This paper examines the relationship between photography and the novel by asking the question, ‘How does the presence of a photograph in a novel affect our reading of that novel?’ In consideration of this question I will make a distinction between narrated photographs (the employment of narrative to conjure either a photograph or the act of creating a photograph) and manifest photographs (the physical immersion of actual photographs into an imaginative text). I will also consider this question in the context of Roland Barthes’ ideas on photography and intertextuality and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory.
When Barthes described the camera as ‘a clock for seeing’ (Barthes 2000: 15) he was contemplating photography as being something that is inextricably linked with the nature of time and the process of seeing. Seeing necessarily happens within a certain time and space and the unique claim of photography is that it can arrest or capture a ‘seen’ moment in given time and space. Because the captured moment has happened, photography therefore is also about re-presentation of the past. This means it is also about memory, reflection and evidence.
It is perhaps the very indexical nature of photography that makes it a significant catalyst and, in certain cases, a major focus in many literary novels. In such novels a photograph or a photographer plays a key role and the mechanisms of photography (its perceived ability to arrest time and to provide evidence) serve to advance plot and develop character.
In his essay The Peripheral Space of Photography, the writer and poet Murat Nemet-Nejat identifies what he calls photographic space. He suggests that as well as being meditative or reflective, photographic space is also peripheral because what lies outside the focus of the image is perhaps as relevant as what is defined within the frame of the image (Nemet-Nejat). This is certainly true for photographs in novels and in this paper I contend that such photographs–whether narrated or manifest, generate a distinctive photographic space beyond the formative reflective space. I call this generated space in the novel a second layer space. It is a space that exists in symbiosis with the text of the novel and it can take many forms. It may be a divided space, a unifying space or a contested space. It might be a public or a private space. It can be a surreal space or even a space of possibility such as self recognition or transformation. Whatever form this second layer of photographic space develops, I believe it invites a unique gaze from the reader–a gaze which results from what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the emergence of the image as the dominant paradigm (Mitchell 1994).
Mitchell recognizes the ‘turns’ in the historical phases of philosophy as identified by American philosopher Richard Rorty. These phases are:
- the ancient and medieval period–concerned primarily with things;
- the seventeenth to the nineteenth century–concerned with ideas;
- the contemporary period–concerned with words.
According to Mitchell, Rorty identifies this final period as ‘the linguistic turn’ (ibid.: 11). Mitchell takes this notion of ‘turns’ further to identify a more recent and significant phase that is impacting across academic and public culture. He calls this new phase ‘the pictorial turn.’ The reader’s gaze upon photographic space in the novel becomes, within Mitchell’s pictorial turn, a double gaze because it draws the reader from one frame (that of a particular type of photographic space) into another frame (away from the photographic space) and back again. In some circumstances, this double gaze is akin to what Barthes terms heautoscopy–the double vision that comes from the act of seeing one’s own self in a ‘different place’ (Barthes 2000: 12).
Whatever type of photographic space is generated by manifest images (transformative, private, public, unifying or divided), it is, at the same time, a physical space defined by the geographic borders of the image in question. This is in contrast to narrated images which only become present in the imagined realm. Narrated images are generated by the process of ekphrasis. The difference between the narrated and the manifest is, as Mitchell suggests, the difference between cite and sight. ‘A verbal representation cannot represent–that is, make present–its object in the same way a visual representation can. It may refer to an object, describe it, invoke it, but it can never bring its visual presence before us in the same way pictures do. Words can “cite,” but never “sight” their objects’ (Mitchell 1994: 152).
There are many novels in many languages containing narrated photographic images. Some significant and recent English language novels include: The Photograph by Penelope Lively; Out of this World by Graham Swift; Sixty Lights by Gail Jones; Slow Man by J.M Coetzee; and Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas. All of these novels have, at their core, something to do with photography. Either the main protagonist is or was a photographer, or, as in the case of Penelope Lively and Gail Jones (both of whom have won significant prizes for their work), the presence of a photograph looms as significant.
Janice Hart claims that authors without manifest images in their text but with photography at the core of the story are actively engaged with the mechanisms and nuances of photography to construct plot, convey character and interrogate reality. In an essay on Penlope Lively’s Booker prize winning novel, The Photograph, Hart suggests that Lively is able to ‘think photographically…in ways that are premised on photography’s distinctive modus operandi of apparently being there, of being a trace of what once was’ (Hart 2004: 114).
