Camera Obscura

October 19, 2008

written by Kathleen Kelley

This essay was originally published in Paper & Carriage no. 1

$18 Green Lantern Press & ThreeWalls

posted by Caroline Picard

C A M E R A   O B S C U R A

It cannot be discovered from the picture alone whether it is true or false.
—Wittgenstein

And then, said Austerlitz, Vera told me how in autumn we would often stand by the upper enclosure wall of the Schönborn Garden to watch the squirrels burying their treasures.  Whenever we came home afterwards, I had to read aloud from your favorite book about the changing seasons, said Vera, even though you knew it by heart from the first line to the last, and she added that I never tired of the winter pictures in particular, scenes showing hares, deer, and partridges transfixed by astonishment as they stared at the ground covered with newly fallen snow, and Vera said that every time we reached the page which described the snow falling through the branches of the trees, soon to shroud the entire forest floor, I would look up at her and ask: But if it’s all white, how do the squirrels know where they’ve buried their hoard? […] Those were your very words, the question which constantly troubled you.  How indeed do the squirrels know, what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?
—W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

This essay does not begin with a photograph of my mother.

To note this, I know, is to transform you from someone who did not expect to see my mother to someone who is wondering why she does not appear.  Let me explain; let me offer an apology for your new-founded and already disappointed expectations.  In the course of working on this essay I have become suspicious of images in general—suspicious of anything, in whatever medium, that reaches beyond itself—and suspicious, in particular, of photographs of mothers.  This suspicion is not of the existence of images but of their powers to convey what they intend or promise: a metaphor may fail to move you across its gap to my meaning, or it may carry you far beyond what I intended; a photograph may capture a past moment for strange and future eyes to see, but it is incapable of holding in itself all that might be seen in it.  It is easy enough to make you curious about my withheld photograph: the trick of an opening sentence, a few flickings of my pencil.  What I cannot do—and this is why I keep it hidden—is show you what I experience when I am looking at my mother’s photograph.  Do I lack the talent?  Yes—but only as I lack the ability to walk through walls.  I don’t do it, for it can’t be done.

A man named Rinzai once said, “When you meet a master swordsman, show him your sword; when you meet a man who is not a poet, do not show him your poem.”  You probably already know this saying.  Well, when I was young and callow, when I bought old photographs at antique stores in order to reinvent their images to my own devising purposes, I took it to be about the proud exclusivity of mastery: not everyone can understand your hard-won excellence, and thus you hold it close, revealing your expertise only to those who can recognize it.  Now, though, I read it differently: I find in it the loneliness of carrying something whose significance cannot easily be conveyed, the possession of which locks you in a solitude that would take an extraordinary meeting to transcend.  Now mastery over swords or words is—arguably—teachable, but memory is our great and untranslatable burden, borne in each of us as an unconveyable, irreplaceable excellence.  Who would you meet that could take it up for you, who could even see what you bear behind you?

That I notice and note all this is due to my subject matter: Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz.  In both books a son goes seeking a photograph of his dead mother, looking for an image that will be sufficient to his need, but by the end their common roads have diverged.  Barthes, who remembers his mother well and seeks an image to anchor his teeming memories, finds the photograph he sought—the winter garden photograph, an old photograph of his mother as a child, before he knew her.  He stubbornly refuses to show us this photograph.  Jacques Austerlitz, Sebald’s protagonist, seems to have much simpler demands: he cannot remember his mother Agáta at all, and he seeks merely to find any image of her—a photograph, not the photograph that Barthes demands.  Practically, his quest is more difficult than Barthes’s, for he goes on it some fifty years after the war that not only scattered him and his memories but destroyed a good deal of the evidence that might have restored his lost past.  In principle, however, his task seems easy enough, for he requires no more of the photograph than that it be of Agáta, whereas Barthes sought one that would be able to hold all his memory’s teeming predicates in one single stilled subject.  And Austerlitz, too—after much searching and a few lucky coincidences—finds the image he sought; and he, unlike Barthes, is not chary with his precious photograph.  He shows it to people who have never met his mother; he gives it away to the narrator, who reproduces it for anyone willing to pick up Austerlitz and turn to page 253.   Why is Austerlitz not as cagey as Barthes?  Because, after all, his need was greater than he knew: he wanted not only to find Agáta but to find within himself a reverberating memory of her as she was, as he knew her.  Thus what he does find is that the photograph he thought he was after cannot in fact hold what he was seeking, that it cannot restore what cannot be recalled.  His photograph thus reveals the limit of photography’s ability to preserve the past, and what we see in it is not Austerlitz’s mother but the way the photograph fails to return her to him.

