How to See (Photographically)


Regis Durand, pp.141-151 in

Petro, Patrice. ed., Fugitive images, from photography to video (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996)


[On photographs and film stills] How can the same image (or same type of image) carry values so radically opposed: viscosity, suture, globality for the one; tremor, inchoation, fragmentation for the other. There have to be, in front of this image, acts of looking and of thinking which are more powerful than the image itself, and which submerge it completely to the point where it becomes secondary.

The question which then arises is what happens to gazing and thinking when the image, instead of being swept away by the flow, lingers on, as it does in photography. The filmic flow turns every vision of the image into memory (even if it is the memory of something which is still in the making). Whereas the permanence of the photographic image turns it into a presence – but a presence which is fated to deceive and disappoint the reality of a “memory without images,” the memory of a scene which has already taken place and now attempts to find its representation, more or less successfully.

In order to stem the flow and the “viscosity” of the film, Barthes tried several things. First of all he tried reducing the cinematic image to the frame still (photogramme) – thus getting asympototically closer to the photograph, as if it were possible to ease gently from one imaginary regime to another. And indeed, once the first objections have been overcome (such as: its impossible, you cannot slide so easily from one to the other, a frame still is not, and never will be, a photograph,” and so forth) we realize Barthes may have effected something which is essential to the understanding of the way photographs are looked at. And that he did so even as he himself did not take this further – electing, as we know to collapse the analysis of photography into that of the temporality of loss, the loss of the beloved and the pathos of mourning.

The operation effected here is essential because it takes place at a divide, at the point where the perception and even the invention of the image are being transformed, at the edge between things and their representation, and between representation and the materials of representation. The frame still is (for Barthes) ideal object,  in the sense that it is at the same time free of the narrative or sequential imperative of film, wile retaining its dynamics, the “possibility of configuration,” “the armature of a permutational unfolding,” of what Barthes calls “the filmic” – that “third meaning,” an “inarticulate meaning which neither the simple photograph nor the figurative painting can assume because they lack the diegetic horizon” (“The Third Meaning” 60). With the still the  taste for fragments with the call for “a genuine mutation of reading and its object, text or film,” because the still asks for a vertical reading of articulations and distributions.


As he compares the still to a palimpsest, Barthes points out the ambivalence of its signifying regime: it is both empty, in a state of depletion (nothing comes to fill the signifiers which it calls up, and its existence never exceeds the fragment), and full (it superimposes different levels of perception and analysis, and, being a palimpsest, it never ceases to call for decipherment).


[…] we know, from Camera Lucida, how desperately Barthes tried to see in photographs a molding of the very time of the object. And we come here to another point of divide. The photograph, like the still, bears the imprint, the accent of movement and time. The difference is that the photograph is forever deprived of this diegetic combination and linearity which characterize the still. For in spite of the various attempts to give it, through sequencing or assemblage, some kind of diegetic quality, the photograph is arrested, suspended.

The arrest that I am talking about is a dynamic feature , one that turns the energy of the image inward, inside the frame, in a kind of implosion or condensation. And the real pensiveness is to be found there – not in a purely imaginary way, in the object of the photograph, as Barthes does, but in the photographic operation itself, in the revulsion that it effects.

How does this come about? First of all, by dissociating the gesture and the object it aims at, the energy or the movement and their destination. Speaking of the “photographic look” (by which he means the look in the eyes of whoever is being photographed, not the viewer’s gaze), Barthes makes a series of distinctions which remind us of the one between the filmic and the film, or the novelistic and the novel:

“One might say … rarest quality of an air” CL 111


This movement is more than just a theoretical fiction, the fantasy of pure inception, of the emergence of thought – of thinking, as it were, photographically. It is essential, again to point to the dividing line. Compare with Jean Louis Schefer’s description of the experience of thinking in the cinema: “The act of thinking and not its object […] it is a world which trembles, which dissolves, which reforms itself because it has been looked at, in other words because the definition of the world has been endowed with movement” […] With Barthes, on the other hand, it is the person in the photograph who looks at us, it is he or she who has been (who once was) and it is he or she who seems to withhold his or her gaze.


