THE VANISHING


The classic work about photography by Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, posits that our fascination with photography stems ultimately from its unique relationship with death. Every photograph captures a moment in time, and once preserved, reminds us on a deep and unavoidable level that the moment is now in the past, either traveling toward death or already past that point. According to Barthes, all the photographers busily working to capture reality are on a futile chase: a photograph is an “image which produces death while trying to preserve life.”


In cemeteries in many parts of the world, photographs of the deceased are affixed to tombstones as a way of better remembering those who have been lost. It is fascinating to walk among the graves and wonder about the lives of the deceased and what caused their surviving family to choose the specific photo that now represents their life and their memory. Cemeteries offer the opportunity to experience more literally a photograph as a monument to the death of a specific individual. But they are also a piercing reminder that, as the tragic reality of death is inscribed for the person in the photograph, it is also inscribed for all of us, who are moment by moment closer to the same fate.


Many of the photographs affixed to the stones reinforce another of Barthes’ insights. Printed images, whether on paper or a more permanent support, like us, are always fading away. “Like a living organism...it flourishes a moment, then ages,” Barthes points out. “Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes.” Ironically, the photograph intended as a method of permanent remembrance becomes a trenchant reminder of the opposite: despite the best efforts to immortalize a life, the record will be lost, if not now, then at some point soon.


And what is lost when the image, which sought immortality, fades away? It is not only the memory of an individual (or more literally the loss of their life), but also, according to Barthes, love. “It is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear forever...no one will any longer be able to testify to this, nothing will remain but an indifferent nature.” This, for Barthes, is “a laceration so intense” as to be “intolerable.”


As artists, we visit cemeteries as often as possible. It is an important and overlooked way of connecting to the history of a place and its people. And by capturing some of the portraits on tombstones, many in the midst of a spectacular or even ecstatic state of decay, we respectfully and with a sense of awe and wonder, extend their memories a bit longer. We cannot stop the flow of time or the loss of life, but we can pay tribute to the fact that they lived -- and celebrate the fact that they loved. And we can mourn what is likely the greatest tragedy of human existence: the moment there is no trace of a very real love that once meant the world to living souls.

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