As I read through the many thoughtful posts on Barthes, I became infatuated with the older photographs posted by my fellow students. I considered at length the implications of my relationship with them and with Barthes, and I came to a dual conclusion. I admire these images for two reasons, each equally important – the “that has been”, related to Barthes description of the Person and also what I will term the “that has been made”. As Vesna Pavolvic described to our class, she takes photographs as well as makes photographs. I found myself considering interminably the role of “operator” in the creation of images.
Photography is ultimately an art form, carefully crafted by its creator, often with an intended audience in mind. A viewer or “spectator” engages with the photograph on a variety of levels, dependent on the context in which the photograph appears and his or her own relationship to the subject depicted. Barthes describes the role of the spectator in relation to the Operator “to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practice, but to experience them “in reverse” in accordance with my role as Spectator” (Barthes 28). The allure of photography arises from each person engaging with the creation of the operator in his or her own way. I spent time with the photograph Babcia, featuring a tight knit looking family happily standing in the woods, posted by Randriaj. Her post highlights a particular inclination towards interpreting historical photographs differently, she emphasizes every viewing experience is subjective as it is colored by personal context. Randriaj states “Historical photographs tempt us to see the photo as a form of time travel. However, one can never truly see the lens in the same way that the operator (photographer) did when it was taken.”
The operator also informs the subject of the image. Historically, the act of taking a photograph was a more formal or precious affair due to the higher cost and physical labor involved. Barthes states “Photography, moreover, began historically as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality.” (Barthes 79). The fact of these particular photographs existence says something about their meaning, and the meaning they hold in the families who treasure them. The photographs also highlight important moments in the lives of their subjects – such as their honeymoon or the baptism of their child.
I was particularly captivated by the photograph posted by Alexlouisealsonso, as well as the two images shared by hhmorgan. El bautismo de Juan Carlos is an almost perfect exposure. A zoom into this image shows that it is on a very heavy weight paper. Furthermore the bottom corner shows what I believe is a signature. The operator of this image considered him or herself an artist – and this image a worthy work. The print is very technically strong and well composed. However, its strength does not lie solely in technical prowess. The greatest success of the operator is clearly the wonderfully captured moment of the very expressive baby, engaging quite marvelously with the ceremony director. The image reflects Barthes notion of the Person, and the cognizance of the body, certainly in the stiff postures of the adults in the ceremony. I am intrigued by this image because the baby is outside of the restrictions of photographic awareness. In her post discussing the photograph Alexlouisealsonso states “Just as Barthes finds himself distracted by the accessories and dated objects within his personal picture of his mother, I find myself similarly distracted by considering the issues my family faced while living under these political conditions and analyzing their seriousness in this photo to the context of that time.” Alexlouisealsonso seems to be overwhelmed by the formality of the body and its implications, which is only transcended by the baby. She is interested in the photographs ability to show the “that has been” for her family. As an outsider, my relationship with the image is different. I am captivated by the “that has been made”, by the power of the image itself even to me, a stranger.
The engagement photography has with the body informs my readings of the two photographs shared by hhmorgan, visually rich images I would like to explore in terms of the Person and the Operator. Hhmorgan posted a stunning picture of her grandmother on her honeymoon, captured in a decisive moment of looking back at the operator. Grandmama has a magic that draws the eye into the photograph. It conveys details about her era, but also transcends time to reveal something about her person. The photograph entrances the eye, asking it to linger. Because I practiced analog photography in the past, careful inspection of the photograph drew my eye to the small pieces of dust on the image. When I zoomed in I realized there was quite a bit of debris on the negative. It allowed my mind to think about the operator in a different light than I did the operator of El bautismo de Juan Carlos. The image becomes more intimate for me, not a product of a talented professional but instead a brilliant amateur, who perhaps processed this image without much experience, or allowed dust to get into the film case before sending the film to be processed. Perhaps a more careful hand could have eradicated this dust before processing the image. If it was perfectly crisp, in some way it may have lost the beauty of its engagement with the amateur, with the untrained eye who managed to capture a moment so remarkable. This image is a perfect example of the “That has been made” because it transcends what Barthes describes as the banality of the “that has been”. Another image of Grandmama may have revealed more about the time and clothes of her person in context, but likely would have roused nothing in me. The intimacy of the subject and operator creates a world of depth.
Hhmorgan posted another photograph from her clearly rich family archives that engaged well with my musings on operator and Person, in an entirely different way. Her image Four Generations depicts four generations of her family together for one image. In her post hhmorgan emphasizes the social significance having such an image taken had for her family, as well as the images context in a newspaper. The photograph takes the context of El bautismo de Juan Carlos a step further. Four generations appears to have been not only taken by a professional photographer but also created in a photography studio, as alluded to by the false background of painted trees. The formality of the photograph indicates it is a photograph of Person in Barthes sense. The photograph indicates their social status, in terms of the clothes for the image, the formality of a photographic sitting, as well as the privilege of health — the luck of having four generations surviving simultaneously. The photograph again shows how an infant can transcend photographic awareness. The baby does not conform to the stiff formality of the occasion: he looks joyous and bubbly – his one leg kicking forward from his body. The image speaks to the family as a whole. I found hhmorgans response to it particularly interesting when she read the image she reads her family history but also into the Person that is conveyed through the stiffness of pose. She states “Similar to the girl’s strapped pumps, the deep brown eyes, the awkwardness of my great grandfathers hands as he holds the baby, and his lopsided bowtie relay a discomfort, an unnaturalness to the entire situation: nice clothes, posed smiles, and perhaps fatherhood.” The photograph conveys a great deal of information both about resemblance and the social mores of the era, even to a viewer with not personal context with which to interpret the image.
Historic images have a unique and noteworthy relationship with the family of the subject, who can supply information to read deeply into the context of the image. However, to an outsider a historic image directly depicts the social context and the body language of the subject, described by Barthes as the formality of the body or the Person. The historic image further reveals information to the spectator about the Operator, which gives the photographs shared by Randriaj, Alexlouisealsonso and hhmorgan new meaning as the “that has been made”.