The look, then is the presence which the Real has laid down and inscribed within the photograph, and which addresses me without seeing me. The retentive quality (the withholding) which Barthes attributes to the object of the photograph finds its justification in the photographic apparatus: the imprint, the sampling of the real which it effects, and a consequence of which is the closure of the photograph on itself, the impossibility of an exchange of looks, the suture of what becomes properly speaking a fascinum (that which has as an effect the arrest of movements or of life, as Lacan defines it).

But it is necessary, I think, to suspend the gesture which conflates photography with pure hallucination, and to dwell instead on the photographic “thought” as it emerges, in its nascent state when lines and traces are still emerging from the uncertain shades. It is necessary, then, to shift from the gaze as we have been discussing it, to what might be called a gaze-in-use – the gaze that the user/spectator brings to the photographs, the gaze which activates the energies they contain. To fail to do so would be to hallucinate (and Barthes, at least, went to the end of this logic, in his phenomenology of the object of the photograph, as well as in the hallucination itself, the famous “ecstasy”).


But where is such a user/spectator to be found? In what position, in front of what apparatus? Contrary to the experience of viewing films, the viewing of photographs implies no definite apparatus. Even more than reading, it is infinitely particularized and atomized. No séance there but, on the contrary, varying durations and varying types of attention. Of course, it is possible to leave or to suspend at any time of the projection of a film, to get up, leave the theatre, close one’s eyes, or stopframe the VCR. But it remains an exception, a transgressive, or merely technical gesture.


On the other hand, photography seems seems to call for so many different ways of viewing. It is not even clear that it exists (and how) as a medium. Is the medium the paper print, the ordinary print we use for our snapshots? Or is it the artist’s print, which can be put up on the wall, matted and framed, or kept loose in a portfolio? Or is it the photograph as printed on a page of  a magazine, or in a book? The object lacks all “certainty” (to use Barthes’s word), making the phenomenological reading of it problematic and plural.

Yet there is something in photographs which is the very opposite of the fascination they seem to produce at times – something which is the cause of the fact that they can only be looked at quickly, as if they had to be dropped. That something, that flight, is most of the time disavowed and controlled. Yet we know it is emblematic of something central to the experience of photography – its transience: something which has to do with speed, repetition, and the production of waste, and also with a desire not to see. And we also know that an attitude of piety (of a prolonged, respectful contemplation) is nothing but the other side of the same problem.

There is something in photographs which resists the gaze, which deflectsit with the power of all disavowals. the photograph is a fetish\; that which is here to allow me to believe that what is missing is present all the same, even though I know it is not the case. All those appeals to presence, to “having-been-there,” to the referent,to the index, etc., are merely ways of stating the essential connection between photography and the lack (the “symbolic castration”). And whereas painting faces the lack itself and attempts to make it visible as such (in a rather “heroic” fashion), photography plays rather on the side of disavowal. It always (almost always) conjures up something that comes to the fore in order to fill that vois – the object of representation (the referent) whic, like the fetish, reveals and conceals the lack.

This is probably one of the reasons why photography fascinates and repels at the same time. Like the fetish, it fascinates because of its close (analogical) connection with the object of desire. But at the same time, it establishes itself as a substitute, a simulacrum, a worthless trinket. As we look at photographs we cannot help going through a more or less rapid sequence of sideration and rejection, in front of the monotonous succession on images which all attest that they fill up a void, set up a diversion, a screen. There is something self-destructive (or at any rate self-denying) in the accumulation of photographs, in the recognition that they are meant to follow on one another so quickly, to file off. But on the other hand the speed wit which i pass over those images, under the pretext that it is in their very nature, has to do with something in me, undoubtedly. The photographs confront me a little too abruptly with what I am intent on not seeing.


The realtion between photographic images and identifiable objects cannot therefore be analyzed with the help of concepts such as reference or index., it is not because of the photographic process itself (of its “ontology”), which is geared, more than anything, to the production of part-objects. Nor is it because of some “realism” inherent in the same process. It is rather because photography, within a fraction of an instant, makes those objects disappear and return. […] But with photographs, the speed of the viewing duplicates more exactly the speed of the process of taking. All the retarding operations (such as setting up the scene, framing, printing, etc.) can only attempt to conceal that everything, in fact, has been played out in an instant – but that the instant can never be captured or rendered without introducing some kind of artificial indirection or delay.

The only photographs we care about are the ones that seem to have a knowledge of that – of the fact that some things can only be seen by looking away or closing one’s eyes. Or, to put it differently, that a directencounter with the real subject of photography is not possible, and that we have to take the indirect route of the symbolic.

