The Generalization of Singularity

In Camera Lucida, Barthes acknowledges that there are two layers in perceiving and describing a photograph, and these different aspects are uttered with “the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself)” (76). He distinguishes between what he calls the “That-has-been” and what he says one adds when looking at a photograph. For Barthes, the “That-has-been” in a photograph is the thing that is the object of a photograph, that exists (or has existed) in reality and was placed before the camera; it is what everyone can see when looking at a photograph. This “factual objectivity” is complemented by a more personal and intimate perception of what the photograph means to us. We view photographs with a certain subjectivity. This subjectivity adds something to our perception of the photograph that is not apparent in the photograph itself because it is an interpretation of what we see, or an association with what we see. This applies in particular to photographs of one’s own family, when the viewer has certain knowledge or memories that go beyond what is actually depicted and make him or her see more than is actually there.

Many of the essays dealing with Camera Lucida that have been submitted for this course expand Barthes’ notion that the viewer reads something subjective into an image, something that goes beyond the actual content of a photograph. The authors of these essays do conduct “singular” interpretations, but these interpretations are not necessarily subjective in that they represent their own thoughts and feelings towards the image but those of others, or in that they establish connections with other photographs or with historical contexts.

Fbbillups’ post “Defy and Reconcile,” for example, shows how a photograph of a landscape represents the day on which the author was conceived – this is not the author’s own, personal reading but her mother’s; nevertheless it completely changes the way fbbillup looks at the photograph. The author refutes Barthes’ statement that a “photograph does not call up the past” (82). For her mother, a look at the photograph calls up that day when her daughter “was made.” But this very subjective, personal content “that now lingers in the image” is not only what the mother sees, but it also becomes something that her daughter cannot forget anymore; even though this is not the author’s own personal memory, it becomes part of what the author sees in the photograph – something that is neither in the photograph (of a landscape) nor in her own memory.

Sneibart’s “More Photographs” discusses how remembrance of the dead is evident in photography. The author compares epitaphs with photographs, claiming that both point to brief moments that are considered particularly noteworthy or representative of a person’s life. She says that Barthes would see “every picture that is taken [as] one more moment the person has already lived and will not live again.” This the author refutes by showing how the photographs she chose to accompany her post are “not subtraction but addition”: Two pictures that are representative of her family’s tradition of taking pictures of the girls of the wider family in the same pose, at the same place every year. Thus these photographs create a collection of stills that, when compared to each other, show how the girls have grown and changed over time, and how younger cousins are added. But this connection is only evident when viewing the pictures in their context with the photographs that come before and after. Each photograph on its own does not tell its full story or purpose; a context is necessary. However, this context, when added, is not necessarily subjective. Anyone who sees these pictures lined up next to each other will be able to see the connection, even if he or she is not part of this tradition or this family, does not share the same memory. Thus, there is something that goes beyond the actual content of each single photograph, but this “beyond” is not really subjective or personal; everybody can access it.

My own post “An Imaginary Line Into the Past” discusses an idea that is both similar to and the opposite of sneibart’s argument. I use a photograph of my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my younger brother and me to show how the past is certain while the future is insecure: We know for certain that our ancestors lived at one point in history, even if we do not know anything about them, while we cannot tell yet what will happen to the people in the picture after the photograph was taken. Thus, every family photograph hints at the existence of people beyond the actual frame, of a historical context which everybody in the photograph was part of, what Barthes calls “a certain persistence of the species” (105). Sneibart, too, shares the idea of how photographs can be put into a line within a historical context, but for her the annual photographs of her family “inspire [her] to believe that every year will bring another year, another photograph, and more change.” Thus, her imaginary line leads into the future rather than the past. In both cases, however, this contextualization is not exactly subjective, even though it adds an interpretation to a photograph that is not present in its actual content.

Each of these three posts confirms Barthes’ idea of a dichotomous viewing of photographs. There is both a “that-has-been” and a singular interpretation present in any reflection on photography. Barthes focuses on very subjective, personal interpretations, for example in what he calls the punctum, a specific feature in or association with a photograph that is accessible only for the specific viewer. The punctum can be explained to others, but it will never be perceived in the same way by anyone else, it remains a private emotion. The three posts, however, show ways in which something singular can be added to viewing photographs without this addition being inaccessible to others. This may be supplemental information which can change completely what one sees in a photograph, or it can be a contextualization, in which photographs make more sense in connection with other photographs or with a historical view on family lineage. Thus, all of these posts add to Barthes’ notion that there is something beyond the actual content of a photograph.

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