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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

SIGNS : January 14, 2001


History's wounds

Vivek Narayanan

The author is a poet and anthropologist who has lived and worked in South Africa, the U.S. and South India.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

THE confusing thing about photographs (which would today include, for instance, X-ray images) is that they can be, at the same time, both "historical facts" and works of art. This seeming contradiction reaches back to the time when photography was invented in the 1830s. On the one hand, the technology of photographs was made public at exactly the same time that the philosophy of positivism (which was to have a profound effect on virtually every discipline in the 20th century, and which placed an absolute value on facts that could be observed, quantified, and "proven") was also becoming established. Photography, in conjunction with the other discoveries in optics which preceded it, took the probing eye of science further than it had ever gone before. On the other hand, photography was also taken up as a medium for art, and fantasy, at an early stage. Many of the earliest photographs tended to imitate the vision of painting and portraiture, and were deeply concerned with depicting ("subjective") emotional as well as ("objective") physical landscapes. Social realism in photography attempted to reconcile "art" with "facts" and would soon have a powerful influence on the ubiquitous works of photo-journalists, most of whom still claim to represent the unmediated truth.

Alas, the real truth is that photography can embark on, but never completely fulfil the noble mission of positivism. Photographs create myths. They always have a point of view. Even the earliest photographers consciously participated in this process of myth-making. In what became an early photographic icon, for instance, a gaunt Abraham Lincoln was made to look handsome and Presidential when photographer Mathew Brady retouched his face.

Manoj K. Jain

Furthermore, the misleading completeness of a visual image could be used to stand in the place of a detailed explanation. Cultural anthropologists, for instance, used photography to suggest a knowledge of communities that it could not yet properly communicate with. Later, they would use the medium to suggest the past as a kind of eternal present. The famous early photographs of Andaman Islanders in their "tribal innocence" were staged after their communities had been broken apart, converted and relocated to work camps.

What is important to note here, is that there was a strong early awareness of the photograph's ability to mislead. British popular science journals from the late 19th century such as La Nature published "trick" photographs that were intentionally surreal. American postcard photographer William H. Martin's extremely popular montage photographs, taken between 1908 and 1912, featured absurdly huge vegetables or rabbits the size of elephants, parodying romantic myths about rural America and calling attention to their constructed nature. There seemed, well into the early 20th century, a popular mistrust of photography as "science" and a greater interest in its possibilities as "entertainment", if not quite "art".

This widespread mistrust and light-hearted approach to the photographic image began, however, to become submerged by the mid-20th century: the public became more willing to believe what it saw and to almost wilfully ignore the artifice involved in the process. What explains this shift?

Aditya Dhawan
A house-entrance in Punjab locked with handcuffs during the Khalistan liberation crackdown by security forces.

Three reasons suggest themselves. Firstly, the fact that paper photographs could be easily reproduced made it very difficult for the official custodians of "Art" to accept them. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in a famous essay, the art world depended on the mysterious, fetishistic aura that gathered around a singular and unique object. The early daguerrotype photographs were made on individual plates and were unique in this way. With a paper photograph, a "reproduction" was the same thing as the "original" - what were the collectors to pay for?

Secondly, the continually falling prices of the process and technology had allowed photography to become the popular medium by which people told their own stories. Previously, only very rich and powerful families could establish the importance and history of their lineage by having portraits painted; now a far wider group of families could do the same. A photograph could help a family to "pin down" and "preserve" its history. This is why, even today, every family photograph has to be photographed in exactly the same way. The basic conventions of this kind of photography have changed very little in more than a hundred years.

With the cheap photograph, history became something the average person could own. Histories began to proliferate, and with them a greater popular need to believe in the immutability and value of historical facts in general. The life of the individual could, through the photograph, be more easily linked to the life of the nation. In India, this possibility was most acutely understood and explored by none other than M.K. Gandhi. Gandhi's photographs would lay a primal emphasis on the way he looked and presented himself, alternately baffling and inspiring viewers around the world. Thanks to the medium of photography, a London-educated Gujarati lawyer could re-incarnate himself as the mythical "common man".

Henri Cartier Bresson
Tiruvannamalai, 1950. Bhagwan Maharishi, who had just died, is surrounded by his devotees at the start of the funeral ceremonies. He was buried sitting, and not cremated, having accomplished every stage of reincarnation and attained the state of a pure soul.

Finally, I cannot help feeling that there is a third, admittedly impressionistic reason for the establishment of photographs as "facts" in the 20th century, and this has to do with the long and melancholy shadow cast by death. There is, as Roland Barthes tells us, a great sadness that one feels when one looks at a photograph. This sadness, he continues, is the presence of death; the way that photographs, especially old photographs, remind us of "what-has-been" and never "what-is". The First World War, according to many historians, was a turning point when the "truth" of photography, in the reality of war, began to make itself felt. This was despite the fact that the photographers of the time rarely came close to the actual fighting front, as they were to do in later wars. The millions of senseless deaths in this century have etched themselves indelibly into our collective memory not so much through any explanation of why they came about, or even so much because of their large numbers, but mostly because of how they have been photographed.

Today, in the age of digital imaging, when real wars themselves are made to look like computer games, when the Internet's countless sex-starved nerds can, with a simple mouse-click, mix, match and resize their favourite body parts, it would be hard for even the most načve pair of eyes to easily believe what it sees. Not coincidentally, several social theorists, from both the Right and the Left, have proclaimed, in their different ways, the "end of history". If the press photograph, with its pretensions to telling the "whole story" could represent the idealism of earlier decades, the photographic images that most clearly mark our times are those very cynical ones that come from advertising, and from pornography.

Henri Cartier Bresson
Henri Cartier Bresson
Tiruvannamalai, 1948. The favourite peacock of Bhagwan Sri Ramana Maharishi strolls about the grounds of his ashram. Tiruvannamalai, 1950. At the ashram of the Bhagwan Maharishi, devotees pay their respects to the dying guru.

I cannot help concluding that, once the moral red herring of nudity is laid aside, most visual advertising is essentially a kind of pornography. In both Penthouse magazine and your average ad for cigarettes, soap or coffee, the viewer is offered what is obviously an airbrushed fantasy with the photograph's intrinsic texture of reality. Only very young children are still "fooled". Instead, what is at work is a contract between viewer and producer based on the lowest common denominator, and a kind of viewing in which sexuality is detached from emotion. Is this where the promise of photography, and history, must end?

I tend to think not. What will never fade is the enduring mystery of old photographs. What was the subject of a photograph actually thinking? What happened next? Like the detective-photographer in writer Julio Cortazar and film-maker Antonioni's "Blow-Up", we will find that these questions refuse to go away, or be answered completely. Always, the photograph, somehow, obstinately, contains these partial and unforeseen residues of its reality before it became part of the world of signs.

In a surprising, critical move made at the end of his life, on the precipice of death, unable to relinquish the idea of "reality", Roland Barthes, the legendary critic and semiotician, contrasted the aspects of a photograph which lent themselves easily to codification with those aspects that could not be so easily canned. This second - unpredictable and unresolvable - "real" property of photographs, Barthes argued, was what aroused true emotion and a new kind of seeing in him. He compared this aspect of photographs to a wound. The burdens of reality, and of history, we have learnt, can never be completely captured in our world of signs; but, contrary to the simplistic claims of some post-modernists, neither can those wounds be wished away.


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