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Sunday, June 27, 2021

Magic and Time and Photographs

Photographs are both a kind of a magic trick and a kind of a document. They are a talisman for conjuring, a portal to the past; they are a bland testimony to that-which-was. They do both simultaneously. Like one of those printed holographic things, it depends on how you look at it; it tends to shift without warning, underfoot.

Flusser states that photographs are a return to "magic" — a cultural conception of time that is cyclical, a conception of eternal and endless return and repetition. Barthes asserts the opposite, that the photograph testifies to such a specific past, with such certainty, that a photo tends to support a historical, linear, conception of time, a conception of time as a endless sequence of unique events.

A commenter here noted recently and correctly that either position works, depending on how we interact with the photo. As soon as you add a viewer into the equation, almost anything can happen! A photo as talisman offers a portal to the past, a cyclical revisiting of the past, a cycle which repeats whenever we look at the picture. At the same time, the photo as document offers a wealth of detail, it offers incontrovertible proof of the uniqueness of the event, proof that it is never to be repeated.

The character of a photo's magic doesn't matter too much. Is it merely a window to the past? Does it, as I have argued, induce something like a "somatic response similar to presence?" Whatever it is, there is something going on which draws a line from "now" to "then" and sometimes to "then and there" or to "then and them," some kind of direct-ish access to the past is produced. While I am more interested in generalities than specifics, it might be well to ponder a few specific examples here.

Consider a portrait of a matronly, elderly, woman. A grandmother type. If you don't know her, don't recognize her, you might nevertheless feel a sensation of "grandma" here, and by implication the eternal cycle for grandma, mom, daughter. A group portrait of three appropriately aged women might drive the point home. If you do recognize her, if she is your grandma, you will instead feel induced a very specific cycle, a line drawn to the past, to when she was that age, to when she was alive, whatever. Perhaps that time is decades past, perhaps it was literally yesterday. The line is drawn, either way.

Already we see a distinction between a generalized mythical cycle, and a personal, specific, cycle. There is perhaps a spectrum from personal memory to cultural memory (to myth.)

Consider any "classic" photograph of, say, working class people from the early 20th century. Lewis Hine, anything on shorpy, the FSA archive. There's a distinctive look to these things. We do not know the subjects, but we recognize the style, and the time period and social class they represent. These photos draw a line from the present to that time, the early 20th century, the Great Depression, and so on. We return to a "then" but not really a "there." Even if the caption says "Chicago," the Chicago of 1927 might as well be the moon as far as we're concerned. But, we know the time period, or we think we do. We've seen it in photos. We return through the photo to a notional world made up largely of photos, but also of what we know of the time. We return to the stock market crash, to the Depression, to WWI, to WWII, to jazz.

This isn't the cycle of time's progression, 1920s jazz will not come back. This is a cycle of return to the past. Jazz, that jazz, does not reappear, will never reappear, if we simply wait; but we can go back to it and revisit Jazz, and the world that surrounded it. The Depression and the Dust Bowl might return, but they will return in new forms. We can go visit the previous ones.

The cycle of time induced by the personal photo is similar. A have been spending time with a photograph of my deceased father. Like Barthes, I cannot find him in the photo, but only fragments. Memory, prodded, provides other fragments. The return to my father is real, albeit subtle. I feel it. While he is present for me, I am not present for him. I am like a ghost, like Scrooge, unable to touch the past, unable to do anything more than observe and regret.

This is, I think, the nature of human culture. We have always lived with memory, with stories, with mythology. We live also in the now, we look toward the future with hope and ambition while simultaneously connected to the past. I don't think that either Barthes or Flusser would, if pressed mean to suggest that we ever cut off completely the connection to the past, to myth, to cyclical time, or that contrariwise we cut off entirely our forward view. The point is surely that the emphasis swings this way and that, some cultures at some times look backward, or forward, more than others. In the modern USA we are surely very forward looking. I think it is normal for Americans to have a fairly vague idea of their family history prior to grandparents, except possibly in certain regions notorious for their backward-looking ways.

On the advice of a different commenter, I watched the movie "Coco" recently, and enjoyed it. It's a good flick, built around the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, and by all accounts gets the culture around that celebration pretty much correct. Apparently there is a broad range of culture around this celebration, but the movie lands somewhere in that range. The film and the celebration are built specifically around the idea of return: the deceased return to visit the living, to accept offerings and remembrances, on that one day each year.

The altars built to the ancestors have food and drink, decorations, and photographs of the ancestors (these latter are important in the film, they are treated as a talisman which literally enables the return of the dead, without a photo placed on an altar, there is no return.)

The living experience a kind of return to the past, through memory, through talismans, through rituals, while the dead experience a visit to a future they never knew (that is, the present, now.)