Photographic images, then, … undergoes a transformation.

I am not sure […] that the explanation is to be found in the technology itself. For photography is only fast in appearance. Even in its most instantaneous forms (the Polaroid, for instance), it functions as a kind of delayed action in relation to the actual present. It is a doubling, a retentive or echoing gesture which bespeaks the failure to keep time. And the explanation is to found in the mental operations that take place, rather than in the technology . That is why a film sequence, although it is entirely fabricated, can give us a sense of  an authentic duration, whereas the sharpest, crudest photograph will always be somewhat off the mark (dreamlike, unreal, pensive, depending on the value we give to this discrepancy, this lagging), in a stae of temporal imbalance.


What is it that limps so, in a photograph? What disparity does it strive to make visible? Photographs attempt, often in a panic, to capture a thought as it tries to materialize itself, to image itself in an object or scene. […] the photograph is the search for a novel imaging of a thought – it is an image-though (hence its inchoative nature). [Deleuze says it is same for the cinema and perhaps every form of thought] The closed loop – image-relation/relation-image – is that of thinking itself. But the photographic image does it in a highly specific and original manner, because of its formidable analogical power and its speed which allow a kind of immediate inscription and visualization of the process, an almost instantaneous return of the image onto original thought.


This return (or reversal) is not continuous. Contrary to the operation of language, which is homogenous to the process it is called upon to represent, photography introduces the radical discontinuity and heterogeneity of the visual image into the thinking process.

[this discontinuity] consists of introducing a foreign body into the abstract or symbolic process of thinking. This foreign body, because of its opacity, has a considerable absorbing power, so much so that the original impetus may be arrested, like radiation by thick metal plating. The visual image captivates, and the eye is more than willing to come to a standstill, to rest in it from its unquiet mobility.

Many photographs ask no more of us than that we bask in the serene contemplation of the represented object, in its undisputable presence.

Photographs, then, because of the ease and profusion with which they are made, are an extraordinary source of quiescence. [serenity/calm] Solidly “bound” by their analogical character, they help defend ourselves from certain aggressions from the outside and certain influxes of uncontrolled energy.

A defense against external “unbinding,” the photographic image is perhaps  Justas much and simultaneously its inverted figuration – that which, in ourselves, would unconsciously go out toward external stimuli, acting as their ready receptacle.

[reads freud aligning this with time]


Images, then, would be visible forms of such unconscious “feelers” – the visible traces of unconscious “gestures.” Not illustrations of them, but rather like a rebus, a code which, even though it is no simple translation or figuration, must have some affinity, some connection to the original impulse. There lies something, in the photograph, of unconscious desire, but hardly anything on its surface can lead back to the source – except precisely the sense of its having come from a source, and of the ensuing transformation and loss.

Time, as understood here, has nothing to do with the temporality of the represented object – as Barthes though, its “having-been-there” – but with the temporality of the workings of the thinking process, or one possible version of the thinking process (if we are willing to call “thinking” this initial encounter between an energy and the outside world).

[images] remain in visible forms, which generate in turn other associations, other desires, and call up other images. It is like an infinite proliferation of small branching-outs, which end up covering up completely the original trace and leading the mind astray in many directions.

Hence the strange paradox of photography: its incessant quest for new subjects, but at the same time always the same subjects, ending up in an infinitely complex palimpsest, a subtle layering of images.

What is really being looked at in the photographic operation? (and what is left of it in the viewing of photographs)?  […] Barthes chose to designate the site of absence as something external to the photograph, whereas I believe it is intrinsic to it.


[Barthes restricts “blind frame” to photographs which contain, for him a punctum, while Durand believes it] concerns every photograph.

Which mental operations […] are induced by such an awareness of an absence? Is it just, for the spectator a projection, a desire to go “beyond”? But this desire has to be made possible by something in the photograph, something both powerful and subtle (since we are never constrained by it).

[Durand cannot name what it is, saying] it is indeed as if we are at the “source,” an imaginary locus where the repertory of forms makes and unmakes itself, through the play of primary processes (displacement, condensation, substitution, figuration).

[…] the tension and organisation within the image itself point, not to a “spatialized duration”, but to a modulating duration.


Just how this theater of signs and memory [photography] is constituted, whether it be through contemplation, capture or intensification, remains to be studied in detail.


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