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Light in the Dark RoomReview - Light in the Dark Room
Photography and Loss
by Jay Prosser
University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 9)

It is often said that if a person's house is burning down among the things of highest priority to be rescued, after pets and children (or maybe before, I don't know), are photographs. In some respects this seems very odd. Why should this be? What is about photographs that seems so precious, so irreplaceable? How do they resonate with our sense of self? How do photographs connect us with our past, how do they link us with memory?

Photographs adorn family fridges and are found, frayed and bent in wallets. In hospitals when people personalize their tiny space, or their bedside locker, photographs are often the first things to be placed there. They are sometimes put up around unconscious patients as though those in the photograph can somehow bring a ministering or supportive presence.

There is increasing interest in photo-narratives as a therapeutic means of expressing the self and experience, and making it accessible and understandable to others. This, it seems is beginning to approach the meaning we try to capture in a photograph.

Often in grief counseling we are told to bring in some photographs of a loved one as if they will still be there in some way through the medium. In some cemeteries you will find photographs of the interred. Usually they show them when they were young, it might even be a wedding day. There appears to be something in the nature of a photograph, often a family snapshot rather than a posed portrait that brings us close to our selves.

Jay Prosser suggests that we treat photographs in a way that seem to bring the past into the present. We have photographs on our mantelpieces, we have albums of them, we take them on special occasions -- births, marriages, but not deaths. But, he argues, photographs are not a sign of presence in our lives, they are a sign of absence. They indicate loss.

Every photograph is of a past moment. Something happened and has now gone, although its one time existence has been recorded. Photographs do not show "the presence of the past, but the pastness of the present" as Prosser argues. They are reminders of our mortality, rather than our continuing life; and within that they become meditative.

For Prosser this is not a sad thing, not something to be mourned. Rather, it is rich in possibility and he tries to show this by describing in detail four very different articulated experiences of loss, by four very different figures with widely divergent histories, perspectives and outlooks. The things that link them together are loss, photography and curiously enough, some experience of Brazil (all the people involved spent time in Brazil and their particular loss is sometimes associated with that period of their life).

Prosser describes the reflections of the philosopher Roland Barthes on the death of his mother, the experience of the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in observing the death of a culture, the meditations of the photo-journalist Gordon Parks on the loss of youth and innocence, and the impact felt by the poet Elizabeth Bishop on the death of her lover. He uses considerable amounts of original material from each, and interweaves his own commentary on the meaning of loss for them, the experience of taking and looking at photographs and the great sadness, and perhaps enlightenment they can bring.

One can imagine a kitchen table strewn with old photographs, some perhaps faded now, being picked over and discussed -- "How young we were", "I'd quite forgotten that", "This was the day we left" - and here Prosser's point that they act as memento mori, reminders of death, appears at its most perceptive.

However, his prose is not always as clear as that insight. His academic orientation, and postmodern tendencies sometimes obscure a point when a simple and direct manner would be better. Sometimes the delicacy of his point is lost in the heaviness of the writing. He devotes a whole chapter to himself and his reflections on the writing of an earlier book, which seems rather an indulgence. He finds within each of his subject chapters a palinode, i.e., a poem of retraction and return, which in itself becomes a motif for his book as he returns and reflects in each essay. However, the integrity and consistency of this idea is not completely compelling. There are times at which he appears to be inducing the thesis, rather than deducing it; he may be trying to persuade the reader rather than let the conclusions become obvious. Of course, others may feel differently.

Nevertheless the book is not without merit. It makes the reader look anew at the photographs that may surround him or her at the moment of reading. It puts forward some intriguing ideas and its treatment, or at least the arrangement of the principal characters is thought provoking. Perhaps the best of these is Gordon Parks, but as a photographer himself, he had some added experience to the way photography can both capture and obscure meaning.

It would not be a book for the beginning reader, although there is one there to be written for this is a most interesting subject.

 

© 2006 Mark Welch

 

Mark Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.


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