Peter Davis was a writer/photographer and a Senior Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Prior to his death in September 2008, Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne accepted his novel, Abraham’s Pictures, for publication. The novel, about a Melbourne photographer, is a story told in two ways – first in text, then in photographs. It explores the dilemma of the artist as observer of life, rather than participant in it. The novel comprised part of a PhD Thesis which also included an exegesis titled, Double Gazing and Novel Spaces. Peter had asked that, if he died before his novel was published, his partner of 30 years, Teresa Cannon, should work with the publishers to bring the novel to fruition.Abraham’s Pictures was launched in November 2009.



This essay examines the novel, Abraham’s Pictures by Peter Davis, as a narrative presented in text and photographs. The examination occurs within the context of the theories of Barthes and others whose work forms the premise for the novel. It discusses reader response in light of the novel’s initial objectives, and it explores the reading of Abraham’s Pictures as autobiography, a mistaken viewpoint that has developed since publication.

When writing about the work and the life of departed friends, Derrida considered at length his motivations and his responsibilities). He questioned his ability to be true to his friends and to their words. Should he succumb to the difficulties and not write? ‘But then what, silence? Is this not another wound, another insult?’ (Derrida 2003, pp. 50, 159-60).

When I was asked to write about the work of Peter Davis, specifically his novel Abraham’s Pictures, Derrida’s concerns, and others, came to mind.

There was the decision to respond, or not respond to the request to write about Peter’s work. Was a response appropriate? Was it preferable to remain silent? Would silence forgo the opportunity for acknowledgement of someone whose voice has been silenced? Would someone else’s writing represent fairly that inimitable voice, eloquent in its exploration, humour and communication? How can it …

It can’t.

There’s the question of fidelity and the strong intention to avoid ‘posthumous infidelity’1. But is intention sufficient? Can fidelity be achieved? And could such questions develop into a fixated concern so one may write as if ‘death were keeping watch’2. The writer always has responsibilities but these responsibilities are intensified when writing of one who can no longer write for himself.

Abraham’s Pictures was published posthumously. Much of the literature on posthumous publishing focuses on the debate as to whether to publish against the wishes of the author (The Quarterly Conversation 2009). Preference appears to disregard the author’s wishes and proceed with publication. This was not the case however for Abraham’s Pictures. It was Peter’s stated wish to have the work published. Apart from that, he left no notes and few instructions from which the publishers might work.

In his Editorial Note in Virginia Woolf’s Death of the Moth (which included several posthumously published essays), Leonard Woolf speaks of the number of revisions Virginia would make to her work before submitting it for publication (2009). However in her absence some of the work, although already carefully revised and ready for publication, did not undergo the assiduous revisions typical of Virginia. Leonard Woolf chose to make only spelling and grammatical alterations. Likewise Peter had been meticulous in his revisions and no doubt in working with the publishers he would have undertaken more. However it was decided that only changes of a spelling, grammatical and cultural nature would be made to the text. The novel would be as he had left it, in his voice. And the publishers and I would follow his wishes in so far as we were aware and capable of them.

In writing Abraham’s Pictures, Peter’s objective was to create a narrative where he would explore issues to do with text and image. He was interested in how people read text and word images compared to how they read visual images. He was particularly interested in how the reader may interpret images within a work of fiction. So, as well as writing the story of the photographer, Abraham Rosen, Peter chose to include at the end of the novel, a series of photographs which correspond to incidents throughout the novel and which represent an exhibition of Abraham’s pictures. This exhibition is a retelling of the text as a narrative in images.

When seeking publication Peter provided this synopsis of Abraham’s Pictures:

Your life will end on the twentieth of March next year. I cannot tell you how or where. But I can tell you that it will end.These are the opening words of Abraham’s Pictures the story of Melbourne based photographer, Abraham Rosen, and his attempt to grapple with the prediction made on his fiftieth birthday. Moments after the prediction, Abraham is seated outside Café Obscura on Horizon Street in St Kilda. He makes two decisions. He will continue to live his life as normal and [he will] travel to India to give the opening address at a photographic exhibition in Mumbai. He also decides to shoot a series of photographs for an exhibition that he will call Just in Time. He decides to schedule the exhibition for the very day of his predicted demise three months [hence].

