man, Roland Barthes, black and white, pictures, desk

The Great Unknown

One of the most famous photographs in the history of photography has never been seen by its many interlocutors.

Roland Barthes describes this photograph, the so-called Winter Garden Photograph of his recently-deceased mother, in considerable detail in his book Camera Lucida: “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” But then, despite proposing that “something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture,” he refuses to reproduce it, claiming that, for us, “it would be nothing but an indifferent picture.”

It’s a brilliant rhetorical manoeuvre, inviting every reader to project their own image of a lost loved one into the void at the heart of his text. Empathizing with the grief-stricken author, we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there. Given the care with which the whole book has been composed, this effect is surely no accident. Indeed, a number of commentators have suggested that, just as Barthes decided to “’derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’)” from this one absent photograph, there too, in that photograph’s retraction, should inquiring readers seek the essence of Barthes’s book. With Camera Lucida structured in every aspect in binary terms (as in the impossible opposition of studium and punctum), the missing Winter Garden Photograph has its doppelgänger in the Polaroid photograph by Daniel Boudinet that Barthes takes the trouble to reproduce in colour but never discusses. In that sense, the photograph of Barthes’s mother must be made an absent presence in order to maintain the deconstructive dynamic that animates the whole book.

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Margaret Olin goes even further, proposing that the invisibility of the Winter Garden Photograph is a sign that Camera Lucida is meant to be read as a novel, rather than as a work of non-fiction. Perhaps, she speculates, the famous Winter Garden photograph of Barthes’s mother never even existed. Could it be just a writer’s creative invention, an archetype of “the Photograph” rather than an actual photograph? Is Barthes telling us a lie in order to reveal a greater truth (about photography, about the permeability of truth and falsehood)? If so, it would link Barthes’s great reflection on photography to Walter Benjamin’s partially fictional Little History of Photography, which Barthes would have read in 1977 in a French translation in Nouvel Observateur. Olin suggests, for example, that perhaps the Winter Garden photograph is, by means of mental slippage, a stand-in for an image of Franz Kafka at the age of six mentioned by Benjamin in his ‘Little History.’ Kafka is shown standing in a kind of “winter garden” landscape, of the sort constructed out of props in a photographer’s studio. Benjamin discusses this photograph of Kafka in two texts, and in one of them actually becomes Kafka; that is, he projects himself into the picture through a first-person account of the pose and setting. Olin argues that Barthes similarly transposes a photograph of himself as a young boy over the missing photograph of his mother at age five.

This transposition is a reminder that Barthes’s Urt photograph is, in effect, a Hidden Mother picture, resembling one of those tintypes or cartes-de-visite that shows a child being held steady by a parent who is otherwise hidden from view under a blanket or cloth. These shrouded figures are hiding in plain sight, made all the more visible to us today by their efforts to make themselves invisible back then. As Jacques Derrida might put it, they enact “an erasure that allows what it obliterates to be read.” The figure is there, a muffled visual presence, but he or she is not exactly seeable. They are both there and not there, simultaneously opaque and an apparition, either/or and thus neither/nor, all at the same time. It is striking, in this context, that many of these figures have covered themselves in patterned blankets, rather than in black cloth, as might be expected of someone truly wanting to disappear from sight. The resulting picture therefore actively invites a flickering of our eyes back and forth between background and foreground, immediately collapsing that distinction, along with many others. All this and more could equally be said of Barthes’s figuring of the all-important Winter Garden Photograph as a mirror of his relationship to his mother. His lengthy discussion of it tells us as much about him as it does about her.

All portraits of a mother holding her offspring recall, sometimes consciously, the Christian iconography of Madonna and child, the ideal emblem of maternal performance. Think, for example, of Raphael’s painting of a Sistine Madonna (c.1513-14), where the baby Jesus is tenderly cradled in the voluminous robes of his unnaturally serene mother, simultaneously celebrating a birth that has just occurred and a redemptive death that is known in advance but is still to come. According to Hegel, love of the kind represented in such a painting is an emotion in which one finds oneself, fulfills one’s own potentialities, precisely because it involves totally sacrificing oneself for another human being. Showing us love in its perfect form, as a power that can hold life and death, past and future, in poignant suspension, Raphael’s composition therefore proposes the possibility of a divine presence in humanity in general. Could this divinity be what Barthes proposes for his own mother in vernacular form?

