effect on my life. It changed the way I consider the role of photography in our lives and what distinguishes it from the movies. It changed the way I look at photographs, and ultimately how I look at countless other things. It remains a favourite, stimulating, unabashedly personal, deeply moving, occasionally strange. As Barthes would have it, Camera Lucida, were it a photograph, vibrates with both studium and punctum. (As if to ensure its importance in my errant education, I was given the book twice by two different people, neither of whom knowing the other and the second giver unaware that I knew of the book in the first place. So thanks, John, and thanks, Kevin.)

Barthes wanted to learn if photography had “a genius” of its own, stressing his interest in the elusiveness of the medium’s essence, the absolute singularity of what each photograph contains, and, consequently, the medium’s unique relationship to death. When being photographed, Barthes, who always felt self-conscious before the camera, experiences “a micro-version of death… I am truly becoming a specter.” By contrast, Barthes’ beloved mother, who died in 1977, did not “struggle with her image.” In the second of the book’s two parts Barthes, “looking for the truth of the face I had loved,” examines a photograph of his mother taken when she was five-years-old. We’re never shown the photograph. At most, writes Barthes, it would activate our
studium, or sober interest, with its anthropological value. It would fail to prick or puncture us, to deliver the punctum, the compelling detail or air, almost always unintended by the photographer, indifferent to morality or taste, difficult or impossible to name, which for Barthes makes a photograph transcendent. Nowhere in Camera Lucida does Barthes differentiate between the attributes of snapshots, photojournalism, or art photography. He wants to make contact with the medium as it’s available to anyone, even if its full power is finally only apparent in the work of a few.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Young Man With Arm Extended
Below the reproduction in Camera Lucida Barthes writes:

"...the hand at
the right degree of openness,
the right density of abandonment..."

Photography is founded on the pose, Barthes notes, whereas in the movies everything is passing. (When discussing his own mourning of his mother’s death, Barthes concedes that time might eliminate the emotion of loss, but in every other sense “everything has remained motionless.” In this heart-rending paragraph he seems, perhaps inadvertently, to strike upon the photographic quality of grief.) Photography, Barthes maintains, is undeniable proof of what once was—“
that-has-been”—and in this argument he could be seen to falter. From the doctoring of propaganda photos to the omnipresence of Photoshop, surely photos are no evidence of anything empirically true. Yet everything we might call a photo does document something, and perhaps this is what matters when coming to terms with its meaning.

Alexander Gardner: Portrait of Lewis Payne, 1865
Below the reproduction in Camera Lucida Barthes writes:

"He is dead and he is going to die..."

While it probably already rang true with readers in 1980,
Camera Lucida strikes me as eerily prescient in its conclusion that the photograph, with its “certain but fugitive testimony,” had rendered us beings “no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically.” (Think about how many times the fluidity of some jubilant experience you’re having has been interrupted by someone who asks you to hold it, demands the experience can be “captured” by a camera.) Barthes continues: “no doubt, the astonishment of that-has-been will also disappear.” Moments are now so routinely frozen by the slightest whim as to drain the photograph of its power. (Without ever having made a conscious decision to do so, I’ve come to realize that in the years since acquiring my first digital camera, which releases me from the burden of having to worry about making every shot count, I’ve gone from being an avid taker of snapshots to rarely picking up the camera at all.) It’s pointless to deny the forward motion of technology, but it behooves us to keep returning to Barthes’ “archaic trance” as a way of reminding us where this technology comes from, what impulses stirred it.

If Robert Mapplethorpe is an important point of reference in
Camera Lucida, where Barthes uses his work to mount a concise, eloquent method of distinguishing between the pornographic and erotic, Mapplethorpe positively haunts Just Kids (Ecco, $31.99), the new memoir by musician Patti Smith. Mapplethorpe took the iconic photo of Smith that adorned her debut record Horses, and Just Kids treats readers to many more wonderful portraits of Smith by Mapplethorpe, while the text itself reads intermittently like a portrait of Mapplethorpe by Smith. It is among other things a love story between a heterosexual woman perpetually drawn to questions of the spirit and a gay man who sought the sublime through the confines of the body. As though fated, Smith met Mapplethorpe on the day she first arrived in New York as a virtually penniless 20-year-old. The first time she laid eyes on Mapplethorpe he was asleep, as with the last time. Mapplethorpe died in 1989 on the 9th of March, the same date on which I write this. (I get the impression Smith would like that.)

Just a couple of kids, both in need of a sandwich

Just Kids is a tender, dignified remembrance of an unusually heady time and place. On one page Allen Ginsberg buys a near-starving Smith a sandwich, initially mistaking her for a pretty boy. On another Smith sees Diane Arbus, Jonas Mekas and Salvador Dalí in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, or spots Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane in El Quixote. Smith was in the room when Kris Kristofferson first played ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ for Joplin. Lou Reed and Gregory Corso showed up for her first poetry reading. Sam Shepard once pulled a raw steak out of her pocket. Yet this is a profoundly intimate book, not a public one. It describes two young people finding themselves through art. Considering how central the subject is to her story, Smith is strangely un-forthcoming about her sexual experiences with Mapplethorpe, who would only gradually accept his homosexuality, doing so largely via the development of his work. But the intensity of her emotional experiences is almost palpable.

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