Notes on a Photograph will be a recurring post on The Great Within. In these posts I will look at different vintage photographs which have attracted my interest and awakened my desire. As Roland Barthes would say these photographs animate me and simultaneously I animate them.
Two attractive, handsome young men pose for the camera either before or after a casual game of baseball. It is the 1920’s or 1930’s. I’m not sure. The setting is perhaps a small town, a park in a residential area. Private homes and trees are in the background of the photograph.
The two men stand close together with their arms around one another in a gesture of intimacy. There is an ease to their embrace. The man on the left wears a hat and has a baseball glove on his left hand. The man on the right holds a baseball in his right hand. They wear the clothes of their time and place. They stare out from the past at me the viewer.
There is nothing else to discover on the level of denotation. The photograph is all surface, impenetrable. All I am sure of, all I can be certain of is that what I see in this photograph has indeed existed. In Camera Lucida Barthes writes:
…every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent…Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation…I call “photographic referent” not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before a 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. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography…the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: That-has-been…(Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, pp. 76-77.)
Barthes conception is simple almost banal, yet disturbingly profound and unsettling. Looking at this photograph or any photograph I, the viewer, am confronted by the sheer magnitude and madness of photography, by its truth: That-has-been.
The two male figures in this particular photograph existed, lived, died. There is a specific narrative here that I don’t know and can never know. All I know is that this pose, this embrace occurred and is forever fixed by the photograph in front of my eyes. They are the “necessarily real thing” without which the image would not nor could not exist. The two men look out at me from the past and tell me nothing except this: their assured existence.
However, on the level of connotation, I can imagine, I can project, I can animate the photograph as it animates me. For me this photograph is erotic. It generates desire. I can imagine that this embrace before the camera lens is indicative of an intimacy which existed beyond the eye of the camera, beyond the frame of the photograph. I can speculate that these two men were connected beyond mere friendship, beyond a game of baseball. In my mind, in the eternity of the photograph, I want them to be homosexuals who are and were connected, who are and were in love, who endure and endured despite the dominant fiction and its potential real life consequences. I want to believe that they stare out at me with confidence and satisfaction in themselves, alone and together. I want them to provide me with a past, a lineage, a history.
To underline how this photograph generates desire for me, I turn once again to Barthes and his understanding of the difference between the erotic and the pornographic photograph. He states:
The presence…of the blind field (what is beyond the frame)is, I believe, what distinguishes the erotic from the pornographic photograph. Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me…the erotic photograph on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame and it is there that I animate the photograph and it animates me. (Barthes, pp. 57-59.)
Pornographic photographs are fragile, mundane; interest in them lasts until the cumshot and then they are useless and discarded. In contrast the erotic photograph endures because it takes the viewer outside its frame to the blind field of continuing animation and desire.
In the photograph of the two men, I am distracted constantly by the large leather baseball mitt worn by the left male figure. It is the fissure in the skin of the photographic image. It is poignant to me. It cuts me and simultaneously allows me to cut, to penetrate the photograph, to animate it with my desire.
The way the glove covers almost the entire torso of the other figure evokes for me possession, touch, physical intimacy, something visceral, something sexual, something I cannot quite name. For me, this formal detail is the punctum of the image. It takes me outside the frame to the blind field and “launches desire beyond what it permits (me) to see…” not only towards naked bodies, to bodies engaged in sex, but to “an excellence of a being, body and soul together.”(Barthes, p. 59.)
Such a desire is not possible with the pornographic photograph. In this photograph of two men, the bodies are generous, available, erotic (expressed for me in the oversized glove). In contrast, the pornographic body displays itself, but is never available. It does not give itself. The desire it fosters is brief, short-lived, ultimately false and in the end unsatisfying. This photograph of tw0 men in an embrace engenders a desire that prevails and provides me with a moment of bliss.