Now that I am starting to consider ideas around belief in my project I have come to a text by David Levi-Strauss called ‘Photography and Belief’ (Levi Strauss, 2020), which although he is primarily concerned with the idea of evidential belief of the object, the essay sits very well in a number of areas that I am exploring. Chiefly, Levi-Strauss is debating the connection between photographs, memory and belief, starting with the familiar saying “seeing is believing” (2020: 11) and what that actually means in relation to how we experience things through photographs. Much of the book is regarding the most recent shifts in ‘technical images’ – a term coined by Villem Flusser and utilised by Levi-Strauss here (p. 43) – that have led to ‘deepfakes,’ for example, how are we supposed to trust the images that we see? Although the focus of my project is far removed from ideas of Ai and digital fakery, there are links here with the family album, and the images that started off my project (Fig: 1). The images that I have been looking are a kind of self-illusion, edited and disrupted from the original meaning. As Levi-Strauss points out: “Memory, because we remember primarily through images, and we believe what we remember (sometimes to our detriment); sight, because “seeing is believing” (p. 11). Looking at an image that has been defaced, cut, or edited in some destructive way at first disrupts the memory and then starts to prompt the question of why this has happened. Otherwise benign, the idea that a rift of some kind happened here plays heavily on the reading of the ‘edited’ photograph because “seeing is believing” in the object sense. You might not see what was in front of the camera in that part of the image, but you are now acutely aware of what is not.
The missing part of the image plays a significant role here too. In the absence of the object, we are encouraged to fill in the blank space with our own speculation, our own narrative. If we relay on images to form our memories, then potentially, in the absence of one, we are left to fill the void with something from our own personal library, in an abstract sense. The power of photography is demonstrated in the absence of a photograph so in effect seeing is no longer believing. Roland Barthes was acutely aware of this paradoxical statement when presented what is possibly the most famous image that no one has ever seen – The Winter Garden Photograph (1993: 67). This image is described so well in fact, that we are able to envisage it without ever seeing it. For Barthes’ it was punctum, highly personal and as he notes “it exists only for me” (p. 73) refusing to print it within the book and there have been suggestions that the photograph never existed in the first place, Barthes describing a photograph to us as an exercise in the power of photography, or more aptly, the power of our own memories to conjure such imagery. Within this part of Camera Lucida there is even a portrait by French photographer Nadar of his mother (or wife), which could be there to underline Barthes’ point and further serve to trigger the construction of The Winter Garden photograph from our own memory by utilising an image from canon (Fig: 2).
Ultimately, Barthes never needed to print the image at all as it is ubiquitous: “one of the many thousand manifestations of the ordinary” (1993: 73), which is the point of the description – although times have moved on since the publication of Barthes text, we are already familiar with this image from our own archives and the canons of photography that continue to inform memory.
Returning to the context of my family album’s ‘edited’ images, it could have very easily been Barthes’ stadium as I move through the album. They spark a general intrigue seeing members of my family from a different decade to how I remember them, which is especially true of those members who I have not seen for over 20 years. For my mother, the image was punctum, it wounds her. The image in this state has changed meaning as an object removed from the benign and vernacular. It crosses the boundary into punctum for me looking at it as I am able to visibly see the emotional attachment to the photograph.
Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.
Levi Strauss, D., 2020. Photography and Belief. 1 ed. New York: David Zwirner Books.