Hart claims that photography in literature has been used to confirm rather than confound the way characters see themselves and others and that photographs are used in fiction because ‘their reputation for indexicality confers on them the status of evidence’ (ibid.). She identifies Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the earliest known writers who was able to use photography as a means of advancing plot. He did this with his Sherlock Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia, published in The Strand Magazine in 1871 (the first of the fifty six Sherlock Holmes stories to be published in The Strand Magazine).
A Scandal in Bohemia revolves around an American ‘adventuress’ who has in her possession an incriminating photograph featuring herself and the King of Bohemia. However, the King wanted to marry a princess and he therefore needed to retrieve the incriminating photograph. Enter Sherlock Holmes. The cunning detective starts a fire in the American woman’s house. She immediately rescues the incriminating photograph and, in so doing, reveals to the detective its existence and its location. As Hart says, ‘Faced with a domestic catastrophe, we rescue things such as photographs that we most value. However–the larger idea that Conan Doyle develops is that photography’s indexicality is so incontrovertible that it can literally assume the status of evidence’ (ibid.: 115).
It is worth noting that fifty years after he published A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle became embroiled in the quest to verify the photographs of the fairies at the bottom of the garden taken in 1917 by two English schoolgirls. Known as the Cottingley Fairies, the case attracted considerable attention from spiritualists like Doyle as well as skeptics. Doyle had his investigators examine the pictures and interrogate the school girls. He happened to be on a lecture tour in Melbourne in 1921 when he received news from his investigator, Edward Gardner, that the pictures were in fact authentic. In a letter to Gardner, Conan Doyle wrote:
My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia, I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance … we have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through… (Doyle)
Doyle clearly had an implicit faith in the authenticity of the photographs and he seemed willing to peg his reputation on his belief in photography as a clear sign of evidence.
In Doyle’s Scandal in Bohemia photographic space becomes contested space as the picture itself is sought by conflicting parties to determine the outcome of the plot. A similar sense of contested space is evident in Graham Swift’s Out of This World, although the contest is not so much for the picture itself but for the very act of photography and of memory.
Swift weaves a story about a shattered family set against the backdrop of some of the grand historical sweeps of the twentieth century. The story unfolds through the alternating narratives of former war-time photojournalist Harry Beech and his adult daughter Sophie. Father and daughter are estranged–she lives in Brooklyn and her character unfolds as she lies on the couch of her psychiatrist. He is in England and grappling with his past–a past in which he spent too little time with Sophie after his wife’s demise in an air crash and too much time looking at gruesome events through the lens of his camera. Harry didn’t want to work in the family business of arms manufacturing. Instead he worked in intelligence during the Second World War, all the while developing his passion for photography. He then moved into aerial photography–documenting the bombing raids and the adventures of the pilots and air crew. Harry’s mother died as he was being born. Every birthday would have been a reminder of this event. But he did receive birthday presents from his father.
On my birthday he would hand over some present and I would receive it like an emblem of guilt. In this way he once gave me a camera. Then he would disappear for the rest of the day. (Swift 1993: 30)
The camera or the absence of the camera becomes a significant dimension to the way in which the characters relate to each other, to their surrounds and to their past. Harry has only ever photographed ‘negative things’–his new lover wants him to photograph beautiful things. He finds the change difficult to make. Meanwhile Sophie has banned cameras from her house (along with guns). She never wants to see one and certainly doesn’t want her twin boys to be playing with them. Throughout the story both father and daughter comment on photography and its meaning. Harry reflects on his images (many of them censored) of allied air raids over Europe.
A photographer is neither there nor not there, neither in nor out of the thing. If you’re in the thing it’s terrible, but there aren’t any questions, you do what you have to do and you don’t even have time to look. But what I’d say is that someone has to look. Someone has to be in it and step back too. Someone has to be a witness. (ibid.: 49)
Later on Harry says, ‘I used to say once, on those few occasions when I was persuaded to make public statements, that photography should be about what you cannot see. What you cannot see because it is far away and only the eye of the camera will take you there’ (ibid.: 52).
