What the photograph demands of us


At the end of January, not long after returning from viewing an exhibit of 42 black-and-white photographs by Gordon Parks (1912-2006) at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for Parks’ work with my friend, Phil Rosen.  Rosen, a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown, suggested two books – both classics in the field – to deepen my appreciation and understanding of photography:  Susan Sontag’s “On Philosophy” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) and Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” (Hill and Wang, 1982), translated from the French by Richard Howard.  Neither Sontag nor Barthes is primarily concerned with the methods of picture-taking; rather, each of them, in distinct but overlapping ways, focuses upon what the photograph means to those who view it. 

In many ways, Sontag’s is a book of questions. Is photography an art or “only” a craft?  What is its relationship to painting?  How does photography reconcile its sometimes-competing goals of creating beauty and telling the truth?  Does the existence of the photograph negate Plato’s ancient philosophical argument concerning appearance versus reality? Sontag’s questions prompt my own question: What does she mean when she calls photography “a revolt against ordinary standards of seeing”? As I worked my way through Sontag’s book, I felt as if I were once again an undergraduate student at Columbia – intoxicated with compelling and competing ideas.

Perhaps the most searching of all the questions bubbling up in Sontag’s text is this: What is the relationship between the photograph and death? What does she mean when early on she comments, “All photographs are memento mori (reminders of our mortality)”?  Fifty pages later she adds: “Photography is the inventory of our mortality.  A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony.”

I understand Sontag to be saying that every photograph is a glimpse in the present of something frozen in the past for the sake of future viewers.  It seems to me that this is the irony – “the posthumous irony” – inherent in the photograph.  When I look at a picture taken during my childhood, part of me asks: “Is this me?” But shouldn’t I be asking: “Was that me?” The answer to both questions is identical: That little boy in the cowboy outfit standing next to the backyard swing set was me then and is the seed of the future man I am today, 65 years later.

In “Camera Lucida,” Barthes probes even more deeply into the intimate connection between the photograph and death; more precisely, he explores how the very act of looking at a photograph profoundly alters our commonly held notions of time and mortality.

For Barthes, the irreducible essence of a photograph is the subject at the moment the picture is taken, what he calls the “That-has-been.”  When he is examining a photograph, he is forced to confront his own mortality; noting the date of a photograph leads him “to compute life, death, the inexorable extinction of generations ... I am the reference of every photograph, and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?”

Barthes focuses upon Alexander Gardner’s 1865 “Portrait of Lewis Payne” to elucidate his approach to the questions of time and mortality posed by every photograph. This photograph of Payne was taken while he was in jail, soon to be hanged for his attempted assassination of Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Barthes comments: “he is going to die.  I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.  By giving me the absolute past of the pose...the photograph tells me of death in the future... Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this  catastrophe.”

Photography is a relatively new art form. Barthes reports that the first photograph was taken in 1823 (or thereabout) by Nicephore Niepce.  Both Sontag and Barthes argue that photography calls upon us to see the world in a new way largely because it compels us to see time – and, by extension, our sense of mortality – in a new way: The “That-has-been” subject of a photograph was the NOW when it was taken, even as the subject’s FUTURE has been subsumed into the PAST of its viewer.

Upon further reflection, I would suggest that such “tricks” of time are not so new, after all.  Consider, for example, Psalm 126, chanted every Shabbat in traditional Jewish homes as the introduction to the Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. The Hebrew text can be understood as referring to the future: “When Adonai will restore the fortunes of Zion, we will be like dreamers.”  However, the very same Hebrew text can also be understood as referring to the past: “When Adonai restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like dreamers.” That is to say, our text is asking us to read it NOW as both FUTURE and PAST and, by so doing, to enlarge our vision of the boundaries of our mortality.

In addition to a shared vision of the fluidity of time, what modern photographs and ancient Hebrew texts hold in common is their insistence that we pay close attention to what is before our eyes at this very moment.  Thus, we read in Exodus 3:4: “When Adonai saw that he turned to take a (close) look, God cried out to him from the midst of the thorn bush, “Moses! Moses!” Numerous commentators have pointed out that only after Moses has taken the time to discern that the bush is not being consumed by the flames does God deem him worthy of the Divine encounter.

Both the modern photograph and the ancient Biblical text make the same demand of us:  We are here.  Our time is always NOW.  Pay attention!

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington.  Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.