on photography, false promises, and melancholy

Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

“I would argue that the compulsion of the narrative derives its interpretive animation from the real threat of loss,” Michael Ann Holly writes in her book The Melancholy Art; whether as an art historian you are acting the detective solving the mystery of a painting, or the philosopher attempting to articulate an affective response to a work of art, the motivation for the work remains the same: the experience of a loss.

We don’t photograph the people, we photograph the era, photographing the people is impossible, is how Karl Ove Knausgaard muses (my paraphrase) on the surprising lack of comfort found in an encounter with an old family photograph. Of course one does, literally, photograph people, but it does seem to be the case that our encounter with photography privileges the medium itself, the ways in which it inevitably exhibits its age, the ways in which the technology is bound up with a specific period, the Benjaminian aura that clouds and suffuses photography’s subjects, pointing to their impossible temporal distance from us as the viewers. I’m not certain but perhaps our disappointment is inextricably bound up in an inherited idea of what the camera does; embedded in the technology of the camera itself is the promise to freeze, to capture, or maybe to re-constitute reality, a promise to preserve, to deliver to its viewers the people and places it depicts. Of course it doesn’t do this, and we know the camera and by extension the photograph cannot fulfill that promise, we don’t think we even expect it to any longer, we’re wiser than the people documented in the stories of photography’s initial reception, superstitious as they were in the face of this magical new device, but early associations die hard, and perhaps the melancholic nostalgia prompted by photography refers forever to what we perceive as photography’s false promise, a failure we know we should know better than to continue experiencing, but seem to be unable to avoid, just as we cannot avoid returning to the photographs despite our persistent disappointment.

Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy arises here; if mourning indicates the experience of a conscious loss and melancholy that of an unconscious, object-less experience of loss, the melancholy photographs trigger in viewers (something seemingly innate to the technology since we experience the same melancholy when viewing photographs of people or places we don’t know just the same [albeit perhaps less strongly] than those of people or places we do), arises not simply from the loss of the people in the photo, but from the unconscious experience of photography’s failed promise to deliver those people to us at all: the true and far more complex experience of loss prompted by photography reveals our unconscious awareness of the way technology conditions and fails us at one and the same time.

I’m adapting Holly’s charting of the melancholy she finds to be implicit in the discipline of art history as a whole to Knausgaard’s (and my own) experience with memory and images. Holly uses Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy to speak of a possible motivation for the art historian’s continual attempt to achieve the impossible; to bridge the gap between experience and object through language. Because the art object remains long after its world is lost, the pursuit of art through writing is doomed to melancholy; the materiality of the art object ensures we remain forever aware of the loss of pasts we can never recapture.

In the same way the people and places in photographs remain forever elusive yet we return to them again and again, as their object-ness both allows and perhaps even dictates, out of an inevitable attempt to re-claim these people, despite knowing we will be forever disappointed.


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