“A way of shutting my eyes”: Reflections on the Photographic Turn in Recent Literary Memoirs

by Rafaël Newman

For Fred Weinstein

“What is hidden is for us Westerners more ‘true’ than what is visible,” Roland Barthes proposed, in Camera Lucida, his phenomenology of the photograph, almost forty years ago. In the decades since, the internet, nanotechnology, and viral marketing have challenged his privileging of the unseen over the seen by developing a culture of total exposure, heralding the death of interiority and celebrating the cult of instant celebrity. The icon of this movement, the selfie, is now produced and displayed, in endless daily iterations, in a ritual staging of eyewitness testimony to the festival of self-fashioning.

This same period has also seen a parallel, related but in some senses opposed development: the use of photographic documents – occasionally, indeed, self-portraits, though fragmentary or denatured, and/or amateur photographs of their subject taken by the authors themselves – to illuminate non-fictional works, primarily literary memoirs, (pseudo-)biographies, or historical reconstructions; beginning in 2001 with W.G. Sebald’s epochal Austerlitz and continuing in books overtly or implicitly inspired by the Anglo-German’s peripatetic, omnivorous, documentary style. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (2003), Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (2006), Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief (2007), Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008), Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure (2013), and Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey (2019) all deploy photographic material obliquely, frequently quite bereft of deictic apparatus and often only remotely or tangentially associated with the adjacent narrative, as if to shadow the work’s textual body, to propose a secondary or paratextual level, or to serve as a form of punctuation (implicitly echoing Barthes’s polysemous term “punctum”, the ineffably affecting element in a photograph) in the rebus that is the written account of a life. These various, recent non-fictional works at once coopt a visual medium for the literary project and mount a subtle protest against the ongoing debasement of the (human, autoerotic) image in selfie culture by restoring to that image some of its Barthesian mystery, even as they borrow from the new idiom its demystification of the art of photography by placing it in the hands of non-professionals.

The photograph’s mystery, according to Barthes, arises from the photographic portrait’s association with death: the Spectrum, the subject of the photograph, which is made by an Operator and viewed by a Spectator, figures “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead”. How uncanny, then, for the camera-shy critic, must his own photograph be: “Ultimately,” writes Barthes, “what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me … is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph”. And not only the self-portrait: “Each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death”, since every photograph is at one and the same time a record of what has been – inextricable from its referent, its Spectrum or correlative object – and a guarantee of that object’s inevitable decay, as well as the mortality of the Spectator. Barthes, terrified by the eye of the photographer, or Operator, is consoled by the sound of the apparatus, “the noise of Time … the living sound of the wood”, which offers him some connection to the organic.

Now, the selfie, by collapsing the distinctions among Operator, Spectator, and Spectrum, replaces the terrifying eye of the photographer with the subject’s own hand, and removes the taint of mortality by making observed and observer identical. The selfie is no longer the photograph as document for posterity, posthumous token of a future-perfect extinguished existence, but a proof of present vitality; one that must, however, be daily (if not infinitely) recreated so as to avoid becoming just such a relic. The preferred staging ground for the selfie is the Operator’s private or personal space (the “bored at home selfie”, the “bathroom mirror selfie”), which adds a frisson of exhibitionism to what is in effect a solipsistic, consummately narcissistic ritual; and yet there also exists a sub-genre devoted to capturing the auto-subject in a celebrated or notorious venue, which is then tendered as evidence of presence at a numinous site even as the subject’s looming countenance typically hides the cultural, historical or natural monument. Ai Weiwei’s “Study of Perspective” (1993-2003), a series of respectfully framed and distant photographs of renowned sites of cultural interest, from Tiananmen Square through such icons as the White House and the Eiffel Tower, all with the artist’s extended middle finger in the foreground, serve as a proleptic parody of this unwitting obscurantism: the Spectrum as Operator and Spectator not only fills all available roles, but also occludes all other potential sources of “studium,” Barthes’s term for “the very raw material of ethnological knowledge” supplied by the common run of (news) photographs. Nor does the selfie’s typical “literary” paratext – the hashtag – in fact subordinate it to the realm of the unseen (or written), but rather serves merely to link it to other, affiliated images.

