Out of photographs into words: Nathalie Legér’s Exposition, Barthes and the mother-child photograph

IMG_0104Nathalie Léger’s Exposition is the first in a loose trilogy of books published in French between 2008 and 2018. Formally they mix essay, criticism and memoir. In each of them Léger focuses on the work of a woman engaged in making art in some way either provocative or running counter to the prevailing cultural mood, and each of them pulls back from that woman to consider the art form in which they’re working, and then to reverse, as it were, into the author’s own life.

Although Exposition (2008) opens this trilogy, it was not the first to appear in English. That was Suite for Barbara Loden (2012), about the film actor and director of that name. (All three books are or will be published in the UK by Les Fugitives. I wrote about Barbara Loden here.) Loden’s sole film as writer and director, the American new wave landmark Wanda, remains a cult favourite, though hopefully she will in future be better known for that than for being Elia Kazan’s second wife.

The third book, The White Dress (2018), treats Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, who in 2008 hitchhiked from Milan to Jerusalem wearing in a wedding dress to promote world peace; she was raped and murdered in Turkey.

(The White Dress is forthcoming from Les Fugitives and I will be talking with Léger about it at the Institut Français in May.)

What follows is some thoughts on Exposition, following an event last week at The Photographers’ Gallery, at which I discussed the book with its translator, Amanda DeMarco.

Exposition takes as its subject the Countess de Castiglione, Virginia Odioni (1837-1899), an Italian aristocrat who took Paris by storm in the 1850s – though see how young she still was! – and was briefly mistress of the French Emperor. (Again, how young.) She was famed for her beauty and her narcissism, and was later rejected by the court, and ended her life more or less in squalor. Through all this she was obsessed with having her photograph taken, returning again and again to the same society studio, in good times and bad, for elaborate photographs – in costume, role-playing with props and accessories – taken to her own specification. (Shades of Cindy Sherman, as Léger notes in her book, and also of selfie-culture, though Léger doesn’t mention that: the iPhone 4 with front-facing camera wasn’t released until 2010, two years after Exposition‘s original publication.)

Exposition is partly a book about ideas of beauty, then, and partly about photography. It pays homage to classics of the genre such as Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, without particularly seeking to insert itself into that genealogy. Léger turns away from Castiglione to write about photography, turns away from photography to write about writing, turns away from writing to write about herself – and her mother.

This aversion to straightforward narrative is played out through Léger’s loyalty to the fragment as form. She constructs her books from island-paragraphs that float unmoored on the white space of the page, with little attempt to make meaning or argument flow between them. You have to hop from one to the next. Which is not to say that there is no order to what is presented; the links are there to be made by the reader. What narrative flow there is works slowly, and at depth.

There is an obvious paradox in the book in that it is a response in part to a series of photographs, but that it does without those photographs. Barbara Loden responds to a film, and the book takes the narrative of that film as its basic structure, running through it from start to finish, describing scene after scene, and overlaying this with a secondary narrative detailing Léger’s relation to the film and its creator. The photographs in Exposition can’t and don’t work in quite the same way; they offer no basic narrative, being islands in time, themselves.

Both books work just fine without the images. There is no huge surprise to this. Not just that ekphrasis is an effective technique (ekphrasis: the verbal representation of a visual representation), but that as readers we like this kind of second order or critical representation. It’s comforting, like being read a bedtime story. Reading about Castiglione through Léger allows me to delegate to her the intellectual work of thinking hard about the subject at hand.

It is interesting to me, however, that Léger has a successful primary career as an archivist and curator, including putting together major exhibitions on Samuel Beckett and Roland Barthes at the Centre Pompidou. I don’t know these exhibitions, but I assume they are a mixture of words, photographs and objects – and that the objects and photographs have a kind of ontological supremacy over the words. If not, why not a book rather than an exhibition?

As Susan Sontag says in On Photography, essays on photography are often just picture captions, expanded. Sometimes the words outgrow the images and slough them off. (There are no pictures in Sontag, though there are in Camera Lucida.) It would be interesting to know more about Léger’s sense of the relationship between the words she writes in her books and the works of the artists she is responding to: to what extent, in other words, a writer is different to a curator. I read both Loden and Exposition before seeing the ‘original’ artworks, just as I read Marie Darrieussecq’s excellent book on Paula Modersohn-Becker, Being Here is Everything, before seeing that artist’s paintings.

