The Distance Between Us
This semester I am taking an art history class centered on the conjunction of photography and intimacy. My expectation with this course was that I would be challenged to think deeply about a medium that is not my own. What surprised me was in the first weeks of the class, unexpected emotions and ideas have emerged while reading Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. In Barthes' writing he developed his own science for giving richer understanding to the medium of photography, all the while describing his own hunt for a photograph of his departed mother that captured her true essence. Barthes finds the desired image of his mother, which he refers to as his "winter garden photograph." Yet his grief is not quelled; the passionate nature of grief ripples through the text which he spent the remainder of his life writing.
Over these last weeks Barthes' grief for his mother echoed in me along with my own grief for my father, stirring up emotions that I like to pretend are resolved. Barthes' writing pulled me to my own "winter garden photograph" of my father. My thoughts went to what cannot be between my father and me. It is not just the loss of father-daughter tea parties or teaching me to ride a bike as a child; it is the loss of being able to talk with him about his artistic practice or to share my own practice with him. We will never have a studio visit, nor will I share with him my joys and struggles while working on my MFA. In a quiet moment of grief, I began to consider that while all of these interactions between us as artists are lost, perhaps we can still show our work together. I am currently looking for my father's pottery in the Pacific Northwest with the hope of putting together an exhibition of both of our work for fall 2018.
Bellow is my analysis of my "winter garden photograph" of my father, using the science for understanding photography that Barthes developed. Bellow that is my "winter garden photograph" of my father.
“I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you no wound.” -- Barthes
My father’s hands at the potter’s wheel are in the center of the composition of a Xerox copy of the photograph of him, an image which is my “winter garden” photograph. Perhaps the pottery in the image would interest your studium in that it stands as evidence of his skill as a potter, or maybe it is his haircut which gives you a clue to that the photograph was taken in the 1970’s. The picture is flawed with the lines that the copy machine made of the photograph. The image is a photograph taken by an amateur (the operator a family member of mine, I believe), copied by a clerk at Xerox shop (so that I may have a copy of the image), then photographed by me on my phone. When you look at the image this process is obvious. The fragility of the medium is evaded, the image takes on a digital existence, no longer is the image’s life span tethered to the life span of the paper. These things may be of interest to you, but like Barthes’s winter garden picture which only exists for him, my winter garden picture most likely does not have punctum for other viewers outside my family.
For me this photograph is burned in my mind and pierces my heart. When I think of what small fragments I have of trying to understand who my father may have been, this image comes to mind. As a child, I would ask family members to tell me about my dad. Their stories explained who he was to each particular person, and while I was grateful for their generosity, it seemed like I was learning more about the person telling the story than about my father. Pictures felt useless as well. Barthes describes how being photographed manipulates our body into becoming something else, our bodies automatically react in anticipation of the image being shot. Whatever we were engaging in or with before is interrupted: that reality won’t be captured. It is then the postured reality that is documented. In many of the photographs of my dad as an adult he looks stiff and uncomfortable that his photograph is being taken. This photograph is an exception, he is in his studio focused on what mattered to him.
When one of my aunts said that my father cared very much about people, but “he spent much of his time alone in his studio focused on his work,” I finally felt close to him and felt that I could understand him in a very fundamental way. After that, this image that I had seen before of my father in his studio contained even more punctum. It stood in for a memory that I wished I could have of him. Barthes speaks about photographs interrupting our memories, and becoming “counter memories;” but, when no memory is present, and having just one memory is so deeply desired, the hallucination provided by the photograph of someone else’s “counter memory” is most welcome.