The Inventory of Mortality

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
Cameras began duplicating the world at that moment when the human landscape started to undergo a vertiginous rate of change: while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device is available to record what is disappearing” (P. 15).

“The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects — to fight against boredom” (p. 42).

“Through photographs we follow in the most intimate, troubling way the reality of how people age. To look at an old photograph of oneself, of anyone one has known, or of a much photographed public person is to feel, first of all: how much younger I (she, he) was then. Photography is the inventory of mortality. A touch of the finger now suffices to invest a moment with posthumous irony. … Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people” (p. 70).

“A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations” (p. 71).

“The photographer — and the consumer of photographs — follows in the footsteps of the ragpicker, who was one of Baudelaire’s favorite figures for the modern poet…. Bleak factory buildings and billboard-cluttered avenues look as beautiful, through the camera’s eye, as churches and pastoral landscapes. More beautiful, by modern taste. Recall that it was Breton and other Surrealists who invented the secondhand store as a temple of vanguard taste and upgraded visits to flea markets into a mode of aesthetic pilgrimage. The Surrealist ragpicker’s acuity was directed to finding beautiful what other people found ugly or without interest and relevance — bric-a-brac, naïve or pop objects, urban debris” (pp. 78-79).

“Photographs, when they get scrofulous, tarnished, stained, cracked, faded still look good; do often look better. (In this, as in other ways, the art that photography does resemble is architecture, whose works are subject to the same inexorable promotion through the passage of time; many buildings, and not only the Parthenon, probably look better as ruins.)
What is true of photographs is true of the world seen photographically. Photography extends the eighteenth-century literati’s discovery of the beauty of ruins into a genuinely popular taste. And it extends that beauty beyond the romantics’ ruins, such as those glamorous forms of decrepitude photographed by Laughlin, to the modernists’ ruins — reality itself. The photographer is willy-nilly engaged in the enterprise of antiquing reality, and photographs are themselves instant antiques. The photograph offers a modern counterpart of that characteristically romantic architectural genre, the artificial ruin: the ruin which is created in order to deepen the historical character of a landscape, to make nature suggestive — suggestive of the past” (pp. 79-80).

“In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object — through the fix of the photograph — is it really real, that is, surreal.
Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being “out there,” the world comes to be “inside” photographs. Our heads are becoming like those magic boxes that Joseph Cornell filled with incongruous small objects whose provenance was a France he never once visited. Or like a hoard of old movie stills, of which Cornell amassed a vast collection in the same Surrealist spirit: as nostalgia-provoking relics of the original movie experience, as means of a token possession of the beauty of actors. But the relation of a still photograph to a film is intrinsically misleading. To quote from a movie is not the same as quoting from a book. Whereas the reading time of a book is up to the reader, the viewing time of a film is set by the filmmaker and the images are perceived only as fast or as slowly as the editing permits. Thus, a still, which allows one to linger over a single moment as long as one likes, contradicts the very form of film, as a set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time. The photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies. Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are” (pp. 80-81).

“An important result of the coexistence of these two ideals — assault on reality and submission to reality — is a recurrent ambivalence toward photography’s means” (p. 123).
Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

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