Camera Absentia: B/I

by Sean Michael Nelson

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

How does one express the grief over the loss of a loved one? Roland Barthes wrote several works in the wake of his mother’s death, among them Camera Lucida, a personal reflection on the essence of photography. In it, Barthes notes that the “photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.” Ishiuchi Miyako’s (石内 都) photographic series Mother’s (2000 – 2005) is one instance where photographs say what-is-no-longer through what-has-been. Mother’s features photographs of personal possessions of Ishiuchi’s mother. Through metonymy, the substitution of an attribute for the thing itself, Ishiuchi gives voice to the grief she experiences over the loss of her mother—substitution being the only representation possible when the loved one is gone.

Camera Lucida is centred on an image of great importance to Barthes, a picture of his mother as a child. Of all the images he had of her, Barthes said that this was the only one he saw as capturing his mother’s essence. With Mother’s Ishiuchi’s lens could no longer capture anything essential about her mother, being already deceased; the camera only captures what is tangential. It’s apt, then, that the only image in the series of Ishiuchi’s mother is a picture of a picture of her. This image doesn’t laminate a subject to a moment in time (though the image seen within the photograph does) as Barthes claimed photographs did. Instead the photograph becomes self-referential, depicting the very flatness of the medium (even electronic monitors offer a flat surface). Ishiuchi here highlights the impenetrability of a photograph. This is the essence, the embodiment, of grief in the Mother’s series, the painfully acute awareness of the impossibility of reaching someone who has been lost.

The book Mother’s 2000-2005: Traces of the Future is available through the Museum of Anthropology and channels with Japanese distribution.

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