While seated at Café Obscura, a dishevelled young man clutching a plastic bag approaches Abraham. The young man seems to want money. Abraham tries to engage with [him] but an out-of-control car skids on the wet tram tracks, killing its two occupants and knocking the young man into a coma. As the emergency services clean up, Abraham collects the young man’s plastic bag which he notices fluttering on the roadside. Unable to identify the young man, the hospital staff name him Horizon, after the street in which he was knocked down.

Back home, Abraham sorts through the contents of the bag. In it he finds a photograph that has a profound impact on his destiny. The following day Abraham learns that he has won a competition to photograph the prototype of the Clock of the Long Now in London and to address the annual dinner of the Long Now Foundation. He decides to travel to London after opening the exhibition in Mumbai.

The prediction, the car accident [and] the contents of the plastic bag … set Abraham on a quest that takes him from Melbourne to London via Mumbai and Colombo before returning home for his exhibition. Along the way he confronts issues of memory, denial and devotion as he is forced to question his life as a photographer and his enslavement to the illusion of the captured moment.

Abraham’s Pictures is a meditation on time, photography and relationships (Davis, 2008).

Throughout his years in journalism and academia Peter pursued his interests in writing and photography developing a large body of work in photojournalism as well as academic papers. His work was published in reputable journals and newspapers nationally and internationally. As a photojournalist for Oxfam and AusAid and as a Media Consultant especially for organisations such as APEC, he developed a keen commitment to representation. Whether writing and photographing local people or those of other cultures, he was dedicated to telling their story in its essence, both in text and images. To this end he was not averse in insisting that agencies who published his work did so with respect to fair representation. He gave regular lectures to numerous organisations and frequently addressed issues related to ethics and representation. His novel consolidates his lifetime’s reflection on such work.

Peter often used the language of photography to illustrate his ideas in the educational context. In fact he believed that the language of photography was a useful tool to employ in honing the skills of writing and in attaining clarity and meaning. For instance, he would assert that a writer, in developing a story, should explore ‘outside the frame’ – the larger perspective, the larger context. What is initially unknown and absent, what went before and is beyond the writer’s knowing, may be as significant to the narrative as the known and the present. These are well known concepts in the writing process but by placing them within the language of photography Peter hoped to bring a keener knowing of the craft of writing to his students. A photographer needs to identify the decisive moment, that moment when the light, movement and ambience coalesce to present the narrative that the image will communicate. In Abraham’s Pictures Peter uses the language of photography to extend and consolidate meaning within his text as well as within his photographs. He explores the place of the captor and the captured, the notion of light and dark, the negative and positive. These are frequent and recurring themes throughout the novel.

As a work of fiction, Abraham’s Pictures represented a departure from Peter’s previous nonfiction writing3. While he enjoyed the intellectual rigour of scholarship and the opportunity to develop and disseminate his ideas within the academic community, he was also keen to reach a wider readership – hence his decision, in part, to move from his usual nonfiction writing to fiction. He always insisted that he was fundamentally a storyteller. Whether writing or speaking, he told stories to ensure that his message was received by readers/audience. Storytelling formed the basis of his teaching and of his nonfiction writing. Storytelling, through Abraham’s Pictures, would bring his ideas to a wider audience. But there was another reason to choose fiction. It provided that added dimension for imagination, searching, suggestion and proposition. His fiction, although based on fact, provided freedom from fact, and opened a rich imaginative space for exploration. Simultaneously photographs, because of their association to the real (the captured subject that really existed, or had existed) presented fact, a certain reality, so his novel would explore the reading of text derived from imagination and the reading of image derived from reality – a melding of imagination and image. He hoped to demonstrate Sebald’s claim that the photograph within the novel ‘propel(s) the narrative’ (McCulloch 2003, p. 8). In so doing Peter envisaged creating new layers of meaning (Davis 2007a). In a sense he was seizing the best of both worlds – fiction and nonfiction. As Nancy Shawcross suggests when speaking of the insertion of images within fiction, it is ‘posing a novel in the trappings of nonfiction’ (2003: 100 in Hughes & Noble cited in Davis, 2007b: 20).