All this is there in Camera Lucida, whether or not the Winter Garden Photograph ever really existed. But still, Barthes does tease us in his text with the prospect of this photograph’s material presence, with its tangibility as a three-dimensional thing: “Now, one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs…There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it.” The quest described in Camera Lucida reenacts one that Barthes recorded in what, since his own death, has been published as Mourning Diary. Made public despite a dispute in France as to whether its author ever intended it to be read by others, the Mourning Diary consists of short entries jotted down by Barthes in the difficult weeks and months following his mother’s death on October 25, 1977. The first reference to looking at “her photographs” is dated June 11, 1978 (not November of the previous year as he claims in Camera Lucida) and he is not alone but with his brother Michel. He returns to them again, “painfully,” on June 13 and explicitly mentions one in particular that overwhelms him, “in which mamen, a gentle discrete little girl beside [her brother] Philippe Binger (the Winter Garden of Chennevières, 1898).” “I weep,” he tells us. Or is he simply telling himself? Who is the presumed reader of these heart-rending notes? What is their intention? Who, or what, is their subject?

If nothing else, the Mourning Diary would seem to confirm that the Winter Garden Photograph really did exist. That assumes, of course, that Barthes’s diary is truthful, even if Camera Lucida isn’t, the one a private set of notes intended only for his own eyes, and the other a public performance of philosophical inquiry and textual dexterity. Such an assumption must overlook the fact that all diaries are written to be read (they are all autobiographical novels), and that the index cards that Barthes compiled in order to write Camera Lucida exactly resemble, in both form and tone, the diary entries that we now take to be incontrovertible evidence of his true actions and thoughts. On December 29 he records in one of those entries that he had received a reproduction photograph of the Winter Garden Photograph, which he will henceforth keep “in front of me, on my worktable.” He mentions this reproduction again in the entry for January 20, 1979, some three months before he begins to write Camera Lucida. As if to put the matter beyond doubt, Mourning Diary reproduces a photographic portrait of Barthes by François Lagarde, showing him sitting at his desk on April 25 (according to his own notations, Camera Lucida had been begun ten days before). Behind him on the wall hang three frames; a picture of a house in Urt on the left, a picture of camels on the right, and in the centre a vertical reproduction of the famed Winter Garden Photograph.

What are we to make of this holy trinity of images? For a start, we have to grapple with the pictorial fact that this most essential of all photographs, at least for Barthes, is apparently accorded equal value with some rather nondescript pictures of a house and some camels. True, like the photograph of his mother, these are also intensely personal mementos–of home (his mother raised him in the village of Urt in Bayonne and was buried there) and of the exotic Orient (Barthes spent time in Egypt and Morocco). Secondly, we discover that the intense emotions Barthes expresses in response to the Winter Garden Photograph in Camera Lucida were produced within a spacing that encompassed his memory, from nine months before, of his first encounter with the original object, evoked in his description of its sepia tones and touched blunted corners, and his day-to-day exposure to an enlarged black and white reproduction of the same image kept safely out of touch behind glass on a wall. Apparently Barthes can look through this supplement to the origin, reliving the intensity of its punctum at will, despite its constant visual reiteration, day after day, right in front of him, a kind of experience he would himself refer to as studium.

Of course, this photograph of Barthes’ beloved photograph is but one more of his retractions, because we can in fact see nothing of it except its framing. Within that frame the Winter Garden Photograph itself remains a dark and mysterious blur. It resembles one of Allan McCollum’s Perpetual Photos of the 1980s, those indecipherable enlargements of framed pictures found on the walls of scenes photographed by this artist from his television screen. For critic Craig Owens, McCollum’s work evokes the arid repetitions of consumer capitalism, but also the more elemental repetitions associated with memory and death. Thus, even here, in this posthumous, unauthorized reproduction of Barthes’s reproduction, the themes of Camera Lucida continue to resonate and perplex. We are promised revelation, the truth of the matter, but are left, in the end, to contemplate yet another of his pregnant voids. That void is one more reminder that to look at any given photograph is to enact a palimpsest, to put in motion an always tantalizing reciprocation of the visible and the invisible. As Barthes himself put it in his Mourning Diary: “(Photo: powerless to say what is obvious. The birth of literature.)”

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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

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