The other day I went looking for my mother in the garden. Her rosemary sprung up fragrant, but the scent of it could not hold her. Her lavender was delicate, but the touch of it was not hers. Her daisies bloomed in November, but their endurance outlasted her breathing.
The other day I went looking for my mother in a shoebox. Holding up ivory
lace, she eluded my touch. Clasping her earrings of Prussian blue and bright rose, her face escaped my vision. I picked up “Peter the Rabbit”, a story she read to me as a child. Her voice lay mute when I turned the stiff white pages.
“Where is my mother?” I asked still, childlike. Her figure has slipped away from the shoebox; her body has dispersed from the forms in the garden. A silent circle draws me patiently around the same questions. I walk away from the flowers, from the shoebox, to the path away from the house. My feet fall to earth seeking ground from where there exist no urgent replies.
The other day I went looking for my mother in a photograph. Thumbing fading matte photo of my mother at age five, her young face flashed a smile that spoke of a mischievious innocence. Barthes would say the photograph, like all photographs, is a catastrophe. To look at this picture of my mother as an child, knowing she will die, is to experience tragedy. All photographs are tragic. Sontag would say the image of my mother at the age of five participates in my her mortality, her vulnerability her mutability. I contemplate these things as I contemplate the love, the loss and the photograph of my mother.
My mother loved photographing. I wonder if contemplating her image and her images will help me find her, or perhaps just digest the loss of her. Photographs she took lined my childhood home, strings of her negatives collected in the basement, and thick family albums stacked the shelves of our home. I wonder if I have inherited her photographic eye as I have inherited her camera. After her death, I spent many evenings in our basement searching through libraries of slides and albums of her pictures. Through images, my mother experimented with colour and contrast, angles and lighting, graphing her perception of the life she lived, of things she loved – insects, trees, and the garden- with shadow and light. She kept albums of our family, documenting stages of our childhood in images accompanied with careful captions of where each moment took place, what was happening, and who was there.
Like her, I have spent quiet evenings burying myself in a basement darkroom infiltrated with infrared light and saturated in the scent of developing fluid. Silent in semi-darkness, I have watched the burning of shadows on paper, witnessed the gradual appearance of a moment of light striking an image and hitting the lens, the film, burning and leaving its mark. I have wondered silently, where has my mother left her mark? Where has her light and shadow fallen to and burnt upon the earth? The answers to those questions seem endless. I am beginning to unveil all the marks my mother has left in my mind, all the memories and moments held in breathing, all the traits and characteristics held in my genes. As I look at the photograph of my mother, I ask just one question tonight: What is the relationship of processing images of my mother and that processing of the loss of her?
We live in an age bombarded in images. As much as photography intrigues me, and invites me to contemplate loss, the passing of time, and the eventual death of each thing photographed, the compulsion to photograph and look at photographs calls to question what it is I am seeking as part of a culture congested with so many images. Am I trying to elude death by capturing life? Am I seeking the revival of time past by flipping through albums of what has been? I walk around the crowded streets or turn on my laptop, and a steady stream of photographs cascades upon my psyche: advertisements, billboards, social networking updates, vacation photos. At times I feel overburdened with images of others, and overburdened with the presentation of an image of myself to others.
Roland Barthes felt a similar discomfort in the act of having his picture taken. He talks of how his self never coincides with his image, how the self does not hold still “giggling in a jar.” Photographs give a neutral, anatomic body, a body, which to him signifies nothing of the self being photographed. Sontag speaks of a cultural compulsion to photograph the passing of time, and how by displaying fragmentary, isolated picturesque perfections of the world teaches us nothing morally of our condition of being human. “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.” She writes in On Photography, “But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.”
Remembering this, I walk down the street and remind myself that the world is not as it seems. Life can neither be captured, nor consoled in its totality by a photograph. If I take a picture a stranger on the street, the image I have taken rarely tells me in a moral sense of the depth of her life: of her dreams, her conflicts, her sorrows, her joys. Can photography teach us to live with others, to see beyond their images, to prepare for the death of each image, each reflection, each life? Does the face of another digitally recorded engage me with a deeper connection with her soul? If I look at the photograph of another online, in a magazine, or book, even if that photograph documents her interiority, or affords a glimpse of her emotional life, does it allow for even a moment of tue intimacy with the soul of another?
In an age of images, the lens gives the illusion of control over reality, and perhaps the illusion of the control over death. We all participate in what Sontag calls a kind of aesthetic consumerism to which she believes we are all addicted. We preserve ourselves in photographs, freezing images of our bodies in the endless passing of time. Think of the latest catalogue you have received in the mail, or recall a walk in any metropolitan shopping centre. In addition to the illusion of preserving the passing of time, catalogues of illusions manufacture our desires, bidding our attention for their admittance into our dreams. “I wish my life were like the life in that photograph,” I have caught myself thinking, as I consume aesthetically a vision of a happy couple attired in the latest fashions, having brunch, and caught laughing in the perfectly lit kitchen. I witness the desire as I glance at the lives of others online, to have a life that is something other than what it is - to have something other than what is arising right now. Did the images in the shopping centre, or the photographs online ask for consent into my dreams? Will those images teach me to live a better life among others? Will they teach me to be compassionate, ethical, or loving? Will they teach me how to die?