Peter was influenced by the work of Barthes, especially his discourse on photography. In his last work, Camera Lucida, Barthes states:

… I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself”, by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images. Such a desire really meant that beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a genius of its own (Barthes 2000: 3).

For Peter, photography had always existed and its genius contained a narrative essence, one that could be accepted, explored and interpreted. Barthes concludes:

Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other; tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits …; mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy. Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilised code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening or intractable reality (Barthes 2000: 119).

Of Camera Lucida, Shawcross states that it, ‘unfolds like a mystery novel told from an autobiographical point of view’ (Shawcross, 1997: 71). To some extent Abraham’s Pictures emulates this process. It is a work with its own mysteries – Abraham’s fate is unclear; his past is shrouded. He is on a life journey, both actually and metaphorically. Some of the people he engages with sustain a mystique until the closing pages of the novel. When he discovers who they are he has simultaneously come to terms with his own enigmatic self. Photographs in the novel also contain their mysteries. How is it that the young boy possesses a photo of Abraham? How is it that a portrait of the boy is displayed in a Mumbai gallery?

Peter was interested in the dual reading of his work – what images might his readers conjure in their minds as they read his words and what words might come to mind as they attempted to make sense of his images? This process of the text/image and image/word interplay Peter referred to as double gazing (Davis, 2007b, p. 9). He believed that this act of double gazing enriched the text and deepened its meaning for the reader. For him it freed the reader to construct and decipher the text (Davis, 2007b, p. 40).

Barthes asserted that a photograph may function to punctuate or interrupt the narrative (2000). This process of punctum, as he named it, served to strike an intense engagement in the viewer, resulting in realisation and meaning. Peter hoped his work would challenge his readers to engage with and to interrogate the images, expanding and deepening their understanding of the text. This is well demonstrated with the inclusion of the following image in the novel.

In the exhibition of Abraham’s photographs at the St Kilda café there is an image of a woman on a beach (Davis, 2008: 121). On her head she carries a water pot. The image is photographed by Abraham while he is sitting at a café in Mumbai. There are few words devoted to this image in the novel. Yet there is much which can be surmised. In the novel we are privy to Abraham’s thoughts that the picture captures the beauty and mystery of India. Abraham does not share his thoughts with his companion, Lakshmi. Instead he tells Lakshmi that the figure has grace. Lakshmi appears to dispute this by saying that the figure is probably a slum dweller, to which Abraham retorts that she can still be elegant. In this short interchange the reader is presented with several readings of the image. These may be understood as those of the foreign view of the exotic other and the local view perhaps coloured by caste judgement. It is the prerogative of the reader to continue with the narrative of the text, or turn to the photographic image. Readers have other choices as well, among them to accept the characters’ readings of this image and/or to extend the meanings themselves.

The lattice in the image acts as a frame, encasing not only the woman noticed by Abraham but also a second figure and part of a third figure. The woman is simultaneously fragmented and framed by the lattice but for most readers she is probably viewed (or imagined) in her entirety – the eyes (or later the mind) closing the frame gaps. As the frame, the lattice holds and contains the figures. They are bounded/bonded by it. However, in a moment, due to the movement of the figures or the timing of the camera, the figures could both be lost behind or within the frame, the very structure that, in the image, bonds them. There is perhaps another frame less obvious than the lattice window. It is the frame constructed by the camera/the photographer. Abraham, the photographer had many choices, among them to focus more closely on the lattice-lady and in so doing maybe he could have exposed her grace, as he saw it, more clearly to the viewer. He could have captured her more fully in the frame. He could have moved beyond/behind the frame so exposing the woman to the sea and to the open horizon. There he could have included, or excluded, other people and activities on the beach. In so doing, he would have exposed the woman (and the readers) to a new context. Having captured numerous images, he could have chosen which ones to include in his narrative. But Abraham did not choose to capture any of these frames. It seems he was distracted by his companion’s comments. In so doing he broke the photographer’s cardinal rule – he lost focus, he lost the moment, he abandoned photographer mode. For Abraham however, shielded from life by his camera, this abandonment represented a positive. Perhaps unconscious of his development, he was none-the-less beginning to participate in life rather than just observing it through the lens of a camera.

