Feeling Photography/Penetraing Pictures

Parlor games with the Igorots, c. 1905

Elspeth H. Brown and Thuy Phy, Feeling Photography. Durham : Duke University Press, 2014 

In his letters, Franz Kafka projected his uncertainties on the photograph of his fiancé and wrote how her “little photograph produces as much pleasure as pain.” Kafka continues: “It does not fade away, it does not disintegrate like a living thing; instead it will survive forever, a permanent comfort; I cannot fully penetrate it, but it won’t leave me, either.”*
I reflect on the love letter as an under-examined form in the archive of art historical “thinking” about photography. By establishing the dominance of a “rubric that disavowed feeling.” (Brown & Phu 2014, 13) I was struck by the question of how “straight” photo criticism, which, “while shrewd in its materialist and historicist politics,” had marginalized photography’s “shadow subjects, most notably, women, racialized minorities, and queer sexualities.” (ibid.,14)

Shawn Michelle Smith devotes the beginning of her chapter to the queerness of Barthes’s Camera Lucida where he did not just theorize the critical language of feeling within photographic texts but also showed us a practical example of how to use it. Published two months before his own death, Barthes approached his subject (the photograph of his deceased mother when she was young) with philosophical thoroughness, partly systematically, partly intuitively and associatively. In contrast to his semiotic considerations of literature, film, or fashion, Barthes observes how photography seems to refuse methodical analysis. Instead, there is a persistent search for the “essence of photography” which according to Smith is “inextricably bound to the essence of his mother.” (ibid., 32). Smith’s use of Spence’s phrase encapsulates the complexity of the sentimental approach; “it is easy to lose sight of the ends to which one is ‘putting one’s self in the picture’”. However, Smith’s analysis of photographer F. Holland Day’s “affective intentionality” (ibid., 30) shows a critical antidote: turning the variable notion of Barthe’s “punctum” into a creative concept of “wounds” as illustrated in her photographic reimagining of St. Sebastian.

Smith’s essay shows how photographs wound the heart of the beholder. Sharon Sliwinski contends that traumatic responses to pictures bind spectators into an ethical community. In particular, she talks about how “atrocity images speak not to a rejection of feeling altogether but rather to a desire to provoke more politically useful feelings.“ (ibid., 4) This bond of compassion formed around photographs promises an affective redemption for an intimate public, perhaps in the same way it evokes desire between corresponding lovers. In relation to Kafka who sought to enter the photograph, Barthes wrote: “I can’t get to the bottom of photography, I can’t penetrate it.” He continues, “I can only let my gaze wander over its quiet surface.” (Camera Lucida, 106). But it is precisely by the wandering gaze of Kafka and Barthes, and in their wounded contemplations, whether of their fiancé or mother, that we gain insights into the impenetrable nature of photography.

*Kafka, Franz, and Felice Bauer. 1973. Letters to Felice. New York: Schocken Books. 443. I modified the translation here to reflect the original “eindringen” which Kafka uses. Literally “penetration”.

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