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.  


persiflage said...

Good luck with it all (and a happy New Year). If the photographer is any good, you'll get some good shots.
And when I look back to my childhood and youth, and realise how few images there are of my parents, grandparents, and my brothers and sisters, and compare it with the incessant photo-taking that os everyday and so common an occurrence, it seems to me that to have a photographer along at what will turn into a social event, will work well. I wish I had more more photos of my youth and of my children as babies.

Anonymous said...

My father was a keen amateur photographer and we have a number of photographs (posed and otherwise) of ourselves growing up. It's not so much the occasion that is captured but everything leading up to it and surrounding it - enjoy your day and forget about the camera ...

MedicatedMoo said...

I'd never heard of 'punctum' but can now see that it's in all of my favourite photos.

When LC and I married a millennia ago, we did the usual thing and hired a professional photographer. I hated the awkward poses, wearing too much make up and having all eyes on me (plus a brain tumour that, undiagnosed at the time, made me feel rather ill) and the photos all reflected that. One friend, however, gave me some snaps he took on his old kodak and one immediately grabbed me. We're slightly out of focus, but LC and I are both not looking at the camera, but at something else that has made us laugh. It's the only one I had framed and is still on our bookshelf.

Best of luck with your photoshoot. Despite the picnic being staged, it has all the elements that will produce something fun - weather, movement, popping corks, laughter, wrinkled picnic rugs. It actually sounds like it will go very, very well.

Jim Murdoch said...

When I was in my mid-teens I bought my first proper camera, a Zorki. It proved faulty and when I returned to the shop he didn’t have the same model so I opted for a Praktica and’ve stayed with them ever since. Until the digital revolution that is. My wife bought me a Sony DSLR but I’ve not bonded with it in fact the only photos I’ve taken are the ones of me for my website. She bought it because of a passing comment I made online suggesting that if I had a new camera I might exercise more, go out of the house and take photos of stuff, so she had good intentions. I never have. One day I will, I suppose. I’m like that. Things lie around here for years before the mood takes me. It’s why I’m not a quicker writer because stuff seems to have to lie around in my head for years before I feel comfortable enough with it to do something. The bird’s the same. Bring something new into his world and he’ll give it a wide berth for months and then one day he’ll discover it. Like Dad’s bureau. It’s been stuck in the corner of the room behind the door ever since he’s been here (seven years? Carrie would know) and then one day he dropped off the top of the door—which he also rediscovered only recently—landed on the bureau and started to peck at it. Now it’s got a cloth covering it and he’s made it his country retreat.

My best friend was with me when I bought the Zorki—he had a Fed (both Russian cameras)—and he used to document everything. I rather wish I’d followed his example. Now I’m rather saddened by the paucity of images from my past. I was always concerned with taking artful photos so took very few unless they looked perfect. I’ve done a few weddings in my time—just family and friends—and I have got a good eye but I much prefer candid shots to posed; not quite sure why we needed the terms ‘punctum’ and ‘stadium’. I like to sit in a corner with a longish lens and fade into the background. It was the cost that put me off. I really couldn’t afford to snap an entire reel for one decent photo and that’s what I’ve always hated about photography; so much is down to pure chance. So you’d think that I’d just love digital photography and I do like the idea of it; now it’s time that’s my problem. Odd that I go on so much about my lack of time when I really have all the time in the world but I never feel like it. I think about going out for a few hours and it seems such a waste. Like you said in your last comment so much of our time is used up sitting in front of these damn screens.

I wouldn’t like to have to go on a picnic like the one you’re planning. I would feel unnatural and act unnaturally so what would be the point? Might some ‘truth’ be revelled in such a setting? I think not. I am going to have a photo taken in a few months with my daughter once she’s presented with her degree; I’m even going to fork out on a new suit although the only time I can imagine me wearing it afterwards will be in my coffin assuming I’ve not put on a couple of stones by then. But it does matter to be to have a record of my pride.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting ideas Elizabeth - good luck with the outcome. Funnily enough, I was thinking about photograpy earlier today when I came across a photo of two dear friends, one of whom has now had a stroke and one is in care with Alzheimer's and knows none of us. That photo caught a split second in time when we were all happy and had no idea what the future held.

Rosaria Williams said...

Great points! I always feel like an intruder when I take photos and intruded when I know someone else is taking photos. An occasion such as this will turn out great for all of you; all of you will forget about he photographer after a while and just be a family, albeit on their best behavior!

Kirk said...

No less a personage than Annie Leibovitz has warned about reading too much into a photograph.

Pandora Behr said...

Family photos are so different to what they used to be - I hope you enjoy the day. SO good to have these - I have no family photos to speak of - they're good to have.


R.H. said...

As you dither on posting that comment consider RH's writing tips Number two:

2. Let your head go.


River said...

punctum? studium? the unfamiliarity of picnics?
Why does the photographer not have you choose a more comfortable activity, something that you do often as a family, and he can just hover around and snap photos until he runs out of film?

franzy said...

I'm visiting from Kath's blog.

Have you thought about going the other way, ie. Completely zany family photos? We seem to have started a tradition where we go to a beach and take a photo of us all jumping in the air in our bathers and making stupid faces and poses.

That's the family photo we framed and hung in our lounge room for guests.