The lattice-lady picture evokes what Shawcross refers to as ‘mosaic vision’ in which ‘sight becomes a compound of simple, independent visual units – a checkerboard of frames that vary only slightly from one another and that afford a multiplicity of simultaneous perspectives on what is essentially the same scene…’ (1997: 72). Shawcross states further that for Barthes this approach represents fragments, but the ‘fragmentary presentation … does not yield incoherence or deny textual presentation’ (1997: 72).

The lattice-lady image provides many possibilities for the double gaze (perhaps multiple gaze) from the differing views of the characters, Abraham and Lakshmi, to the potential interpretations of readers. Maybe the picture does not ‘propel the narrative’ as cited earlier. However it could certainly act as a propeller for further enquiry and discourse. And it may take the reader ‘into the realm of multiple dimensions where the indexicality of a photograph becomes subsumed by the power of imagining’ (Davis, 2007b: 34).

Inspired by Barthes’ notion of connotation – the deeper scrutiny of the image by the reader, within and especially outside the frame – Peter suggested that ‘seeing becomes questioning rather than believing’ (Davis, 2007b: 18). With the lattice-lady image the reader can speculate on the nature of the image (its framing, timing, movement and fragmentation) as well as beyond the frame (its place, culture, history, gender/caste roles).

Peter distinguished between the narrated image (an image described within the text) and the manifest image (an actual image inserted in the text) (Davis 2007a). In Camera Lucida, Barthes examines 25 photographs that are incorporated (manifest) within the text (2000). However the picture that is the focus of most scrutiny is the one that Barthes refers to as the Winter Garden Photograph, the photo of his mother as a young girl. This image is not included in the text. It is a narrated image. Derrida points out that although the image is absent, at the same time it has a strong presence – ‘it irradiates the book’ (2003: 43). This says much about the power of an absent image. For Derrida the Winter Garden Photograph is the ‘…invisible punctum of the book’ (2003: 43).

While the objective of Abraham’s Pictures is to explore the text with manifest pictures, the device of including narrated images is also employed. There is the photograph of Abraham in the young man’s bag. Although pivotal to the narrative, it is narrated, not manifest. Likewise the photograph of the young boy: ‘His long matted hair dangled like greasy ropes across his face. He was skinny, almost emaciated…he would brush his hair to one side, revealing a bony clean shaven face’ (Davis, 2009: 33). This is part of the description given of the young man, Horizon, in the early part of the novel. Later, in the gallery, Abraham encounters a portrait of him. ‘The gaunt eyes that had stared at Abraham … were now looking at him from the wall of the Mumbai gallery’ (Davis, 2009: 125). This photograph is frequently referred to in the text – it is displayed at the exhibition, it is discussed with the photographer and, in an attempt to identify and locate the boy, it is published in a newspaper. Yet it remains narrated, not manifest. The reader is left to imagine the image of the young man and its effect on Abraham and the other characters.

And we are left to imagine this striking image of carnage: ‘The central characters daubed in red, stood out against the charred and twisted backdrop …There was a disturbing and poetic remoteness in the expressions of the people in that picture, as if they did not believe in the existence of that horrific moment that had just transformed their lives’ (Davis, 2009: 18).

In the absence of the manifest images, perhaps their narrative assumes a more powerful presence.

