Further Adventures in Reading

Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes

I have been writing an academic paper on portraiture, finally doing something with the Body Shop quilt which demanded so much time and attention for so long.  As part of my research I finally sat down and read Roland Barthes’ classic work on photography, Camera  Lucida.  Now, these French authors are never easy, and there are vast tracts of the book that you need a very solid education in Classics even to get near (he tends to clarify his rather obscure meanings by going back to the latin), but, in certain passages it is a really beautiful book.  It starts as a discourse on photography and it takes an unexpected turn when he comes across a photograph of his (dead) mother which, although it does not look especially like her, is her, or as Barthes puts it, expresses her air, her reality, what she was to him.  This leads onto a whole range of reflections about photography and reality, and death, and history and commemoration.  I just want to mention a couple, though.  The first is a passage which considers our relationships with people we love and their photographs:

From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star…  And if Photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of Alchemy, is alive.  (pp. 80-81)

Barthes is a difficult read (although in some works he is really funny which is more than you can say for most of the French post-modernists and post-structuralists, see for example his essay on the fringes in the Marlon Brando film of Julius Caesar), but sometimes he writes this wonderful poetic prose which is just lovely, and in this case somehow consoling.  Of course he is writing about an archaic world now.  I cannot imagine anyone writing as movingly and indeed romantically about digital photography – no silver involved there to my knowledge – as we squirt cartridge ink onto paper.  The disappointed romantic (as I was characterised in my eighteenth-year) in me cannot help but respond to rays from stars and vibrant silver.  No room for die-hard rationalists here.

The second passage, however, indirectly has something very interesting to say about creativity.  Barthes is aware throughout the book that he is very often the subject of photographs himself as something of a celebrity (as a public intellectual, a phenomenon the British can’t quite imagine).  He is fascinated by photographs as testaments to what has been in front of a lens.  It is the only thing that we can be more or less certain of with photographs: that something passed before a lens at some point, although even this has changed with advent of Photoshop, of course.  Anyway, he writes:

One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail.  And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).  This distortion between certainty and oblivion gave me a kind of vertigo, something of a ‘detective’ anguish […]; I went to the photographer’s show as to a police investigation, to learn at last what I no longer knew about myself.  (p. 85)

I wrote about the idea of making art as a way of getting to know the self in the last post on Jeanette Winterson, and although the metaphor of the detective is intriguing, I want to think about something else.  I think his experience gives a fascinating angle on one of the elements that intrigues me about creativity expressed through art: the fleeting quality of meaning, and the whole area of the intentionality of the artist.  One of my favourite anecdotes is from Tom Stoppard, the playwright, who was asked about the meanings of one of his plays.  Someone asked him a question along the lines of ‘When X did Y it meant Z, didn’t it?’  He said that he couldn’t deny that such a meaning was possible, but he certainly didn’t remember putting it in.  It was like going through customs, he said, and rolling up your sleeve to find ten watches up your arm: you couldn’t deny their presence, but you certainly couldn’t remember putting them there.  I often feel like this when people tell me what my work is about.  For example, I made a liberated quilt a la Gwen Marston, which had houses on it.  I wanted to use some lovely red fabric with Russian matryoshka dolls and, as instructed by Gwen, I fussy cut the fabric so that the dolls’ faces looked out through the windows of the wonky house I had made.  I will never forget someone looking at it and asking me if it were a comment on the sex-trafficking of Eastern European women to work in British brothels.  At one level yes, if you think it is social comment, it is, but actually, it was a piece of whimsy.  Not helped, it must be said by my liberal use of spiky grey fabric which looked like some sort of nightmare forest from the bleakest of Grimms’ fairy tales, but it was most definitely made as a domestic wall-hanging.  Now looking at those bleak faces staring out of that bleak house I see it rather differently, and it has certainly never been on the wall.

The moral of the story, then, for me, is once you have finished with a piece of work as any kind of co-creator, it goes out into the world and you no longer have any control over what happens to it.  Of course, you might have a completely different take on this story.

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