Perhaps a side note, but nevertheless I think this is interesting: where a real family tree spreads out as you recede into the past, the family tree in "Coco" narrows down to a single great-grandmother (and her husband), a single couple in a network that biologically has 4 separate couples. Graphically, the ofrenda (altar) in the movie is wide at the bottom where the recently deceased are represented, narrow at the top where the matriarch's photo stands. The story is all about this singular great-grand couple, so it all makes movie sense. Still, the excluded great-grands are, by the movie's logic, in pretty bad shape here.

Perhaps there is something to be said here about the selectivity of our returns to the past. Not everything is remembered, not everything is photographed, not every person has stories told about them in the next generation. Bloodlines end, stories attenuate and either fade away entirely or are rolled up into someone else's story. Myth tends to summarize, to reduce, to edit the past down to the best bits. History does the same, but makes at least an effort to preserve more broadly.

Perhaps Americans, or Western European derived cultures, or Enlightenment influenced cultures, or whatever, are unique in our relative lack of interest in our past. Certainly many other cultures have more interest, from traditionally having a better grasp of their family tree all the way to straight-up ancestor worship. Many other cultures live, literally and figuratively, with a greater connection to previous generations, sometimes literally living in the same dwellings, an unusual and mildly discouraged configuration here in the USA.

One might imagine a culture which treats time as purely cyclical, perhaps some strands of Buddhism do this. Everything repeats, everything is reborn, and reborn, and reborn. Nothing exists except what has already lived, nothing exists except as a repetition, as the billionth turn of the wheel. At the opposite end, one might imagine a culture that exists largely unmoored from the past. Technological advancement relies on memory, but a culture without technology might be a culture with no past. Dogs don't seem to have any sense of myth, and their memory, while very much real, seems to be quite focused and quite limited.

Even a technological culture might do without myth, remembering only facts without stories.

A memory of certain facts of grandma's life is different from recalling her story, her stories. This again is different from seeing her features, her nature, reappearing in a grandchild, which is again different from imagining her literally reborn, reincarnated. Perhaps Americans are distinctly factual in their memories, only recalling what is necessary for that system we name "progress" and consigning much of the rest to the bin.

At this moment, at this time, I think perhaps Flusser is on to something. Where we have lost much of our capacity for myth, for magic, the photograph plays a real role in resurrecting that capacity in a new shape.

The news photo, as I have noted, references the cycles of (recent) history. Here is a riot, a president, a king, a ship, like any other, like all the others you have seen. The copy next to the picture might distinguish one king from another, one riot from another, but the picture does not. The picture reifies the copy by connecting it, cycle-like, to other instances of the same thing, to riots and to ships past. The shorpy or FSA photo reifies the Great Depression, and transports us to that time. The photograph of our father transports us, a wraith-Scrooge, to him, to that moment in the past, to look, to experience that half-presence.

In American culture there is little else to bring us to that past. We do not, as a rule, tell ourselves myths. We do not related the character of our forbears, only, sometimes, a little factual anecdote. Well, at least in my family that's how it goes. The great events of the past we learn about as specific events.

Recently we saw an outpouring of news and discussion around the Tulsa Massacre, everything from Twitter to the Wall Street Journal was all over it. It was presented, invariably, as "the worst" massacre, and we learned endless specific details about it. The photos, though, looked like any urban disaster from the time, and somewhere in this great outpouring discussion almost nobody remarked on that. Collectively, we chose to imagine this as a unique event, related to but not the same as, other similar events that were almost never identified. It was "the worst" but no mention was made of the "second worst" or of the in fact far worse massacres of First Nations people.

Textually, if you will, the Tulsa Massacre was given to us as a unique event. Even to the point of essentially suppressing similar events.

The photos, by far, were the element that most connected this Tulsa Massacre to other events. Only the photos connected the Massacre to larger cycles of culture, to other events like it that came before, that came after. The photographs reflect the cycle of destruction, of unrest, of violence, of racism. They look like Hiroshima, like Chicago, like Dresden, like Belgrade, like London.

Time, cultural time, has a dual nature; time ticks forward inexorably producing an endless sequence of seconds each distinct and unique; time cycles around and around endlessly, bringing us events and happenings and people and ideas that repeat and repeat forever.

The photograph also has a dual nature, and reveals to us both sides of cultural time. The photograph records with total precision a moment, and brings it back to us. Viewing these things as cultural animals, we see revealed the dual nature of our own conception of time. We see both sides, we repeat and return, we progress inexorably forward, both and at the same time.


  1. There was some discussion among photoland's cognitively fubar'd as to whether the Tulsa photographers were heroes or guilty of something.

  2. You cover so many bases here that I eagerly sit in the stands and wait to see what the next inning brings.
    It's a delicious notion: that all the magazine photojournalism and Ken Burns photos have created a mythological world of heroes and monsters, wars, triumphs and miracles in my head; like sitting around the fire telling stories supposedly does for pre-literate folks. Duh, I suppose.