Absence-As-Presence: Photography of The Loved and Lost

One of the most telling descriptions of the essence of photography in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida happens to be supplied by someone else.  In one of his final chapters, Barthes calls on philosopher Maurice Blanchot, who writes that a photograph in its essence is “unrevealed yet manifest, having that absence-as-presence which constitutes the lure and the fascination of the sirens.”(106) In other words, even though photography can give us the “that-has-been”, the certainty and evidence of an event or moment, it can never retrieve the full effect of the moment. However, it gives us just enough to keep studying, keep analyzing,  and keep drawing from our own memory in the hopes that we may unlock some hidden mystery buried deep within what is really no more than ink on a piece of paper. It is this paradox that especially can aggravate us when we look at photographs of recently lost loved ones or long lost ancestors who we have never known.

Alexislouisealonso describes this frustration in her post, “Mystery to Me”.  In looking at a picture of her father as a child in the 1960s, she notes that “lacking [a] connection to my father’s side, and thus my Cuban heritage, I found myself compelled to analyze each and every photo of my father’s, drawn to the foreign album and the Spanish captions labeling each image.  This mystery paired with my own absent connection with my ancestry is, in Barthes’ terms, the ‘wound’ that I discovered.” To sum it up, I would argue that Alexislouisealonso is frustrated by her inability to summon any knowledge or memory of her ancestors. She looks at her father’s parents and cannot recognize them. However, she knows that they are in the photo, and that they were there, raising him in Cuba, helping to shape him into the man who would later be her father. She writes, “I find myself emotionally estranged from the people standing in this photograph, though drawn together through lineage.” In other words, she is as captivated by their absence as she is their presence.  In Barthes’ terms, this photo of Alexislouisealonso’s grandparents “gives a little truth, on condition that it parcels out the body. But this truth is not that of the individual, who remains irreducible; it is the truth of lineage” (103). The image gives her valuable information (what her father’s parents looked like, where they lived, etc.), but she is frustrated that there is nothing else that she can extract from it. In her time, she can apply very little knowledge or experience of her own to the photo. No matter what we hear from our older relatives about a person, no matter how many photos we see, their essence can never be fully realized in our eyes because we were never there.

AaBenjamin’s post studies this separation not through time and estrangement but through history. In Chapter 26, Barthes briefly reflects on the nature of history and how it relates to photography: “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 from it” (65) History, Barthes believes, must be connected to and manipulated by emotion. Our emotions compel us to examine one thing over another, and through our examination of that thing, it becomes history.  Aabenjamin was not always excluded from her Grandmother’s history. In fact, there was a time when their histories intersected. The photographic evidence of this is presented in her post—a party where the two were both present. It seems, though that the photo is not enough. Aabenjamin writes,

“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.”

It is interesting that although Aabenjamin does have photos and therefore memories that she can call on of her grandmother, she doesn’t feel that they are authentic or telling because of her weakness at the end of her life. Barthes touches on this when he describes his last memories of his mother who was very weak before she died, and much later he asserts that “The photograph is like old age: even in its splendor, it disincarnates the face”(105), or clouds the essence. I think Aabenjamin would agree with this. No matter how cherished the memories are that she has with her grandmother, she seems to feel as though she is separated from her grandmother’s history by the photo as well as by her age.  But this exclusion, Aabenjamin thinks, “makes the history worthy to look at”. The photo shows just enough of her Grandmother, the reflection in her eyes, to allow her to recall her “real” eyes and what they once held, and to relentlessly delve back into the photo for any tiny memory she can find.

The last post I would like to recall is Hannahfiasco’s, which is entitled “My Winter Garden Photograph.” Her photograph presents a complicated and fascinating contrast to the other two. It includes both the author and the lost loved one, her stepfather. Hannahfiasco stresses that the photograph does not in any way reflect her or her stepfather’s essence. It is her own memory–her own ability to recall those quiet afternoons with him–that truly encapsulates the essence of their relationship. She sums it up in one small passage:

“to an outsider the image above is nothing. It condenses meaningful soul shaping afternoons into an unbecoming portrait of two people sitting on a couch with dogs. But the image represents what I consider the most powerful device of photography – its ability to actually trigger memory.”

Hannahfiasco looks at her Winter Garden Photograph and is able to go back to those special moments with her stepfather.  Barthes writes that a photograph can actually block memory, or “ratify what it represents”(p. 85), and because of her experiences with his photo, HannahFiasco disagrees. However, even though the photograph can trigger important memories for her, the distinction needs to be made that the photo is merely triggering a memory that she was already capable of summoning on her own. The true power and sentiment behind that photograph comes from her own mind and could only be barely expressed to us by her description of her memories. Because of this, her fascination with this photograph of a lost loved one has to do with a link to her own emotion and memory.

When I look at these three posts in relation to Barthes’ essay, I realize that photography is defined not by what it gives us but what we give to it. As Hannahfiasco implies, it is merely a trigger, a jumping off point for our own perceptions of lineage, history, and relationships. Because of this, we look at certain photographs and keep coming back for more in the hopes that, just like Proust’s Madeleine passage, some distant and maybe even unrelated memory will spring from our subconscious, giving us more memories and insights into who we are.

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