Between the heavens and the camera, not much


“I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me : that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors …”  Barthes, Mythologies 


As we discussed last week, one reason we find photography somehow vital in our understanding of the world is its ability to condense signs, compressing the sign (signifier + signified) with the referent (“real”) without the same passing of time that gives language its meaning; or, indeed, the same sense of artifice as other techniques.  As Barthes says, it is not the photograph (itself) we see.  What is going on in this image?  I took it from a moment in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris.  It is quite a close square with archetype late 19th century Parisian housing influenced by Baron von Haussmann’s renovation of the city (replete with art nouveau trellising painted black).  The woman pictured (do we take her as the primary sign? See Barthes on punctum-studium) is probably photographing this; but it appears from here she has been drawn toward the heavens.  I snapped: it was a reasonable, if not spectacular, shot; the cherry blossoms on the right, the interplay of shadows, the grid of the pavement, the church of Saint-Sulpice in the background: all serve to signal the more or less chance construction of a message – technology versus the frame of nature; temporality versus the eternal.  I liked the photograph, but didn’t love it.  The light coming down from the heavens into the lens somehow did not refract in my direction.

                Later I discovered that the church itself had sought to harness the light from the heavens for arranging mortal time.  By puncturing a whole in the roof the floor below could be used to accurately track the “course” of the Sun: at the beginning of the 16th century it was still the earth that was stationary.  This discovery of a past life in my photograph reactivated a visibility in the photograph that I had not previously felt: the relationship between the subject’s camera in the photograph, and mine, in my hand.  With this movement “visible” the photograph spoke something more to me than the easy play of representations it originally seemed to, beyond its meaning. 


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