Photographic Memory

January 25, 2018


Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujer

Death is a photograph.
-- Susan Sontag

Cultural critic Susan Sontag had mostly terrible things to say about photography, setting the tone for much of the critical response to the subject in the decades since she wrote On Photography in 1977.  The year before her landmark work was published, she was already taking practice swings in an introduction to Peter Hujar’s book of photographs entitled Portraits in Life and Death, which interspersed images of celebrities with pictures of mummified corpses from the catacombs in Palermo.  “Photography… converts the whole world into a cemetery,” she wrote.  “Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death.”  

Among the living subjects of Hujar’s work was Sontag herself, looking more glamorous than deceased as she lounged on a bed in a ribbed sweater with a languid look on her face.  Notwithstanding her formidable intellectual reputation, she was an undeniable beauty, which Hujar’s portrait did nothing to allay.  Yet for Sontag, such reassuring evidence did nothing but fill her with foreboding.  Although still only in her early thirties, she apparently regarded herself as a flower that was destined to wither and die.  

As it turned out, Sontag was just getting warmed up when she equated photography with death.  In On Photography, she was no longer willing to give the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt when she described photographers as the witting or unwitting recording-angels of death.   She wrote, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”  And this: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability.  Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.”  She added, “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

In an 1859 article for the Atlantic Monthly, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. described the new photographic medium as “the mirror with a memory.”  Likewise, Sontag saw photographs functioning as memories do, except that photographic memories never fade: “Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.”  She declared, “After the event has ended the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.”  Paradoxically, the immortality conferred on the subject of a photograph merely pointed up its actual perishability.  She wrote, “All photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality.” 

Photographs are a mirror, as Holmes noted long ago, reflecting not only the subject of the photograph but also the judgments that the viewer brings to the image.  For Sontag, every photograph is a memento mori, a reminder of the subject’s mortality.  But when I look at Hujar’s portrait of her, I see only a dark-haired beauty  not a flower that is destined to wither and die, even though we are all destined to die – and, in fact, Sontag is now dead.  I make a distinction between the knowledge and attitudes I bring to my viewing of her portrait and the attributes inherent in the image itself.  Obviously, every good photograph is meant to evoke certain thoughts and feelings in the viewer, but not every photograph of a living thing is meant to remind the viewer of its eventual demise.  If one enters fully into the moment captured in a photograph, there is only the fact of that moment.  Photography does indeed confer a kind of immortality on its subjects, as Sontag said, which means that they do not die – at least not within the frame of the photograph itself.

Given Sontag’s antipathy toward photography, there is an obvious irony in the fact that she entered into a 15-year relationship with a commercial photographer, Annie Leibovitz, who is best known for her celebrity covers for Vanity Fair magazine.  In fact, the couple met when Leibovitz was assigned to take publicity pictures for Sontag's book, AIDS And Its Metaphors.  They remained together for the remainder of Sontag’s life.  As the writer was dying of a rare and virulent blood cancer in 2004, Lebovitz chronicled her final struggle.  This was not Sontag’s first bout with cancer, and she was determined to beat it.  “She did not want to die,” Leibovitz told a New York Times reporter.  They traveled to Seattle for a long-shot bone marrow transplant that was not successful in stopping the cancer.  Sontag was undergoing a last-ditch round of chemotherapy when she died.  Leibovitz published a final photograph of Sontag’s body laid out on a gurney, her face ravaged by time and suffering, her once-lustrous mane shorn, her bare forearm covered in braises from an IV.  Here at last was photography as Sontag understood it, as momento mori.  And it was not a pretty picture.


A Face in the Crowd

December 14, 2017


I find it more than a little creepy when I am asked to identify by name the friends and relatives whose photos turn up on my Facebook feed.  Those of us who grew up reading 1984 never imagined that Big Brother would turn out to be a social media company.  Facebook’s engineers are requesting help from their two billion users worldwide to perfect their facial recognition software, which they claim is already 98% accurate.  One can only hope Facebook’s motives are solely commercial rather than political.  But I doubt the world’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are far behind.  Andy Warhol once predicted "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."  Even allowing for a bit of hyperbole, we seem to have arrived at the point where no one will ever again be just a face in the crowd.

