Monday, May 9, 2011


What follows is an essay I wrote about photography and my father; two subjects that, as this essay shows, are now inextrictably bound together for me.

Out Standing in a Field

Photographs are representations of presences. They stand in place of that which is outstanding, of those who cannot be with us now. A photograph re-presents a place and a time, a past time. Some re-present loved ones and are carried in miniature in purses or wallets allowing convenient retrieval for bragging or inspiration. Those same pictures might grace mantles or wallspaces, symbolically keeping the family home together. The pictures I have of my father keep him alive for me; they keep him in my view. Maybe they keep me in his view as well. I cannot tell because I’m on the life-side of the measure.

My photographs of dad, I mean the one’s I personally took with him, testify to two very important facts: 1) that he was there, and 2) I was there with him. At bottom that’s what they prove. They function as evidence, as representations which are slowly becoming presences—idols maybe, or icons? These photographs of dad testify and justify his presence just like Barthes and Sontag say they do. But they do so much more so much more simply. They remind me of my father by allowing me to review him. The pictures conjure him up in my mind, but increasingly the memories they conjure are less about dad and more about themselves—the pictures, that is. The memories of dad that stand out most are the memories of taking pictures of him. Below are some of these memories.

Past and Presence

Barthes says the essence of Photography lies in the that-has-been. Regardless of any amount of posing, staging, or altering, something—that— was really captured by the camera. Photographs, Barthes theorizes, are different from other systems of representation in that the referent of the photograph is physically present before the lens (76). Photographs relate to their referent, the presence, in more concrete ways than words do. Words signify arbitrarily, e.g. the word “photograph” does not resemble any photograph whatsoever. A photograph, however, relates to its referent so closely that most people do not feel the need to mention that they are looking at a photograph. The picture above shows my dad working on his 1954 Chevy 2 Ton truck at our family farm in Olton, Texas. When I show this picture to others, or others see this picture in the home, the exchange goes something like this, “Is that your father?” I say yes. I do not feel compelled to say “no, that’s a picture of my father.” People are no longer confused by the lifelikeness of the photograph, on the contrary, that is the quality most people appreciate.

Of course that’s my father in the picture. That’s my real father, not an artist’s representation of him. The man in the photograph is my father. The philosophical dilemmas revolve around the word “is.” Philosophical problems have always revolved around this word because “is” is the most abstract of words, even more so than death. There’s two thousand years of difficulty trying to delimit the referent for the “is” sign. “Is” is being. Of course my father “is notting,” or “is not is-ing” in the photograph, but he was working, which is close enough to “is-ing” when I took the photograph. The photograph testifies that my father was, and that, at least in the photograph, he still is… being that is, existing. My father-was-there—that is what the photograph evidences.

The fact that a photograph is a “representation” does not detract from the reality of the event, or of my father’s presence in the photograph. Problems arise when I start hugging or talking to the photograph as if it-is-still my father, although that does happen on select memorial days—his birthday, his deathday. I do not commune with the photograph because I think it-is-still my father, but because it reminds me of him. Barthes’s temporalizing of the essence of photography as that-has-been shows the limitations of the inanimate photograph. Photographs cannot show what-is-still, it is not in their essence, it is outside their province. Photographs show us what was in front of the lens at the time the photographer released the shutter and captured the scene. What was there might still be there—like a building, or a stationary object—but it will never be there again. Dad will never lean over the cowl of his Chevy again. A twist of being changed dad’s existence from alive to dead, and the Chevy’s from being my dad’s to being my grandfather’s who is still living.

My photograph of dad working on his Chevy shows how things were before all beings involved went their separate ways—dad to death, the Chevy to papa, and me to…here. The dispersion happened like family photographs, which Sontag writes, “show people being so irrefutably there and at a specific age in their lives; group together people and things which a moment later have already disbanded, changed, continued along the course of their independent destinies” (70). The dynamics of the triad of beings present in “Workin’ on the ’54 Chevy” didn’t disband immediately after I snapped the shutter; it happened nine months later. Destinies on independent courses caught together for 1/500th of a second.

Replacing Presence

The photograph testifies to a past presence, what Barthes calls that-has-been. The temporal approximation of has-been begs the spatial question of where-was-it? It in this case being the “target,” aka, the subject or model in the photograph. Where was it when it was its picture was taken? The photograph testifies to the location also, even if only vaguely: “in front of the lens.”

Photographs testify to a being-there just as much as they testify to a that-has-been. In Being and Time, Heidegger famously posits that the human’s being is best articulated with the term being-there. Philosophers generally leave the German term Heidegger uses for being-there untranslated as Dasein. The term Dasein means “existence” in colloquial German, however, Heidegger wants us to hear a deeper, more primordial meaning in the term. The Da translates as “there,” and sein translates as “being.” Dasein is being-there. You and I are Dasein; we are being-there, and photographs testify to our being-there (and not here) at that time.

Barthes and Sontag use judicial language to describe how photographs present their subjects being there. Barthes uses the terms “intractable,” “irrefutable” (77), along with “certify” (79) to write how photographs offer “proof” (79) that the thing has been there (76). Likewise, Sontag writes that the “camera record incriminates” (5), that its “photographs furnish evidence” (5) — “indisputable evidence” (9) no less. Cameras are frequently used to document events objectively. The camera does not take sides and cannot be bribed. The camera’s images can be contextualized as providing irrefutable incriminating proof of a misdeed committed by that which was there. Sontag is adamant that no matter how incriminating photographs may be, they cannot speak for themselves (108). A photograph can function as evidence, even as witness, but never as prosecutor.

