The Sweet Cheat Gone
Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
A conversation I was having with our friend exitbarnadine got me thinking about photography or more specifically, photographs and their melancholic power. Initially, I thought to quote great chunks of Susan Sontag’s seminal work, On Photography but then I thought if anyone wants to read Sontag, they can download the book here. Anyway, what I want to examine is something rather different, that is: why old photographs unsettle me so?
Although I agree with much of her analysis, I draw different conclusions. My thoughts may not be original or very interesting but they’re my own, not Sontag’s.
Consider the picture that heads this post. It’s my mother and one of my siblings. I don’t know which one and neither does she. The light and the eucalyptus tree in the background tell me it was taken in Kuwait. Sometime between 1960 and 1966. But since my mother had five children in those six years, the baby could be any one of them. Who took the picture? My father? Perhaps, perhaps not. Not only do I not know but I can never know.
There is nothing, to my mind, quite as unreal and leached of significance as a photograph with no context. A painted portrait, no matter how little information we possess about its provenance–who painted it, who the sitter was, when and where it was painted–is never as dumb as an old photograph, adrift on the temporal ocean and flying no flag, bearing no name; origin, destination and cargo unknown. Our friend Tom Clark has written some beautiful poems addressing some of these matters.
I think what unsettles me most is how little I can glean from family photographs, even when I know exactly who the dramatis personae are. Take this photograph, for example:
The picture was published in a Kuwaiti newspaper some years ago to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first group of Kuwaitis to be sent to the West to train. I know who all the men in the photograph are. They’re the men who built modern Kuwait (my father is seated on the far left). I know roughly when the picture was taken (1950) and where (London) but more than that, I cannot tell. All the men in the picture are dead and most likely couldn’t tell me any more than I already know anyway.
Who is the woman? Where in London was the picture taken? What happened afterwards? Did they go to a pub? Why do these seemingly unimportant questions haunt me?
It’s not, as one might imagine, simply the evidence of time past and irretrievable, it’s something deeper than that. I begin to wonder if in fact, photography does more to obliterate the past than preserve it. For decades we’ve been told that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words‘. I no longer believe it, not for a minute. How I wish my father had kept an extensive diary–how much more could a thousand words have told me about the taking of that photograph than the photograph itself?
We have been conned into believing that photographs provide some sort of unimpeachable record–that, yes, this thing or something very like it existed, that this person or someone very like them existed. But waves/particles of light exciting a light-sensitive medium and preserving an instant in light and shadow is just that–light and shadow, no more reliable evidence of anything than Plato’s shadows on a cave wall and when bereft of context, even less so.
I suppose what really causes the melancholy I feel when viewing old photographs (aside from a naturally melancholic disposition) is that for me, they serve to emphasise the essential unknowability, the unreachability of the past, even the very recent past.
Perhaps that’s why I regard our great libraries as one of our crowning glories. As unreliable as written records may be, as questionable as the veracity of chroniclers oftentimes is, a photograph will never be a substitute for a thousand well-chosen words. Falling into an old photograph is like falling into a well–the deeper you go, the darker it gets.
Books are the opposite: you may fall into a dark tunnel but more often than not, you’ll see a light at the end of it. However distant the light, however feeble its glow–books, words, can illuminate.
Photographs add to the deepening dusk.