Angelus Novus

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After his mother had died, Roland Barthes wrote a book about photography, based on his own coming to terms with his grief (Camera Lucida). In a variety of ways, it’s not really a book that talks about photography per se. Instead, it centres on what we expect from photography, on what we do with photographs, on how we engage with photographs.

There are two aspects of the book that are more widely known. First, there is Barthes’ definition of what he calls studium and punctum. People mostly remember the latter, which is defined in a rather murky fashion in the book: we all know what he means, but I suspect that we’d all struggle to clearly say what it really is. (I’ll get to the second major aspect a little bit later.)

What it is, though, is this: it’s a projection of our expectations onto photographs. How could it be that, you might ask, given that there is an element of surprise built in the concept? Well, that is the expectation: the delivery of the surprise.

A photographs without a punctum simply falls outside of what we would consider, were we to follow Barthes. We all know the pictures that don’t deliver a punctum: they’re boring pictures, pictures we don’t consider, pictures that deliver the expected (even as this is a very different type of expectation — this one is in the picture, the one I mentioned previously is outside of the world of pictures).

Starting in early January, I decided I would take a photograph of the window next to the bed I wake up in the morning, at the earliest moment when I remember to do so. I basically make the same picture every day. Of course, every picture is different because they days are different. That means that the weather and the light are different, as are the folds in the curtains, and sometimes, a cat will jump into the window.

I’m using my phone for these pictures (some HDR app that makes it easier), because in the end, what I’m interested in has nothing to do with the pictures — and everything with myself. I’m interested in challenging my idea of what a good picture looks like and what a picture might mean when it exists alongside a large number of other ones that are almost identical.

You might note that I could just step outside and press the shutter button on my DSLR, to have it take dozens of variations of the same picture. You’re right in some ways. But I don’t want to be quite as flippant about my little assignment. Also, what I’m after is something that I might learn with time — if, that is, there is something to be learned. (I feel there is.)

After all, I know what every picture will look like (even as there are differences in details), and I also know that I’m not particularly interested in any single picture. But it is exactly this aspect of photography that I want to challenge: the insistence on the single picture (which derives from our idea that every moment is unique).

What happens when I make a lot of not-very-interesting pictures that are as identical as they can be, while they’re separate in a way that is unique to me (and only to me)?

In his book, Barthes describes going through photographs of his mother, looking for just the right picture, the one that would show him the way he saw her: a confirmation that the beloved person who is now gone was indeed the person that he remembers. That memory now appears to be under threat by his grief, so a photograph is needed to anchor it.

Writing about a number of pictures (not all of them of his mother), Barthes focuses on the second aspect of Camera Lucida that is frequently brought up. You can find a succinct version of it as a caption of Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne: “he is dead and he is going to die” (it’s on page 95 in the 2010 Hill and Wang paperback). A few pages earlier, he calls “[a]ll those young photographers who are at work in the world” this: “agents of Death” (I’ve always found the inclusion of the adjective “young”curious, and yes, death with a capital d, on page 92).

If I were to rummage through photographs of a person whose recent death I’d be grieving, I might find myself describing all the various people responsible for those pictures that, too: agents of death (even if they are now dead themselves). Barthes’ idea ties in with how photography is often used, namely to take a picture of something to make sure we have at least a record of it once it’s gone.

But you only need such a record if you think or feel that it’s bad that what existed at some moment in time is now gone. After all, that is the relentless path of the Universe: it shifts forever, with the arrow of time pointing into a future. For each one of us there is that point in time when we will die.

Photography is often seen as a way to counter this fact. We take pictures to hold on to things. The idea to photograph the window after waking up was set up for this as well: to create a special moment out of the many ordinary moments in my life — and to, ideally (we’ll see how this goes), transcend the idea.

Any moment in life can be made at least somewhat special through it being assigned the production of a photograph, even as usually, the picture taking is tied to a moment that already is special.

It’s like the relationship between the food and the bell for Pavlov’s dog. If there is a bell rung (a picture taken) when there is food (a special moment), then the dog (me) is conditioned to expect food (a special moment) when the bell is rung (a picture is taken).

Like most photographers, I am familiar with the feeling of having missed a picture. Talk to any photographer and ask them about it, and they will inevitably tell you the most fantastic story. It is as if the fact that the picture wasn’t taken or couldn’t be taken or simply didn’t come out charges up the moment even more. If only… However, one might suspect that if the picture had come into existence, it might not have delivered its now undeliverable promise, with another unavailable picture taking its place.

Much like there always is another picture of my window (I’m still young enough to make the assumption that I will not die any time soon, even though of course I can’t know), there always is another picture for any given situation. That situation will then be a little bit different, but (again), this it the relentless path of the Universe: what is today will not be any longer tomorrow.

Clinging to photographs doesn’t change this basic fact one bit.

Clinging to photographs as tokens of what is at some point and then later is no more reduces life to its past. This is what Walter Benjamin wrote about when he referred to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

While we can’t see into the future, our obsession with the past — as exemplified by ossified visual tokens of people and events we hold dear — prevents us from engaging with the present as something that we experience as what it is: not raw material for future mourning, but moments as they are, however precious or mundane they might be.

There is no reason why photographs should only exist in the Angelus Novus form. But it’s upon us to develop an understanding of what photographs are and can do that allows us to access other ways of engagement — with photography, but especially with life itself.

Meanwhile, I will continue to photograph the window every day.

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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