A cursory glance may take each to be the other’s negative: Barthes’s bright winter garden is a pinhole of absence at the center of a dark tangle of meaning and memory; Austerlitz’s image  is a single point of reference at the center of his white white expanse of forgetting.  So far they align, crisp and clean—but keep looking.  They are not photo-negatives but something more intricate.  Austerlitz’s is a negative in which all the shades of Barthes’s meaning are lost; worse, if you look too long all that vast whiteness begins to leach the definition right out of Barthes’s print.  Forgetting makes everything look like itself.  When this essay lists to Barthes’s remembering side, know that this nimbus of obliteration on the horizon is the reason why.

If you have read Camera Lucida well, or recently, you may think me dishonest, a careless reader willing to induce a spurious parallelism for the sake of a tidy introduction.  Barthes, after all, went on no quest.  He found his significant photograph, the one he protects from our transforming gaze, while leafing through a pile of old photographs one winter evening.  There was not even a brief, compacted quest, as the sudden plunge deep into memory when a word goes missing in the middle of writing or speaking; there was no active seeking at all.  “I was going through some photographs,” Barthes tells us.
I had no hope of “finding” her, I expected nothing from these “photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by merely thinking of him or her.”
Yet four pages later he contradicts this, and describes himself as having been “looking for the truth of the face I had loved” when he comes across the winter garden photograph, a very old photograph of his mother as a little girl that somehow “collected all the possible predicates from which my mother’s being was constituted” in a single fading image (CL 67, 70).  Which Barthes do we believe?  The hopeful one, or the mournful one who salts his grief with the images that can only remind him of his mother without returning her to him?

Believe both.  Hope and despair are not mutually exclusive but two glosses on the same problem: finding outside what we cannot help feeling belongs within, a piece of essence inexplicably beyond us, its lack felt acutely.  They differ only in how they read their chances: hope thinks the long shot will pull through; despair insists that even the favorite may stumble.  To sustain both points of view is to maintain a healthy relationship to contingency, to be able to expect without falling into foolishness or pessimism.  (Or we could say that both views are pure folly, but tied together they run a good lurching race.)  This is the general story, coarse-grained; at a higher resolution we can pick out how Barthes’ looking without any hope of finding developed into the winter garden photograph as his desideratum.  More than that: if you take it slow, if I can keep it reined in, we can see doubt become satisfaction without leaving itself behind, as if we left the aperture open and by grace of language watched the light develop right on the plate, no darkroom required.  Call it “Long Exposure with Commentary.”

“It often alarms Father—He says Death might occur, and he has
Molds of all the rest—but has no Mold of me.”
—Emily Dickinson

The photograph is not an ideal place to go seeking lost loved ones.  The image held in memory has more quickness than the photographic one, and the photograph excels not in returning time past but simply in testifying that this moment once was, that all visible light once gathered thus.  Beyond this the photograph reveals the depth of experience and self as papery, as creased and collapsible; it thus tends to affirm loss rather than restore what’s gone.

