‘fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography Is


Batchen, Geoffrey., ‘’fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography Is’ Where is the Photograph ed. by David Green (Brighton, Kent: Photoforum, Photoworks, 2003) 15-29

[Batchen discovers a large 19th century photo-object combining hair, waxen flowers, wreath, words and a photograph]


Memory is here given a physical manifestation. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this object is primarily dedicated to a fear of forgetting. [on a complex photo-object]

[Batchen suggests that Barthes and others need to reverse their looking at photographs]


Barthes starts from the photograph, from what once was life, and then looks forward, like a seer, to a future death […] But here, within this framed object, we must start with the fact of this man’s death, a fact signified by by all the insistent iconographic paraphernalia arrayed around him, and then we look back (literally into the depths of the object, as well as back through time) to a moment when he was still alive. It is the exact reverse of Barthes temporal narrative, and thus also allows for a different outcome, for a celebration rather than a shuddering. By shifting the pall of death from the photograph to its surrounds, this object declares that Lide, rather than Death, is the ‘eidos’ of its photograph.


But the addition of hair to these objects also declares that the photograph alone is not sufficient; not sufficient, that is, if this object is to function at all the levels being demanded of it.

By adding a sample of hair to the subject’s photograph, the indexical presence of that subject is reiterated and reinforced.

Indeed, the merger of natural material (hair) and cultural sign (wreath) is a repetition of photography’s own distinctive implosion of nature and culture (an implosion embodied in the very word ‘photography’ from Greek meaning ‘light-writing’).

By this addition to the photograph, the ‘studium’ of mere resemblance (and this portrait is of the fomulaic kind that offers little more than this) is transformed into the ‘punctum’ of the subject-as-ghost ( a figure simultaneously absent and present, alive and dead).

Combining visibility with touch(both real and imagined), this object may be regarded as an effprt to directly link the photograph, the body of “MR” and the body of the viewer, a much more involving type of portrait experience than any single, unadulterated photograph could provide. the object’s hybridity thereby helps bridge the distance between the viewer and the person viewed and between likeness and subject […]


 This bridging is important because, of course, although we are here mourning the death of another, we are also meditating on mortality in general, on our own imminent passing and potential loss of self.


Objects like these also offer a sceptical commentary on the capacity of photography to provide a suitable memory experience. We ususally imaging photographs and memories to be synonymous […] and so we have taken our photographs, voraciously and anxiously, as if to fail to do so would be to let our precious memoies fade away into the mists of time and amnesia.


[Batchen discusses briefly critiques which say memory and photography do not mix, i.e. Barthes ‘quickly become a counter-memory’]

However in the examples I have been discussing here, the photograph’s capacity to erase memory has been countered by its transformation into an overtly touched and/or touchable object-form. In the process, the subject of each photograph has been similarly transformed, from something merely seen into someone really felt, from just an image set in the past into an exchange you are emotionally touched by right now in the present.

Turned into fetish objects devoted to the cult of remembrance, hybrid photographs such as this ask us to give up a little something of ourselves if they are to function satisfactorily. They demand the projection onto their constituent stuff of our own bodies, but also of our personal recollections, hopes and fears (about the passing of time, about death, about being remembered only as history, and – most terrible of all – about being forgotten altogether).

Memory is always in crisis, always in fearful struggle with its other, with the encroachment of amnesia.

Many of these hybrid photo-objects assume memories to be fragile, impossible to pin down, mutable, able to be experienced only in an interactive and often intensely personal moment of perception.

[Comment on Terdiman]


One might regard the invention and proliferation of photography as both a response to this memory crisis but also as its embodiment and reproduction. The photograph remembers a loved one’s appearance, but it is a memory ‘hollowed out,’ disconnected from the social realities of its own production, and also from us, who are doing the remembering. In giving us no more thant he likeness of the absent person, the photograph also distances us from what Barthes called ‘the air’, or being, of this person […]

 Might we regard these various practices – in which the photograph is touched, worked on, added to, transformed into a personalised, hand-made object and a multi-sensory experience – as an attempted complication of, or even counter to, this same memory crisis?

[The photo-objects] collapse looking into touching, and history into memory, and, by making their photographs realatively minor, if never incidental, elements of a larger ensemble, they refuse to privilege a pure photography over other types of representational experience.

[Batchen believes that these objects emphasise the physical object of the photograph:]

By this means, they also offer a kind of commentary on photography itself as a representational system. […] The photograph is turned into a physical thing, a thing whose perception requires our hands as well as our eyes. No longer can the photograph pose as if simply transparent to the world it signifies.

[…] the photograph in these objects cannot help becoming a sign of itself as well as of its referent. These photographs  are now themselves objects, and this calls attention to that aspect of photographs usually repressed in our consciousness of them, their physical presence as things.

And once revealed as a thing amongst other things, a sign among signs, photography’s very process of formation, its indexical relationship to a world outside of itself, is called into question, or at least posed as a question.

[Batchen mentions Derrida]


[…] vernacular photographic practices issue a challenge to existing histories of photography, calling not simply for inclusion in the medium’s grand narratives but for a total transformation of the narrative itself.

For a start, our history would have to acknowledge that any definition of identity based on notions of purity is simply not going to be adequate to the vast range of ‘photographies’ that have been produced over the last two hundred years.


To do it [the photo-hybrid object] justice, we surely need to speak cogently and coherently about the past and its social histories and meanings, but also be able to conjure the ‘punctum’ of a very real personal grief, right here in the present. And Barthes’ Camera Lucida is, perhaps, the most pertinent model.

‘What photography is’ is not something that already exists, some essence waiting to be retrieved from the past; it is – adopting Hall’s terminology – subject to a ‘continuous play of history, culture and power’. It is […] something caught in the process of becoming.

No Responses Yet to “‘fearful ghost of former bloom’: What Photography Is”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s