Blurred Understanding

To be frank, Sebald’s use of photographs baffles me for it seems so varied, many times the very purpose of inclusion is unclear, and sometimes the photographs do not even seem to hold much significance, as they do in Perec, Barthes and Matalon. Most of the time, unlike in the works of the other three authors, the included photographs are not even directly commented on. Also, because we do not know whether Max Ferber’s story is fully fiction or non-fiction, it is easy to view the photographs in this same way. Many of the photographs seem like they relate to the subject matter being discussed. For example, the smoke stacks lining the horizon in the image on page 168 do seem to portray the very chimneys that Ferber recalled. However, we do not know whether or not these are the actual chimneys he remembered or whether they are merely similar chimneys. (Because Sebald was a known photograph collector, it is likely that this is the case. Also, because the story is likely fiction, it is likely that these photos are merely supposed to act as visual representations of scenes from the story)

However, including photographs that portray scenes that seem to mirror the ones that he writes about is not the only way that Sebald uses photographs. I want to take a look at two photographs in particular to further explore his varied use of photos. The first is the photograph on page 171, which supposedly shows Ferber writing as a young boy. Unlike the other photos included, this photograph literally has nothing to do with the scene that Sebald writes about (one that describes Ferber experiencing intense pain due to a slipped disc). Sebald writes that this experience reminds Ferber of being a young boy and hunching over his writing desk. While these two moments are not directly related and the photograph simply seems to prove nothing, this moment marks a new use of photographs for Sebald: one of association. Here, the included photograph helps us, as readers, to understand the link between these two memories.

Another photograph that I wanted to look at is the one on page 184. This photograph is linked to a story that Ferber tells about his uncle revealing that a newspaper ran a fake photograph that supposedly showed the book burning on the evening of May 10th but really showed another event happening outside the palace on a different day because it was too dark to take decent photos at the actual event. I cannot help but to think of the curious relationship between writing and photography when I examine this image. I feel like this image wonderfully displays the deceitful nature of writing—especially when paired with a photograph. Here, we can see how easily writing can be fictitious, and how much more so it becomes this way when it is paired with a photograph. Here, not only does Sebald make us doubt writing, he also makes us doubt photography (which differs from Barthes analysis).

I included this photo because I think that it really captures my rather blurred understanding of Sebald’s use of photographs. In my image, you can partly see out of the window, but you cannot tell for certain what is outside. I feel like Sebald’s photographs act in a similar way (and maybe this is only because I still do not fully understand their purpose) in the sense the we, as readers, can see and accept why an image was used, but we cannot fully grasp why it was significant to Sebald.


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