At the beginning of the novel, Abraham launches a photographic book titled Living Room Windows, a book depicting images by Australian photographers. One of Abraham’s photographs has been chosen for the cover of the book. It is an image of the interior of the Sultanhan? Caravanserai near Aksaray, Turkey. Sunlight flows through an oculus in the roof casting a beam to the floor beneath. In launching the book Abraham speaks of how windows may open or close us off from possibilities. There are the windows which ‘lure us into the world of conjecture’ (Davis, 2009: 9). He explains that the window he photographed took [him]:

…into such a realm, into the lives of the traders who, over hundreds of years, gathered to nourish their bodies, feed their animals and share their stories…. The traders no longer visit, no longer live in the caravanserai. Now it is the haunt of tourists. …when I saw that light falling on the floor, I realised that those traders, all those years ago, would have seen that same light. In that moment, the caravanserai became a living space’ (Davis, 2009: 9).

In exploring the notion of the living space Abraham raises the question, ‘…what is living?’ And he poses the ‘…more challenging question – what is not living? (Davis, 2009: 9).’

In considering this image Abraham identifies with the light that makes the photograph possible and that brings it to life. In describing his sharing of that light with the beings who once sheltered and lived within the caravanserai, he is perhaps taking a step from his own sheltered existence (behind the camera) to a broader version of life, a journey he enters more readily after the prediction.

Peter was fascinated by Barthes’ association of photography with death – the moment captured has already passed/died, the person we see in a portrait has, or will, die (2000). After scrutinising the Winter Garden Photograph Barthes concluded that ‘… henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death’. Death hovers over the narrative of Abraham’s Pictures. Abraham’s demise is predicted and consequently the narrative takes on a particular edge, a tension that would not exist without the prediction. In a paradoxical way, it (the narrative) is enlivened. Some characters die. The grandmother is near death. And the young man in the coma lingers between life and death but at the same time he is neither fully alive nor dead. As Abraham considers the image of a shop front in Mumbai and whether to photograph it, he is reminded of his own life and his predicted death.

…Abraham became fixated by the patterns that formed and then dissolved as he tried to fix the painting with more definition. He stared for a long time before taking out his camera and framing the multitude of frames. It occurred to him that the window was a mirror of his life since the prediction [of his death]. Patterns formed and shapes emerged but few things were fixed. Everything dissolved as easily as it was formed, just like the kaleidoscope in his study back home (Davis, 2009: 94).

In his essay The Death of the Author, Barthes contends that the author’s personal life and context for writing are unrelated to the text for the reader (1977). When reading Abraham’s Pictures, many readers did not separate the life (and death) of the author from the text of the novel. Some chose to read the novel as autobiography. Certainly there is the prediction of death of the main character, Abraham Rosen, but the decision to take the narrative in this direction was reached early in the writing – long before Peter’s illness was diagnosed. While the novel has many autobiographical aspects, the predicted death of the main character is not one of them. It’s a case of the cliché – life imitating art.

Why death? And why have the main character, a cynic, visit a clairvoyant for a reading of his future? Peter saw the narrative of the death sentence as the only realistic way to wrench Abraham Rosen out of the security of his cynicism. He argued that even a cynic could not ignore such a dire prediction. In addition, there is Abraham’s resistance to engage with life – his camera has become his safeguard, his shield. A prediction of death, with its sinister foreboding would provide the basis and the impetus for the narrative. Abraham the photographer, placed in an ominous dilemma, would be forced to reflect upon his life. His past and future photographs would form the basis of his reflection. The narrative would focus on the photographic image and would provide the opportunity for exploration of the many issues associated with it. For Peter, this approach was a viable way to achieve his objectives. Further, he could employ his characters to engage with and to challenge the myriad ways to read the photograph. At the same time he was saying much about life (as well as death) in the exploration of the image.

Some readers who viewed the novel as autobiography were uncomfortable with it as a work of fiction. In their argument they sought, not fictional characters but real-life people. Although their commentary was not explicit, it seemed that they were disappointed that the story of the character Abraham was not actually the story of the author, Peter. ‘To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text’ (Barthes, 1977: 147). Perhaps these readers, in their desire for the author, validated Barthes’ assertion and in so doing imposed their own limitations.

