«CHAPTER ONE Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time But only ...»
Clearly, figure 1.3 is related to images that I have seen of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. And, to some degree, it reflects an unconscious desire to possess those images—a desire to create some kind of present tense out of experiences that are historical but traumatically felt as if time had not passed. Photographs contribute to this sense that time has been marginalized even as they come to stand for events from the past.
In his book The Art of Memory, Francis Yates describes a useful distinction originally developed by Francis Bacon between active images and thinking. Bacon’s goal was to distinguish between memories formed through the worship of idols and traditions of rational thought linked to the bible and its interpretation (see Huizinga 1966). In some respects, both Yates and Bacon point to a central issue in the history of photography. The appearance of photography in the nineteenth century resulted in many criticisms, including accusations that mechanically produced images would lead to the destruction of truth and therefore to the undermining of human memory. This has not happened. Photographic images have become the foundation upon which historical events are viewed and archived. Yet there is a lingering cultural sense that photographs can and often do lie. These tensions have increased as digital technologies have made it possible to alter photographs in more and more sophisticated ways. The active image in Bacon’s sense is very much in the present tense (felt immediately, as in images of human suffering), in contrast to images that require more lengthy contemplation in order to be understood. It is the active image that risks overwhelming spectators so that questions of truth and rationality become secondary to the viewing experience.
According to Yates ( 1974), “[Francis] Bacon fully subscribed to the ancient view that the active image impresses itself best on memory, and to the Thomist view that intellectual things are best remembered through sensible things” (372). Nevertheless, the active image is one that is never forgotten and remains sensuously engaged with viewers even as it is layered with more and more meanings. The presence of all of these layers moves the photograph from its time to another and perhaps more
This tension is not between the present and the past; rather it is an expression of the problems that arise when different levels of expression collide with each other because time and history continuously recontextualize meaning and viewership. No photograph and no image retains its meaning for very long, which creates serious problems for vantage point. If there is so little stability, how can perspective be maintained?
This lack of stability suggests that different meanings have to be searched for in other ways and through other means. For example, who built the large buildings and infrastructure at Auschwitz that were necessary to kill so many people in a relatively short period of time? (There were actually twelve construction companies involved. They ranged from specialists in ventilation to a company that waterproofed the gas chambers.) Of course, figure
1.3 cannot reveal these details on its own which creates both a problem and a challenge for visualization and how memories can be contextualized.
There is a photograph available that shows Heinrich Himmler studying the plans for Auschwitz with an engineer of the IG Farben Company. How could that photograph be included in figure 1.3? The map reproduced in figure
1.4 indicates the closeness of the factory to the concentration camp. The point is that figure 1.3 cannot contain enough of the historical elements of the situation to allow for the breadth of interpretation and analysis I am developing here.
Images piled upon images. Memories contained by images in frames.
Vantage Point and Image-Worlds Ideas that move far beyond what individual images signify. The process of layering through language and analysis, as well as through the exploration of “seeing” leads in many different directions. The photograph of a smokestack reaching to the sky brings to mind Alain Resnais’s devastating exploration of Auschwitz in Night and Fog, the film that he made in 1955.
The images in the film, as Bacon suggested, have never disappeared from my memories of the war itself. Yet I was born after the war. This means that I am combining images, films, stories, a whole host of media, a plethora of texts, and familial testimonies into a series of memories and discourses that bring all of these pieces together. This is precisely what Night and Fog does as a film because Resnais cannot return to the moments he describes and pic- 17
FIGURE 1.4 Map of Auschwitz
tures in the film. This is a good example of a set of relationships formed through a chain of interrelated images and texts where there is no real unity to the outcome.
It is evidence of my submersion in a world that is almost entirely made up of traces, in which no message is complete in and of itself. It is this incompleteness and the inability of images to assert absolute meanings that sustains the viewer’s interest in them as instruments of exchange and communications. It is also why images are so multidimensional even in those instances when they picture something in a very direct or active way.
However, the personal and discursive process that permits claims to be made that there is a difference between images and people’s experiences of them needs to be explored. When someone says, “That is not a picture of me,” is he or she claiming that the picture is not a likeness or that the image cannot contain or express the subjective sense that the person has of himself or herself?
For example, a photographer snaps an image of Jane. When Jane sees it, the photographer says, “I took that photo of you!” It appears as if the image can stand for Jane and will be used by the photographer to illustrate Jane’s appearance to a variety of different spectators. In a sense, the image separates itself from Jane and becomes an autonomous expression, a container with a label and a particular purpose. For better or worse, the photo speaks of Jane, and often for her.
The photograph of Jane is scanned into a computer and then placed onto a Web site. It is also e-mailed to friends and family. Some of Jane’s relatives print the image and others place it in a folder of similar photos in their computers, a virtual photographic album. In all of these instances, Jane travels from one location to another and is viewed and reviewed in a number of different contexts. At no point does anyone say, “This is not a picture of Jane.” Therefore, one can assume that a variety of viewers are accepting the likeness and find that the photo reinforces their subjective experience of Jane as a person, friend, and relative.
The photograph of Jane becomes part of the memory that people have of her, and when they look at the photo a variety of feelings are stirred up that have more to do with the viewer than Jane. Nevertheless, Jane appears to be present through the photo, and, for those who live far away from her, the photograph soon becomes the only way that she can be seen and remembered.