Until the invention of photography, even the world’s most renowned individuals could pass through a crowd unrecognized by anyone not personally acquainted with them.  Painted portraits were a costly adornment of the few, and the only likenesses in mass circulation were the faces of emperors and kings stamped on coins.  Jesus, Mohammad, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all passed into history without leaving a likeness behind.  The fate of most of humanity was to live and die in anonymity that became total within a generation or two, after the last of those who knew them had passed on.  They would have “perished as though they had not lived,” as the author of Ecclesiasticus expressed it.  

Photographs were also a costly adornment in the beginning, reserved for special occasions, including the memorialization of the dead. In an era of high infant mortality rates, post-mortem photographs were a common practice, with dead children photographed in lifelike poses for the consolation of their grieving parents. “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. when photography was still in its infancy.  “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers.” 

In effect, photography has conferred a kind of immortality on its subjects.  Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 12,000 generations, and for all but the last handful they have come and gone without leaving behind any impression of themselves.  We know plenty about Jesus, Charlemagne and Christopher Columbus, but we don’t know what they looked like – much less those who lived a hundred or a thousand generations ago.  If we were somehow reunited with our distant ancestors beyond the grave, we would recognize none of those whose blood runs in our veins.  As it is, we are often hard-pressed to identify family members in old photographs unless someone has had the presence of mind to label everyone in the picture. 

Normally we think it is a good thing when we are recognized by friends, acquaintances and people we do business with on a daily basis; less so when we recognized by strangers.  Those who do become world famous, if only for 15 minutes, may find they must now navigate a world in which large numbers of people they don’t know all think they know them.  However much famous individuals may have craved adulation, it does not come without cost – not just the loss of privacy but also the loss of anonymity.  They are no longer able to lose themselves in a crowd: to walk unnoticed down the street, to browse undisturbed in a bookstore or to take their kids to a ball game without attracting unwanted attention.

Those of us who are not famous face no such problems – or do we?  With facial recognition software, we are no longer just a face in the crowd, however anonymous we may feel.  If our image appears on social media or captured on surveillance cameras, there are algorithms that can attach a name to the face. With the name comes an address, a Social Security number, a credit score, voting record and criminal history – all the raw material for the darkest paranoid fantasies.  No, the machines can’t read our thoughts, but they can read our comments on Facebook – and they do.  We should be thankful if they only use them to sell us stuff.

The passage from Ecclesiasticus begins with the verse, “Let us now praise famous men, our ancestors in their generations.”  It goes on to sing their praises for a bit before mentioning those who leave behind no memorial, who “have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them.”  No one wants to be forgotten, of course, and the author of Ecclesiasticus is reassuring on that score:  “But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten….” Not forgotten?  How so?  If we perish as though we not lived, who will remember us?  Quite apart from any digital profile that may live on after us, we will abide forever where we have always been, rooted in the mind of God.      


Small Works

November 30, 2017

"Illuminated Queen Anne's Lace 3" by Eric Rennie

This photograph is part of a series taken this summer of flowers photographed close-up in a darkened room using a single beam of high-intensity light for illumination.  Viewed close-up, even the most common wildflower, like this Queen Anne's Lace found growing by the side of the road, is revealed in its intricate beauty.  This image has been accepted in the 13th Annual Small Workshow at the 440 Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  The exhibit runs from December 7, 2017 through January 7, 2018.  The juror is artist Angel Bellaran.


Lace Curtain Window on the World

November 14, 2017

"Scrollwork 2" by Eric Rennie

Light and shadow are the bread-and-butter of every fine arts photographer.  I have found that lace-curtain windows are particularly fruitful in this regard.  This particular specimen may be found in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Middletown, CT, which I attend regularly.  I have photographed this window a number of times and have previously exhibited the results at least once before.  This particular image has been accepted in a juried competition at the Midwest Center for Photography's tenth annual Ten X Ten small-works exhibition in Wichita, KS.  All works in the show are 10" x 10" and sell for $100.  The show runs from November 24, 2017 until December 31, 2017.


Nature's Way

October 31, 2017

"Mattabesset River in Early Fall" by Eric Rennie

This photograph has been accepted in a juried competition called "Nature's Way" at the Lightbox Photographic Gallery in Astoria, OR.  The show runs from November 11, 2017 to December 5, 2017.  The juror is photographer Jody Miller.  The gallery is a new venue for me.  I was attracted by the show's full titlle: "Nature's Way (a search for beauty) -- a signal that beautiful artwork was acceptable, which is not always the case in today's art world. I submitted five of my most gorgeous nature photographs, and this one was selected.