Why?  Well, for one, the individual tends to disappear, folded up into the stiff flat pose of the photograph, all possibilities of action and expression now preempted by this too-solid actuality:

“myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed; like a bottle-imp, “myself” doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar… (CL 12)
Also, the photograph may fail to show anything more than the bare fact of a moment’s having existed.  A single image in memory shows its roots in what came before and after; its ‘now’ is mediated and cannot be forced cleanly into itself.  Even if before and after are forgotten, the memory of a moment still suggests them, and places itself in a continuity that may not be entirely available to conscious recollection but is nevertheless presumed by it and present without declaring itself completely.  This forgetting-as-presence holds its memories like an aspic: transparent, sustaining, and coextensive. The photographic image, on the other hand, may be lifted cleanly out of time, with no trailing roots at all—a ‘now’ become visible, immediate.  The shutter razors it away from before and after; it subsists out of time as the memory image does not.  It guarantees nothing but the moment, and if the before and after are patched back around it they are restored by the spectator’s memory and cannot be said to be contained in the photograph itself.

These problems are, of course, complementary: because I disappear, the photograph may give evidence of existence and nothing more; because a photograph contains only a moment, all my depth may disappear from it, leaving only a frozen mask.  Which is to say, from another angle, that death is always present in the photograph.   It can be found there even before the photograph is developed, for at the moment the shutter snaps, multiplicity and movement disappear:  “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis)” (CL 14).  The photograph, whatever its specific referent, is an image of this becoming still—the subject become object, his movement enclosed and completed in the static image.  It is a brief enclosure, and it is, furthermore, a false capture: life overflows the photograph’s fragile parenthesis.

But the photograph is also an image in an older sense, and however much its living subject may trample the appearing stillness it cannot reach the spectre that the photograph has called forth by its pausing: the reminder, memento mori, that though time does not stop, we do.  This the photograph captures perfectly, however life may elude it.  The little sensation of the future perfect that marks the posing subject—that transformation in which the self posits itself as the image it will become and does so with the knowledge that it will be caught in that image, seeing itself even in the midst of activity as a being that “will have been”—this is the native tense of the photograph.  It is induced in both subject and observer, and subsists on multiple planes of time; the parentheticals repeat and echo with the photographic image as motif and souvenir: This moment will have been, this day will have, this gesture, this life, this time will have been.  The overridden parenthesis of the photograph’s moment becomes the ironclad future perfect: this will-have-been stands in for all passing time, and marks every moment with time’s inexorable passing.  Parentheticals multiply, the equation becomes more complicated than it first appeared.  The closing parenthesis, the little death of the pose that the photograph captures, renders visible all the ones that still stand open around it—but we must be careful to get this emphasis correct.  It is not that the photograph’s false pause gestures towards life’s motion overcoming the stillness of the captured image, transferring emphasis to all these unclosed parentheticals in which living goes on despite the photograph’s tableau.  It is, rather, that the one closing reveals all the ones still standing open as being in essence only yet to close, not essentially ongoing.  It shows all being as marked for ending, as will-have-been at its very heart.  Thus the photograph supersedes the life that originally surpassed it: the captured moment, which might have been taken for a foothold against time, a way to keep the past blindingly undiminished, reveals itself instead as the visible reminder of the impossibility of such a digging-in.

There is a superposition here: of reality and of the past.
—Camera Lucida, p.76

Two questions here, then: one, how can the photograph come to stand for the impossibility of the preservation that seemed its signal accomplishment; two, how does Barthes manage to find his just image despite the overwhelming odds against such a resurrection?

The first comes about through two double exposures, and in each it can be tricky to see both images, for the second is the absence of the first, hiding behind its own presence in the first capture.  One must look askance and elsewhere to see that what’s there is not there—the absence of what’s present.  Try it through the prism of these questions: Where and when is the subject of the photograph?

Now on the one hand the photograph is ineluctably of its subject.  Narrow it down: it is not of any other subject, and it is not without this subject—“In short, the referent adheres.” (CL 6)  The photograph is nothing but, nothing without, the original that it carries with it.  Its existence indicates its subject as surely as a shadow reveals the presence of a solid object casting it, and more specifically to boot: not an object, not any object, but this one and none other.

