“The Photograph does not call up the past…The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (Barthes 82).
Of all of the tangles and complexities of Barthes analysis in Camera Lucida, it is this sole statement that so lingers with me. Thus, in the entirety of Camera Lucida, it is this single, striking moment that holds the greatest dynamism in that it simultaneously illuminates the boldest falsity and the greatest truth of photography. In that a photograph is born only through the literal light “emanation of the referent” (80), we cannot deny that photography is the most genuine evidence of the “that-has-been” (77). This is an indisputable core of photography—that no matter what we link to a photograph, it maintains a pure authentication and simply cannot lie (87). Yet, just prior to Barthes veracious statement, is one that I feel obliged to refute: that a “photograph does not call up the past.”
My mother took the above photograph nearly two decades ago in a small town in Pennsylvania. Many years later, I found the print in her office, after shuffling through the mountains of cookbooks, sleeping cats, old art projects that she refuses to throw away, brushing my hands up against the curled edges of her work in the process. I picked up print after print until I found this one, which I was immediately attracted to, either for its beauty or for its sense of displacement amongst images of family vacations, baby photos, and class portraits.
I took the photograph with me to college and hung it up in my room, hoping that its charm would mask the dullness of the dorm’s haggard walls. In town for parents weekend, my mother froze when she recognized the image. Ripping it off the wall for closer inspection, she laughed, and, looking at me in her characteristically shameless manner, she remarked, “Bailey, this the day you were made.” This unsettling information, naturally, propelled me to force the photo from her hands and stuff it into a filing box, where it has remained ever since. As incredibly embarrassing and uncomfortable as this scene is for me to reveal, it is essential to disproving Barthes claim that photography “does not call up the past” (82).
Bashful of the content that now lingers in the image, I no longer display it publicly (until now). And yet, I cannot get rid of it. With the knowledge that it is in this one moment that I first existed, I simply cannot dispose of it. I latch onto the photograph because due to my mother’s memory, it seems to make me more real—through the photograph I am fully ratified.
In Chapter 37, Barthes claims that photography actually “blocks memory” (91). Yet, when my mother caught sight of this picture hanging on my wall, a memory came to her via the image—the photograph literally called up the past. The photograph did not refuse the remembrance, the context. Defying Barthes, we mustn’t separate memory from photography, for there is a wonderful link that exists between the two. In the case of this photograph, even though it is not my own memory (it is more like outside context), it is only through the coupling of this confided and adopted memory—that this particular photograph captured the first true day of my life—and the truth of the photograph itself—the light emitting from it—that validates my existence. Here, I go against Barthes in my belief that it is not merely the “luminous rays” and chemical make up of a photograph that “[certifies] a presence” (87), but it is also the memory (or outside context) linked to the photograph the ultimately affirms the “what has been” (85). In doing so, I add a subjective element to the that-has-been. Through our memories and our knowledge of the context surrounding particular photographs, we personalize the that-has-been to our own taste, creating an imperative intimacy. It is not merely chemicals that develop a photograph—our minds do as well. It is through these outside additions that the that-has-been becomes important.
Yet, despite this inherent bond between photographs and memory, we must be wary when it comes to the truth behind imagery. As I explored in my last post, the “misfortune” and the “voluptuous pleasure” of language is that it can never be as certain as photography—it has the potential to be fictitious (Barthes 85). In a sense, memory is like language in that it can be contorted and skewed with time and marred with falsity. We cannot always believe our own memories, as they tend to blur with the passing of time, nor can we always believe the memories of others—we never know if the confider is telling the truth. And it is here that we must make a decision: we must choose to believe the content contained in memory, whether it is our own or not, or we must chose to deny it. I chose to believe my mother’s memory because it seemed to make me more of a reality, however, I will never truly know if there is any certainty in her words because it was not captured in a photograph (thank goodness…).
Memory lives through photography. When we forget, a photograph sparks remembrance. When we deny, a photograph provides proof (Recall Barthes in Chapter 36). We cannot choose between believing or rejecting a photograph as we can with memories and words. While memory and photography survive together—constantly merging together to validate existence—it is only through a photograph that we can ultimately ratify and essence.