Picture the following. Jane’s photograph is on a mantel. When Jane’s mother walks by, she stares at her daughter’s picture and then kisses it. Often, when Jane’s mother is lonely, she speaks to the image and, in a variety of ways, thinks that the image speaks back to her. Jane’s mother knows that the photograph cannot speak; yet, there is something about Jane’s expression that encourages her mother to transform the image from a static representaVantage Point and Image-Worlds tion to something far more complex, in other words to visualize her daughter’s presence and to recreate the distance between herself and the image.
This example points out that the language of description that usually accompanies a photograph cannot fully account for its mystery. It is as if the photograph exceeds the boundaries of its frame in an almost continuous fashion and brings forth a dialogue that encourages a break in the silence that usually surrounds it. Where does this power come from? It cannot simply be a product of the emotional investment in the image. To draw that conclusion would be to somehow mute the very personal manner in which the image is internalized and the many ways in which it is made relevant to human experience (Deleuze 1988). 19 20 Could it be that viewers see from the position of the image? Do they not have to place themselves inside the photograph in order to transform it into something they can believe in? Aren’t they simultaneously witnesses and participants? Don’t they gain pleasure from knowing that Jane is absent and yet so powerfully present? Isn’t this the root of a deeply nostalgic feeling that overwhelms the image and brings forth a set of emotions that cannot be located simply in memories (Baudrillard 1990)?
What would happen if someone tore up the photograph? The thought is a difficult one. It somehow violates a sacred trust. It also violates Jane. Yet if the photo were simply a piece of paper with some chemicals fixed upon its surface, then the violence would appear to be nothing. Why and how does the image exceed its material base?
This question cannot be answered without reflecting upon the history of images and the growth and use of images in every facet of human life, in other words the creation of image-worlds. Long before humans understood why, images formed the basis upon which they defined their relationships to their experiences and to space and time (Jay 1993). Long before there was any effort to translate information into formal written languages, humans used images to communicate with each other and with a variety of imaginary creatures, worlds, and gods (O’Donnell 1998). The need to externalize an internal world, to project the self and one’s thoughts into images remains as fundamental as the act of breathing. Life could not continue without some way of creating images to bear witness to the complexities of human experience, and this applies to those instances in which images were banned or destroyed. This wondrous ability, the magic of which surrounds people from the moment they are born, is a universal characteristic of every culture, social, and economic formation. This is the case with language and what needs to be understand and accepted is the degree to which it is the same with images (Mitchell 1986).
The invention of photography, for example, did not happen in a vacuum.
Aside from the long history of experimentation with chemistry that preceded the insight that light leaves a trace on certain surfaces that have been treated with chemicals, centuries of experimentation with images of every type and shape occurred (Hillis 1999). Photography simply reflected a continuing and quite complex desire to translate and transform the world into many different forms. Images are not a reflection of this desire; they are the very incarnation of the need to take hold of the world and visualize experience. Images are one of the crucial ways in which the world becomes real (Scharf 1968; Kittler 1986).
Images are also one of the most fundamental grounds upon which humans build notions of embodiment. It is for that reason that images are never simply enframed by their content. The excess this produces is a direct result of what people do with images as they incorporate them into their identities and emotions. Images speak to people because to see is to be within and outside of the body. Images are used as a prop to construct and maintain the legitimacy of sight. It is as if sight could not exist without the images that surround most cultures. The translation of sight into various forms of expression suggests that vision and images are codependent (Hayles 2002).
Think for a moment of the shock that comes from looking at the world through a camera obscura. Here is a device whose sole purpose is to translate the world into images. Why not simply revel in the delights of seeing? Why build an apparatus that reduces the world to an image? Perhaps, images are not reductions. Perhaps, they are the very basis upon which the body and the eye can manage the experience of being in the world. Perhaps, it would not be possible to see without images? If that were true, then the impulse to create the camera obscura, as well as the many experiments that took place at the same time, came from a deeper source. Ultimately, there may be a need to simulate the world in order to understand it, but this would introduce even more mediators into the experiences of seeing and understanding than I have mentioned up until now (Stephens 1998; Levi-Strauss 1997).
This is something that Roland Barthes (1981) recognized when he declared early on in Camera Lucida that he “wanted to be a primitive, without culture” (7). Barthes did not want to know about all the cultural mediators that transformed a photograph of his mother from being a simple reflection of her face and body into a complex artifact. He wanted to experience the kind of direct pleasure that sensuously and instantaneously connects viewers to what they see. This is similar to the Thomist view that Yates mentions in the earlier quotation. It is at the heart of why time seems to disappear in photographs, not because of depiction or realism, but because memories of past scenes are Vantage Point and Image-Worlds lost and regained every time a photograph is viewed and because the excess that is generated transforms images into traces within and outside time.
This excess cannot be derived in a simple sense from photographs themselves and reveals as much about the strength of memory as it does about the fickleness of “remembering.” It is both the force and the frailty of remembering through “sensible things.” What is sensible can be approached as if in a dream, and dreams can be approached as if they were part of reality. In all of this, the visible world that is recovered by billions of photographs shot by humans of every culture, stands as an encyclopedic compendium of the human desire to preserve the endless circle of memories and forgetting, dreams and insights, experiences and reflections. 21 22 History Folds into Trauma HE You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.
SHE I saw everything. Everything.
SHE The hospital, for instance, I saw it. I’m sure I did.
There is a hospital in Hiroshima. How could I help seeing it?
HE You did not see the hospital in Hiroshima.
You saw nothing in Hiroshima.
SHE Four times at the museum...