The Photograph—Fact, Facsimile or Remnant?
When you take a photograph, how do you use it? Once we aim the camera, push the button and look at the screen to see if we are satisfied with the image, how do we engage with it? I’m interested not in a premeditated image, but in one that is taken on an impulse, or one that records a moment at an ongoing event (wedding or party or the like).
What meaning does the image hold for us? Is it a fact of our life, a memento that jogs a memory of a happy time or amazing circumstance, or a souvenir of our need to record? In our momentary desire to capture that, which is before us, does the activity of picture taking remove us (emotionally if not intellectually) from the very thing that we are attempting to record?
This leads us to a thought that Roland Barthes put so eloquently concerning the nature of the photograph as mere facsimile. The representation on the surface of the paper is not the event, the person or place. The photo can only function as a reminder. Hence, the photograph lacks the electricity of the experience that made us want to take it. It becomes a translation of that moment, whether of the object photographed, or the feeling that we experienced at the time we took it. It occupies a type of phantom zone in our life—a thing, but not the thing.
If this is so, then is a photograph only a remnant of memory? Whose memory? What is your relationship to the object seen on that piece of paper or on that digital screen? If the image doesn’t relate to your life, do you care about what you see?
I’ve looked at many images shown to me via a cell phone camera, flitting from one tiny picture to the next with the flick of a thumb. It’s a new technologies version of the interminable slide show of a friend’s vacation. Roman villas, Adriatic sunsets and Greek columns that are meaningful in some way to the picture taker, but are so tedious to us, their captive audience. We can understand what we see as the images scroll by, but we have no real relationship to them. They are bereft of importance and meaning, because they aren’t our memory.
We come around, full circle, to that vexing question about what the photographs recorded on all those memory cards mean. How do they relate to the experience that made us want to memorialize them? What do they mean to the people we show them too? And ultimately, what do they record—a fact, a facsimile or a remnant?
Tell me what you think
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang publishers, New York, 1981.
One by Ken Ohara reprinted in 1997 by Taschen press and is unfortunately out of print, but find a copy if you can. Ohara's work is about identity and the cover of One is the picture opposite the picture of the camera. Ohara's work is great and you should take a look at it on the web. Unfortunately, it appears that at this time he doesn't have a web site, but there are a lot of images and information on him.