Friday, October 23, 2009

Notes on a Photograph: A German World War II Soldier

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2) Snapshot of a World War II German Soldier?, circa 1939-45

I bought this photograph on eBay quite by chance. Something about it struck me both formally and emotionally; it pierced me as Roland Barthes would say. The small black and white snapshot measuring 3.5”x2.5” came from Germany and according to the seller, it is a depiction of a German soldier during World War II. It seems a plausible conclusion as the seller had many other images for sale which were clear pictures of German soldiers during the war; I am, therefore, assuming that this photograph is indeed of that period and shows a German soldier.

Also, in his listings, the seller has a prominent and interesting disclaimer which states:

I certify that the contemporary and military historical items I offer from the 1933 to 1945 period are intended purely for the purposes of public education, to defend against unconstitutional and anticonstitutional activities, to be used for scientific or art history research, for explanations or correspondent reporting of the events during this period, and for research of military history and the study of uniforms, as spelled out in Paragraphs 86 and 86a of the Penal Code. By placing a bid on artifacts that have the emblem of the Third Reich featured, the buyer pledges that he is acquiring these items solely for historical or scientific purposes or because of reasons stated above and that he will not use them in any manner as propaganda, particularly per meaning of Paragraphs 86 and 86a of the Penal Code !

More than 50 years later, the legacy and fear of the Nazis is still quite evident in Germany and the law attempts to prevent its reemergence. I suppose even images of that distant past can be dangerous when used as propaganda. On the other hand, these photographs testify to the reality of the events of the war such as the Holocaust and the other atrocities committed by the German Army especially in the East (the That-has-been of Barthes). Despite the photographic evidence, these events are on some level still quite unfathomable and unimaginable.

Yet, how can one even conceptualize the Holocaust beyond the photographic remains? As Adorno said, “After the Holocaust, it is barbaric to write poetry.” Adorno realized on some level that the Holocaust can never be represented because it is incomprehensible and no depiction, photographic or otherwise, can embody the sheer evil and horror of it. Of course, there have been many representations of the Holocaust which serve to bear witness to this tragedy despite perhaps the inadequacy of their result. Despite Adorno’s warning silence cannot be the only response to such inhumanity.

My digression into the politics of representation in regard to World War II is important I believe because of my relationship to the photograph of the German soldier. It goes beyond the image’s history and specificity to a place of desire which is at first physical and then pre-Oedipal: beyond language, culture and history. (For a greater discussion of desire, photography and Roland Barthes see my earlier posts The Great Within and The Great Within Part 2.) This dynamic makes me uneasy. Before exploring the image in depth, I need to acknowledge the troubling fact that a picture of a World War II German soldier has fostered my desire.

The image depicts a male figure in an enclosed, cramped space. He is seated and hunched over with his elbows on his knees. His right arm hangs between his legs and his left arm crosses over to his right elbow. His head hangs down so that his face is obscured in shadow. Only his left ear is visible. The face is further hidden by the figure’s hair which is quite long in front, but quite short and cropped at the neck.

The photograph has an almost abstract quality. It is a complex arrangement of black, white and grey shapes which cohere to form the image. This formal abstraction underlines and enhances the enigmatic nature of the photograph. Is the figure in pain, afraid, depressed, or simply just physically exhausted? Is his somatic disposition a reaction to the war in general, the loss of a comrade, the loss of a battle, the loss of a loved one or the rejection of a lover? The viewer can never really know the answer. The photograph is intimate, but not explicit. I am witness to a private and vulnerable moment. The subject is unaware of my presence. I not only behold him, but I apprehend him.

Yet, ultimately the photograph is opaque. All the spectator can ever know in regard to this image is the Barthesian noeme of photography: That-has-been. This man existed and he assumed this physical position with his head bent and his elbows on his knees in an enclosed space with a small window or mirror above him at a particular moment in the past. The viewer cannot learn anything further from the representation itself. (Indeed, my knowledge of it as a picture of a World War II German soldier is anecdotal from the seller of the photograph. It is not inherent within the representation. But, I cannot unremember this fact when I gaze upon the picture and hence, my unease.)

As a spectator, I am not a neutral subject. This photograph touched me, pierced me. It awakens my desire and (for me at least) it is an erotic image. The locus of my desire is the exposed neck of the soldier and its closely cropped hair. It is a shining white, triangular shape that is almost at the center of the photograph. It conjures up scenes of kissing, biting, nuzzling. It engenders a physical response in me. It is the Barthesian punctum of the image.

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2)

Another part of this somatic response is precipitated by the closely shorn hair at the neck of the figure. It invites an imagination of touch. It reveals my own fascination with the hairline of a man. The image becomes more than merely an expression of That-has-been, it is transformed (in my own great within) into an erotic photograph.

Regarding the erotic picture, Barthes states: “…the erotic photograph…(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. “ The image of the soldier is set within a restricted space; it is on one level claustrophobic. The soldier has little room to move within the architecture. The photograph is closed, restricted, bound within its frame.

Yet, above the soldier’s head is a small window or perhaps a mirror. Its view or reflection is unseen. Whether a mirror or window, it is a way out of the space for the viewer. It is my escape outside the frame where I animate the photograph and it animates me, where I revel in the smooth, white neck of the figure and his magnificent hairline.

10-20-2009 11;25;02AM (2)

The imagistic desire engendered by the German soldier photograph goes beyond mere sexual gratification. That is the function and purpose of the pornographic image. While still physically stimulating, the erotic photograph can go beyond simply sex and propose a desire that is pre-Oedipal, beyond language, culture and history. But, in the end, history always frames the image and traps it, whether it is the actual moment of the photograph or the historical position of the viewer. I will always see this photograph as a picture of a World War II German soldier and that makes me a bit uncomfortable even while it simultaneously provides me with a momentary bliss.

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