CAMERA OBSCURA Ian White
This text was commissioned to accompany the release of Richard Squires’ film PROGRAMME which premiered at New Work UK at Whitechapel, 2007.
Pornography is like silent film. Both share a formal drive that turns action into a demonstration of itself for the sake of entertainment. When a door is opened in a silent film we see it opening not as if it is incidental, but as a pronunciation, as definite as an intertitle. Generically, the pornographic code is such that we do not simply see people fucking, but a formal demonstration of that, a formulaic series of shots that are the exegesis of foreplay, insertion, repetition, the display of male ejaculation. Such observations might seem an unlikely beginning to a consideration of the nineteenth century photographic taxonomy of hysterics constructed at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the name of science, but the profound confusion between the real and its document, between the natural and the artificial, pseudo-scientific document and visual pleasure are at the very heart of an argument about how these photographs were made, how they were and are read. They are also the terms that connect Jean-Martin Charcot and his colleagues’ experiments at that hospital to cinema – especially the pre-cinematic – and they are nonetheless the first in my collection of other observations that throw these photographs into a discursive field of representation and (mis)recognition, actuality and manipulation.
There is one field in particular in which a confusion between a work of art and the reality of that which it depicts still seems to hold sway: portraiture. The back cover of Richard Brilliant’s book Portraiture,[i] declares it to be “the first general and theoretical study” of the genre. First published in 1991 and reprinted in 1997 and 2002, it was surprising enough that such a study had not existed before. Moreover, Brilliant’s introduction is remarkable. He describes a response to the image of a sitter as genuinely oscillating between (collapsing) the actual presence of the person and their picture: “It is as if the art works do not exist in their own material substance but, in their place, real persons face me from the other side or deliberately avoid my glance. Quickly enough the illusion dissipates; I am once more facing not a person but that person’s image, embodied in some work of art…”[ii] His comments strike a resonance with those of Robert Rosenblum in his essay for the catalogue of Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760-1830, a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (to which I will return later). About Picasso’s portraits Rosenblum writes “the deformation of Cubism… had so obscured the identities of the people who inspired Picasso… that they disappeared beneath the camouflage of his art. But today, these flesh-and-blood individuals have become visible again, each one a unique human being, with a real biography.” And on recent appraisals of the work of John Singer Sargent “…these tableaux vivants of a historical past, [are] the equivalent of seeing a Henry James novel come to life.”[iii]
Is it this same oscillation that viewers of the camera obscura, known to us since Antiquity, also experienced? The pragmatics of the camera obscura are familiar and simple enough: a small hole in a wall will allow enough light into a darkened room to project an image of the exterior onto the opposite wall of that room.[iv] What is less simple is that this image is also, absolutely simultaneously, actually there, outside the room. Anything seen as an image is also, simultaneously, known to be happening in real time and space. This unique image is not a recording although it is practically at the root of the photographic. But is the complexity of this situation at the psychic, interpretive core of cinema? By which I mean narrative cinema, its own generic codes of identification with character, scene, plot, dependent on the screen functioning as a window onto a world that could actually exist. The real and the imaginary – and their readings – become co-dependent in this sense.
Is Brilliant’s oscillation the inheritance of something else? Something that connects the portrait as a work of art with voyeurism, with what we now call photo-journalism, the taking of images in the public interest because they are ‘real’ (as in, representations of something that actually happened and that because they happened we have a right to see). In eighteenth century France, a century before Charcot’s photographic project, Madame Tussaud was commissioned by the revolutionary National Assembly to record dramatic contemporary events. Working from life – well, death – she was commissioned to make casts directly from the heads of the guillotine’s victims, of Robespierre as well as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She is one entry in Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria.[v] Notably, Tussaud, at the request of the neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David made a cast of the assassinated revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his medicinal bath – a waxwork that became a tableau of the death scene that is still displayed today, a model for David’s famous painting The Death of Marat (c.1794) and an image that has peculiar resonance with Charcot’s photographs of the sitter we now know as Augustine, herself a subject made macabre celebrity by the number and tenor of studies of her. The reality that Tussaud preserves is entirely fabricated.
