I am either lacerated or ill at ease
and occasionally subject to gusts of life
— Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
Many photographers, amateurs like myself, pick up a camera because they prefer to stand behind the lens, not in front of it.
I take photographs to find out how I see. I frame the world, and alter what is captured to draw out a detail or distill an emotion. As a photographer, I view the images of others to see how they choose to experience the world. To engage in a visual conversation, if you will.
However, I rarely photograph people and never attempt portraits. I admire those who do—but my reaction to their subjects is always uneasy, strained. My response is exaggerated when the subject is unclothed. Then I become increasingly uncomfortable. It is an aesthetic, not a moral discontent. I do not question my orientation or believe that the display of nudity is intrinsically wrong. Rather, as an observer of the naked human form, I find it difficult to step back, to locate a neutral stance. I am forced to reflect myself against the subject, and am forever reminded of the uncertain embodied space I inhabit.
My vantage point is ever informed, and distorted, by a lifelong journey to align sex and gender. Nudity, in art and photography, unsettles my hard won wholeness. As of late, this discomfort has been growing. I am drawn in and pushed away. I’m left feeling exposed in the face of a photographic sphere I cannot approach without mediation.
I need to find a way to define and articulate this experience.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes comes to Photography on its own terms—as historical record, artistic representation, and personal memento. He is on a mission to dissect the nature of his reaction to the photographic image, and understand why he responds to certain photographs—admittedly few—so strongly. I suppose my own mission is a variation on this theme.
Too “impatient” to take photographs himself, Barthes recognizes that he can only access photography from two perspectives: subject observed and subject observing. I, by contrast, view images as a photographer—the Operator in this scheme—and as the observer. Yet it is my relation to the subject observed, when that subject is human, that is abstracted, complex and, sometimes troubled.
Barthes was, of course, frequently photographed during his lifetime. In the instances where he was aware of being photographed he admits to having a certain performative relationship with the camera. He attempts to shape the image he wishes to project but finds that the captured image never coincides with his “self.” An expression is always conferred upon his countenance leading him to exclaim: “If only Photography could give me a neutral, anatomic body, a body which signifies nothing!”
To set the framework for his discussion of photography, Barthes must first define the nebulous quality that exists in those photographs that strike him as exceptional, famously settling on the term punctum—his designation for the seemingly incidental detail or feature that catches his attention, that disturbs his viewing. This project, that of the Spectator, is a sentimental one. The methodology he employs is personal. He wants to explore Photography “not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, I notice, I observe, and I think.”
A wound. For my own much more specific inquiry, this word holds weight.
As a spectator, Barthes is drawn to subjects that either contain or clearly invite people. A photograph only holds interest for its human element—a landscape, rural or urban, must be habitable. He recognizes within himself a longing to inhabit.
As a photographer, I am drawn to landscapes and cityscapes, but prefer to limit or obscure signs of habitation. I seek the empty horizon, the cloud draped sky, the abandoned street, the architectural angle. There is a pull to escape, to distraction. But as a spectator of the photographed human form, I see a bodyscape.
And recognize within myself a longing to inhabit.
In the female nude I see the curves and hollows that I never managed to own, a reflection of the uneasy alliances of a past life. In the male I see the promised land, the migrant’s dream of a better life. A world I know and understand better than the one I left behind. A newfound home.
The journey has transformed me. Reconstructed me. Changed the way I am seen and the way I see. In the alignment of inner and outer self, emotion and arousal are redefined. Suddenly the world is filled with bodies, parts, flesh. As a sexual being I place myself within that world, observer and observed. Male attracted to male. But I come from a different bodied space.
What remains? What lingers? And what does it mean?
There is no space where female ends and male begins. Maleness assumes the body of birth, transfigures and contains it in a distinct masculinity. The death of an old way of being, the re-imagination of the new.
A work in progress.
At least part of the problem at hand lies not with me, or others who walked a similar path. Nude photography, as an art form, occupies unstable ground between the ridiculous and the sublime. The sexual is explicit in the presentation, but difficult to capture in the isolated moment the camera frames. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger argues that, in reality, the sexual function of nakedness is to act as confirmation, provoking a strong sense of relief as we come to see that the other, the new lover, is “more like the rest of their sex than they are different.” As the body is revealed:
The focus of perception shifts from eyes, mouth, shoulders and hands—all of which are capable of such subtleties of expression that the personality expressed by them is manifold—it shifts from these to the sexual parts, whose formation suggests an utterly compelling but single process. The other is reduced or elevated—whichever you prefer—to their primary sexual category: male or female.
This process of uncovering, of discovery, and confirmation, makes it very difficult to capture sexual nakedness in a static image. The photographer’s easy solution is to turn the naked into the nude, generalizing the subject and the viewer. Desire becomes fantasy.
And any naked body that differs from the expected becomes a fetish.
I see, I feel, I notice, I observe, and I think. And I recognize the wound.
Camera Lucida is essentially a work of mourning. Barthes claims that a photographic image contains the death of its subject, implicitly and, in time, explicitly. The death that drives his meditation is, of course, that of his mother. He finds her essence in a faded childhood image, an image that is not reproduced because he knows, rightly, that it would have no meaning for others beyond idle historical curiosity.
His meditation is a photographic meditation on death. Not as a photographer but as a curator, as a theorist and as a son bereaved.
For me, to view the body is to confess to loss, to admit to grief. To observe is to be reminded that life is a journey with parameters that define and confine—not body and soul, but spirit and skin.
I ask myself if it’s even possible to find a stance as a spectator that is neutral enough to allow for the appreciation of the naked human form in photographic art? Or perhaps that is not the proper question. I understand the forces that push me away—that trigger a level of discomfort—but what is it that draws me in? I am not thinking of explicitly pornographic imagery which, even when executed with skill, is intended to illicit a certain reaction. That is not the concern.
It would seem that my response to female images is of a different quality than my reaction to the male nude. Both entail an element of loss, both elicit pain. A woman’s body triggers a complex mixture of guilt and failure, a history that lives with me. A man’s body holds the intersection of identification, approximation, and attraction. It arouses, reflects, and aggrieves me. I am lost in endless rotation.
I am mourning the misgendered life into which I was born. I question the possibility of truly feeling whole, whatever that is.
But it always comes back to the body. The photograph distresses me because it stops short my ontological progress on the physical axis. One can only go so far. I crave the vulnerability I feel. The body distorted. Images that blend, blur, and obscure—faint outlines exposed against the light.
Distract me, if briefly. But leave me, behind the lens.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer based in Calgary, Canada. He is criticism/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine, and an editor at The Scofield.
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