Unreal Nature

June 21, 2017

The Gazer Must Be Willing to See What Is There to Be Seen

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… That state is intolerable. The investment of tenderness must begin again.

This is from The Photograph: A Strange Confined Space by Mary Price (1994):

… In photography, proficiency of execution may also be interpreted as mask or disguise, concealment of the warts and disfigurements, or, alternatively, concealment of natural goodness; we who prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet may be convinced that only surprise will catch a glimpse of truth, or only the amateurism of youthful innocence, or only lack of pose. Barthes calls the photographer who took the Winter Garden picture of his mother “the mediator of a truth,” the truth being his recognition of her unique being in the photograph.

[line break added] But Barthes rightly does not reproduce this most important photograph in his book. “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph,” he says. “It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.”

[line break added] This is certainly true. But what Barthes and other writers have done is to bring within the range of possibility an acknowledgement on the part of the rest of us that what they have discovered and named must exist for us too. They cannot name our precise wounds; they can only name their own; but we may now with tentative assurance begin to understand what their use of their photographs was. They have invested photographs with meaning; their language directs us to the idea of unseen truth in the photograph.

[ … ]

… The photograph is the film or skin of appearance. At the very least it calls attention to the fact of being a mask (transcribed from reality) by removal. In addition, the removal of the mask not only certifies its existential “maskness” but because it looks exactly as real objects look, or as we have learned to see them, the mask is taken as true depiction of those objects. Once again, the reason we take it as true depiction is that the photograph bears a strict and necessary relationship to its source in the visible world.

[ … ]

… It is indeed a photographer’s eye (mind, intention) that chooses what and when to photograph, sees a pattern in chaos, and bends the indifferent reality into meaning. Harold Rosenberg comments: “In our century, it has become customary to believe that if appearances are deceitful, reality is no less so. The need for masks is no longer felt — faces are enigmatic enough.”

… the words permitted to describe both character and face do not describe a photographed face. Such words as kind, cruel, brave, cheerful, mean, humble — words describing ways of acting — are not clearly coded to visual counterparts. Recognition of this fact, though unacknowledged, may lie behind the persistent use of the mask as metaphor for the face (whether as prepared expression covering “wound,” or naked expression indicating the usual mask has been dropped, or condition of face corresponding so exactly to the deceit of the mask that the face is the mask).

… The aura itself may be regarded as a mask. For an object to return one’s gaze, the gaze must be directed toward the object, and the gazer must be willing to see what is there to be seen, rather than investing the object with significance beyond its ability to sustain additional weight. As the account of Proust’s use of photograph as metaphor will show, Marcel’s sight of his grandmother without the aura of “intelligent and pious tenderness,” as if he were seeing a photograph, was bare, harsh, and strange.

[line break added] The surface was unmodified by filial regard. Marcel hastened to clothe her again. There is no aspect here that can be called reality. It would be wrong to suggest that the vulgar old woman he sees was the reality to the exclusion of the grandmother. Both are constituent, as are other aspects here irrelevant to a fictional character (atomic composition, medical history, the mind and memory of the grandmother herself before Marcel existed, for example), in the complex existence of one person.

[line break added] We assume, because all of us fictionalize our lives and the lives of others who have a part in our story, that to surround a grandmother with an aura of intelligent and pious tenderness is good, better than to see her plain. Marcel, in the image of his grandmother seen as if photographed, is reducing a beloved figure to purely physical appearance. That state is intolerable. The investment of tenderness must begin again.

My most recent previous post from Price’s book is here.

-Julie

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