Photography as a Spell Book
The metaphor of photography as freezing time has become commonplace, almost clichéd now. A number of scholars have discussed in greater depth the diverse, multilayered temporal implications of photography and of the photographic process, which fascinate me. There is indeed a complex web of perceptions on the matter: photographs carry the past, trigger memories, are testimonies of history; they are stills of a fleeting present, a very precise, almost surgical moment in time, the epitome of presence, the length of a nanosecond; and they take on a life of their own, an afterlife, constantly reinterpreted in the future, creating a metaphysical space with its own destiny. In fact, it appears that photographs exist in and represent all temporal tenses. It comes to no surprise that photography has been described by various scholars in magical, mystical terms: freezing time, necromancy, capturing souls, ghostly images, etc. I wish to develop the idea that it is this crossing of temporal boundaries, the disruption of chronology, that is at the heart of these altogether ethereal metaphorical terms in relation to photography. After all, time is considered as the one major uncontrollable element of life, the one fatality to which all human beings are submitted no matter what — and photography comes to disrupt this trope on which humanity is founded.
Two texts that I have recently read (Blow-Up by Julio Cortazár and Veronica’s Shrouds by Michel Tourmier) depict characters who are upset by having their picture taken, who are deeply shaken by the photographic act. That is to say, these fictional characters are taken out of their temporality, and begin existing in the chronology contained in the photograph, parallel to theirs. The image is of them, but it is not them (or taken by them but not theirs), because it lives in its own chronology, and therein lies the malaise of the photographed subject and the photographer alike. The problem lies not so much the photographer, but more so in eventual viewers of the photograph. The photographer is merely a cog in the photographic process which gives another life to that which already has life — but an alien life, because of its other temporal reality. But a photographer always eventually plays the dual role of creator and viewer.
This is of course reminiscent of Baudrillard, who considers the photograph as having a life of its own, not a mere item created by the photographer. I wish to emphasize, however, the importance of the viewer in what I consider the life-giving of the photograph, its “afterlife,” and its chronology. I am reminded here of Elissa Marder, who uses strikingly carnal vocabulary in relation to photography in Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, speaking of it as procreation, as a stillborn, and calling the photographer “midwife to the photographed body,” also stating that “photography is magic and not art.” This fleshly yet ethereal consideration of photography is indeed a paradox which is at the heart of the medium, which also comes forth in the tension between presence and absence that we have discussed. The material at hand is difficult to unpack: a photograph is born yet its flesh is not human, it is both an illusion and a reality (see Baudrillard), much like the language that is used to describe it. Photography disrupts time, and this is why it is imbued with magical, spiritual properties. It is striking that Ivan Vladislavic writes in The Last Walk that “Photography is the negation of chronology” and that there is no “meantime” in photography.
A person, confronted by a photograph of himself or herself, faces a clone — a clone which is inevitably younger, since the act of viewing a photograph is always ulterior to the act of pressing the shutter-release button – and so, the past is brought to life in the present when the photograph is viewed. The viewer is then confronted to a twisted, distorted chronology, where someone that was him but is not anymore keeps evolving, and changing when it is viewed, in the space of the frame, as well as in the off-frame (see Christian Metz, Teresa de Lauretis). The space created by the photograph is thus not only tangible and physical in the space of the photograph itself, but also ethereal in the time and space that it creates. As such, one feels compelled to use a lexica of magic and mysticism. I wish to add my metaphor: a photograph is a spell book. When it is read, it brings about its own world which is unique to the subjective reader. The magical world is still present when the book is closed, which is a physical reality in itself, but its existence is brought forth every time it is read, differently so. As such, the same spell book creates a different, subjective world for every viewer. It also creates a rupture, inevitably disrupting chronology, hence its magic. It relentlessly creates illusions which are nonetheless real — both metaphysically (hence the frame) and figuratively, though more so the latter.
This metaphor becomes productive in the context of its literary qualities. A spell is little more than a poem – Roland Barthes would say (Camera Lucida): a haiku, which is self-contained according to him – but I would rather say a spell, since there are no barriers to the ethereal space created by a picture, despite having clear physical boundaries (the frame), much like a spell which begins with the first letter and ends with the final period, but its purpose is to create an open world in which the reader is brought, “interpelé” as we say in French.
In this case, the interpellation might take on the form of the punctum, where a viewer is struck by a specific element for a variety of conscious and unconscious subjective reasons. Interestingly, Vladislavic’s The Last Walk, literary narrative whose premise in the interpretation of photographs, ends with “Google him.” These two words are a direct interpellation from the writer to the reader. Much like the lady who observes the hung men strikes him on a photograph, he strikes the reader of his literary narrative by addressing him or her, which is, for me personally, a punctum in his text. I had to go and google the Danish explorer. I was struck by this literary moment, which disrupted my own temporal reality in the reading of the text. I was faced with a moment in the text that inserted itself into my own life — like a foreign body inside of my own mind, my own body.
The relationship between literature and photography in the context of chronology, of a discourse on life-giving and afterlife (let us compare the two components of Vladislavic’s TJ/Double Negative which take on a separate life of their own, creating their own parallel chronology) is valuable and fascinating. It is all the more so in photographic novels, where one is presented with both pictorial and textual elements in the same physical frame of a piece of art. Where does one draw the line between the physical and the ethereal spaces and chronologies? Let us think, as a final note, of Faucon’s Chambres d’amour who presents us “rooms of love” in complete disorder (1, 7, 4, 5, 11, 8 and so on), a chronology of its own, already disrupting our chronology as viewer/reader, accompanied by text which states that chambre d’amour 8 is in fact the “première fois” (first time), and some poetry. Text and image contradict, disrupt each other’s chronology while assisting each other in disrupting the reader/viewer’s chronology. In fact, Jean-Paul Michel, in his preface to Chambres d’amour, writes that “toute l’écriture est de la sorcellerie” (all writing is witchcraft). It is, indeed, witchcraft because it disrupts chronology, reinforcing the imagery of photography and the reason for this imagery I have discussed here.