The Real Thing

Like Coca-Cola, nostalgia is sweet but oh so corrosive. It turns cold-eyed realists into sentimental fools. It offers stale and illusory comforts from the past in place of the bracing air of the present. It puts private memories ahead of public history, resulting in anecdotes of the most inconsequential, most banal, most parochial nature.

Even its own meaning it has managed to corrode. The “algia” part of “nostalgia” is the same as the “algia” part of “neuralgia”. It means pain. And because the first part of the word comes from the Greek “nostos”, the pain that nostalgia signifies is the pain of the past. More specifically, the past associated with home, a time and a place of plenitude that has been lost. Not the sweetness of looking back with fond feelings. Not the rose-tinted sentiment that recalls halcyon days larking among sand dunes or punting along rivers, producing a warm reflective smile. No. Authentic nostalgia—the real thing as opposed to Coke—causes a contraction in the heart, like the sudden tightening of a violin’s strings. It stings and it smarts because the past cannot be revived, because home lies on the far side of the earth’s expansive curve. The archetype is Odysseus cut adrift, pining for Penelope, uncertain of his ever returning. His modern counterpart is Proust or perhaps Jacques Derrida, the sephardic Jew from North Africa who confessed to his “nostalgeria”. The memories thus conjured scrape against the soul because they are tantalising images of what might be gone for good. And not only tantalizing—seen but not grasped, as if trapped behind glass—but treacherous. We are cautioned by psychoanalysis that such mental pictures could be edits a posteriori, not to mention inventions ex nihilo. The past might be no more substantial than a Greek myth; home nothing but a castle in the air.

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What about less subjective pictures? What about the objectively recorded pictures known as photos? And what about whether digital photos affect the memory differently from their “analogue” forebears? Photographic images can be manipulated just as freely as those in the darkroom of the mind, of course, but they obey stricter principles. Two principles, in particular. Two principles whose strictness makes them no more straightforward, however, because although each is as vital as the other, together they’re utterly incompatible:

The first principle is that the photographic image wouldn’t exist if it weren’t the image of something. There is no photographic image of nothing; a photographic image of absence cannot exist. So a photographic image is forever tied to that of which it is the image – call it the “imaged”. Image and imaged remain yoked together to the last.

The second principle, which contradicts the first but is equally indispensable, is that the image—the photographic image—has to be able to do without the imaged. It can become an image only if it’s detached, only if it’s not bound up or bound in with the body of the imaged. Some distance must be granted or the image cannot escape to assume the image that it is. For it to reflect the imaged, the image must first effect some minimal separation from it. Once it has captured the imaged, however, the image no longer reflects: imagine if a photographic portrait had to accompany its subject in order to keep the reflection going. That’s how a mirror has to operate. Or if the portrait simply vanished upon its subject’s decease. Though it’s derived like a child from a parent, the image, once born and separated from the imaged, has a life of its own.

Two fundamental but irreconcilable principles – what the Algerian philosopher would term an “aporia”, a logical impasse that can be backed out of but never broken through.

The second principle has a further consequence. No sooner does the image cut its cord with the imaged than it opens up a space of reflection, recording and redaction – a space, in other words, of technology, of an artificial intervention into the natural world from which it hails. This suggests that the image itself has become a camera. Not the camera object—the Nikon, the Leica, the Ricoh—but the camera function. A photographic image becomes a camera the moment it revolves outside and beyond the imaged in this technical space of recording, in the laboratory atmosphere that allows it to freeze the imaged in time and stop it ageing any further. It interrupts time with a click. The camera object merely facilitates this camera function intrinsic to the image. The image then enters a slower time than that inhabited by the imaged. This is why photographs seem to age less than their subjects, especially when they’re digital files rather than prints on yellowing paper.