And yet it is equally not this subject, either—for however just and unmistakable the image may be it is still, and merely, an image. The photograph points to its own object and nowhere else, but by its very pointing it reveals the object as elsewhere, uncaptured. Nothing is as clearly not contained in the photograph as the photographic subject itself.  (Hence Mr. Dickinson’s worry seems unfounded, Emily’s ‘Mold’ is a telling word: a photograph marks, and unerringly, the contours of what has broken free of its rigidity, and by its steadfast existence can be seen quite clearly as not holding what he would seek in it: the changing face of his daughter.  Yet one sympathizes: where else, save in her very self, could he expect to find her?)

Something very similar happens with the ‘when’ of the photograph.  It is of no other moment than the one it captures, and yet it does not contain the only time to which it refers. By lasting beyond the moment its continuing existence preserves, the photograph equally attests that this very moment is no more except in the reduced form of the photograph, which testifies without any promise of restoration.
And then, in defiance of all this too-definite absence, Barthes’s mother comes seven-leagueing up out of the past.

But by what impossible path?  One constructed, in part, of the very problems that seemed to prevent its existence: the pointed insufficiency of the photograph, and Barthes’s melancholy persistence, “struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false” (CL 66).  What is melancholy?  It is a kind of dallying with an object already lost, a way of refusing to acknowledge loss that by its stubbornness already reveals an incipient and painful awareness of lack.  It is Barthes on a winter night in his mother’s apartment, shuffling through old photographs and proving over and over again that what’s lost is not found again.  Each new partial image makes the absence more acute, adds to his certainty that the search in which he nevertheless persists is futile, yet the partial presence is also tantalizing, promising that what each image doesn’t hold is yet only just beyond it.  Hope and despair are both fueled by the images, the repeating ‘almost’ a common possession in which they fuse and feed each other.

But when is melancholy not melancholic?  When against all odds and his own presuppositions the melancholic finds his object again.  And in fact melancholy may be unsurpassed in setting up the conditions to appreciate its own overturning.  It remains attuned to its missing object as the more reasonable mourning does not, and out of its slightly opaque self-awareness  it is able to take full measure of its own lack, surveying it with despair’s cold clarity.  At the same time it imagines finding its object everywhere, seeking it with all the energy of hope but with that borrowed despairing accuracy, so that for all its eagerness it makes no mistakes, does not convince itself it has regained its object in some photograph or memory that still falls short.  The photograph, with its precise inadequacy, is the melancholic’s apt familiar, the sharpening steel to his already well-honed loss.

However, all this is preparation with no guarantee—adornment for grace that may easily, more easily, not arrive.  Events may prove the melancholic a fool, for the return he awaits depends not on his preparation but on chance.  And by all rights Barthes ought not to find her: photographs are not cut out to satisfy his need; the smart money is elsewhere.  His despair seems well-grounded, his hope in excess—and yet, somehow, there is this winter garden photograph.  The long shot that wins against all odds.

There are two ways of tracing how this photograph could come to be an adequate image.  The one marvels like a new-struck lover at all the fine threads of contingency woven into this unlikely convergence.  Barthes might as easily have set the photograph aside; late in his mother’s life, he might not have nursed her through a long illness so that “she had become [his] little girl, uniting for [him] with that essential child she was in her first photograph”; the photographer might have pressed the shutter a moment sooner or later and so captured an image that failed to satisfy (CL, 72).  So many moments might have gone wrong or otherwise; it is a marvelous thing that events brought Barthes to the photograph he needed.