Some readers questioned the images (taken by Peter) yet attributed in the novel to the main character, Abraham. These readers had difficulty relating the imagined with the real. Such questioning raised the issue central to Peter’s thesis – the reaction of the reader to the combination of fiction (the work of imagination) with fact (the inclusion of photographs).

Other readers did not see the novel as autobiography but were still uncomfortable with it. For them it was too close to Peter’s voice which they had viewed as challenging, even pontificating and intimidating. For these readers, Abraham’s Pictures once again presented Peter’s arguments and, just as they had been irritated by such arguments in life, so too were they in death. These readers gave up after the first chapters but no doubt they’ll remain challenged and Peter certainly would have been pleased about that.

On the whole, Abraham’s Pictures was well received with much positive response.

Barthes’ essay, addressed to critics, disapproves of their focus on the author rather than the text itself and the reader’s interpretation of the text (1977). Remaining free to interpret and devise their own meanings to a text, readers respond in their own individual ways. In so doing, they may ‘trespass’ on the very ground that Barthes condemned – they may identify with the author, even seek personal connection with him/her. Certainly this was the case in some reader response to Abraham’s Pictures. Given the circumstances of the reading, many readers accepted the novel as somewhat as a gift from Peter – he had left them his voice. They were grateful for that. They were grateful for the story and they undertook no further scrutiny. They required no further outcome.

Of course this essay is not attempting to use Barthes’ words and apply them categorically outside his intended scenario (the literary scene) to the real scenario (the actual death of the author). Barthes’ assertions do however provide intriguing entrees for discourse into the real situation – the absence of the author. Many readers did not, as Barthes would assert, cut the author’s hand from his voice (1977). They may have chosen to ignore any author objective but instead they sought to use the novel as a means to remain connected to the man they knew and loved.

No doubt Peter would have engaged enthusiastically with the many different responses to his novel. He would have been excited by those readers who commented that, ‘I’ll never look at another photograph the same way again’. Through them and through all those who have been challenged by Abraham’s Pictures, Peter will have achieved his main objective – that is, readers will be driven to further scrutiny rather than limited to any fixed belief. For such readers seeing will not necessarily be believing; rather it will be questioning.


In editing Derrida’s essays in The Work of Mourning, Braut and Naas, employ this phrase when quoting Proust’sRemembrance of Things Past, p. 3.

This statement is similar to one used by Derrida in relation to a different issue while writing about his friendship with Jean-Marie Benoist (2003 p. 110).

For example, in 25 years as a journalist, Peter published hundreds of feature articles. These included stories on diverse topics. He was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall and reported on other major events including the 1993 earthquake near Pune, India, and the tsunamis in New Guinea and Aceh. He profiled slum dwellers, artists, ambassadors, orchestra conductors, train drivers and prime ministers. He published numerous refereed articles on text and image and contributed to Lonely Planet publications as well as a comprehensive book of text and photographs about the Sri Lankan elephant. Peter has received awards from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The National Book Council and The Australia Indonesia Institute. He was short-listed for the 2000 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Prize for his feature writing and photographs on the slums of Mumbai.


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Davis, Peter (2007a). “Double Gazing and Novel Spaces – Examining Narrated and Manifest Photographs in the Novel”,Double Dialogues, Issue Seven, Winter 2007, [accessed 1.7.2010]

Davis, Peter (2007b). “Double Gazing and Novel Spaces – An examination of the role of photographs in novels, using W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz as a case study and Roland Barthes’ interrogations of photography as an underlying context” PhD thesis (Melbourne: RMIT University)

Davis, Peter (2008). “Abraham’s Pictures – Synopsis”, paper prepared for promotional purposes (unpublished)

Davis, Peter (2009). Abraham’s Pictures (Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers)

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Shawcross, Nancy (2003). “Image – Memory – Text”, in Hughes, Alex and Noble, Andrea, eds (2003). Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative (USA: University of New Mexico Press)

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Abraham’s Pictures by Peter Davis was published by Hybrid Publishers and is available from Readings or directly from the publisher