In a letter to her children, Sophie writes, ‘I don’t allow cameras in the house, but your mother still takes her mental photographs, still puts on mental film in her aides-memoireof your ignorant growing years’ (ibid.: 75). Harry recalls a time when he (reluctantly) subjected himself to a television interview where the ‘man behind the camera’ would be exposed. He found the exposure difficult and confronting. Towards the end of the interview he addresses the question ‘What is a photograph?’
…It’s an object. It’s something defined with an edge. You can pick it up, look at it, like a pebble from a beach, like a lump of rock chipped from the moon. You can put it here or there, in an album, on a mantelpiece, in a newspaper, in a book. A long time after the event it is still there, and when you look at it you shut out everything else. It becomes an icon, a totem, a curio. A photo is a piece of reality? A fragment of truth? (ibid.: 120)
Out of This world deals with the myriad fragments of truth which, when pieced together, make up the complex realities of relationships and history. As Sophie’s psychiatrist says, ‘Life is a tug of war between memory and forgetting,’ and photography assumes a key part in the war.
In Sixty Lights by Gail Jones, photography is present not so much as evidence but as possibility and reflection. Her novel falls into that category identified by Janice Hart as having photography at its core. In fact Sixty Lights seems completely underscored by the very invention of photography. Each of its three parts is prefaced with a quote that references an aspect of photography. Part One is called Photo-Graph: Light-Writing and is supported with a quote from Eduardo Cadava, whose Words of Light. Thesis on the Photography of History pays homage to the work of Walter Benjamin. Jones quotes: “There has never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light” (Jones 2004: 2). Part Two opens with a quote from Walter Benjamin ‘Knowledge comes only in flashes’ (ibid.: 79). Part Three is the final part where the protagonist, Lucy Strange, leaves India to begin a new life in England. Here Jones employs a quote from a letter about the daguerreotype that Elizabeth Barret Browning wrote to ‘Miss Mitford,’ probably some time around 1849. ‘It is not merely the likeness which is precious…but the association, and the sense of nearness involved in the thing…the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!’ (ibid.: 165).
Lucy Strange, the protagonist in Sixty Lights, becomes increasingly obsessed with photography. She imagines that one day someone will work out how to photograph the night sky–and thus prove the existence of God. Jones, it seems, uses the mystery of photography as a nascent science to express both the inner and the outer gaze of her characters. Perhaps most poignant among the narrated images in the text is the one that included Lucy Strange herself. It is a collective portrait of all the people important to her, taken not long before she dies. However, at the moment of exposure Lucy ‘…left the pose to help Jacob behind the lens. The result was that others photographed clearly but that Lucy, having moved during exposure from her initial position, appeared in print as blurred and residual…’ (ibid.: 236). For Jones photography becomes a vehicle for prophesying the destiny of the protagonist and the author continues to use photographic language to convey Lucy’s final moments on her death bed.
‘After a short experience of exceptional pain, in which she imagined a spear of mirror penetrating her chest, Lucy became lucid. Her family was nearby. On the periphery of her vision she saw clearly…There was no darkness she was heading to, no actual eclipse. There was just a slight tilt of vision, as when one tilts a daguerreotype in its box, and the image slides suddenly away, into shiny nothingness. Lucy closed her eyes like the enlightened Buddha. Special things seen, and memories, and photographic prints, all converged to this quiet private point. She titled the glass. She was anticipating images. She was still anticipating, more than anything else, an abyss of light…’ (ibid.: 246).
It is as if, in death Lucy Strange has avoided the dark chamber (camera obscura) of nothingness and slipped, instead into a light chamber (camera lucida) of another space and other possibilities.
In Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas, the narrated act of photography becomes a vehicle for finding meaning, emotion and even a sense of self. Dead Europe is a disturbing novel about an Australian Greek photographer named Isaac who journeys through Europe in search of something (possibly his own identity) and almost destroys himself in the process. Isaac sees another side of Europe–not the glossy tour-brochure images, but the dark side, the side that others don’t want to see, the side that remains in denial yet which (in his eyes at least) seems to define Europe. He seems to want his photography to become the means by which he can express a more appropriate emotion than the numbness he so often feels at the decisive moment–at the moment of looking. He invests into the possibility of the photograph a sort of redemptive, even transformative, power that will enable feeling and understanding as if the visual capturing can become a spiritual knowing. This is poignantly expressed in a scene in Venice where he comes across a mural depicting the shipping of the Jews to the death camps during WW11. Isaac says:
I closed my eyes and attempted to muster compassion. Or grief. Or shame. Anything, some damn emotion. I felt nothing. I began to take my photographs. I took photo after photo of stricken figures, of the plaque, of the wet stones. I took close-ups of the posters: the one word, Blur, the hammer and the sickle, the rotund face of the Prime Minister. I took shot after shot of the shop awning, I clicked every individual letter. I took a shot of a puddle and a shot of the sky above. Even as I was shooting I knew what I would do with these photographs. I would have them printed in large white canvases and exhibited in a vast gallery space. I would attempt to replicate the ghetto and move people in a way that I found I could not be moved at the site. I exhausted my supply of film, and walked back to the memorial, trying one last time to feel remorse or guilt, shame or humility, but instead there was warm sun on my skin, the murmuring of rainwater in the drains, and I could not stop myself from smiling. (Tsiolkas 2005: 149)
In J.M Coetzee’s Slow Man, the ageing protagonist, Paul Rayment, struggles to come to terms with his new-found status as an amputee following a cycling accident. Earlier in his life Rayment was a photographer. Now, in his twilight years, he sits amidst his books that he is running out of time to read, and his vast collection of photographs and postcards of life in the early mining camps of Victoria and New South Wales. He lives alone and he develops a passion for the nurse Marijana who visits him at his home to help him adjust to his disability. He imagines the life of Marijana’s husband and he feels envious because the husband has such a wife and two children. By comparison, Rayment has precious little. ‘A flat full of books and furniture. A collection of photographs, images of the dead, which, after his own death, will gather dust in the basement of a library along with other minor bequests more trouble to the cataloguers than they are worth’ (Coetzee 2005: 51).
Coetzee’s protagonist unfolds as a melancholic character who has become detached from his past, is negating his present and cannot face his future. Photography plays a key element in this process of unfolding. There is a scene where Rayment receives a visit from Drago, the son of Marijana. Drago discovers that Rayment used to be a photographer and he questions Rayment about his collection of old photographs.
On my deathbed I will donate the collection. It will become public property. Part of our historical record.” And he throws up his hands in an odd, unintended gesture. Astonishingly, he is close to tears. Why? Because he dares to mention his own death to this boy, this forerunner of the generation that will take over his world and trample on it? Perhaps. But more likely it is because of our. Our record, yours and mine. Because just possibly this image before them, this distribution of particles of silver that records the way sunlight fell, one day in 1855, on the faces of two long-dead Irishwomen, an image in whose making he, the little boy from Lourdes, had no part and in which Drago, son of Dubrovnik, has no part either, may, like a mystical charm – I was here I lived, I suffered – have the power to draw them together.’ (171)
Photographic space In Penelope Lively’s The Photograph, emerges as a divided space in which the presence of a photograph defines a before and an after. As Lively writes, ‘It is several weeks since his discovery of the photograph, the event has come to seem a defining moment. There was before the photograph, a time of innocence and tranquility, in so far as such a state exists. Now it is after the photograph, when everything must be seen with the cold eye of disillusion’ (Lively 2003: 115).
A similar division opens up in Swift’s Out of This World. There is a time when Harry took photographs and a time when he didn’t. The photographic space in Swift’s novel becomes a space of both denial and affirmation.
For Gail Jones photographic space is historical and experimental. It is full of possibility and is therefore potentially transformative while for Christos Tsiolkas such space becomes a desired space–a state-of-mind which can only be achieved by the process of capturing realities and relocating them into an altogether different space. For Isaac the protagonist, photography offers an alternative space through which he is able to re-construct not only that which he has just experienced but also his emotional response and therefore perhaps (evoking Barthes’ heautoscopy), his sense of self.
For Coetzee, the photographic space of narrated images is revealed as a potential unifying and a mnemonic force. It serves as a link between then, now and what might become.
In all of these examples, the gaze of the reader continually shifts between the photographs conjured with words and the characters and circumstances (also conjured with words) surrounding the conjured photographs. The narrated images in the examples can be seen as an embodiment of Barthes’ notion of photography as being a practice that brings back something from the dead. What I call the double gaze of the reader is, perhaps, an attempt to deal with dead and the living by decoding the photographic space created by the author.