The selfie, then, as pure “studium”, or documentary data, for all its thoroughly personal significance perversely lacking the “punctum,” the poignant capacity to bruise, to wound, which, for Barthes, turns sociological documentation into art, pornography into erotica, clinical interest into cathexis – and thus without the mystery afforded by the photograph’s (Barthesian) status as harbinger of death, because explicitly deployed as an apotropaic: potentially infinite versions of the purely deictic “I am here,” what Barthes on first encountering the photograph calls “the fact of being this, of being thus, of being so.” Brute presence, a frantic stopgap in the face of an uninterpretable void, a charm against the constant danger of disappearance, of insignificance, of failure to signify.

In the 1990s and just barely into the 21st century, as the selfie was embarking (from its alleged origins in Australia) on its triumph train around the virtual world, W.G. Sebald published a series of works, culminating in Austerlitz (2001), in which black-and-white photographs are deployed as a counterpoint to highly literary, quasi-documentary texts featuring peripatetic narrators and imbricated, free indirect discourse à la Thomas Bernhard. Sebald was directly influenced by Barthes, although, as James Wood has noted, the writer was careful to distinguish his visual adornments from the specimens provided by the French theorist:

Where Barthes’s photographs are captioned and faithfully reproduced, Sebald’s photographs have a fugitive, offbeat atmosphere. They are anti-illustrative, not least because many of them are low-quality snaps, dingy, hard to decipher, and often atrociously reproduced. Sebald plays with this unreliability in “The Emigrants,” when he includes a photograph of himself standing on a beach in New Jersey, probably taken by his uncle in late 1981 or early 1982. Is it really Sebald? All you can do is stare and stare. The image is so poor—the author’s face little more than a generic blur—that the reader, too, is left standing on shifting sand, where all surety is tidally erased and replaced.

What Sebald does in the ostensibly documentary Austerlitz, and even more poignantly in The Emigrants, a sustained meditation on various vividly drawn, resoundingly closed individual fates, is insist on the photographic portrait’s alliance with death, and with the process of mourning, precisely by emphasizing the historic, material nature of photographic evidence. “As Roland Barthes writes in ‘Camera Lucida,’” notes Wood, “photographs declare that what you’re looking at really existed, and as actuality, not as metaphor.” At the same time, of course, Barthes recalls the paradox of the photograph’s role in forgetting, by assigning to paper a memory of a particular place, thing, or individual, which can then be dispensed with in the biological memory apparatus. Barthes cites Kafka: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”

Orhan Pamuk, himself a proponent of the illuminated memoirs school, writes in an essay on novel writing and the rivalry between the literary and the visual arts – a rivalry that spites the Horatian analogy (“ut pictura poesis”) between the two forms of mimesis – about twin approaches to the novel:

In order to understand the dichotomy between what I call “visual literature” and “verbal literature,” let’s close our eyes for a moment, focus on a subject, and allow a thought to form in our mind. Then let’s open our eyes and ask ourselves: As we were thinking, what passed through our mind—words or images? The answer can be either, or both. We feel that sometimes we think in words, and sometimes in images. Often we switch from one to the other. My aim here is to show, by using this distinction between the visual and the verbal, that any particular literary text tends to exercise one of these centers in our brain more than the other.

While for Kafka photographic illustrations are unnecessary in a literary work – indeed, are potentially deleterious to its mnemonic effect – Pamuk positively reserves the visual imagination to a particular literary endeavor: provided, of course, it remains subsumed to the ultimately non-visual artifact. And he does so by closing his eyes, the very same Kafka-esque gesture of privileging the unseen by warding off the seen.