Such an outcome is far from certain, and there are two sources of its uncertainty.  The first is the necessary gathering of the events that make this encounter possible, as partially represented in the list above: a path of contingency that might have veered at any moment and never made it home.  The other—which brings us towards the alternate way of looking at Barthes’s encounter with the winter garden photograph—has to do with the nature of memory’s adequate objects: they lurk, always, in unexpected places.  This can be quite pleasant for the casual daydreamer: for one who doesn’t require contingency’s blessing, all coincidence is an excess that gilds the mundane—or rather finds the ore within it.  But the situation is often otherwise for one who needs convergence, who actively seeks this unfixable blessing.  There is no way of forcing the necessary object to appear; worse, there is no proper procedure for approaching it even as a supplicant, for until it declares its own presence one has no way of knowing where it will be.  Seeking it in one corner you risk missing its manifestation in another.  (Austerlitz, of course, feels this problem acutely.)

The ideal attitude ignores these limitations and approaches chance like a genteel gambler, expecting to win and indifferent to either gain or loss.  But it is hard to mix the elements right, hard to mean it.  With cards you can fake this attitude, but bluffing doesn’t cut it when there’s no game between you and chance.  Here it is required not as a bluff but as a way of waiting at the ready, poised to recognize the unanticipated as exactly what has been awaited.  Neither too sharp nor too vague; a mean that only proves itself hit when it succeeds, with no way of dowsing it before then.
All of which boiled down says: try to be lucky, if you’re in need of luck.  Sage advice, but hard to follow.

Yet there is still a lesson here, one that can be learned with more clarity.  Significant objects may declare themselves by their own inscrutable and gathering logic, but once they have done so we can seize hold, shake them, and find out what they know.  Thus though there’s no predicting or guaranteeing the arrival of a winter garden photograph, after it arrives we can turn it over and over to see why it was sufficient, how it could succeed when photographs by their nature are groomed for failure.  This is the second way of tracing the photograph’s adequacy, and the first is incomplete without it, for the truth is that every photograph Barthes examined was present by just such a series of could-easily-have-been otherwise moments.  We notice and appreciate the unlikeliness of the winter garden photograph because it has greater significance, not because it has overcome any especially adverse circumstances in order to appear.  The other half of the story is the why of it: why this photograph and none other, howsoever it may have chanced across Barthes’s path?

The beginning of its success is in a circumstance I have already mentioned: Barthes came to see his mother as a child in caring for her before her death, so he is able to find her in her child self, as he might not have been had she always seemed older than him.  This much is probably necessary; otherwise the winter garden photograph would be too far removed from memory and might well remain flat, inarguably her image but beyond Barthes’s ability to breathe life into it by his own affirmation.  Yet the difference between the mother he knew (even as childlike) and the girl in the photograph is equally necessary; it is this slippage that makes the winter garden photograph sufficient where the photographs that overlapped with Barthes’s own memories were not.  The photograph, although it is in one sense an image of Barthes’s mother, is for him not an image of her as the other ones are, and achieves its representative quality on another level.  It does not pretend to be her as she was for him—as the more contemporary photographs cannot help doing—for it stands beyond Barthes’s memory and therefore beyond the measured realm of the photograph’s inadequacy.  By not recalling any specific time or memory, it can remind him of presence without reminding him of its loss, for no richer memory of her ‘as she was then’ can intercede to turn recollection into disappointment. Whether or not Barthes is right in saying that photography in general “aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign,” this photograph has risen to that more abstract status (CL 6).

Or rather, for Barthes it has achieved that height.  For us, even if we believe Barthes, it is the idea of the winter garden photograph that has been elevated, not the image itself.  Which brings one more question for Barthes, the final question, the one that leads back to poor Austerlitz still waiting in the wings: why doesn’t he show us the photograph?  Here is his account, given in Camera Lucida as a parenthetical:

I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph.  It exists only for me.  For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.  (CL 73)
Nothing untrue here, but as it stands it is not enough to justify the omission.  Barthes has been reproducing pictures all book long without the slightest compunction about whether or not they will prick us as they did him: intransitivity alone is not enough to anchor his objections against reproducing this particular photograph.

