While acclaimed photographer theorist Susan Meiselas, president of the Magnum Foundation, was seated in her office on West 27th Street finalizing details for the “Photography, Expanded” symposium, and acclaimed photography theorist Geoffrey Batchen was sitting in his office at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand researching the implications of photography’s reproducibility, failed photography theorist Carlos Spencer-Bayard was sitting in an Irish bar in Cleveland, Ohio thinking about cleavage. But the man known to his friends and family simply as “Ghost” was not ogling or fantasizing; he was philosophizing, or so he told himself.
Haunted by photography and fueled by failure, Ghost was beginning to grow weary of Facebook and its ever-present cleavagecleavagecleavage. Every morning when he logged into his account, he discovered a fresh batch of buxom photographs waiting for him. The timing and regularity of these deliveries (not to mention the doughiness of some of the photos themselves) reminded him of a bakery baking fresh bread. And it wasn’t just his female friends; somehow during the past five years, he had befriended a high number of “chest puppies,” as a man who takes numerous pictures of his naked torso in a bathroom mirror was known in local gay vernacular.
Were the Facebook accounts of other photography theorists so saturated with cleavage? Did Abigail Solomon-Godeau have to suffer through photo-after-photo of bosoms on vacation or socializing around town? Did Rosalind Krauss’ friends inundate her Facebook account with mirrored selfies taken after mundane midweek workouts (or worse: videos of these workouts themselves)? Did Victor Burgin even have a Facebook account?
As he pondered these questions, the opening line to Jason Isbell’s “Flying Over Water” ghosted through his consciousness.
From the sky we look so organized and brave…
This line, altered slightly, always reminded him of Facebook: from the sky we look so organized and fun.
Good-bye, Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation. Good-bye, Hobbes’ nastiness, brutishness, and shortness. Good-bye, Wilde’s sad world inspired by melancholy puppets.
Hello, BODY SHOTS!
Where’s that liquor cart?
Maybe we shouldn’t start
But I can’t for the life of me say why…
But Ghost knew better. He knew these people. He knew who they were, where they came from, and how they lived. He knew that just because their lives were no longer quiet did not mean that they were any less desperate. The majority of his Facebook friends, he suspected, were living lives of chesty desperation.
Carlos Spencer-Bayard took a sip of his Jameson on the rocks and smiled. Lives of chesty desperation. That was a good phrase, he thought as he extracted a pen from his pocket and scrawled it across a bar napkin.
To him, Facebook appeared to be both a burlesque and a burka: while seductively exhibiting ample acreage of flesh, it concealed every inch of a person’s personality. In other words, you could know intimate details about what a person looked like, but nothing else. On Facebook, people were both naked and veiled.
Both a burlesque and a burka, naked and veiled. Those were good phrases too.
From reading Nietzsche, Ghost had learned the importance of good phrasing. A man could eek out a career from a couple of good phrases, a meager academic stipend, cold morning walks through the mountains, and an occasional skinnydip.
“Do with profound problems as with a cold bath,” Nietzsche had once advised, “quickly in, quickly out.”
What else had he learned from his years of skinnydipping into the topic of photography?
He had learned that while traditional art lives in institutions (museums, universities, art galleries, etc.) photography lives in the world. Photographs are everywhere, of everything. And wherever photographs go, photography theory must follow. Thus a photography theorist is a scholar of the cultural kitchen sink. Nothing is verboten: not song lyrics, silly quotes, fictional narrators, or bar napkins. From reading Harold Bloom, he had learned about Shakespearean perspectivism, which is different from Nietzschean perspectivism. And from reading Bloom’s arch-nemesis, Michel Foucault, he had learned that the tools of reason are useless when confronted by the turmoil of unreason, and this explains why photographs are so often surrounded by silence.
Silence is something to be shared
When you learn what it’s worth…
[What song was THAT from? It wasn’t Jason Isbell…]
So why could he not share photography’s silence? Why did he insist on continuing to skinnydip into the topic, when doing so in the past had resulted in nothing but embarrassment and failure?
Contemplating these questions, he took another sip of Jameson, allowing an ice cube to tumble through his teeth.
This was a twice-told tale. Nietzsche & photography, photograph & unreason: like ice from an empty glass, he had crushed these topics between his teeth before. In fact, he had delved so deeply into photography’s relationship to madness that he had been touched by the very flame he had sought to analyze.