I have chosen two ‘autobiographical’ images. The first is of my father and me. It was taken by my mother, using a contemporary SLR, I’m guessing in 1973 when I was eight and he would have been thirty-six. The second is of my youngest daughter and me, taken by my wife with our Panasonic Lumix on 31 July 2011, when I was forty-six and our little girl was just five. Both, then, would be portraits by a woman of her husband and child. They are shot in summertime, though one’s in the country and the other’s in town. The first must have been on holiday, because that’s the only time we took photos, probably the New Forest. The second was at Frank’s Campari Bar in Peckham – a pop-up speakeasy at the top of a urinary multi-storey car-park.

In the first photo, we’re in (for then) fashionably brown near-identical outfits, as if in the uniform of a family business (I remember the capacious feel of that Harry Hill collar). So just as the photo is a copy of us, I’m a copy of him: I look like him but I’m also dressed the same, in a style and setting pitched uneasily between Marlborough Country and Home County. The two trees in the centre background give me an afro, and my dad a pair of wings—images both from 70s psychedelia –the wings echoed by the cloud to his left, our right. There’s also an unintended pictorial allusion to Gainsborough’s commissions of the landed gentry, and an equally unintended pun on the concept of a family tree. With that tree trunk bissecting the frame, the repeating slant of father and son, the contrasting slant of the late-afternoon shadows on the grass, the photo has some modest compositional merit.

The second photo is a close-up. That lends it more intimacy than the first, more formal shot, an intimacy reinforced by the position of the sun, which is behind. Once more there’s a repetition in the clothes—black being the new brown—plus another neat bissection, between two faces that share many features. One wouldn’t struggle to match this father with this daughter. No sooner matched, however, than the feeling becomes one of more difference than sameness. Old and young, male and female, dark and blond, red skin and pale, stubble and smooth cheeks, hatless and hatted, teeth and no teeth. I see (but I would, wouldn’t I?) palpable love between the subjects, which the subjects seem keen to emphasise to the camera. ‘You can dwell on our differences if you want,’ the photo defies us, ‘but we’re in the same club.’

The first, film-based, analogue photo is, according to Principle Number One, the image of an imaged. It is tied to a moment (New Forest, 1973) in all its irreducible specificity, even if the time and place aren’t digitally inscribed in it and must rely on my memory. But when I look at the photo, I fail to feel that moment or be connected with it. I am more attached to the photo itself as an object. In other words, Principle Number Two is stronger. The image has got detached from the event of its production, and I too have lost connection with the event. What’s more, as it’s a photo that’s accompanied me for nearly forty years since, I’m more nostalgic about the photo itself. Nostalgic in the sugary sense, that is. I feel no pain looking at the photo, and that’s no doubt why I can write about it dispassionately. It’s even possible that this sweet nostalgia for the image itself works as a defence against the bitter nostalgia that would be stirred up were the image able to resurrect for me the imaged, i.e. the specific moment, and the feeling. After all, they look like golden years. Maybe it’s the photo that stops me from crying about the past I can’t revive. Maybe Principle Number Two turns a photograph into an anaesthetic.

The implication for the autobiographer, or for anyone looking back on their life, is that, like Plato’s cave-dwellers, we’re doomed to relating our lives at one remove. But would the implication weaken if I had more childhood photos? This is one of very few, all kept in a blue W. H. Smith album. When, by contrast, my daughter looks back in her forties at the second photograph, it will be one of thousands of digital images, including videos. For all the philosophical differences, digital photos are easier and cheaper to take than analogue, digital cameras are ubiquitous, and these brute facts shouldn’t be Photoshopped out. The question then becomes: can the sheer abundance do anything to close the gap between image and imaged? Although her own mental images, her memories, can never insure themselves against those degradations alleged by psychoanalysis, they will vie in a different way with the photographic images available to her in all their profusion. Whereas I feel my childhood resides largely in my head, with the photographs from that time too few and far between to act as a corrective, she may well come to feel that hers lies mainly on a chip or in a cloud or other digital archive. Will she, paradoxically, feel her past has been more stolen than returned to her by what we too blithely consider the benign, humanising technology of the digital camera? Will she, like her elders, still feel she can’t quite get hold of the real thing? [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2012

Commissioned by Photoworks

 

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