In chapter thirty-three of Camera Lucida, Barthes argues that “what founds the nature of Photography is the pose…that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye” (Barthes 78). Whether the pose captured by the camera lasts for “the interval of a millionth of a second” like Edgerton’s famous photograph of the drop of milk (78), or the subjects of the photograph purposely sit still and pose for the camera like my mother and her three sisters in the above photograph, it is only the precise moment the camera captures that matters. It is this moment that hangs “motionless in front of the eye” (78), and the past event represented by the photo will always be remembered in that one stationary moment.
The interesting thing about Barthes’s assertion here is that the concept of the pose can be very different for different photographs, and yet still be termed the same. One way that the pose can manifest is in a way consistent with the connotations associated with the word: a person or people who are aware that they are being photographed, pose for the photograph. Barthes defines this sense of the pose in the beginning of Camera Lucida when he describes the careful way he presents himself to the camera. Barthes aims for “[his] image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with [his] profound self” (12).Barthes – and anyone else placed in front of a camera – tries to make himself appear in photographs in a way that says certain things about him, in a way that captures either the true self or a purposeful identity.
One can clearly see in my photograph the poses chosen by my mother and my aunts Paula (on the left) and Cathy (front and center). My mother (in the pink sweater on the right) sits forlornly self-conscious, with a halfhearted smile barely lifting one corner of her mouth. She loves to tell the story of this photograph: her sister Cathy offered to fix her hair for the purpose of this photo, and because Cathy was the oldest and did these sorts of things, she gave my mother a huge, poofy hairdo. My mother’s pose makes it clear that she feels hideous and embarrassed; she tries to make herself unobtrusive in the photograph. Cathy, the ‘hairdresser’, sits in the middle with a big cheesy smile on her face, pleased with her handiwork and wanting to show the world her fun spirit and beauty. Paula, always the rebel when she was younger and still hostile towards cameras to this day, also makes her feelings clear in her pose: squared shoulders, head tilted to the side, and eyes staring defiantly directly at the camera make it clear that wants to portray that she is too cool to be sitting for this photograph
The second sense of the pose which is necessarily included in Barthes’s discussion is a more spontaneous moment of captured movement. It is just a fragment of what was actually happening, but it is the fragment that happened to be captured, and this piece of time is the one that is frozen in the photograph. The difference between this sense of the pose and the previous one is that this pose is not planned; it simply happens. Barthes compares photography to cinematography here to make this idea more clear. In cinema, “something has passed in front of the [camera]”, because the continual series of images flit past our eyes one after the other, creating an illusion of motion and thus no single frozen moment. In photography, however, “something has posed in front of the [camera] and has remained there forever” (78). Something happens – “in front of the same tiny hole” (78) as in cinematography – but something entirely different is captured. Only one of the series of images that would have been captured in cinematography exists in photography. Only that one moment is frozen, but there was motion surrounding it when it was first taken. Despite this motion though, the spontaneous pose is just as frozen in time as the planned pose discussed above.
This concept of the pose is easier to see in other photographs, but it is definitely evident in the photograph of my aunts as well. With her perfect posture in the back row, Susie, the youngest sister, is clearly trying to ‘pose’ in the same way as her sisters. However, at the same time she is visibly trying to hold back laughter as she glances sideways at my mother and her crazy hair. Maybe the moment before the one captured in the photograph, she was looking at the camera and purposefully posing. Maybe the moment after the camera flashed, she couldn’t hold her laughter in anymore, and in true Aunt Susie-style, started cracking jokes and teasing my mother. If this were a video I would know for certain, but because this is merely a single pose captured in a photograph, Susie will forever be holding back laughter in this single moment that will last forever.
The circumstances of the two different senses of posing are very different, but nonetheless Barthes is right in that it is the single, frozen moment in time that he calls the pose which is the very nature of a photograph.