Watching Sarah Polley’s extraordinary documentary Stories We Tell, I found myself thinking about Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the relationship between memory and photography.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the essence—what he calls the noeme—of photography: “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been’” (77). The peculiarity of the photograph, he says, is that the photographic referent is

not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. … In Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. (76)

It’s a paradox: on the one hand, the coextension of sign and referent appears so complete that one “perceive[s] the referent… to annihilate itself as a medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself” (45). On the other hand, as Barthes claims later, the testimony of the photograph “bears not on the object but on time” (88).

Stanley Cavell explores a similar line of thought in The World Viewed,:

Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past. (23)

In viewing a movie my helplessness is mechanically assured: I am present not at something happening, which I must confirm, but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory). (26)

Both Barthes and Cavell insist that the photograph (or succession of photographs in film) bears witness to the passage of time. Yet neither specifies how we can be sure we’re looking at “That-which-has-been,” rather than “That-which-is.” This is most likely because, to both writers, the answer was so self-evident: the signifier of time in the photographic print is the photographic print itself. Even if no other markers of time are present (regarding such markers, Barthes discusses the “History [of tastes, fashions, fabrics]” visible in a photograph), the physical existence of the photograph speaks to the technical (chemical) process by which it came into being. For this reason, Barthes insists that it was not the painters who invented photography, but the chemists.

Even though Barthes is tempted to see photography as a self-annihilating medium, utterly transparent to the “thing itself” that it indexes, his text also attests to the physicality of the photograph: the chemical and physical changes to which it is subjected in the passage of time.

There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it. The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. (67, my emphasis)

In contrast to the other photographs of his mother, which “were merely analogical, provoking only her identity, not her truth,” the Winter Garden Photograph “was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.” (70–71) What Barthes seems to be describing is the “auratic” quality of this photograph, as outlined by Walter Benjamin in his ubiquitous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility.” So why does this photograph have aura, where the others are merely mechanical reproductions?

Later in his text, Barthes observes that he had discovered this photograph by “moving back through Time. … Starting from her latest image, taken the summer before her death …, I arrived, traversing three­quarters of a century, at the image of a child.” (71). The evidence of this passage, so crucial to Barthes’ discovery of the “essential” image of his mother, is not the abstract knowledge that this snapshot depicts his mother as a child, but rather the physical effects of time on the photograph itself. “The photograph was very old…”

In Benjamin’s essay, “aura” is closely linked to the concept of “authenticity.” “The authenticity of a thing,” he writes, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Illuminations 221). With some oversimplification, we might claim that Barthes’ Winter Garden photograph is “authentic”—auratic—precisely to the degree that its corners have become blunted and its sepia print faded.

Ironically, sepia printing, which was originally used to lengthen the shelf-life of the photograph, has now become a marker (even a clichè) of historical distance. (The second hit for a Google Books search of “history of sepia toning” produces E-Plan Your Wedding and the advice: “You’ll often find old or historical photos in a sepia tone. If you like the effect, ask your photographer to add it to your black-and-white wedding photographs in order to capture that elegant and classical ‘old time’ feel.) What was once the cutting edge of photographic technology becomes a historical remnant, and thereby a carrier of auratic authenticity.

Which brings us back to Stories We Tell and the Super 8 movies that Polley uses (brilliantly, provocatively—just watch the movie) to interpolate the viewer into the film’s memory-work. The “authenticity” of these clips—which becomes more and more problematic as the film goes on—is guaranteed by their technological obsolescence. There’s something about Super 8, with its scratches, flicker, and washed-out color, that makes us feel like we’re seeing memory itself—what Barthes calls “the defeat of Time” (96).

If Super 8 stock has a particularly auratic quality, this is not just on account of its outdated look. The intrinsic association of the Super 8 format with home moviemaking lends “cult value,” as Benjamin would say, to the cinematographic product.

The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.

To demonstrate the power of the Super 8, consider this scene from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).

The movie is set in the year 2054, which accounts for the high-tech 3D projection system with which Tom Cruise’s character watches home movies of his lost son. Curiously, though, the technology used to capture these images is a half-century out of date. The vignetting at the edges speaks to Super 8 film, rather than whatever high-definition format might have been available in the 2030s.

Would the poignancy of this scene be reduced if the technologies of capture and projection were identical? If so, then this speaks to a curious transitivity-effect between memory, images, and technological change.  Insofar as our images of the past carry traces of the “pastness” of their means of capture, those traces themselves inherit some of the “cult value” of the referent.

Enter Instagram, which offers instant aura for generations X, Y, and Z, squeezing megapixels of digital data into the square format and flattened-out colors of our childhood snapshots.

Here’s a bona-fide family photo from 1981:


And here’s an instagram of my cats with the “1977” filter :


It’s curious, and perhaps inevitable, that the medium with the shortest duration of transmission ever invented—zapping instantly through the ether to any interested “follower”—would also enable the instant application of faux-duration to the photographic image.

Meanwhile, real duration becomes obscured when modern technologies allow for the seamless coexistence of old and new formats, as Stories We Tell attests. The 2012 movie No!, for instance, was filmed with low-definition magnetic video stock, rendering the new material almost indistinguishable from the original television footage of the 1988 referendum in Chile.


The result is rather uncanny—in Nick Pinkerton’s eloquent description, “an accomplishment in cinematic verisimilitude situated anxiously at the halfway point between Medium Cool and Forrest Gump.”

Or consider the tumblr blog “My Daguerrotype Boyfriend,“ “where early photography meets extreme hotness,” as the tagline has it. An auratic-erotic short-circuit. The punchline is that these long-dead gentlemen, posing with earnest miens in their Sunday suits, look like modern-day hipsters. Here, the history “(of tastes, fashions, fabrics)” is always-already ironized.

Walter Bentley Woodbury, age 23. Self-portrait with a camera, 1857.
Source: http://mydaguerreotypeboyfriend.tumblr.com/page/3

It would seem that in the age of the digital image, time itself is removed from the frame. Benjamin’s vision of mechanical reproduction as an absolute erasure of physical duration appears to be complete.  To get at the consequences of this (perceived) state of affairs, consider this poem by the East Geman poet Rainer Kunze, written in 1977:

Von der notwendigkeit der zensur

Retuschierbar ist

Nur das negativ nicht
In uns.

On the necessity of the censor

Anything can be

Just not the negative
In us

In terms of the account of image-making we have been exploring, Kunze’s poem reminds us of the difference between the print (changeable; subject to the effects of time) and the negative, which remains more or less unchanged over time. It is on account of the negative that Benjamin claims that in the age of mechanical reproducibility, “physical duration plays no part” (255). The print, he might agree, can register history as aura.

Especially given the “necessity” in its title, we can also imagine a Hegelian reading of Kunze’s poem. Both Hegel and Kunze understand this necessity in social and political terms, as the limitations on individual freedom exacted by the State (in this case, the censor). Inaccessible to such necessity, however, is the pure negativity of absolute freedom. The negation of the self in absolute freedom, Hegel writes, is

the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content. At the same time, however, this negation in its real existence is not something alien; it is neither the universal inaccessible necessity in which the ethical world perishes, nor the particular accident of private possession, nor the whim of the owner on which the disrupted consciousness sees itself dependent; on the contrary, it is the universal will which in this its ultimate abstraction has nothing positive and therefore can give nothing in return for the sacrifice. But for that very reason it is immediately one with self-consciousness, or it is the pure positive, because it is the pure negative; and the meaningless death, the unfilled negativity of the self, changes round in its inner Notion into absolute positivity. (362)

In a way, the photographic negative plays a similar role to the dialectically negative in Hegel. The photographic negative, as Barthes puts it, is “literally an emanation of the referent” (80). As such, it guarantees a distance between world and image; it is the negative image of world. Likewise, Hegel’s dialectical negation actually opens the space for cognition and subjectivity: “Although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object,” Hegel writes, “it is just as much the disparity of the substance with itself” (21).

In the case of the digital image, however, there is always a possibility, even a likelihood, that the world is image, that the manipulability of the digital image corresponds to a changeability of reality itself. Predictably:


The freedom of the digital is a freedom from the absolute. It dispenses with the Hegelian negation of negation, needing “nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content.” For this reason, the digital age did not stop with instagram, but rather took the notion to its inevitable conclusion.  Snapchat images arrive and disappear in a few seconds, leaving nothing behind but the negative in us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s