image © 2012 Aline Giordano
text © 2012 Aline Giordano
As I am reading these words: ‘It was natural, therefore, to keep up appearances in the face of the reality of death by preserving flesh and bones’, the ferry boat rolls and the music of Elliott Smith rocks me gently; a little closer to France every minute, a little closer to remembering the dead. France is a land that claimed back many of my relatives and friends. I take my camera out of my bag. The way that the deck chairs have been stacked has caught my eye. I take a few photographs. I’m counting. I’m counting the dead but I’ve lost count already.
I’m reading The Ontology of the Photographic Image by André Bazin. I know about Bazin through my several aborted attempts at reading his autobiographical fiction Vipère au Poing. Leaving the Marxist and postmodernist attacks on Bazin’s theory of photographic reality aside, for today, I want to engage with the seminal text rather than the polemic it has fuelled for decades.
‘No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death’, Bazin writes. I pause and think, reflecting on my twenty years as a self-taught photographer taking shots of artists onstage. Do I preserve them from a second spiritual death? This is interesting but I believe that their music has done that already. No image of Kurt Cobain, either a professional photographer’s or mine, will come anywhere close to Nirvana’s musical legacy, not even those taken by Youri Lenquette, Steve Gullick or Anton Corbijn.
Am I trying to preserve my brother from a second death? Twenty years of silence in my family since he died; the pain of our loss never spoken of – not at his funeral, not since. Yet, my relatives came forward to share their vile gossip. Each one would tell me what they thought had been said or done. It felt that they collectively implied someone was to blame for my brother’s death. Collective condemning is easy – very easy, retrospectively. If I were to condemn anyone, then I should condemn my own silence and my obedience that never challenged parental authority.
Twenty years ago my brother killed himself. Today, I stand by his grave, unable to cry. My mother, my brother’s widow and I have brought plants. We remember. I’ve got the easiest part. I didn’t have to hand over the ‘suicide note’ to the Police; I didn’t have to identify his corpse; I didn’t see the macerated skin. Yes indeed, I took the easiest part.
We are laughing and joking about the ugly bush that Father planted twenty years ago. With its bare and twisted branches hanging over my brother’s grave. With all its ugliness it survives, while the delicate rose bush that we planted at the same time died many years ago. It may have had a short life but it gave beautiful, delicately scented white roses. The irony is not lost on us and that’s why we’re laughing.
This morning in bed, in my mother’s flat, I watch a TV programme on the last days of Marlène Dietrich. I’ve missed most of it, and now it’s the last photograph of her alive, on her bed, looking pale. Other images follow: of her coffin in Paris, of her coffin in Berlin. And photographs of fans bringing empty suitcases to her grave, a reference to her song I still keep a Suitcase in Berlin, the programme claims. I don’t understand much of what is being said. Some interviewees speak English but are dubbed into French, and when they speak French I can’t take it in, something interferes. As the programme closes, I still don’t know how or when Marlène died. So I find out. I read that she died in 1992, twenty years ago. The TV show was marking the twentieth anniversary. So I check out exactly when it is that she died: 6 May 1992. Only a few weeks later my family and I will be burying my brother. I wasn’t even out of bed and the solemnity of the day had taken hold of me, before breakfast, before we made our way to the cemetery to mark his anniversary.
I remember the images of mourning fans at Dietrich’s funeral and beside her grave. We have no photographic images of my brother’s funeral. I did not take my camera with me on the day. I wonder how my family would have reacted if I had taken photographs there. I also wonder: why is it acceptable, or even customary, to take photographs of the mourners only at celebrity funerals? Another question: do I wish I had taken photographs? Of course I would have been intimidated by the reproachful looks, but thinking about it today, I wish I had. To capture what: the inside of the church, the grief on my relatives’ faces, the procession behind the coffin, the coffin itself? And to what end? Would I have sent the photographs to my relatives? Would I be looking at them today? Would I have made a special anniversary print? As I write this, I can’t help but laugh! I’m laughing at the incongruousness of the situation. Yet, I secretly wish I had done all this. I secretly wish I could have stood up for my brother and shown derision if not disrespect. But, I haven’t got it in me.
I try to refocus on Bazin’s obsession with resemblance and reality, but the reality of such photographs is my own obsession. I feel trapped. Still, I’m trying to make sense of Bazin’s idealistic view of realism. So I reflect on my reality as a self-taught photographer and fanzine writer. Even if I believe that I am in control of how I shoot photographs, I realise I’m not. I may have convinced myself that my concert photography acts as resistance against the dominant and commoditised imagery of popular music. Yet, frustratingly I realise that underrepresented artists will always be underrepresented, because popular music ‘necessarily excludes’. Still, I persevere with photographing bands at the margins, because they matter to me and to other people. As much as I find solace in listening to sad and melancholic music, I only seem to be content with my photographs when they express sadness and melancholy themselves. Perhaps I’m trying to conjure up the photograph I never took of my brother, my imaginary image of him, which is buried in the confines of my darkness and my hurt.
If looking at a photograph is a ‘contact with what has ceased to exist, a contact with death’, then what is in the act of taking the photograph? If the viewer is a mourner, then what is the photographer? What am I when I take photographs? I’m an idealist who takes photographs out of necessity – the necessity to give the underrepresented a presence – a visceral necessity. I’m obsessed with my brother’s death. He is part of what I have become and what I am. I am a mourning sister, a researcher, a fanzine writer, an orphan, a dreamer, a transracially adopted baby. I just happen to also be a photographer because I have been taking photographs of artists for more than twenty years. I don’t believe that my photographic images preserve my brother from that second spiritual death. No. This is not what it’s about. I’m just trying to find a way to make sense of my purpose in life. As I write this last sentence, I find my thoughts wandering to the tune of Elliott Smith’s King’s Crossing, and as always I feel it – emptiness in the chest – that second death: ‘don’t let me be carried away’.
Bazin, A. (1960), ‘The ontology of the photographic image’. Film Quarterly, 13 (4), 4-9.
Barthes, R. (2009), The Grain of the voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Smith, E. (2004), King’s Crossing, From A Basement On The Hill: Domino Recording.
Thornton, S. (1990), ‘Strategies for reconstructing the popular past’. Popular Music, 9 (1), 87-95.