August 25, 2015

This world of ours, and worlds unseen,
And thin the boundary between (Josiah Conder (1789-1855))


9.00 am. I began reading of a text sent to me by a PhD theology and religious studies student. in order for me to comment on their discussion on photography in their thesis. (In the background, I played early albums by King Crimson — my prepping for the forthcoming concerts in September.) Extracts from my response:

  • I wondered whether their had been consideration of Barthes’ theory within thanatological/theological studies.
  • There are two genre of postmortem photography that play into (and muddy) Barthes’ response to images of the dead. First, spirit photography claims to capture the apparitional essence of the dead empirically. These images move beyond the notion of the photograph as indexical referent for, and token of, the once living. Instead, they putatively show an ‘object’ which is itself an indexical referent … but to the still ‘living’, beyond death.
  • The other genre is more earthbound: photographs of corpses that are ‘animated’ in the photographic studio to give the illusion of being alive. (A ‘still life’ in other terms.) Infants, adults, and soldiers killed on the battlefield were dressed, propped up, and photographed alongside their living, grieving relatives. In these examples, the coding is utterly confused: the rendered ‘object’ is dead but appears not to be; and the ‘living’ dead is understood, by the bereaved, to be both fictively living and actually dead simultaneously in the photograph.
  • One of the problems I have with Barthes’ theory (much as I admire and am grateful for it) is that he is not looking at the primary site of the emanation (the negative) but, rather, the secondary manifestation of such (the print). In other words, it’s a mediated rather than a direct index of the once present before the lens. Unlike an icon, therefore.
  • A discussion of the Turin Shroud as an ostensible emanation of referent may be worthwhile exploring in the context of the traditions of icons. There is a tradition of painterly copying of the shroud, in which the finished painting was pressed against the shroud so that, it was believed, the holiness of the relic (the original) would transfer to the painting (the copy). Analogically, the shroud was the negative and the painting, the print.
  • Moreover, the photographic print need not (in the manner of the negative) be unique. It could be one of many identical transfers from the negative. You may wish to look at Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) in this respect. Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura of art through its mechanical reproduction. For him, the aura represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. There are, I suggest, parallels between this notion of the ‘aura’ and Barthes’ concept of the ‘punctum’.
  • Idea: the bread and wine used to celebrate Holy Communion stands in the same relationship to the elements that Christ used to inaugurate the sacrament at the Last Supper as do prints to the negative. Whether one could argue the elements stand in the same relation to Christ’s body as does the negative to the photographed subject may require some theological contortion.
  • You might also want to look at artefacts associated with death and bereavement from the pre-photographic age (paintings, small sculptures, amulets, death masks etc.) Nigel Llewellyn’s The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual, c.1500-1800 (1991) provides an excellent overview of the topic. Personally, I suspect that the bereaved experienced something equivalent to the ‘punctum’ in relation to these objects.
  • Have you ever watched Stephen Poliakoff’s TV drama Shooting the Past (1999)? It’s a remarkable essay on the unique power and significance of photography.

2.00 pm. I continued making recordings from the partially erased 78 rpm of the Messiah, while battling with three Macs in order to establish a Bluetooth file-share connection between the trio. The aim of today’s recording session was to record using low-pass, mid-pass, and high-pass filters in order to isolate specific frequency ranges:


4.00 pm. I received an ‘Important Information’ email from the university’s Human Resources department regarding Professor David Trotter, who died yesterday aged 58:


He received his Chair and became Head of Department in 1993, two years before I did the same. I last talked to him 17 May this year at one of our lunches, which we’d enjoyed together, intermittently, for short of a decade. On these occasions, we would moan about the university and the state of higher education, laugh raucously, and put the world to rights. We had entirely different temperaments, world views, and little understanding of each other’s disciplines. But we got on famously. He was a man who spoke his mind and didn’t care who was listening, or about the consequences.  While David was a fighter and forthright, he was always reasoned in his opinion. You could disagree with him, but you couldn’t doubt his sincerity and sound motive. He was a man of integrity, with a well-defined sense of injustice, who didn’t suffer fools, and could sniff out stupidity and fakery at 10,000 metres. The university has lost one of its best.

6.30 pm. Practice session 1.  7.30 pm. I began putting together the third of the new lectures for the Abstraction module. The theme returns me to the aspects of  the topic for my undergraduate thesis: Picasso: A Simultaneity of Points of View (1981).

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