I mention Barthes, and Léger knows her Barthes. She first mentions him on pg 40 of Exposition, lighting both on the French critic’s response to being photographed, himself, at his desk, and on his famous meditation on a photo of his mother. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida shortly after the death of his mother, and in it he describes stumbling on an old, dog-eared photo of his mother that affects him so much that he decides to take it as the – for him – representative or ultimate example of the form. He had been flicking through a collection of photos of her, absolutely not expecting to find one that would sufficiently show her to him in any genuine way – in any way that would resurrect her, or recompense him for his grief – when to his own surprise, he does.

What is odd about this is that the photograph Barthes settles on is one of his mother as a baby. That is, in a version of her that Barthes, by definition, could not have known. And yet he recognises her, as herself. He sees his mother, ideally, formally, in herself as a baby. A similar thing happens at the end of Exposition (an example of that deep slow structure to the book that I mentioned), when Léger looks through a collection of family photographs. Her favourite is one of her mother as a young girl. (Here, the photo is of three girls on the beach, seen from the back, so there is no real question of ‘finding’ the mother in her face, but perhaps even so in her bearing, her way of being in the world.)

Again, the photograph that the writer cherishes is one that absolutely does not correspond to a version of the person that the writer can possibly hold in their memory.

Neither writer really questions this oddity.

What is that appeals to them in these photos? Photography claims to capture moments, objectively: stopping the flow of time. And it claims to capture personality, in a different way: drawing out the true nature of the individual person from the permanent flutter and flux of behaviour.

Photography offers insight, and it fixes memory.

So it is odd that these photos of the writers’ mothers should choose to offer insight precisely where there is no memory.

Why is this? Well, the simplistic answer would be that it is something to do with personality and personal growth. If they ‘see’ their mother in her childhood self, then this suggests that our personality, as readable in our physiognomy, our features, and our bearing, is fixed from a young age. The child is father to the man, as the saying goes – though it goes against the assumption of the Bildungsroman that we spend our childhood and adolescence finding out who we are, and that it’s only when we’re an adult that our personality becomes fixed.

But this idea of the adult being visible in the child photograph goes further. It suggests not only that our personality is visible there, but it’s there that it is most visible. We are most ourselves when we are a child, with everything we will go on to be held, in suspension as it were, in latency, waiting to become.

As it happens I have a photograph – not of my mother, but of my great-aunt, as a small child, in my bedroom. She too is on the beach, playing on the sand. I don’t quite know why it’s important to me, but it is. But, writing this, I find I mistrust its power. Isn’t there something infantilising, and fetishizing, about reading a known personality (I knew and liked my great-aunt very much) into an unknown/unknowable image-version of them? It is somehow controlling. Even here, I know you.

(A line from early in Exposition, Léger contemplating a photograph of Castiglione: “‘Myself by her against me.’”)

Even disregarding the power imbalance inherent in looking at these photos of the mother-as-child, there is another aspect that occurs to me.

Part of the power of photography, in Barthes and Léger, and elsewhere, is in its relation to death. Every photograph is a memento mori. The tragedy of the photographic portrait is that it reminds us, the viewer, that the subject is condemned to die, and so join the faceless mass of former humans – and it does so while capturing them at a moment when, to themselves, they seem most alive, and most themselves: posing for a photograph.

I wonder if the appeal to Barthes’ and Léger of these photographs of their mothers as a child or young person might be down to the fact that this death sentence that the photographic portrait delivers does not apply. Or should not apply. Children, before they acquire a sense of mortality, are as close as humans come to immortal. So the death sentence slides off them. Or it should do.

Again the power imbalance. Perhaps in regard to that photo of mother-as-child, the viewer-child feels protective: that they can (or want to) protect the mother-child from death. A death that has already happened to them.

These are half formed thoughts. Like a photograph that is only partly exposed.

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