The manifestation of a photograph in an imaginary text begs different questions from the questions that may arise with narrated photographs. The photographic space created with a narrated photograph is, as previously mentioned, an imaginary space. But what happens with a ‘real photograph?’ What happens if the manifest image is something or someone that really exists? How does the reader decode this ‘true’ existence in the context of an imaginary narrative?
Recent novels containing manifest photographs include Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturnand The Immigrants by W.G Sebald; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco and Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany.
The practice of inserting photographs into an imaginary text is nothing new. Andre Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja, published in 1928, contains 44 photographs within its 158 pages. In the same year, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was published by her own Hogarth Press. The first edition contained a number of illustrations including photographs of (the real) Vita Sackville-West as (the imaginary) Orlando. Many subsequent editions were published without the photographs but in the 1973 (American) edition, the photographs returned. In a paper presented to the annual Virginia Woolf Conference at Otterbein College, Ohio in 1995, Kelly Tetterton revealed her analysis of the photographs in Orlando. ‘Between 1928 and 1973 [the readers] were either not given any indication that accompanying photographs existed at all, or they were given the photographs in an incidental way’ (Tetterton).
In 1948 the American academic, writer and photographer Wright Morris published his photographic novel The Home Place. His 176 page narrative is made up of alternating pages of text and full page images–bled to the very edge of the page. The story, about a visit home to Nebraska (Wright Morris’s own birth place), takes place in one single day and the images reveal a range of objects and people at the ‘home place’. Wright Morris was concerned with fixed shadows–particularly the shadows from the past that reveal a previous habitation. He was also concerned with time and he described a photograph as ‘…the eternal presence in time’s every moment. From this continuous film of time the camera snips the living tissue’ (Morris 2003: 67).
In his introduction to The Home Place, John Hollander describes the novel as unique, ‘…one with – rather than “in” – photographs,…’ (Morris 1999: ix). Hollander uses the term ‘verbal photograph’ to refer to the way Wright Morris constructs his words in conjunction with his images. In considering the final image in The Home Place–an image of an elderly and slightly stooped man entering a barn (taken from behind), Hollander sums up the book. ‘We can’t help but read it not so much as an entrance but as an exiting. The text meditates upon transience and decay but with a wonderful final turn of the pattern that speaks of surface and depth, and of the ghostly presence of traces…’ (ibid.: xiv).
This notion of a ghostly presence is significant in Breton’s Nadja. Regarded as an ‘existentialist novel’, Nadja reveals the story of a figure living in Paris who is initially haunted by the narrator but who then comes to haunt the narrator. The opening passage of the book poses an overwhelming question. ‘Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt”’ (Breton 1960: 11). A page later the narrator says:
‘My image of the “ghost,” including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal. Perhaps my life is nothing but an image of this kind; perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring, doomed to try and learn what I should simply recognize, learning a mere fraction of what I have forgotten’ (ibid.: 12).
The photographs in Nadja do more than simply illustrate images conjured by text. They become signposts to a presence and an absence. They reveal traces of ‘having been there’–traces of evidence that text alone cannot provide. They offer fleeting moments–visual encounters that enable the reader to enter a photographic space and gaze ‘elsewhere’ away from the text. However, there is a sense in which they also defy definitive interpretation. Writing on the use of photography in Nadja, Dawn Ades says, ‘The photographs convey only part of the cryptogram in which Nadja’s life was hidden’ (Ades 1985: 165).
Rosalind Krauss points out that in his Manifesto on Surrealism, Breton expressed a strong dislike of ‘the real form of real objects’ and he derided the literary realism of the nineteenth-century novel precisely because it was photographic. She suggests that it was a contradiction therefore that Breton’s own novel, Nadja, was “copiously illustrated with photographs exactly to obviate the need for such written descriptions–it ‘disappointed the author’ as he looked at its ‘illustrated part.’ For the photographs seemed to him to leave the magical places he had passed through stripped of their aura, turned ‘dead and disillusioning”’ (Krauss 1985).
In reading Nadja there is a sense in which the senses become disoriented. The defined physical space revealed by the photographs immersed into the text becomes a confused and contested space. Such disorientation was in fact part of the aim of the surrealist movement. In his analysis on Walter Benjamin’s writings on photography and surrealism, Rajeev S. Patke outlines the way in which the surrealist movement grappled with the ‘disordering of the senses’ (Patke). This was also a period of the emerging unconscious when developments in photography paralleled developments in psychoanalysis. Patke quotes Benjamin: ‘It is through photography that we discover the existence of the optical unconscious, just as we discover the psychic unconscious through psychoanalysis’ (ibid.). He goes on to say: ‘The photograph preserves in space that which is transient in time. The rapidity of movement with which mutability exercises its fugitive effect on human perception, the complexity of detail at the micrological level that slips through the wide net of the human visual apparatus, all these the photograph redeems by preserving’ (ibid.).