As if to counter ambiguity (while in fact perpetuating such paradoxical co-dependence) the photographs that form the monumental volumes of the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière, are presented as if they are ‘simply’ the documentation of the various states and stages of hysterical attacks, and thereby define the condition. They are organised on the page as examples, listed and described with a classification that is inseparable from both the scientific impulse of the project and from the curiosity they arouse in the non-scientist as viewer (like the inscription on the plain wooden box that stands in front of Marat’s bath tub in his death scene like a tomb stone: “NAYANT PU ME CORROMPRE / ILS M’ONT ASSASSINE” (unable to corrupt me, they assassinated me)). In Paul Régnard’s Marat-like photographs of Augustine in the late 1870s she is lit to chiaroscuro effect against a black background, sat up in bed, one finger pointed to her cheek, swathed in bed clothes and nightgown, or with her hands clasped together in a prayer-like rapture, her face and her eyes turned upwards, or with her arms half-outstretched, head lilting to one side, baring her teeth through what might be a smile. Each of these images is labelled and explained: “Aural Hallucinations,” “Amorous Supplication,” “Ecstasy,”[vi] simultaneously entering the image into a new psychiatric lexicon and pitifully excusing our gaze now (and, presumably, “their” gaze then).
Richard Brilliant writes: “The very fact of the portrait’s allusion to an individual human being, actually existing outside the work, defines the function of the art work in the world and constitutes the cause of its coming into being.”[vii] This critical act of definition is almost exclusively performed in the context of an exhibition by the (biographical) wall label. Authored by the institution it is the companion of the portrait as it is displayed in the museum, the correlative of the scientific classification, which turns, ironically, the act of looking into a game of reading as opposed to the reception of an authorised interpretation. In Citizens and Kings, this game of reading was underscored by other strategies of display that incorporated it into the theatrical. The gallery’s octagonal entrance hall was painted deep red with gilt cornices to present images of majesty majesterially, portraits of sovereigns and heads of state. In the room titled “The Status Portrait” medium-scale paintings of full-length figures were hung on a line that gave the uncanny visual impression of each person depicted being stood upon the same level ground, the same stage. And what should be found in this exhibition’s real pièce de théatre but David’s Death of Marat, hung centrally in an otherwise monochrome room of white marble busts, a stunning (stunningly theatrical) graphic visual symphony of objects-as-mise en scène, a set, a stage upon which the viewer also trod. The work of art’s other “coming into being”, here, a game of reading made theatre.
Of course, the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière does not declare itself as a collection or an exhibition of portraits. Unlike their symptoms, the sitters are only named in retrospective commentary, but the drive to do so is testament to what these images have in common with the portrait and how we might understand them now. Reading and theatre are precisely the analytical question and the circumstance of these photographs that Georges Didi-Huberman unravels in his seminal book Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière – a work that significantly informs my own text. In it Didi-Huberman corrects the contemporaneous conspiracy of silence around these ‘silent’ women, realigning medical observation as a process of complicity on a number of related levels. He also removes the act of taking these images from the realm of medical observation to relocate it in that of artifice. Hypnosis is the apotheosis of both instances and Charcot’s definitive (damning) experiment.
Didi-Huberman quotes Charcot’s contradictory position and points to his photographic images as corrupt texts: “Behold the truth… I am nothing more than a photographer; I inscribe what I see…”[viii] The “truth” of the image lies not in observation but in the conflict between taking a photograph and (thereby) inscribing the image, writing-into it even by excluding its means of construction from the frame. This is not only an illicit manipulation. There is a symbiotic relationship between the photographic document and the way in which the symptoms it illuminates are displayed by Charcot’s subjects. Didi-Huberman systematically describes situations in which these subjects become, through strategies of co-dependence, wilful display, involuntary response and survival mechanisms, as active in the construction of their image as the theatrical set of the photographic studio was in recording it. Augustine is described by Didi-Huberman as a co-incidental actress, caught in a complex psychological response to her own incarceration at Salpêtrière: “With moist lips, she knew that science had lost its ancient conscience beneath a bed, and demonstrated this through a hundred gestures!… what a stroke of luck for psychiatric knowledge spurred on, as it was, by its dramaturgical passion.”[ix] The sequential, physical revealing of symptoms that Augustine performed made her the ideal photographic subject, an actress in the still frames of a (silent) film.
