Archive for July, 2012

The Terror of Photography

July 28, 2012

Of the many modern manifestations of the ghost – in the corner of the room, at the graveyard, on film, at the end of a storm-stressed phone-line, sat upon your chest amid some waking night-terror – the ghost in the photograph is the most frightening, the most unnerving, of all those ghosts who cannot be wished away by blinking or an incredulous double-take – and it lies embedded in that ‘message without a code’ (Barthes), the un-symbolic photograph, who facts we take at face value.

They are familiar ghosts, yet this does not diminish their terror – everybody knows the ghostly woman accidentally caught on camera as she drifts silently down a dark wooden staircase – or the lady of the manor, who peers vacantly out from the window in the attic of a dread Victorian country-house – those ghosts who will not reveal themselves in person – not like the one who lingers in the shadows of the trees outside the suburban bedroom window – yet their absence is felt all the more forcefully when we see them inscribed permanently in polaroid.

This is their most terrifying trick. If you think you see a face at a window, you glance away, look back, and the face is there no more – in the morning that thing that hovered all night just outside the window has become a branch – but not so the photograph – if the ghost lives in your photograph, you put that picture far out of sight, beneath some rubbish in a draw, yet when you clear your desk out, there is remains, that pale distracted face in the window in the house in the past in the photograph. Blink though you may, the face does not disappear. And the face that was not there, for you know the house was empty, the face that was not there when you took that picture all that time ago calls you a liar betrays your belief in its absence. Though very remote in time and space you can hold them up to the light, any time, and you view that space, any time, and the face lingers on, peering at you out of time from that space by the window in the house in the photograph.

And there is never a time when the ghost is not in that window of that house. And they never move, like that gradual crawl across the Mezzotint: they are always and incontestably there in that photograph, pale, unblinking and so substantially there – the face of the thing at the window.

And description fails you – the destructive act of translating the image into words – identifying the ‘correct level of perception’, one which ‘holds the connoted meanings from proliferating’ (Barthes) – that is, the text limits meaning when it converts into words the photograph, almost impossible to delineate to its full extent the graphic doubling of reality faithfully held in the photograph – how many pages would you need to describe in toto even the dullest square inch of nature? – and how many then when amplified a thousand thousand fold? Text works like a hieroglyphic or logographic drawing: and the drawing is a coded message – it has a meaning – and moreover ‘the drawing does not reproduce everything‘ of the reality it describes (Barthes) – usually only that wherein its meaning is most forcefully embedded.

And then we must detail the ghost herself – we have to choose whether or not we believe in the ghost. The author that commits himself to scepticism must therefore in the very definite substance of the written word describe something that may or may not be there – yet how is this possible? The adamant non-believer will not accept a ghost lingers at a windowpane. He will not, then, describe it. This betrays the photograph – nor does it leaves the reader in that state of terror the possibility of a haunting inspires – the fear that is ‘an anticipative horror lest the apparition might possibly be real’ (Poe) – because the possible absence of a ghost, where possible presence is thereby implied cannot be implied by its absence in the text. A text that choose not to believe in the ghost and will not describe the ghost cannot convey to its readers the fear of the possibility of a ghost. So, we must turn to the author willing to work on its possible presence. But we blunder yet again – for the slightest hint in the text that there might be a ghost at the window forever guarantees that spectre its window-ledge seat; by positively implying its presence – the only way a writer can imply because one cannot imply by absence something that should naturally be absent – the reader will never picture that window without its ghost. Moreover, the imposition of a third party, between us and the window, forces us – when we cannot see the window ourselves – to assume the convictions of the writer – and how can we really be terrified when the feelings we are feeling are not our own – or at least, not without the shadow of a doubt our own? The photograph remains the most effective way to frighten us with ghosts.

There is a face in the window, like the writer who positively implies it – that cannot be denied. But unlike the written word, we have it first hand. If we took the photograph, even better because we knew the window before that face appeared. If we did not , then we at least are safe in assuming that it was not there when the photograph was taken – for then the interest, the essence of terror, would lie not in the ghost in the photograph, but in the ghost in our reality – and how can a ghost, that liminal being, exist in our reality – that is why the ghost in the corner of the room or outside the window at night are never ghosts – but in the liminal reality of the photograph (like also the liminal reality of the film) whereby the photograph is the double of material reality on a level impossible for us to interact with, to exist within, therefore a reality at one remove from reality whose signified is our reality – in this liminal reality, the ghost too resides. In the written word ghost and no-ghost are brought into existence simultaneously. In the photograph, the period when the photograph was taken (no-ghost) and of seeing the developed photograph (ghost) are clearly distinct. At some point, something has appeared. And it will never go away, yet it was – and is – never there. The visible absence of the face in reality is forced onto us as a visible presence. In the written word where meaning is restricted, there is either ghost or no-ghost at one level of reality – the reality in which the characters written on the page are engaged – the photograph proliferates potential meanings through at least one instance of doubling. The ghost in the photograph forces the viewer to assume: there is either ghost/no-ghost in the material reality where the photograph was taken and there is either ghost/no-ghost in the material reality composed in the photograph. And no matter which way these two realities are interpreted, we inevitably end up being deceived in some way. One of these realities is wrong.

Unmediated by an author, who decides whether or not we should see a ghost – we are forced to decide for ourselves with the photograph. And we must be troubled by our perception of at least one reality.