I turn back to the photograph of my mother, the album she kept of our family, and to my own black folder serving as a collection of photos wrapped with twine . They remind me that photographs have the potential to ignite in me a feeling of connection. I am happy these images exist, are near, and inspire a narrative of my life lived in and born of connection. They invite me to be aware that time is passing, that my life and its ancestry have meaning, and the connections to the people I have loved make life valuable. Neither the narrative nor the image can encapsulate any web of life in its entirety, but recollected in affection, accompanied with higher human feeling, looking at photographs stirs the sense of communion.
About a month after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami, strewn through the mud and wreckage, survivors discovered thousands of family photographs, badly damaged by water. Volunteers hand-cleaned more than 55, 000 of those photos for the survivors. Restoring an image, if only superficially, restored in the minds of the survivors the presence of what is loved. I imagine if my own family had disappeared in the nightmare of disaster, how much such a discovery would mean to me. In Japan it is common to keep the photos of dead ancestors on an altar, to give them tea and pray to them.
That practice has inspired me to keep my own photograph of my mother on my own altar. Occasionally I catch her eyes, and for a moment they sparkle alive. For a moment, a presence nearly feels there in the room. I wonder sometimes if she is watching me, not from the photograph, but near, if she is guarding me, if she hears me when search for in gardens, albums and shoeboxes.
In Camera Lucida, contemplating the photograph of his mother, Roland Barthes writes that it is neither the photograph nor any image that holds the self, but “love, extreme love” For him, his birth mother embodied that love and that love “erases the weight of the image.” The self, the mother, and the love she embodied, are neither museum objects, nor representations posing in time. My mother is neither this image I hold of her, nor this shoebox of her things, nor this garden of her flowers. My mother is neither this nor that. Neti neti, yogis might say. She can’t be held; she can’t be placed. She isn’t any these things, but: “love, extreme love.”
“Where is she?” Barthes asks looking for his mother in what he calls "The Winter Garden Photograph", in a picture of his mother standing left of centre holding the young Roland in her arms. As he looks away from the photograph, Barthes describes an “air” that he calls the presence of the spirit of his mother. It isn’t the photograph that is his mother, which itself is somewhat violent in that it fills “the sight with force”, but the silence after the sight, forceless in his vision. Turning away from the things that remind me of her - a garden of flowers, a pair of earrings, a childhood photograph - at times she nearly reappears “an air”. She assigns herself no importance, and the shadow of her presence makes its mark within me. It is neither her likeness, nor objects of her affection, but a feeling of love, of extreme love.
I recognize the duality present in the act of taking and keeping photographs. On the one hand, photography can encourage the objectification of subjects and an acquisitive relationship with the world. It nourishes an aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment. "It furnishes," as Sontag says, "this already crowded world with a duplicate one of imitates making us feel the world is more available than it already is". On the other hand, by photographing and viewing images of the people we love, photography has the potential to nourish emotional connection. How does one save oneself from the emotionally detached influences of photography and embrace the practice in a compassionate way to encourage emotional and spiritual communion?
The American photographer Sally Mann is one example of an artist who communicates compassion in her art. She photographs without objectification, without over-investment in concepts, nor the aestheticizing of life. I see her as a heroine in this genre. In different ways she contemplates time, memory, loss and love. Photographing her family and the southern landscape she calls home, the camera neither acts like a rifle, nor an instrument of objectification, as it does for example in the hands of the fashion photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Instead, Mann photographs her own children, who are complicit in the process of creating art. She considers her work as an ongoing collaboration between herself as a mother and photographer and her children as subjects. Her photography communicates the bond of mother and child. Her photographs are affectionate and compassionate; they inspire connection and a sense of maternal affection rather than one of emotional detachment or a sentimental sense of the beautiful. In addition to photographing her family, Mann photographs the unknown dead, organically decaying in the land. Rather than aestheticizing the grotesque, she asks us to face death and the existence of the body in its return to the earth in way that is is tender and contemplative.
When asked how she would advise younger artists to choose their subjects, Mann says, “The things that are close to you, [they] are the things that you can photograph the best, and unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art.”
When I look at my mother's photograph, flip through her albums, or search for her in the turning away from images, I am reminded this art of the photograph has a place in contemplating love, loss and death. Perhaps in a small way, contemplating images of those lost in disaster, by disease, or in the natural process of the cycle earth, I can participate in letting go a little of this flesh, this image of self, and enter into an intimate relationship with what is beyond the photograph.
- Nancy Miller