Kafka and Pamuk, of course, are concerned with the creation of fictional forms, the short story and the novel, both of which are to this day more or less resolutely resistant to visual illumination. (The hybrid genre known as the “graphic novel” stakes its claim to inclusion in the traditional, “higher” category, and marks its distinction from the “lower” form of the comic book, with a curiously redundant, or at least reduplicative appellation: as if novels were not all, already, “graphic”.) What is it, then, about the literary memoir, the (pseudo-)biography, and the historical reconstruction that seems to call for adornment with photographic paraphernalia? Does their emergence in that venue, in this historical moment, in fact constitute a rebuke to the contemporary culture of the image, of the selfie, of “TL,DR”? Or does the use of corroborating visual evidence signal an anxiety on the memoirist’s part, that the written account may not be considered sufficient? Do photographs mark memoirs as documentary in distinction to their authors’ other, fictional works? Do they indeed serve as Barthesian/Sebaldian reminders of the presence of death amid the living lives recounted, as a memento mori, whether admonitory or apotropaic, issued by the (auto)biographer who dares to sum up an existence yet underway, and is atavistically aware of the risk posed by such a hubristic presumption of self-mastery? And why the preference for black-and-white photos: is there more at work here than the constraints of a publisher’s budget?

This preference perhaps affords an explanation for the photographic turn in these recent works. For despite archeological findings that suggest that the statuary of classical antiquity, which we are accustomed to viewing in stark monochrome, was originally painted – particularly the eyes of its subjects – for verisimilitude, in a variety of colors, we remain attached to icons of the past that are bleached, rendered severely two-tone, at most, by the play of shadow in the impossibly filigreed etching of a hair whorl or a fold of fabric. While color photography holds out the promise of encyclopedic mastery (consider the ethnographically completist work of such 20th-century pioneers of the medium as Albert Kahn) or of time travel (see the many sites offering “colorized vintage photos”, of the Romanovs or early modern Tbilisi, for instance), black-and-white renderings derive their solemnity, their sense of ceremony, their ability to memorialize a resolutely closed past, from the unvarnished antique statuary of our common imagination. They are the Elgin Marbles of the individual moment, bartered from an era that will not and cannot have them back, because despite the claims and protests of its contemporary advocates, its proprietary claim has come to an eternal end.

This has of course not gone unnoticed in the general culture, in which Instagram offers black-and-white filters with such romantically evocative names as Moon, Willow, and (significantly) Inkwell, so that users may retrofit their own current perceptions with the trappings of a stylized past; and cultural theorists like Andrew Ross have noted the tendency of technologies to acquire a profitable aura of chicness in the moment of their decommissioning (see also: the vinyl record and phonograph, and now too the Polaroid). Black-and-white photographs in literary memoirs, (pseudo-)biographies, and historical reconstructions over the past two decades are indeed tokens of this same cultural capital, but they are also something else: featuring the most graphic of chromaticities (Inkwell!), they are uniquely at home in a written environment, providing an elegantly unjarring counterpoint to the alphabet; and all the while they remind the reader of the abruptness of mortality, the finitude of the past, the starkness of the moment of individual demise – but safely ensconced in the discursive, extensive space of the written.

Pamuk, not the first to remark on it, notes the difference in temporality of the visual and verbal aesthetic experiences: that while the image may be consumed at a glance, the literary artifact requires unfolding over time. This is the tension that these “illuminated” works so fruitfully stage, and exploit: the tension between the shockingly singular scandal of death, and the comforting continuity of a narrated life. Such works embed the fact of mortality – viewed objectively, from without, in a poignant series of amateur portraits, details, and still lifes – within the flow of lived experience, developing subjectively, internally, in accordance with an idiosyncratic logic, and given, quite literally, to having the last word. They allow their authors the verbal luxury of shutting their eyes, even as they signal to their readers the facts of the visual matter.


This essay was begun while its author was enjoying the generous hospitality of its dedicatee; it has been completed in his memory, with love.