A Resurrection in Light and Shadows
In the images of the past, we search for, and sometimes find, life in death.
What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.
Whenever it happens, I am unable to keep track of time: fifteen minutes can pass, or it can last two hours. It can happen in the morning or in the evening, and once I start looking at photos of my dead son I find myself incapable of stopping. I look at them forward and backward: sometimes starting on the day of his birth and sometimes on the last day I saw him alive. On occasion, I focus on a certain year and spend my time looking at that particular time in his life. Some days a single image captures my attention, and I consider it for an extended period of time. On other days, I move through the countless photographs I have of him, tracing his entire life from start to finish.
Each time it happens, I feel as though I am searching for something, but I do not know what it is. I reject the easy explanations of nostalgia or that I am “missing” him. There is something else happening, but I cannot explain it. This phenomenon led me to wonder about the role of images in our memory. Why do we look at photographs of those who are gone? What do we expect to find within images years or even decades old? Do we look at them for what they contain or for what is contained still within us?
The mystery of old photos was on the mind of the French philosopher Roland Barthes shortly before he died. The last book he published, Camera Lucida, is a personal meditation on photography in general and especially on images of his dead mother. Trying to understand my behavior, I read his book, in which he states that every photograph has two elements. The first he calls the studium—i.e., everything a photograph presents to the viewer: people, objects, landscape, colors, structures, etc. For Barthes, the studium is interesting but not consequential; we see it but it does not touch us. He describes it as “that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don't like.”
The second element he calls the punctum, and it exists when a detail in a photograph touches us in a meaningful way. The punctum, he explains, is something that shoots out of an image “like an arrow” and “pierces” us, leaving behind a “bruise” of poignancy. The punctum, Barthes believes, is always “accidental” and can never be created intentionally by the photographer. Because an image may contain a punctum for me but not for you, the punctum is unique: a co-creation of image and viewer. Interestingly, a punctum may be the key to understanding the meaning of a photograph or the reason the meaning cannot be discovered. In other words, a detail in an image can be so distracting or confusing that it overwhelms our ability to see the image in its totality. “Whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition,” he concludes and “is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.”
Barthes brings his theory to life with the story of his examination of old photos of his mother, Henriette, shortly after she passed away. He describes looking at pictures of her, many of them taken before his birth. He struggles during the activity, unable to locate his mother within all the images:
I would have recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her. I recognized her differentially, not essentially. Photography thereby compelled me to perform a painful labor; straining toward the essence of her identity, I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false. To say, confronted with a certain photograph, “That's almost the way she was!” was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, “That's not the way she was at all.”
Suddenly, writes Barthes, he finds an old sepia print of his mother, aged five, standing alongside her seven-year-old brother:
The brother and sister, united, as I knew, by the discord of their parents, who were soon to divorce, had posed side by side, alone, under the palms of the Winter Garden (it was the house where my mother was born, in Chennevieres-sur-Marne).
Barthes is transfixed by the image and finds within it what he had been searching for in all those old photographs:
I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother. The distinctness of her face, the naive attitude of her hands, the place she had docilely taken without either showing or hiding herself, and finally her expression, which distinguished her, like Good from Evil, from the hysterical little girl, from the simpering doll who plays at being a grownup‑all this constituted the figure of a sovereign innocence ( if you will take this word according to its etymology, which is: “I do no harm”), all this had transformed the photographic pose into that untenable paradox which she had nonetheless maintained all her life: the assertion of a gentleness.
Barthes found his moment by traveling, like me, across the years:
I had discovered this photograph by moving back through Time. The Greeks entered into Death backward: what they had before them was their past. In the same way I worked back through a life, not my own, but the life of someone I love. Starting from her latest image, taken the summer before her death (so tired, so noble, sitting in front of the door of our house, surrounded by my friends), I arrived, traversing three quarters of a century, at the image of a child…
Reading Camera Lucida, I recalled the first time I ever developed a photograph in a darkroom. It occurred in Ithaca, New York, where I was taught how to make prints over a May weekend by a biology student I was to replace that summer as the photographer on an archeology dig in Greece. For two days, I shot roll after roll of black and white film around campus and then ran to his darkroom, where I learned how to open the film canister in the dark and turn it into negatives. I remember my fascination each time I placed a negative in the enlarger, exposed it, and then gently placed the photo paper into a tray filled with clear liquid. Then came the magic: as a red light lit the room, I would watch the white paper suddenly begin to darken, as shades of grey and black emerged across it, filling it with everything that would create the final image.
Reflecting on how analog prints are created, the process strikes me as a metaphor for parenthood. We bring children into the world with images in our minds of what they will become. We imagine their future at the moment of creation, but we cannot know it. Over time, the image begins to fill in. Sometimes the child who emerges is what we imagined, and sometimes he or she is not. The unpredictable wonderment is a beauty shared by both print making and parenthood: we watch as our imagination becomes a reality of its own, engendered by us but completed by its own formative journey. Photographs, in addition, once printed, age and decay as we do. Perhaps we sometimes hate to throw old photos away because we are destroying something that was born, had a life, and was in some way connected to us. Digital images, in contrast, are created instantly, live in ones and zeros, not in objects made by human hand, and die instantly when a finger strikes the delete key. Digital images are nonhuman.
Barthes confesses that after his mother died, his grief “wanted a just image, an image which would be both justice and accuracy—justesse: just an image, but a just image.” For him, that image was the Winter Garden Photograph, which, interestingly, he left out of the book and has never been found. Reading his words, I started to wonder whether I had been doing the same thing as Barthes. Maybe I too was looking for an image of “justice and accuracy” in all those photographs of Enzo. Perhaps, when we look through photos of loved ones who are gone, we search for one special image that contains something that pierces us—“bruises” us to use Barthes’ evocative term. We search because enduring the pain of the search allows us to bring those persons back to life—to resurrect them from the dead and to feel once again the essence of their existence.
With Barthes’ words in mind, I returned to my photos of Enzo to look for the one image that might put an end to my searching. I knew that in the hundreds of photos of him there had to be one whose justesse would allow me to bring him back to life in my mind. Moving back through time, I found it. Barthes kept his image a secret, but I will share mine.
The photo was taken when Enzo turned five. He wears a white shirt illuminated by candlelight. He rests his head on his hand, as his hair curls across his forehead. While other children focus on the cake (it had a red racing car on it), Enzo sits and seems to contemplate something more profound. He is lost in thought even at that young age, his face covered in a far-away look that was to appear time and again—and is always my punctum—in other photographs as he grew older. I stand behind him in darkness, my left hand caressing him—supporting him—as if foreshadowing our life together. I remember looking down at him at that moment, imagining a future that was not to be. For me, and only me, the photograph represents what Enzo was and what I tried to be as a father. It pierces me deeply every time I see it, which is sadly wonderful, because that pain brings him back to life. It is his resurrection in light and shadows.
I printed the photo (alas, with a machine and not by hand) and framed it today—the only photograph I have added to our home since he died. It is just an image, as Barthes would say, but it is just and accurate and those qualities transform it. In the simple photograph below, I continually rediscover the essence of what Enzo was and will always be for me: a perfect beauty in my imperfect life.