Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. (Barthes, 1980, p.10)
In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes hits on so many of the things that fascinate me about photographs, but for now I want to concentrate on the above quote.
When I think about photographs (in relation to my own artwork) I think about amateur photography, the sort that sits in family photo albums. The photograph as an object of memory.
Thinking about the family snapshot as a casual (sometimes unthinking) documentation of a person or place or event, it is easy to consider the above quote and the way in which the subject plays up to the camera, putting forward a particular side of themselves (literally and figuratively), like putting on a costume and becoming this other person… this “Other”.
Barthes’ talks about looking at photographs of his mother and finding them not quite right, not quite the way he remembered her and the paradox of finally finding an image that seemed true to the person he knew, and it is a photograph of his mother as a child.
This speaks to me about the unreliability of memory, because we have learned to look at photographs to remember, and yet, they are only representations of some aspect of a person, a performance that is given by the subject for the camera. Even more candid photographs can only really show one side, one emotion, one particular way of being.
In her book Phantasmagoria Marina Warner mentions this:
When someone kisses a face in a photograph, what kind of materiality does the loved one in the image possess? In what ways do a phantom in the mind and an image made of light resemble one another? (Warner, 2008, p. 189)
Which is a curious way of looking at the importance we give to photographs. As an object they are very powerful indeed, and have the ability to call up the ‘phantom’ of the person therein… and yet they are not perfect. The can give us only a tracing, the smallest part of a person, and memory must supply the rest. Photographs of a personal nature are also very subjective, they are most powerful to the people who know the subject. Can a photograph without a story ever hit as hard as a photograph of a loved one (with all the detailed backstory of memory) who is gone? How can a personal photograph become meaningful to the viewer without the intimacy of the knowledge that comes with it? Because without that knowledge we are left with the image of someone who is posed, someone who is offering only a particular version of themselves to the viewer.