But note what the winter garden photograph makes acute: when the photograph moves us, this event is an excess that requires our presence.  Or, to say it from the other side, the photograph rises out of its flat testimonial by our being able to see more in it than the snap-shot vanishing moment that is its overt content.  This is part of what Barthes means when he says “it is not indifference which erases the weight of the image—the Photomat always turns you into a criminal type, wanted by the police—but love, extreme love.” (CL 12)  Photographs carry more in them than the pure re-presentation of appearance, but they carry it only for those that have eyes to see.  In photographs that are more distant from us, our role in returning them to time and dimensionality may go unnoticed; it is easy to think of, say, Kertész’s “The Puppy”   as ‘a moving photograph’ rather than the more accurate and correspondingly less objective ‘a photograph that moves me’.  In the winter garden photograph, though, the more accurate description is hard to avoid, for the excess of its image is contained only in Barthes’s memories of his mother.  For any other spectator—except, possibly, Barthes’s brother, though this is far from guaranteed—the image would not contain anything beyond what can be read in it by the most casual observer: a little girl and a little boy in old-fashioned clothes in an indoor garden. The power of the image seems almost entirely within him, the status of the photograph created only by the memories that cluster around it—a center of gravity to his memory.  As such the winter garden photograph is guaranteed not to move us, since it cannot show what it contains, whereas the other (reproduced) photographs are only beyond such a guarantee, either positive or negative.  Reason enough not to show it—but this half of Barthes’s argument having come clear puts extreme pressure on the other side: what objective status could his refusal to reproduce the photograph possibly preserve, when half his reason for hiding it is the entirely subjective nature of its force?
But leave him in this seeming paradox a while, for resolving it involves a digression into the peculiar nature of the photograph—or not so much a digression as a doubling back to a claim made in passing some pages ago: that the photograph is an image in an older sense as well as being a visual image, a representation of its subject.  Thus it may suggest more than it contains, as we have already seen: the photograph overshoots its own actuality to suggest itself as memento mori, as the appearing presence of its referent’s absence, as the gravitational center of a lifetime’s memories.  This much, I think, is not too controversial; discussion of eidos and eidolon may fall in and out of fashion, and responsibility for this excess may be shifted further onto the subject or the discourse, the photograph being merely the occasion for its appearance rather than bearing it within its plane.  Nevertheless there is what is visible in the photograph and then there is everything else that we see and read into it—the second image in the photograph, the light it casts beyond itself to develop anew.  Eidolon is one word for this kind of pointing beyond; simulacrum is another, shadow a third; but despite all these readily available terms I have been thinking of it as the photograph’s image-character.

This is in part to distinguish it from the photographic image (the one that develops in the darkroom even if we are not looking) while not allowing them to pretend to be entirely indifferent to each other: the photographic image is by having an image-character, by being a version that both is and is not what it represents; the image-character of the photograph is in part given to it by the particular photographic image within it, and if the photographic image were of something else, the image-character of the photograph would change accordingly.  But it would not necessarily change entirely, and this is the force of my emphasis on the only partial determination of the photograph’s image-character by the photographic image it contains, as well as my second reason for preferring ‘image-character’ to more euphonious and time-hallowed formulations: image-character tends to overrun whatever called it forth, bringing forward unexpected associations (as the reminder of death in all the photographs that were meant to be preservation against it); the very clunkiness of ‘image-character’ is no slight guarantee against it having too much image-character of its own.  (This runaway quality is also why I am spending so much time talking about Barthes’ memorious success when all I have been thinking about is Austerlitz’s failure in his corresponding quest.  When one dallies too long with Austerlitz’s failure to find a sufficient image it begins to echo, gaining significance and reaching beyond itself.  Its image-character—gained from the surrounding narrative and not from the photographic image itself, which is nearly indifferent in its particular content and almost entirely severed from its image-character—makes forgetting fall like snow over memory’s small and true monuments, and by its benign but growing silence Agáta’s photograph indifferently (and therefore terribly) sets everything but itself towards disappearing.  Small wonder if against all this winter I should try to stay as long as possible by Barthes’ tiny hearth of success.)

