“Photography is a vulgar addiction that is gradually taking hold of the whole of humanity…”
– Thomas Bernhard, Extinction (1986)
We allow photography to inform our lives, rather than the other way around. It effects how we look at the world, how we remember the world, and how we distance ourselves from it, too. Yet, our human ambition to capture mementoes of this world has led us to commodify and atomize life – click after click, post after post – creating a reality of refracted meaning that reflects nothing.
This is what Guy Debord called the society of spectacle, or “the social relation among people, mediated by images.” We live in a time when this phenomenon is immense, in which no-thing is unworthy of photographic documentation in the moment. Photos are posted and forgotten, and in a sea of flooded images, we can’t help but feel that nothing is worthy of being photographed, either.
Unsurprisingly, the photos with the greatest potential energy are those with us in them. Some Ivy League graduate at Apple or Instagram has written code to push these “Memories” to me “On this day” based on my expected emotional reaction; the more painful, the more evocative; the more evocative, the higher the engagement. We’ll consider any compulsion to numb the pain even if we know we can’t stick against time’s wet flow.
Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979, transparency in lightbox, 142.5 x 204.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist
“Those Harvard folks sure know what they’re doing!” is what I am failing to say to a friend.
“Come closer,” he says. “I hate seeing old photos. Moving through time makes me carsick.” I’ve felt similarly looking at photos of myself, too. Intellectually, I know the person I’m seeing is not me, exactly – he’s my doppelganger and my scrooge, a fantastical dimwit and my greatest friend – and yet, my realization bears no weight on the feeling that I was exactly that person at exactly that time, and I never won’t be. True to the ambition of photography, we begin to find that we’re stuck in time. Under the apparition of freezing time, photography has brought with it the extinction of forgetting, too.
In the documentary Sans Soleil (1983), Chris Marker says, “Remembering is not the opposite of forgetting. It’s its lining.” If we think of our lives as a series of discrete points charted against the axis of time, then our memories are what draws a smooth, causal line to form the heritage of our lives, all the way to the ever-evolving endpoint that Henri Bergson called the “perpetual becoming” of our reality.
But by grasping for a false totem of photographed, concrete reality, we deprive our mind of its capacity to cull what we lest forget. Old, tagged photos on Facebook, nudes sent to an ex – they deprive us of the potential to engage with our present more heartily, outside the constraints of the past, for which we defer to photographs as “objective” proxies. Only through forgetting can we become passive to the fluid movement of reality and imagine – because imagination is all we have – the truth of our present moment.
Gift-wrapping experience as unchanging truth disrupts the natural current of wet time, committing us to a collective hallucination taken as “fact.” Nothing is true; Everything is only ever permitted.
This is to say that the end of forgetting has not been without further fatality as well. The development of photography, too, has set forth the end of remembering: of ourselves, and of the world as it was in its chaotic, unintelligible reality. People are more believing of information as factual if it’s accompanied by photos, and so we’ve grown rely on photos as organized information, which we pre-suppose as knowledge, despite the fact that order is but a thin, insubstantial condition we try to cloak over the essential disorder of reality. We defer to photographs as memories, despite our memories of photographs being much poorer than our memories of lived events. How are we to compress the texture of our irreducible lives into the static, pattern-less configurations of a photo? “Actual space,” said Donald Judd, “is intrinsically more powerful than a flat surface.” Can you imagine inhaling a flat photograph and asking for actual air?
We do this often in our expectation that photography capture dimensions beyond its bounds, to sequester us from time’s wet flow by constructing a temporal destiny undefined by death. Maybe you took photos kissing your ex, knowing full well that, by virtue of life’s velocity, that moment could never last forever. And still you tried, and still you smiled through the failure to technologically repeat what you could never repeat existentially. In photo-capture, we hold ourselves apart from the presence of a moment, looking for an emotional payoff as imaginary as a world without change.
We know that photographs cannot preserve an eternal presence, yet this is how we feel. For us to subjectively take a moment from time’s wet flow, the target of our action must be reduced to an object; in doing so, we must objectify ourselves, too.
Take this quote from Sontag and run: “As a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder.”
Thomas Höpker, View from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Manhattan, 9/11, 2001. © Thomas Höpker/Magnum Photos
Sure, the analogy is theatrical, but isn’t that the essence of photography: drama? In the theater of image capture, the very grammar of the act is clear, the photographer (subject) capturing (verb) the actor (object). By definition, the actor is always acting. When they look at you, you become what they expect, objectified by their gaze. Whenever my mother asks me to smile my “nice, pleasant smile,” I tend, somewhat automatically, to look vaguely constipated. Erving Goffman, the father of sociological dramaturgy, once said: “choose your self-presentations carefully, for what starts out as a mask may become your face.” Under the anxiety of expectation, actors (objects) always collapse into mediated misrepresentations that then become maps of truth.
My friend once said: “I’m homesick for a world mapped in nine pictures and deluded enough to think it’s the whole galaxy.” Gift-wrapping subjective experience as an unchanging truth disrupts the natural current of wet time, committing us, in turn, to a collective hallucination taken as “fact.” It is true: Nothing is true. Everything is only ever permitted.
This is the beauty and the curse of photography: The distortion wrought by its structural unreliability and the mutability of its object distances images from their reality – a kinetic dysphoria.
coming to terms with the transience of our beings means looking, with excitement, beyond the ambition of documentation, and to the pure reality of being absent, unknown, and ultimately forgotten.
The only real service we can do for our reality and our aura, then, is so contrary to our popular conception of success, celebrity, longevity, and the higher ambition to transcend the mortality that has dogged us since our conception, that it may seem disrespectful to say that coming to terms with the transience of our beings means looking, with excitement, beyond the ambition of documentation, and to the pure reality of being absent, unknown, and ultimately forgotten. Because whether or not we are remembered by one or two people past our expirations, we will always be remembered, transcendent of the static, pattern-less configurations we confine ourselves to, in the far-reaching dimples of time’s spatial history, as it richly arranges itself from moments to millennia for the observation of no-one at all.
In a striking passage in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), a marriage hits its critical point when the protagonist’s wife, desperate and insecure, pleads for her husband to paint her portrait.
“There might be room for me?” she says, begging.
“You? To paint you?” he rebuffs, returning to work on a forgery instead.
“But you’re here…” he continues, as she turns away. “You’re so much here.”
I took no photo of the text to show you later. I sat in silence and I wished you’d just be here with me, too.
Martin Parr’s exhibition “sports & spectatorship” is on view at Rocket Gallery, London until 29 February 2024.