This series of reverse photogram self-portraits, appear at first as abstract graphite drawings. On closer inspection, a ghostly image of a face slowly reveals itself – a nose, lips, chin emerge floating in a field of white like a supernatural occurrence. Made through analog darkroom processes, these images function allegorically, as a meditation on loss and the photographic medium.
Entwined in the photographic is a sense of sense of longing and melancholy. The desire to affix the ineffable, to memorialize moments and loved ones, to concretize memories and create permanence. In a time of mourning, photographs stand as proxies for the lives they represent. And in those early days of grieving, I for one, felt the acute pain of distance - the gap between lived experience and its compression to a two-dimensional paper surface. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ seminal essay written in the shadow of his late mother’s passing, Barthes discusses the burden we place on the image and it’s inherent inadequacy in satisfying our desire for the pictured subject. After his mother’s death, Barthes searches for her ‘essence’ in photography, which he locates in a single image – the Winter Garden Photograph. While it provides some measure of comfort, it also falls painfully short:
“I believe that by enlarging the details…I will find my mother’s very being. The Photograph justifies this desire, even if it does not satisfy it…I live in the illusion that it suffices to clean the surface of the image in order to accede to what is behind: to scrutinize means to turn the photograph over, to enter into the paper’s depth, to reach its other side… Alas, however hard I look I discover nothing” (p. 99-100) i
These self-portrait, made as photograms through the reverse side of the paper, performatively enact this frustration and lament with the photographic image. They represent the absurd desire to rupture the photographic plane, forcefully reinserting life back into the mortified object.
Dramatically lit and presented as precious relics, these images, like shrouds or death masks, stand as inverted imprints and morbid imagining of the lost body. They also viscerally represent the paradox at the heart of photography’s ontology – that every image stands as an indelible mark of absence suspended in the present.
i Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981