Almost from the moment its invention was made public in 1839, photography embraced death. I immediately think of French artist Hippolyte Bayard who, in 1840, famously made a self-portrait as a drowned man. Nineteenth century commercial photographers quickly discovered there was a business to be had making portraits of the newly deceased – usually posed to look as if they were sleeping. Not surprisingly, the act of leafing through a photograph album or discovering a cache of family photographs is a staple (more often a cliché) of literature.
I recently finished reading Jacques Roubaud’s autobiographical novel The Great Fire of London (originally published in France in 1989), which I wrote about earlier. At one point in the book Roubaud sets out to organize the photographs and other family memorabilia that he finds in a closet:
The essential core of the letters and photographs is in the closet, on the upper shelf, in old cookie tins, or in archaic photo albums where numerous pages are empty, or rather emptied, as in those stamp collections amassed and arranged with infinite patience and then brutally ransacked by their owner’s thoughtlessness or a child’s curiosity. That summer I had attempted to establish a basic chronological classification of the photographs, a task made difficult by the mix-ups, occasionally incongruous, introduced into the albums by the series of house moves and room rearrangements (and by those special migrations of pictures occasioned by a person’s death). Most of all, my difficulty stemmed from that widespread, almost incorrigible and exasperating habit of hoarding photographs because their (intended) purpose extends far beyond their moment (a democratic version of the Horatian aere perennius); this, coupled with the habit of not recording when they have been taken, nor where, nor – far worse – which people are depicted. And yet, after so few years, how murky and uncertain it all becomes, even for the original owner of the album….
I have inherited a double tradition, of silence and bereavement, where the dead, still everywhere present after twenty, thirty, or fifty years, appear only in empty silences, maintaining a violent presence of black holes skirted by speech but thereby made manifest in the movement of a story: blanks in album pages, pictures that look to be perpetually in flames but not completely consumed to the point where their shadow, their odor, have become indiscernible.
In all four of Sebald’s prose fictions – but especially in The Emigrants and Austerlitz – photographs are constant reminders of death. During the story Paul Bereyter in The Emigrants, a book in which photograph albums appear with frequency, Sebald’s narrator is given an album documenting much of Bereyter’s life:
I leafed through the album that afternoon, and since then I have returned to it time and again, because, looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them.
In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel of the CBC, Sebald elaborated on death and photography:
So I was from a very early point on very familiar, much more familiar than people are nowadays, with the dead and the dying. I have always had at the back of my mind this notion that of course these people aren’t really gone, they just hover somewhere at the perimeter of our lives and keep coming in on brief visits. And photographs are for me, as it were, one of the emanations of the dead, especially those older photographs of people no longer with us. Nevertheless, through these pictures, they do have what seems to me some sort of spectral presence. And I’ve always been intrigued by that. It’s got nothing to do with the mystical or the mysterious. It is just a remnant of a much more archaic way of looking at things.
Both Roubaud and Sebald evoke a reverence for family snapshots, but it is curious to look at the nuances. The absence of a photograph signals a death for Roubaud. One presumes the missing photograph has been returned to a grieving relative or destroyed in despair or has perhaps been used in some way relating to an obituary or memorial service. For Sebald, photographs are a portal by which the living and the dead find each other again. But, having started this “dialogue” between Roubaud and Sebald, a sudden inspiration sent me to the bookshelf to look again at Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, another book which equates photography and death:
It is because each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death that each one, however attached it seems to be to the excited world of the living, challenges each of us, one by one…
Here was an opportunity to think for a moment about Barthes’ book anew (a book which has always perplexed me for its narrow reading of photography). Halfway through Camera Lucida, Barthes shifts his discussion from public photographs (journalism, advertisements and the like) to private photographs:
Now, one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of “finding” her, I expected nothing from these “photographs of a being thinking of him or her” (Proust). I had acknowledged that fatality, one of the most agonizing features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up as a totality)….I could not even say that I loved [these photographs]: I was not sitting down to contemplate them, I was not engulfing myself in them. I was sorting them, but none seemed to me really “right”: neither as a photographic performance nor as a living resurrection of the beloved face. If I were ever to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak.
It has always seemed to me that Barthes expected too much from these photographs of his mother. Barthes, who takes an absolutist position here, decides that photography is inadequate to the task of resurrecting his mother’s “being.” Nevertheless, as he looks at photograph after photograph he does admit to “gradually moving back in time with her”: he hears again the sound of the lid of an ivory powder box and he can recall “the rumpled softness of her crêpe de Chine and the perfume of her rice powder.”But then, suddenly, he turns up a photograph that provides “the truth of the face I had loved,” thus redeeming the promise of photography.
The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time…
And so for two pages, in a gesture he compares to Proust, Barthes has an ecstatic reunion with his mother thanks to an ancient, scarcely visible image of her as a small child. As we learn momentarily, this image has triggered memories of his mother’s final months, when Barthes had to feed her from a bowl. “She had become my little girl”. “Ultimately I experienced her…as my feminine child.” This is a very different level of response than Sebald’s encounter with the dead. It’s hard for me to feel that the photograph had much role in Barthes’ response. I would rather say that Barthes has finally found a photograph that he can use for his own emotional purposes.
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”….
What are we to make of these three responses to the humble family photograph? Let’s look from a different perspective, that of loss. Roubaud has lost his wife, who he loved wildly; and the nineteen-year effort to write The Great Fire of London was an attempt – which failed at times – to hold the emotions of loss at a distance. Barthes has lost his mother, on whom he doted, and he desperately sought to find her “being” again through photographs. The encounters that Roubaud and Barthes have with photographs are distinctly, painfully personal. Barthes goes so far as to declare that “once I am gone, no one will any longer be able to testify to this [photograph]: nothing will remain but an indifferent Nature.”
The losses in Sebald’s books are not those of his own family; the deaths he reports on are occasionally of acquaintances, but are usually of people he had never met. As Ruth Franklin notes in her essay Rings of Smoke: “Sebald…witnessed none of World War II; and he feels this gap in his experience as painfully as most people feel the experience of trauma.” As Franklin sees it, this ‘disengagement” permits Sebald to “trace the pattern of human suffering” – but only at the cost of “distance from actual horror.” The portrait photographs and family albums of others permitted Sebald (a voracious collector of all kinds of photographs) to immerse himself in the past he had not experienced. Sebald’s role, then, so apparent in The Emigrants and Austerlitz, was to absorb the traces of the dead and become, we could almost say, a living archive. As a writer, he saw both the responsibility and the opportunity to transmute those experiences into a new kind of literature.
[Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with W.G. Sebald Ghost Hunter and Ruth Franklin’s essay Rings of Smoke appear in the new book The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald. A report is forthcoming.]