Framing the past: photography and memory in housekeeping and the invention of solitude

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Author: Laura Barrett
Date: Winter 2009
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 74, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,928 words

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In his search for the essence of photography in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discovers that a photograph's force inheres in its insistence on an object's or an event's pastness. One cannot deny that "the thing has been there" (76). This sense of an irretrievable past is only heightened by the multiplicity of images made possible by the medium's technology: "What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially" (4). Endless repetition only reminds us that the particular moment enshrined is itself unreproducible; thus, every photograph heralds a "return of the dead" (9). This resurrection of the past is what leads Susan Sontag to define a photograph as "both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence" (16), but for Sontag the camera's capacity for effacement triumphs over its ability to retrieve:

Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder--a soft murder [...]. All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt. (14-15)

Beyond Barthes's and Sontag's emotional responses to photographs, history affirms the connection between photography and death. Corpses were among the most frequent subjects of daguerreotypes in the nineteenth century. Funerary portraits, most often depicting infants posed as if sleeping, abounded, and landscapes of dead soldiers served an important ideological function for the Union during the Civil War. Moreover, exposure difficulties attending the earliest photographs required death-like stillness. Elaborate restraining devices were employed because long exposures made the daguerreotypes extremely sensitive to movement and the "resultant image was not just blurred but ghostly--as if the person were dematerializing before one's very eyes" (Davidson 678). Adults wore head braces, and children were either tied up or photographed while sleeping, which mimicked the effect of memorial photographs. Hence, as Davidson remarks, "every photograph is, ineluctably, a photograph of the dead [...]. No chance of talking back, every photograph snuffs" (672). Photographs were taken in the ominously named "operating rooms" of large facilities or the cramped carriages--or "photographic ambulances" according to Oliver Wendell Holmes--of itinerant professionals (Robinson 1980, 24). Cementing the medium's affiliation with death, and more pointedly suicide, was its toxic chemistry, notably potassium cyanide. Indeed, after his wife, Marian, an amateur photographer, killed herself by drinking from the bottle of potassium cyanide that she used in her work, Henry Adams referred to his increasing antipathy to the medium as "photophobia."

Not surprisingly, then, in Part Two of his essay, Barthes turns to photographs, with their inherent allegiance to death, to resurrect his dead mother. The only photograph that offers Barthes any solace, however, is one taken when his mother was a young girl, in no way reflecting the woman that he knew Moreover, Barthes chooses not to reproduce the Winter Garden photograph, engendering a discussion of the absent image that renders photography less a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A301283672