One of Barthes’ arguments about photography is that it can provide conclusive evidence of something or someone’s existence. Indeed, he calls the “noeme” or essence of photography the that-has-been because the one thing he knows when looking at any photograph is that whatever is pictured has existed in the real world at some point. However, the role photography can play as evidence is debatable, particularly when the photograph or its referent is disguised or designed to confuse, as we have discovered whilst reading Ronit Matalon or with the photograph given here of a man dressed as the fictional character The Mask. Whilst the background details (what Barthes calls the studium) may provide evidence of place and time and those other family members in the photograph could not deny their presence, the identity of the man dressed as The Mask is hidden by his disguise.
In this photograph, it seems reasonable to suppose that the attention of most spectators would immediately be drawn to the man at the centre, dressed as The Mask. The studium of this photograph, the general details, are a background in dark colours with people wearing dark clothes (although maybe both the tinsel and the light above the bar may be noticeable on closer inspection and suggest the photograph was taken near Christmas). However, the most vivid colour in this photograph is the green on the man’s face, closely followed by the orangey colour of his jacket. This is particularly emphasised by the way the man stands at the photograph’s centre with his hands spread out to make him seem almost as if he is the only person there. Even if, on closer inspection, the other people or details of the location are noticed, it seems likely that the man dressed as The Mask will be the part of the photograph most likely to be remembered, because he stands out so much.
Despite this, this photograph does not operate for me at least like Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph, providing the essence of the man in the picture. This is because the man is disguised. Whilst he is the most noticeable thing in the picture, this picture is not conclusive proof of his presence. Barthes claims that “In photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric;” (Barthes 78) and there is “certainty that such a thing had existed” (Barthes 80). However, The Mask does not exist except as a comic book character, so this photograph does not provide certainty that of the Mask’s existence, but at the same time it does not mean “someone sees the referent[in this case, the man dressed as the Mask]…in person.” (Barthes 79) because the man dressed as the Mask was not photographed with his natural appearance. Whilst this is a family photograph, taken at a family event and with all the people portrayed relations of each other, unless someone were present when this photograph was taken, it cannot be used to prove the certain identity of existence of the man behind the green face paint. He is disguised enough that his true identity is not immediately clear, to the extent that even those at the original event did not immediately recognise him. The fact he is a member of their family is unclear.
Similarly, the man in the photograph could most likely deny he is the person dressed as The Mask and it would not be possible to conclusively prove otherwise. On page eighty-five of Camera Lucida, Barthes discusses photographs that he does not remember being taken, but where he must admit he was present because he can see himself in the photograph. The real Alan Ward does not look like The Mask, so if he was shown this photograph but denied his presence, we could not prove otherwise.
Barthes does attempt to explain the ways in which photography can lie, that it can “lie as to the meaning…never as to its existence.” (Barthes 87). It may be unclear who the man at the centre of this photograph is, but someone was definitely there for the photograph to be taken. However, it is still unclear what exactly does exist here. The Mask? A man dressed as The Mask? Why was he dressed like that? Photography may not me meant to capture more than a moment or an essence, but what essence is portrayed here, especially without a caption to explain who this man is, his history and the history of his family?
Indeed, this photograph in some ways seems more like Barthes description of cinema, “cinema begins to differ from the photograph” because it shows both “the actor’s ‘this-has-been’ and the role’s,” (Barthes 79). This photograph has both an actor and a role, just like a film, but because it is one, frozen moment the temptation is to call it truth. The division between the character and the actor cannot be fully seen, which prevents this photograph from having one truth or one essence.
Therefore, this photograph can be used to criticise Barthes idea that a photograph can provide conclusive evidence of something’s existence in a way cinema cannot. This is because the man in this photograph is deliberately disguising himself and whilst it is difficult to see anything but him in this picture where he is the centrepiece, it is also difficult to know who he is or to understand what evidence is being presented to us within this photograph. We do not know who the man there is and he exists almost as two people: The Mask and a man dressed as The Mask, which prevents us from drawing any conclusions about his identity or this photograph’s purpose.
- Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. 1980. Great Britain: Vintage, 2000. Print.