The redemptive power of photography may well lie in its ability to extrapolate and preserve a moment of stillness, but stillness should not be confused with lack of movement. To the contrary, it is the power of the image to move that led Barthes to develop his notion of the punctum, that certain ‘something else’ that enables an image to disturb, puncture, surprise or wound the very moment of looking–a notion that Barthes poses in contrast to the studium–a general appreciation of the content of an image. In the second half of Camera Lucida, Barthes meditates on a photograph of his deceased mother. In so doing he refers to what he calls the labyrinthine nature of photography.
‘All the world’s photographs formed a labyrinth. I knew that at the centre of this labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche’s prophecy: A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth but only his Ariadne’ (Barthes 2000: 73). It was Ariadne who offered a ball of thread to Theseus, thus enabling him to escape the labyrinth (the den of the Minotaur). Perhaps Barthes is suggesting that the only way through the labyrinth of photography is via a passion that may lead to freedom but may not necessarily equate with truth.
If photography is a labyrinth, then it is necessarily multilayered. Silke Horstkotte at the University of Leipzig, alludes to such layers in her study of the photographs manifest inAusterlitz by W.G Sebald.
…when a photograph is inserted into an imaginary text it opens up a spatial gap that acts as a window through which the reader may see a layer of reality behind or beyond that described by the text. (Horstkotte 2002: 273)
Such layers of reality are contingent upon the relationships that exist between image and text. Barthes raises one of the key questions on this relationship in his essayRhetoric of the Image when he asks, ‘What is the signifying structure of illustration? Does the image duplicate certain of the information given in the text by a phenomenon of redundancy or does the text add fresh information to the image? (Barthes 2003: 117).
I believe that in most cases something is added by the presence of the image. That something is to do with a shift in perception that comes from the shift in the reader’s gaze which alternates between text and image–decoding one in the context of the other. This shift occurs across and within a time-space continuum. It may involve staying in the present or moving perhaps from present to past and back to present. The reader can never return to the exact same space because the very presence of the image and/or the text that has been read means that something has been added that wasn’t previously there. This space within which this gaze occurs is similar to what Victor Burgin calls a site of intertextuality. ‘The intelligibility of the photograph is no simple thing’, Burgin tells us. ‘[P]hotographs are texts inscribed in terms of what we may call ‘photographic discourse’, but this discourse, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself, the ‘photographic text’, like any other, is the site of a complex intertextuality, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular culture and historic conjuncture’ (Burgin 1982: 144).
To understand this further it is relevant to consider the nature of the act of reading. At the risk of stating the obvious, reading necessitates looking. Reading, as Alberto Manguel informs us, ‘begins with the eyes’ (Manguel 1996: 28). The act of looking therefore is about sight, which, like a photograph, is inextricably concerned with light, with time and with memory. According to psychologist and film theorist, Rudolph Arnheim, seeing is a dynamic process that is also about awareness. It is about what Arnheim calls an ‘interplay of directed tensions’ (Arnheim 1974: 11). I suggest that a similar kind of interplay unfolds with the double gaze when photographs are manifest or even perhaps narrated in the context of an imaginary narrative.
In The Vision Machine, Paul Virilio surveys the technologies of perception and production. He acknowledges Arnheim’s work when he suggests that sight comes from a long way off, and is
…a perceptual activity that starts in the past in order to illuminate the present…The space of sight is accordingly not Newton’s space, absolute space, but Minkovskian event-space, relative space. And it is not only the dim brightness of these stars that comes to us from out of the distant past, out of the mists of time. The weak light that allows us to apprehend the real, to see and understand our present environment, itself comes from a distant visual memory without which there would be no act of looking. (Virilio 1994: 62)
It can be argued that to ‘apprehend the real’ is what a photograph does. As mentioned earlier, it arrests a moment in time, a moment of ‘reality’. In so doing, a photograph provides evidence that someone or something (the photographer or, at least, the camera) was there. According to Barthes, this is the very essence of a photograph. It is what he calls its noeme, its ability to state what has been. Barthes suggests that a painting can feign reality, but a photograph cannot. ‘[I]n Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography’ (Barthes 2000: 76).