But not only is this not controversial, it is not even peculiar to the photograph.  All sorts of objects have this doubled, overlapping structure, and exist by being a combination of what they are and what they suggest.  My desk is a functional piece of furniture, but for me also an image of the friend who built it; the Ladies’ Waiting Room, in which Austerlitz’s memories begin trickling through the dam that has held them back all these years, is both a room and the significant object that occasions the return of the forgotten, seeming to have harbored lost time during all the years that have elapsed between Austerlitz’s first visit to it and this subsequent one.  (Not to mention what it is for the reader, for whom it may represent the spatial dimension of memory, or, considering how Austerlitz stumbles upon its memorious structure by chance, how “[w]e take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious,” or, since the new station is being built within the old one, of Freud’s metaphor for the psyche as a city built atop and among its own ruins (A, 204).  Though with the reader in the picture the account gets more complicated: what is the objective status of the Liverpool Street Station we read about, which is both different and not different from the one in which Austerlitz stands remembering?)  Again, the source of such extended meaning is debatable, but its presence is not; glancing around my room as I write this, I cannot find a single object that does not carry much more than itself with it.  Which is what makes this next claim one that requires some defending: the photograph, unlike every other kind of object, may come unstuck from its image-character and be itself alone.

This is a bold thing to say—too bold, in fact.  But though I am going to take some of it back, I wanted to leave the high-water mark of its audacity.  Now of course it is an exaggeration to say that the photograph remains within itself and refuses to suggest anything beyond its pure appearance—as if one could find a fully transparent image, free of the 3×5 inch cage that ties it to an ordinary objecthood, projected on the pure aether with no flip side, no before or after.  Nothing escapes having some image-character; nothing that registers for us is really just a lump of objective self-containment, a thing-in-itself keeping it to itself.  Even the pure reproducable image, the one that can begin again in time through reprinting and thus lose the quality of being cotemporal with all the time that has passed since its development, even this has ties beyond itself, suggests a time period, a storm gathering or burning off, a time of day—a life, however unknown.  But try it from another angle.  The photograph whose significance we are unable to read remains silent as other objects out of the past do not, as though the accuracy of its evidence hobbled its mnemonic reach.

To see this, think about one of Austerlitz’s small successes.  Following up on a mention by Vera (his former babysitter and Agáta’s best friend, whom he finds still living in the same apartment she lived in before the war) of their long-ago visit to see Agáta in a dress rehearsal, he goes to the Estates Theater, “where Agáta made her début in Prague in the autumn of 1938 in the role of Olympia” (A, 160).   He spends some time sitting there trying to make some vision of her appear: “before me the proscenium arch of the stage on which Agáta had once stood was like a blind eye.  And the harder I tried to conjure up at least some faint recollection of her appearance, the more the theater seemed to be shrinking…” (A, 160–61)  This would be but more evidence of the impossibility of forcing a significant moment—except that then someone, unseen, passes behind the curtain and sets it rippling.  The motion sets the shadows moving: the orchestra pit fills with musicians and the air with music, and Austerlitz sees, beneath the curtain, “a sky-blue shoe embroidered with silver sequins.” (A, 161)  Later that day, he asks Vera about the shoe, and she tells him that Agáta had worn such shoes when she played Olympia.