It might be too late, but why don't you get the photographer to come along to something that you DO do as a family?

diane b said...

I too came over from Kathy's blog and I also agree with Franzy, The photographer should just turn up to your home or place where you normally go as a family and take candid shots . Do try to forget about the photographer and enjoy the day. I love photos for the memories they spark.I recently investigated Street Photography with our camera club. That is where we had to capture the moment. It sounds a bit like 'punctum'.

Elisabeth said...

The photo shoot went well, Persiflage. It was a good idea to combine the social with the purposeful, but strangely exhausting. I can understand your regret at not having as many photos of your childhood and your children's early lives as you'd like. I have a few photos from my childhood and from my children's early years and I'm glad. they are precious but it's almost impossible thee days to keep up with them all.

Thanks, Persiflage.

Elisabeth said...

I managed to forget about the camera much of the time, Jane, except when the photographer had us deliberately pose as in some of the formal group shots, some with my husband and others with my girls. The best opportunities seemed to arise towards the end of our time together when we all, including the photographer, began to relax.

Thanks, Jane.

Elisabeth said...

The photo shoot went very well as an experience, Kath, though I've yet to see the end results.

I enjoyed scrolling though your photos as examples of punctum on your blog, and was especially moved by your wedding experience. How awful for you. There's no ideal time to cop a tumour but when you're getting married would have to be one of the worst.

Thanks, too, for the link on your blog.

You're a pretty good photographer yourself I see, or are in the company of wonderful photographers judging by the images you share there.

Thanks again, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

Your story of camera ownership, Jim, put me in mind of one of my first gifts to my husband one birthday many many years ago. I bought him a camera. A whizz bang Nikon as I recall. It cost a lot of money even for the time but it too, like yours, was faulty.

So we bought it back to the camera shop from whence it came. The owner of this small camera shop saw himself as an expert and I expect he was. When my husband complained that the camera was faulty and had a rattle - my husband demonstrated said rattle by shaking the camera in front of him, the camera shop proprietor said: 'It's not a watch, it's a camera.'

This expression has stayed with us all these years. Said with a thick european accent - 'It's not a votch, it's a camera.'

We often repeat these words in situations when there is some confusion about damaged goods.

Needless to say the man eventually exchanged the camera for one that did not rattle. And my husband ket the camera for many years until one day it was stolen from off our kitchen table by a foolish thief who did not realise that the camera he/she had taken was well past its use by date.

The insurance provided a much better camera and my husband has not looked back. He's a passionate photographer but like you he sometimes cannot be bothered or lacks the time.

I reckon digital photography is wonderful. The number of photos our photographer took is extraordinary and of course he will cull but we will presumably get a disc of images and we can do as we will with them as long as we accredit his work. It's better than having a small fortune for hard copy, though needless to say this photographer's time was not cheap. I'm not supposed to know though. It was a birthday present to me.

I look forward to seeing that photo of you and your daughter - you in your new suit, your daughter in her graduation garb. I'm sure the pride and pleasure will show.

Thanks, Jim

Elisabeth said...

Photos can be such a good reminder of days gone by, Pat. And as you say they can portray a life so different from what the present one holds. I look at photos pf my child self and wonder that we are one and the same. Time changes us so much, such that we could almost be different people.

Thanks, Pat.

Elisabeth said...

You're right Rosaria. We did relax for the photographer in time and yet remained on best behaviour as we invariably do in the presence of a stranger and sometimes even without one. Group pressures demand it. The only ones who were completely relaxed though were the two small grandchildren.

Children, the photographer told us, don't mind being photographed unlike adults. He was talking about very young children.

I can remember by the age of ten eleven twelve I hated to have my photo taken. It was so intrusive.

Thanks, Rosaria.

Elisabeth said...

And Annie Liebovitz would know, wouldn't she Kirk? She'd know all about the fictions we create when we read too much into a photograph. But it's fun to try.

Thanks, Kirk.

Elisabeth said...

No family photos, Pandora? That's sad. There are very few photos of my infancy, if any at all and I have long mourned the fact there's no visual record of my baby self.

I used to think it was because my parents were too poor for cameras when I was born. There might be some truth to that though I suspect now they weren't just too poor in real terms money wise but overwhelmed with too many other demands to worry about photos of the latest baby. I wonder was the case for you?

Thanks, Pandora.

Elisabeth said...

You're right, Robert, there is a limit to which I'll let my head go. Thanks for the encouragement, though.

Elisabeth said...

My daughter chose the activity, River, not the photographer. We fell in line as you do because it seemed a reasonable-enough suggestion at the time we booked and as it turns out it was.

The afternoon which I had dreaded was good and even better in retrospect, though it took it out of me energy wise. A strange and mixed experience of strain and pleasure. Like so may things in life really.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

That sounds like a terrific idea, Franzy. Those zany photographs can work well. I see on her blog that Kath has a few of them, especially underwater shots, but it's too late for us with this photographer. Another day perhaps.

By the way it's lovely to see you here.

Thanks, Franzy.

Elisabeth said...

Street photography sounds like fun, Diane. Punctum indeed. And as I said to Franzy, it's great to see you here.

On the day of the photo shoot - now past tense - I tried to ignore the photographer, but there were times when his presence was impossible to deny. He was a lovely chap though and certainly knew how to go about relaxing us.

Thanks, Diane.