The photograph “Dad & I, east quarter” (left) was taken by the camera using a timer. I staged the shot. I plotted out where we should stand in relation to the camera, which direction we should face in relation to the sun, and which pose we should assume. The photograph incriminates us as being-there in front of the east quarter of our family farm. We were there together, like the photograph irrefutably certifies. Sontag argues that photographs cannot speak, that they are mute objects that can only be used. But I disagree. Photographs do speak from their very essence. Their certification of being there is not a neutral certification—there is no such thing. Likewise, incrimination is necessarily value laden because it changes someone from an upright citizen to a criminal.

Certifications and incriminations endorse judgments, and judgments have repercussions and consequences. Photographs do testify to our being there; they incriminate us because we-have-been there, because we were. Photographs pronounce us guilty of being there/human.

We are guilty, Dad and I, of existing there in front of the east quarter of our farm. Being guilty is one of the ways Heidegger describes Dasein. Dasein is guilty because being there is never fulfilled as being here. As human beings we are constantly projecting forward and looking backward seeking new ways to comport ourselves. We always find ourselves somewhere else. We are literally always being there, as in over there. We are never able to completely gather all ourselves up and be here now; we are always there then.

Heidegger uses guilt (German Schuld) to describe our tendency to never have all of ourselves together. We spread ourselves out among so many possibilities and choices, i.e. ways of being, that we are never able to settle down, or settle the debt (German Schuld) of our existence. As Dasein we are in debt, we are guilty of never being complete. Existence, as Heidegger uses the term (German ek-sistence) literally means “standing outside.” We exist by constantly throwing ourselves out there. We are always outstanding in the same way a debt is outstanding, meaning we haven’t settled the debt. As Dasein we are always outstanding, always in debt, always guilty of being there, not here. The photograph of Dad and I judges us guilty of existing together, of being there. Dad was there, he was outstanding. He existed with me. The camera photographed us out standing in front of the east quarter together.

I am grateful for this photograph because Dad can no longer stand beside me. His debt was settled. His outstanding possibilities were settled and his debt was paid on the day he passed away, which is another way of saying he’s being is no longer there. Dad can no long be there except as a subject in a photograph. No more photographs will ever find him guilty. Sontag writes that “photographic images are pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history. And one photograph, unlike one painting, implies that there will be others” (166). My photographs of dad are valuable precisely because there will be no others. The photographic implication is arrested, and detained like a criminal repaying a debt to society.

The Human Trace

As I mentioned in the introduction, increasingly, my most vivid memories involve me photographing dad. I spent five years away from my father, three in Denver, then two in Tokyo. During those five years we only spent about two months together after counting up all the vacations and visits. Being in Japan helped me appreciate my father, so that when I returned home I immediately began taking photographs of dad doing all sorts of things: working on his old truck, riding his motorcycle, woodworking. I had an urge to document my father. My time absent from him made me want to authenticate my time with him. I did this through photographing him.

My photographs of dad in some way bring him back to life because they testify to his being there. I remember taking pictures of him. Sometimes that’s all I remember about him. The photographs give me a static and unchanging view of dad. They sum him up; they reify him. He no longer exists except in memory and in photographs. But the photographs are overtaking my memories and replacing my memories. The real that was my dad is dead; the real memories of my dad are endangered by the very images I thought would authenticate and preserve his presence.

But the photographs are not the only reminders I have of dad. In fact, it was a photograph that helped me realize that I myself am an image of my father. An image in the biblical sense, like Adam was made in the image of god. So too I am an image of my father. Some would say I’m a spitting image of him, but not so much in terms of looks—though we both have the same receding hairline—but in terms of mannerisms. The photograph helped me see this; it helped me see just how much of myself I owe to my dad.

The picture “Test Shot, east quarter” was really just a test shot to see where and how we should stand in “Dad & I, east quarter” (right). It wasn’t rehearsed, it was the rehearsal. [In “Dad & I, east quarter” you’ll notice how I zoomed in to cut out the distracting ground shadows and had us pose facing left to avoid the obscuring facial shadows.] The essence of the picture testifies that dad and I were there together, but it also reveals how much of myself I owe to dad. We’re standing out in front of east quarter naturally—or at least as naturally as one can when being photographed (either way we pose the same)—hands on our hips, right legs bent, left legs straight. I always knew I emulated my dad’s sayings, like saying “Well I’ll holler at ya later” before hanging up the phone. I like the way that sounds so I made the effort to copy it, and I still say it. But there are things about a person that are only reveled by their parents. I stand the way I do, I laugh the way I do, I lose my temper the way I do because I unconsciously learned these things from dad. I am an image of him. I owe these things about me to him, but I do not owe him a debt.

My being there, my existence in these photographs with him testifies to my pedigree. The photograph irrefutably testifies that my father existed, and that I carry him with me as I carry myself forward without him.

Roland Barthes, Richard Hill (trans.), Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1982.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Picador, 1977.
Martin Heidegger, Macquarrie and Robinson (trans.), Being and Time, Harper Collins, 1962.

1 comment:

  1. Very well-written. Very touching.
    Sometimes I am afraid to remember and I try not to, because it hurts. Other times, I cannot help myself and I am immersed in the days and nights where I watched him smile and laugh, or when we just sat silently in a room together watching a movie. I loved your father dearly and the only thing I regret is that we didn't have more time. Sometimes I wish I had known our time would be so limited, but how would a relationship change in that light?
    When most everyone chooses to be silent, for fear of experiencing pain, thank you for pouring your heart out. I love you very much.