Me Mum and Sylvia

There’s a feature on the Guardian website (The power of photography: time, mortality and memory) which questions whether, now that digital technology allows us to take innumerable pictures, we still cherish them as much as we did when film was precious. The Guardian asked asked writers, artists and critics to pick a shot they treasure, and that set me thinking about the special meaning, the particular resonance, possessed by certain photographs in my own collection.

Most mysterious are those photographs in which I seem to be both present and not present; that evoke memories, but not of the particular place or moment represented within them.  There must be a narrative here, but the only one I can now conjure is, most probably, entirely fictional.

Pedal car

It’s high summer and very hot.  The dolly tub has been dragged out into the yard behind our house, one of four in a terrace that stands in isolation facing what might once have been a village green bordered by fields but where now (it’s 1952 or thereabouts) a cinema (later to be turned into a church for local Catholics) and a post-1944 Education Act school now face our front door.  I sit on the edge of the tub naked, drying my crotch with a towel while my dad, wearing what looks like a natty one-piece swimsuit sits in my pedal car.  The sun beats down on the York stone flags, shirts dry on the washing line, and the coal house door is shut.

Mum tries on her wedding dress again

I think this one must have been taken that same summer.  If I’m right about the year, I’m four years old and my mum and dad have been married for five years.  There are material things I can recognise in these images – the backyard, the coal shed, those motley window-panes that hide what we called ‘the back place’, a leaky glassed-in extension (where the dolly tub lived, along with the mangle) that meant that you didn’t have to get wet going to the outside toilet.  But, though I am present in these images, I have no memory of the moment.  So what I can’t explain is why, on that hot afternoon, my mum decided to wear her wedding dress again and my dad sat in my pedal car.

Washtub

It must have been on the same afternoon that my dad decided it would be a laugh to photograph me in the dolly tub.  In this one I seem to be experiencing some awful premonition of the sentiment contained in Larkin’s poem, ‘Reference Back’, quoted by Blake Morrison in the Guardian feature.

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Morrison wrote that for him, the chief feeling evoked by looking at old photos is one of sadness:

That most of the people in them are now dead; that the times they commemorate can’t be retrieved. It’s sentimental, I know: time passes; the moment goes even as the shutter clicks. … 
Worse, though, would be to have none at all.

For me there is a certain melancholy derived from seeing my parents happy and relaxed in these photos: in most of my memories of them they are neither.  But it’s not sadness so much as mystery that pervades these photos when I look at them: they’re such familiar images now that it seems as if they record a specific memory of my own, and yet they do not. If these are memories, my parents might have recognised them as moments from their own.

Looking at these photos now is as if we are in Plato’s cave, ‘revelling in mere images of the truth’, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  We are ‘like slaves in a cave chained to a bench who see only the shadows of puppets and other objects projected from behind our backs and without our knowledge’. For Sontag, photography was an elegiac art:

Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. … All photographs are memento mori…by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

In the Guardian feature, the art critic Adrian Searle observes that ‘there are years and years of my life, places I have been … rooms I have lived in, for which I have few visual records’. For those of us born mid-century or earlier, this is bound to be true.  For much of the last half-century cameras were not as omnipresent as they are now in the age of pocketable digital cameras and smartphones. I did not possess a camera when I was a student at university: me and my fellow students did not snap each other at every opportunity and share photos the way they do today. The cost of film militated against the digital Tourette’s that nowadays has us firing off endless shots of the same scene.

Lost

Now, though, we record every moment of our relationships and family history.  Over the years, like most families, we have accumulated many photos of each of us, but this image of my wife which has a special meaning for me.  I was a thousand miles away when it was taken, in the summer of 1982.  We had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part. This photo offers more than a likeness: it reveals the soul, as Jackson Browne sings in ‘Fountain of Sorrow’:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true

The reason this photo moves me, why it stands apart from most of the photos collected in our shoebox of family snaps, is that it possesses what Roland Barthes called in Camera Lucida (coining a term of his own) punctum.  A photograph’s punctum is the object or detail that jumps out at the viewer – ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me … is poignant to me’.  The punctum creates a disturbance ‘which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image.  Basically it could be anything – something that reminds you of your childhood, a sense of deja vu, or an object of sentimental value. Punctum is very personal and will vary for each individual.  (Barthes distinguished the punctum from a photograph’s studium – the element that creates a more general interest in a photographic image. The studium here might consist of a fascinating fashion note: that in 1982 young women wore bright red dungarees!)

Clun

A year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road.  Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape.  One evening, walking up the lane, a badger blundered out of the undergrowth, crossing our path only feet away from us.  It was a magical encounter – the only time either of us has seen a badger – and there is no photo, though a handful of images remain of that place, each one bathed in a golden glow (a trick of the exposure or the print process no doubt, but really derived from the sensuality I read back into them).

Reading Mandelstam Clun

All that week Rita was reading Mandelstam, a fact I captured in a chance shot.  And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse  for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer when we met our badger.

Moving in

Naturally, there had to be consequences and nine months later our daughter was born.  So a house was bought and a concreted-over garden was sledgehammered back to green.

float

Here’s another photo with punctum; it speaks, not just of our daughter’s spirit, but of the perfect happiness of childhood.  I’m annoyed that it wasn’t me that made it; this beautiful image was shot on her nan’s inexpensive point-and-shoot film camera.  Which just goes to show.

Beach with dog

In the Guardian feature, their photography critic Sean O’Hagan worries that he’s never printed a digital photograph: ‘They are stored on my hard disk in their hundreds, maybe thousands. This fills me with a vague anxiety’.  I know the feeling, and it is a strange fact that now, when we can (and we do) take as many photos as we like, they so quickly disappear into the cyber-vaults of Facebook or Picasa, or sit similarly unseen on hard drives. The number of images of our three-year old dog alone on this PC hard drive must be in the hundreds.

I think Jemima Kiss, the Guardian’s digital media correspondent, is onto something when she writes:

Photo storage needs to be more automated, and photo-viewing software should also help us more. It can learn which photos we view most often, and let the poor photos recede automatically. Software could summarise the 10 best photos we’ve taken that month, and put them somewhere special. It could identify duplicate photos and suggest the one to keep. Don’t back up all 3,000, just the 30 you really treasure. All we need is some bright spark to fix the problem.

Then, truly, we could sift through our photos and say, ‘I saw this miracle’.

Lillian at Kalinova

(My aunt Lilian, Hazel Grove, Cheshire, nineteen-thirty-something, taken by my dad; studium with added punctum.)

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8 thoughts on “Photography: the accident that pricks and bruises

  1. This is beautiful, Gerry. Personal as well as universal.

    I remember reading Susan Sontag many years ago, in pre-digital days. Her memento mori statement really affected me and made me take great care then with my first ‘proper’ camera.

    And seeing your growing up photographs has made me very conscious that I possess only one of mine. Cameras just weren’t around in the 1950s.

    1. I should have included the full quote from Susan Sontag, it’s superb: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” Yes – cameras were rare (or less often used) back then. My Dad, though, had been a keen photographer, even developing his own film and making his own prints. When I was young I remember coming downstairs some mornings to find strips of negatives that he’d developed the night before dangling from the kitchen dryer. Sadly, he seemed to lose the enthusiasm for it as pressures of family and work grew.

  2. Agree with previous comments – very moving – especially as, coincidentally, I have been thinking in very similar terms about family photographs recently.
    And what an opening for a novel ……… “All that week Rita was reading Mandelstam ………..” !

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