Saturday, January 12, 2013

Let this be over


There is a company that – for a price – will take you and your loved ones for a day, treat you each like a movie star, dress up your hair, pile on makeup and turn you into one. 

You bring along the best clothes from your wardrobe, a sample of day wear, casual and evening wear, and the various photos taken will be pitched at creating a certain image of you. 

Your best shots.  Your best foot forward, the you that lies beneath, an exaggeration of you, a simulacrum, a Disneyland-like version that you will never forget. 

Next week late afternoon on Tuesday a photographer is coming to take family photographs.  It was intended as a gift to me from my husband and children for my last birthday.  

I do not intend that my family become a simulacrum, and yet there may be elements here. This photographer is not interested in posed shots.  He wants us to go about our business as though he were not there. 

The plan is we will have a picnic in the local gardens in Burnley.  We will take along a picnic blanket, a bottle or two of Prosecco, and the sturdy champagne glasses.  We will have some cheese and biscuits or maybe some cakes.

In other words, we will have a picnic, which we rarely do, at least not in my recent memory.  We have family meals together often but usually in someone’s house or backyard, or in a restaurant. We do not go out on picnics, at least not en famille. 

Already my husband baulks at the thought, not only for the fact of it – he does not enjoy stage managed events – but also because it means he will need to leave work early and he’s only just back there. 

The last time we had 'professional' family shots taken was nineteen year ago after Christmas when my youngest was still a baby and all my children were still very much children.

This photographer preferred to have people pose and we wore our Sunday bests. 

This time we wear whatever we like.  We will go as we are, but the reality is we would not normally be in the Burnley gardens on a Tuesday afternoon as an extended family, trying to freeze dry a few moments in time for posterity. 

A few years ago I met a man at a life writing conference, an older man who was exploring notions of disability relative to his son who had died at the age of 22 from muscular dystrophy. 

This man showed photos and talked of Roland Barthe’s differentiation between what he calls punctum and studium. The latter studium is visible in ordinary photos that reveal only the conventional, and where every event is balanced such that it might represent a stable and predictable moment in time;  this as opposed to punctum the element that carries a sting, a punch, a sudden shock in one or another of its components. 

Punctum can emerge not simply from the photo itself but from our knowledge about the photo, which may come after we first viewed it. 

This man showed two family shots.  In one he is sitting in the background, with his then wife in the foreground, in a wading pool.  She is dressed in bathers and holds her 18 month old son.  Their daughter, seemingly a couple of years older than her brother is also in the wading pool.  The daughter  sits to one side and is smiling. A family photo that reflects the seemingly benign and predictable.  

Then the man showed another photo in which his son’s disability was more visible. 

Would we think so if we did not know?  The little boy is stretched out in the second photo as if caught in an awkward shift of body.  There is something in that shift that bespeaks some sort of bodily spasticity, some awkwardness of tone, but if all of this is punctum, we can surmise it only on second sight.

I enjoy playing around with photographs.  I enjoy taking them and trying to interpret them, but I do not relish the thought of my family posed event where we will all be conscious of the camera’s eye marking us forevermore in this way or that. 

Still I take to heart John Berger’s words when he writes about photography:  

‘There is never a single approach to something remembered.  The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of the line.  Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it.  Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for the printed photograph in a comparable way…A radical system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.’

And so our efforts to freeze dry time must be considered similarly, a moment in time that leads from many directions and will move out in many directions. 

And where will the punctum lie this time? The shock, the unexpected image that will throw everything else into relief and tell us so much more than we might otherwise see, like the crying baby above or the child whose eyes are closed – she blinked.  They might well speak for all of us that day.  



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