The question in the main discussion forum this week was what Roland Barthes may have meant when he said in Camera Lucida: ‘In the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’ (Barthes 1980: 89) – and how this might affect both my own practice and that of others.
I think Roland Barthes may be saying that the evidential force of a photograph is often taken to be greater than whatever it depicts. Thus the fact of being shown a photograph of himself at an event he had forgotten all about is more forceful than the fact that he was there: ‘And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where)’ (Barthes 2000: 85). But, crucially, Barthes qualifies this by saying that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not in fact about the object depicted but about time (Barthes 2000: 89).
We can and do make common-sense assumptions about photographs being directly representational, but even so the reality-appearance debate is on very shaky ground. It has been demonstrated that false memories can be implanted in people by showing them doctored photographs of them doing things they have never in fact done (Wade 2002). And the apparent ‘reality’ of a photograph might be a simulacrum: how real is Disneyland? Perhaps reality is only a shifting mental construction. Probably we should bear in mind that an ambiguous experience can become solidified into certainty when our belief system kicks in. We believe what we want to believe.
So when we look at a photograph perhaps we first check whether it conforms to our sense of reality. If it does we may think the image shows something real, authentic, even if it actually doesn’t (like the venerable Loch Ness hoax). And if the image doesn’t conform to our sense of reality we may say that it is fictional. It doesn’t ‘authenticate’ our ideas about either reality or ourselves – like the fantastically brilliant ‘centaur’ image by Joel-Peter Witkin in Figure 1.
However, a child would probably think quite differently about the centaur image and why should their reaction be invalid? Magical realism is central to myths and human creativity of every kind.
This leads on to Roger Scruton’s insistence that a photograph is a photograph because it is involved in a causal chain of direct representation that can only be broken at the price of the image no longer being a photograph at all: ‘The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance’ (Scruton 1981: 594-5). Scruton maintains this is what painters do but his argument privileges figurative art above all else. I presume Scruton would have said that Joel-Peter Witkin’s work was really a painting pretending to be a photograph. But it manifestly is a photograph. Oh well.
It’s been suggested that Barthes may have said that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘evidential force’ of a photograph is not about the object depicted but about time because he could not account for the sheer emotional impact certain photographs had on him. This makes what Barthes says more personal than general, and throws his original statement into doubt, but at least it allows him to present the photograph not as Scruton’s cold objective form but as felt experience. It’s not about theory, and not particularly about representation per se. A photograph is where the what-has-been hits the here-and-now. Maybe our ideas about authenticity arise from that clash.
In this, Barthes and Sontag agree: ‘All photographs are momento mori … all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’ (Sontag 2008: 15).
To be honest I don’t really know where this leaves my practice. One can riff on these ideas all day but they seem completely detached from my daily life. The danger here, apart from insanity by theory, is paralysis by analysis. What I need to do is drop the generic – the photographs anyone else could have taken – and concentrate on the images only I could have taken, good or bad – but at least they may be reasonably authentic in a personal sense and from a consistent point of view.
In this light, here is an image I made over the assessment period. Yes it is a bit forlorn but it’s an authentic assessment of how I was feeling at the time. By that stage, in late December, I had had enough of Christmas.
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. ‘Photography and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 7(3), 577–603 [online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/stable/1343119 [accessed 03 February 2020].
SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.
WADE, Kimberley A., Maryanne GARRY, J. Don READ and D. Stephen LINDSAY. 2002. ‘A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies: Using False Photographs to Create False Childhood Memories’. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9(3), 597–603.
Figure 1. Joel-Peter Witkin. 2007. Night in a Small Town.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2019. A Night in the Suburbs. Collection of the author.