Photography & The Uncanny

Three: Photography & Death

The nature of the photograph's uncanniness ultimately resides in and revolves around death. The relation of the photograph to the double, and of its confusion of reality, and time within reality, all inform this. Much of Barthes' narrative in Camera Lucida is concerned with the relation of the photograph to death, and its implications.
Barthes reaches a striking realisation in his discussion of the semiotic nature of the photograph. He asserts its veracity: "Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence,"
48 that, whatever meaning may be constructed from a photograph, something has necessarily been 'fixed' by the camera, something was evidentially there49. Barthes extends from this that due to its optical-chemical genesis, the gaze is 'touched' by "the body of the photographed thing"50. By this he takes it that, due to the physical action of light and the chemical action of development, that there is a tangible link from what was photographed, something "that has been", from the photograph as object, through the action of light, "radiations that ultimately touch me," to the gaze: "the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star."51
It is precisely due to the very reality of this - the certainty of an existence within the past, and therefore that it is the past, that photography becomes inextricably bound with Death: and in its totality and completeness of capture, it is "an asymbolic Death"
52. Iverson's reading of Camera Lucida throws up some very apposite comments which can be directly applied here, that

The nature of the medium as an indexical imprint of the object means that any photographed object or person has a ghostly presence53, an uncanniness that might be likened to the return of the dead.54

In discussing a photograph of Lewis Payne (from 1865 by Alexander Gardiner), in his cell awaiting execution ("this will be and this has been,"55), Barthes describes this as a perfect concept: that of an anterior future, that is a future that is already a past, and this future is death. Returning to the subject of his book,

In front of the photograph of my mother as a child I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder[...] over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.56

This realisation is according to Barthes "more or less blurred" in modern photographs, but is acute in historical examples -"there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die."57 By this measure, that photography is "an elegiac art"58, the photograph has become the modern memento mori: the concept of time for the human subject/object ultimately resolves itself in Death.
The cinema does not convey the same metaphorical meaning as photography; it is not analogous as regards death: "in the Photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and remained there forever[...]; but in cinema, something has passed in front of this same tiny hole..."

Yet the cinema has a power which at first glance the Photograph does not have: the screen (as Bazin has remarked) is not a frame but a hideout; the man or woman who emerges from it continues living: A 'blind field' constantly doubles our partial vision60. Now, confronting millions of photographs,[...] I sense no blind field: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond.61

The manifestation of death is uncanny -"many people experience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death..."62, primarily, considers Freud, due to the fact that "our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death."63 Death is the ultimate incarnation of the abstract that is the uncanny: both undeniably familiar, and undeniably repressed. Thus, the photograph presents this, Death (as repressed, in an unfamiliar guise); implicit in the nature of photography as a medium, yet rarely explicit in photographs as an actuality, that it is the embodiment of the uncanny.

next: Four: Conclusion

Footnotes; Photography & Death

48 Barthes, op. cit. p87
49 "...that the object has been real.", ibid p79
50 Ibid p81
51 Ibid pp80-81. There are some appropriate parallels in On Photography, as Sontag states a photograph "is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask[...] A photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) - a material vestige of its subject.",p154
52 Ibid. p92
53 "A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence," Sontag, op. cit. p16
54 Iverson, op. cit. p450
55 Barthes, op. cit. p96
56 Ibid.
57 Ibid.
58 Sontag, op. cit. p15
59 Barthes, op. cit. p78
60 "Film gives back to the dead a semblance of life, a fragile semblance...", Metz, op. cit. p158
61 Ibid, pp55-57
62 Freud, op. cit. p364
63 Ibid.


©copyright 2005 Nicholas Middleton