History Estranged

Sadly, Roland Barthes only briefly examines the topic of history in Camera Lucida. Chapter twenty six discusses the role of history when applied to photography and nostalgia, as Barthes salvages old photos to “find” his deceased mother. “History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it—and in order to look at it, we must be excluded fromit” (65). This quote evokes a myriad of contemplations on the possible meanings of history in a photograph. Barthes argues that history imposes separation when a spectator looks at a photo of a past that came before him or her. He claims that history is only history because the spectator exists after its time: therefore the spectator can never feel personal belonging to the photo despite whatever nostalgia he or she may feel. An essential realization hits me as I stare into the reproduction of my Granny’s (Great Grandmother’s) eyes. She is history, and I am not. Yet, in this captured moment of time our realms of existence overlapped.

Barthes asks, “Is history not simply that time when we were not born?” (64). No, it is not. While history creates a division between me and the image of my Granny, I cannot attribute that division to the lack of my existence, because I was there. I remember the thanksgiving party on my Great Aunt’s patio, out in the open Caribbean air with reggae family classics playing in the background. I remember Granny’s presence, the proof in this picture that I do not remember taking. Though I doubt that I took the photo, it is there, I was there, and she was there; but we were not together. I am unsure of my location when this picture was taken, but I am only sure that Granny is now gone, and that this picture holds on to the only image I knew of her: aged and weathered, yet still strong, walking, and talking. The history exists in her eyes, in her real eyes, when I could look at them. The reflected eyes only remind me of what the living eyes once held. I notice a joy rare on my father’s face; he knew something about her that I didn’t. Possibly this photo releases some essence to him that I cannot catch, distanced from that history I am not a part of. The past resides in this photo as history now that she is gone, and I still feel that division despite being there at the time. “In order to look at [history], we must be excluded from it” (65). I feel excluded from her essence that I never knew. I feel excluded from this photographic history that I was not captured in. From the outside, I look in on what has been and definitively is no longer. History is what is no longer.

“We must be excluded from it.” I agree with this aspect of Barthes interpretation, under the assumption that I actually took the picture. In the most literal sense, the photographic recording of history requires the operator’s exclusion from the history being recorded. If the operator were in the photo, he could not “look” at history. My presence in the photo would have destroyed the photo’s historical value. The photo would simply depict life, rather than testify to my absence that imposed a separation between my Granny and I, and that now imposes a separation between my connection to and understanding of her and this photograph. My exclusion makes the history worthy to look at.

Barthes’s compelling statement, “history is hysterical” (65), captivates me the most. He declares history intangible and extremely emotional, which also hints at instability. “It is constituted only if we consider it.” History ceases to exist unless we revive it within our minds. Barthes argues that our minds can only perform this revival when we look at history. His seemingly paradoxical meaning distinguishes two types of history: the mentally constructed and the actual. Photography provides actual history from which spectators construct memories of history. This hysterical history devastates me. When I look into the image of my Granny’s eyes, I see nothing. I am frustratingly distracted by the glare of her glasses that nearly disrupt history by including the operator’s reflection in the photograph. The lenses glaze over her glazed, weakening eyes. Pieces of her remain as memories of my inability to appreciate her in my younger age, a scarf of hers which I wear every spring, and photos. I doubt my ability to discover her essence, as Barthes did his mother’s. When I look at this picture, attempting to examine history, I attempt to re-discover the undiscovered. I lack the hysterics necessary to conjure her history, which I therefore cannot construct in my mind, and from which I am further distanced because of the exclusion necessary for history to be recorded and examined.

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2 thoughts on “History Estranged

  1. Pingback: Absence-As-Presence: Photography of The Loved and Lost | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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