Friday, June 3, 2011

Five Wounds: Daguerreotypes

Susan Sontag's On Photography is a classic introduction to the medium, whose influence can be felt in almost all subsequent discussions. But there is a problem with it, in that actual photographers do not recognize its depiction of their activities, or perhaps more significantly, do not identify with its description of their motivations. Consider the following passage:

What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal. ‘The pictures have a reality for me that the people don’t’, Avedon has declared. ‘It is through the photographs that I know them’. To claim that photography must be realistic is not incompatible with opening up an even wider gap between image and reality, in which the mysteriously acquired knowledge (and the enhancement of reality) supplied by photographs presumes a prior alienation from or devaluation of reality. [On Photography, p. 121]

The idea that photography is at war with reality seems counter-intuitive to most of its practitioners, who also take exception to the idea that they are all, by definition, alienated voyeurs. An alternative point of view is advanced eloquently by Nan Goldin:

The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history. [The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, p. 6]

In a later interview, Goldin explains, again in implicit counterpoint to Sontag, 'For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress' [Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror, 1996, p. 452].

One of the protagonists of Five Wounds is the thief Magpie, who also works as a daguerreotypist. Daguerreotypes were created by a photographic process that yielded a unique, positive image. They were popular in the 1840s, but were subsequently rendered obsolete by William Fox Talbot's introduction of negatives, which permitted multiple prints to be made of any individual image. In the world of Five Wounds, however, the daguerreotype remains central. I chose it over other better-known photographic processes as a way of returning to the pre-history of an overfamiliar technology: to draw attention to unchallenged and unacknowledged presuppositions surrounding its later, more familiar variants, whose characteristics we retroactively assume to be given or inevitable. Other examples of this same technique in Five Wounds include the use of heraldry to think about superhero costumes and the introduction of a character with a mutant strain of rabies to think about werewolves.

Magpie's activities as a daguerreotypist are therefore a parody of the argument of Sontag's book. I started with a thought experiment: What if you were a Martian who had never taken or seen a photograph, and the only evidence you had as to what that activity might involve was Sontag's book? What kind of person would you imagine the ideal photographer to be? The answer is: a freak; an alienated thief. In the extract below, Magpie describes his philosophy.

1 AT first, Magpie had paid prostitutes to pose for him.
2 They required no explanations, but in other respects they were not ideal subjects, because they had mistaken assumptions about the nature of his interest.
3 He discouraged them from adopting provocative expressions.
4 He did not want the illusion of intimacy.
5 To remind himself of this, he removed the faces from their portraits.
6 It required little force. A single motion of his thumbnail would do it.
7 ‘Don’t squirm. You’ll only get scratched.’

1 UNDER a magnifying glass, which revealed details invisible to the naked eye, the intensity with which the image was fully present was disturbing.
2 It was more present than the living bodies of the prostitutes had ever been.
3 ‘Pretend you’re dead if you like. That sometimes helps people stay still.’

1 MAGPIE would eliminate what was inessential and reveal what others could not bear to see.
2 He would steal from his subjects the revelation of their deeper selves and the truest aspect of the world they inhabited.
3 He would photograph the shift between the face people presented to others and the scratched face they revealed involuntarily and refused to acknowledge.

In fleshing out this account, I did, however, draw on the work of several actual photographers to create the character of Magpie, as indicated below.

Magpie's Photographic Influences
Above: Magpie's Photographic Influences

Of these acknowledged influences, Witkin and Arbus are both famed for their interest in freaks, and in Witkin's case, for his habit of photographing corpses. Both photographers are quoted on several occasions within the novel (e.g. the extract above includes a paraphrase of a remark by Arbus); and, indeed, one of the epigraphs used at the beginning of Five Wounds is a quotation from Arbus. Bellocq photographed prostitutes in early twentieth-century New Orleans, and several of his images, infamously, have the faces of the subject scratched out (below: Plate 29 from Storyville Portraits by Bellocq).

4 Bellocq Plate 29

This defacement has prompted much lurid psychosexual speculation in a manner derivative of Sontag's analysis: for example in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter (which features Bellocq as a character). There are in fact much more innocuous reasons why someone - not necessarily Bellocq - may have defaced the images after their maker's death. However, as in my (ab)use of Sontag's book, I picked up on this motif - of scratched-out faces - and gave it a more sinister origin related to Magpie's psycholgy; but I also asked Dan to use it for quite different purposes in the illustrations depicting one of the other characters in the novel: Cuckoo, the man with a wax face. He is always represented with a scratched-out face, in homage to Magpie, and hence to Bellocq (below: Plate 6 from Five Wounds, Cuckoo's reflection).

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

[Pie chart diagram and Cuckoo portrait created by Dan Hallett.]

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