Her gestures might be compared to those of the famous actress Mrs Siddons, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1789. Sat upright on a chair, eyes turned heaven-wards, Mrs Siddons as Tragic Muse shows her with her right arm outstretched and her left arm raised, the shadowy figures of Pity and Terror over her shoulders. Mrs Siddons’s own account of sitting for Reynolds reinscribes the image between the real and the artificial: “I walkd [sic] up the steps & seated myself instantly in the attitude in which She now appears.”[x] To act, to be a good actress, to perform and repeat reliably was to be also entirely ‘natural.’
As if to literalise such associations, under hypnosis, amongst the other tortures of demonstration to which they were afflicted, the Salpêtrian hysterics were trained to theatrically display “surprises, pouts, disdain, tears, threats, ecstasies…”[xi] Hypnosis made every susceptible woman an ideal Augustine, literally, physically manipulable, a person made sexual, dramatic, medical mannequin (made image) and physically presented by Charcot at his Tuesday Lectures. In extraordinary scenes subjects-patients-hysterics – what should we call them now, these living ‘dead’? – were displayed under hypnosis to a public audience to “”reproduce” hysterical contractures of all kinds – painful or not…”[xii] That Charcot’s sales pitch for the Tuesday Lecture disturbingly competes with that of another nineteenth century entrepreneur Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s for his ‘moving’ image spectral slide show, the Fantasmagorie, is surely no coincidence. Charcot: “No sign will treat you to the interior spectacle, for there is now no painter able to give even its sad shadow. I bring you, living (and preserved through the years by sovereign science) a Woman of bygone days… her hair, folds with the grace of cloth around a face illuminated by the bloody nudity of her lips”[xiii] etc. Robertson: “Citizens and Gentlemen… It is… a useful spectacle for a man to discover the bizarre effects of the imagination when it combines force and disorder; I wish to speak of the terror which shadows, symbols, spells, the occult works of magic inspire… I have promised that I will raise the dead and I will raise them.”[xiv]
“Hypnosis,” writes Didi-Huberman, “was in reality and above all a recipe for hysteria,”[xv] “Charcot intensely modified his “subjects.” He transfigured them, body and soul. He failed, of course, in his desire to theorize this transformation… But he excelled, to the contrary, in describing and drawing practical consequences from the hypnotic instrument.”[xvi] [emphasis mine] In the final analysis what this “instrument” actually reveals is not a set of symptoms that evidence hysteria, but that “Mimesis is the hysterical symptom par excellence.”[xvii] It is the symptom that Charcot’s project exploits to the extent that it becomes the condition, a mental state not observed but radically constructed by it’s recording. Like Tussaud’s head of Marat, the real entirely fabricated. Silent films are like pornography.
Ian White was a writer, curator and artist. He was Adjunct Curator at Whitechapel Gallery from 2001-2011.
[i] Richard Brilliant, Portraiture, Reaktion Books Limited, London, 1991
[ii] ibid. p.7
[iii] Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the age of Revolution1760-1830, exhibition catalogue, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais & Royal Academy of Arts, Paris & London, 2007, p.15
[iv] The camera obscura is described, alongside other pre-cinematic devices in Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaelogy of the Cinema, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2000, pp.3-6
[v] Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, pp.36-40
[vi] These descriptions are based on the reproductions included in Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, The MIT Press, Cambridge & London, 2003, pp.143-7
[vii] Brilliant, p.8
[viii] Didi-Huberman, p.29
[ix] ibid. p.137
[x] Citizens and Kings, p.375
[xi] Didi-Huberman, p.227
[xii] ibid. p.192
[xiii] Didi-Huberman, p.237
[xiv] Warner, p.149
[xv] ibid. p.185
[xvi] ibid. p.186
[xvii] ibid. p.164