Austerlitz often fails to regain his past as he lived it: he sees himself as a little boy in Liverpool Street Station with a rucksack on his knees, rather than remembering the station from his five-year-old point of view; he sees himself as his mother’s attendant page at a costume party, “the live tableau with the Rose Queen and the little boy carrying her train at her side,” but cannot regain his position in the tableau itself (A 183–4).  Here, though, he has a rare success, and regains a moment of his memory, dreaming it from the inside: he recalls, without prompting, his distress as he waited up for his mother, who has become strange and distant, a part of the role he witnessed her playing, and how he lay awake waiting for her to return and affirm herself as she had always been.
Now imagine that Austerlitz had found that shoe in another form: instead of remembering the orchestra and the shoe protruding beneath the curtain, what if he had found a photograph of the same scene, tucked away in the theater archive?  No matter that he hasn’t hauled it up out of his own memory, for he has Vera to confirm his presence at the scene it shows—but even so the photograph is, despite its clarity and inarguable testimony, a shadow of what memory can hold.  One cannot imagine Austerlitz having his memory of waiting up for Agáta after finding merely a photograph, for unlike memory—or buildings, or shoes—the photograph does not seem to hold elapsed time, or have ties to its passing.  Because of its very precision, its moment’s evidence, the photograph makes any dreaming beyond it seem unreal, a lie in the face of its captured truth.  It is in fact the photograph’s precision that makes it insufficient to return depth to the past: it is laced too tightly into its sliver of a moment.  Buildings, people, shoes, memory, a carmine-red complete edition of Balzac—all these seem to hold the past they have witnessed, and while it may be difficult or even impossible to extract it from them, it is not hard to feel its presence.  The photograph, unless it awakens memory and leaves itself behind, is silent because it does not know what came before or after, and the presence of anything more is excised by the smooth sheer edges of the captured moment—unlike memory, whose ragged edges disappear into an unremembered but palpable before and after.  The photograph without memory still has an image-character, but what it calls forth beyond itself is the total absence of anything beyond what it itself contains.

This, after all, is why Austerlitz can reproduce his hard-won photograph of Agáta, why he does not share Barthes’ fear of its particularity failing to move us.  Agáta’s image, since it does not evoke any memory in Austerlitz, has an entirely reliable and universal image-character, one that—again—has almost nothing to do with the photographic image itself; it stands not for her being but for the irretrievable loss of it.  Agáta’s photograph has a unique and specific image-character for Vera alone, and once Vera is gone all the answers it could have held will fall silent.  The photograph cannot restore what we do not already have lying dormant within, and it is this disconnect that Agáta’s photograph comes to represent.  It thus stands for the eventual triumph of forgetting over all candled things: photographs do not hold what we wish they would; memory often fails, and even when it succeeds its depths cannot be preserved or transferred.

We are mortal, balanced on a day, now and then
it makes sense to say Save what you can.
—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

Which brings us back to Barthes and his hidden photograph, returning with a new question: is there a difference between Austerlitz’s Agáta and Barthes’ winter garden photograph?  To the spectator, no difference at all—each is an instance of a private, unsharable significance, a representation that does not have in itself the power to call back what is represented.  Yet Barthes does not allow this parallelism, for he does not allow any spectators to see his photo.  He thus preserves his photograph from contact with such detached significance, keeping its particularity sheltered from the bleaching indifference of forgetting’s universality, from the blank stare of the unmoved spectator, .  There is a difference, after all, between Austerlitz and Barthes, and that difference is not nothing: for a moment, for a year or two, Barthes’s mother is not completely lost so long as he remembers her, and nothing Austerlitz or anyone else has forgotten can change that fact.  “Not lost yet,” whispers the wind around this sheltering caesura, “not lost completely, yet lost”; but Barthes, protective and defiant, retorts “No, not yet! Not completely!” and turns back to his significant image and his memories.  Thus his photograph is, for a little while in time and a little longer through his writing of it, the negative of Austerlitz’s after all, and in its absence stands for all presence, reminding us that to be no longer is never the same as not having been, that forgetting may avalanche over the past but does not for all that undo it completely.

This is the fragile objective status that Barthes shelters with his hidden photograph, saving what he can.


Kathleen Kelley lives in Brooklyn and studies at the New School for Social Research. She would like to gratefully acknowledge Graeme Gilloch’s lecture on Orhan Pamuk, Austerlitz, and Camera Lucida, given at the New School in March 2007, as the original spark of this essay.