Barthes was particularly concerned with the way in which a photograph evokes a relationship between past and present as well as between presence and absence. As Jean-Michel Rabaté suggests in his introduction to Writing the Image after Roland Barthes, ‘Photography is defined as producing an image for a consciousness that essentially mourns an absent object or a person rather than relishing its presence’ (Rabaté 1997: 3).
The mourning of absence is arguably at the core of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novelExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The story tells of nine year-old Oskar whose father was killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The boy finds a key in his father’s closet and embarks on a journey to locate a lock that takes the key. His journey traverses not only the geography of New York, it also becomes a journey through history (Dresden, Hiroshima) and eventually a journey though his own interior – his own psyche and imagining. The first person narrative is sprinkled with full-page black and white photographs depicting various places and objects relevant to his journey. The final images in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel show the same solitary figure falling from one of the World Trade Centre towers following the September 11 attack. The sequential images are printed in reverse order, so if they are read quickly like one of those once popular flick-books, they create the illusion of the figure rising not falling. These repeated images offer a rather crude but effective optical resurrection and they lend credence to Barthes’ contention that photography is not just representation, it is ‘ultimately resurrection’ (Barthes 2003: 114). The images are read in the context of the narrative that precedes them – of Oskar’s struggle to come to terms with the death of his father and of his desire to undo what time and history have done–to transform an absence back into a presence.
However, they are also read in the context of the narrative in which we (the reader) experienced the events of that fateful day in New York. The image of the falling figure is indeed a ‘true image’. It was published (amidst some controversy) in news media around the world. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel the image is attributed at the front ‘photo illustration based on a photograph by award winning American photographer, Lyle Owerkso’ (Foer 2005). But the story to which the repeated image lends a fantastic conclusion (in the true meaning of the word fantasy) is of course fiction. Questions about truth and reality necessarily arise as we are led (via the images) into speculative space into the realm in which unanswerable questions such as ‘what if…’ are raised. In this sense the images are more a form of punctuation than illustration.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki suggests that photographs do more than simply evoke memory or empathy. They can also be ‘a starting point for reflecting on our sense of identity. They may be seen, in other words, less as pieces of evidence to be labeled true or fake, than as question marks which set in motion a procession of speculations: that persistent reflection which forms the core process of historical truthfulness’ (Morris-Suzuki 2005: 118).
Eduardo Cadava also addresses questions of photographs in history. His book Words of Light. Theses on the Photographs of History pays homage to Walter Benjamin. It attempts to locate photography at various intersections of memory, history and mass media. Cadava cites film critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer on the issue of photography and truth. ‘Although images may help constitute the “truth” of an event, although they may claim to present a “real event”, they do not belong to the domain of truth’ (Cadava 1997: xxv. According to Cadava, Kracauer regards the essence of photography as being ‘a force of interruption’ rather than its ability to present what it photographs (ibid.)
When photographs become manifest in imaginative texts they trigger a procession of speculation about the nature of the photographic space that has been created and they become a force of interruption to the reader’s gaze. The focused gaze upon the text becomes, as I have suggested, a double gaze across image and text. And because a photograph offers evidence of ‘having been’, this double gaze within an imaginative narrative becomes an interrogation of the very space of the novel. In a sense the double gaze becomes an attempt to establish a meaning (connotation) of the photograph beyond its denoted message. When we look at photographs in novels we are asking a range of simultaneous questions such as: What do they represent? What do they mean? Are they real?
Like W.J.T. Mitchell, Nancy Armstrong also recognizes the rise of the image as the dominant paradigm. In Fiction in the Age of Photography she asks a presumptuous question ‘Why did pictures begin to speak louder than words?’ (Armstrong 1999: 6). I suggest that pictures don’t necessarily speak louder than words. They may well scream outrageously, they might whisper seductively or even reverberate silently; but whatever they do, they will generate photographic spaces that exist in a unique symbiosis with the words into which they have been immersed or (in the case of narrated images) from which they have emanated. As the gaze of the reader switches from image to text and text to image, a new space of textuality is encountered.
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