It had begun with a tiny crack in his consciousness. The more he thought, the more this crack grew, spidercrawling its way across his mind like a fissure in a windshield. Before long, he found himself standing outside the world. He could observe the pleasing domestic tableaus that surrounded him, couples conversing coyly about their shared future, children playing in fields of grassy pleasure, elderly couples reading in recliners or watching television, but he could not join them. From where he stood, everything looked so warm, so inviting. But he could only see the warmth, he couldn’t feel it. He was a man apart. It was as if he was separated from the world by a pane of glass.
Another cube of ice slid past his lips and was ground into coldgravel by his molars.
Photography: he could care less, he told himself. He could. But instead, he cared so much, so phenomenally. Why?
Mad or not, he believed that he knew something about photography that successful photograph theorists could never understand. And that something was this: since it begins with the unattainable desire to capture reality, every photograph is a little failure. Thus the study of photography is the study of failure. To truly understand the medium, a theorist must be intimate with failure.
This is what he had learned from reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. This beloved book, the cornerstone for so much of photography theory, is an undeniable failure. Upon publication, it was denounced in Artweek as a “sketchy outline of an incomplete thought.” And in Art Journal, it was accusedof being “positively harmful to a proper, and more profound, understanding of the medium.” Barthes had conceived of the book as a palinode, which is a poem in which the poet retracts something said in a previous poem. In this regard, the book was a success. Camera Lucida was a sensual earthquake, whose aftershocks demolished the author’s earlier Semiotic-driven theories on photography. As a replacement to these theories, Barthes sought to capture “something like an essence of the Photograph.” And it was here that he buggered it. And this buggering, Ghost believed, was what inevitably led to Barthes’ bizarre death.
A month after Camera Lucida was published, Roland Barthes was walking home from a lunch party given by the future President of France, François Mitterrand. As he stepped from the curb to cross Rue des Écoles, he was knocked down by a passing laundry van. Unconscious and bleeding from the nose, he was taken to the Salpêtrière hospital, where he died almost exactly one month later. But here’s the strange thing: Barthes’ doctors swore that there was nothing physically wrong with him. Having sustained no serious injuries from the accident, he simply died from anguished languishing.
Staring into the softblackness that engulfed his bedroom, Ghost often thought about Roland Barthes lying in his hospital bed at Salpêtrière. He thought about the anguish, the languishing. He thought about how, for months prior to his accident, Barthes had been fond of repeating Michelet’s phrase: “Aging, this slow suicide.” He thought about the looks on the faces of the befuddled nurses as they fluttered and fretted around his bedside. And he thought about the moment when the famous Frenchman finally said, “C’est tout.”
A doom-eager photography theorist, who had failed in his quest to capture the essence of photography? During the blackest hour of the darknight, Ghost often thought of himself and Roland Barthes as bosom buddies.
His glass was almost empty.
No matter how much of photography theory’s “slow suicide” he had to personally endure, Ghost could not stop believing that the act of analyzing a photograph articulates something essential about who we are. In this regard, it mirrors the act of interpreting Shakespeare. According to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare’s perspectivism reached its apotheosis in Antony and Cleopatra. If you want to see Cleopatra as a horny, hooknosed Egyptian Hillary, you can do that; or if you want to see her as a crass vamp whose antics would shame Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, you can do that too; or if you want to see her as a regal ruler, whose passion was so pure that it captivated an entire continent, you can do that too. Whichever perspective you choose says nothing about Cleopatra herself, but it speaks volumes about who you are.
The same kind of perspecitivism is at play within a photograph. To prove this, Ghost allowed a single image to leap into his consciousness: Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void. This selection did not surprise him: he had been carrying Klein’s enigmatic image around in his head for twenty years. You could dismiss Leap Into the Void as a manipulative hoax; or you could see it as pure, meaningless pluck; or you could celebrate it as not only a great work of art, but the perfect illustration of how a theorist should approach the topic of photography: rushing towards failure and plunging potentially into madness with rapt confidence and pitch-perfect aplomb: not falling, not stumbling, but leaping. With such a leap, Carlos Spencer-Bayard hoped to show himself, and the world, who he really was.
Scott Navicky is the author of Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2014).He attended Denison University and the University of Auckland, where he was awarded an Honors Master’s Degree in art history with a focus on photography theory. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio.