Selenite, Ice, Salt


Elkins, James. ‘Selenite, Ice, Salt’ What Photography Is (Oxon: Routledge, 2011) 15-44


[On a photograph Elkins finds of a selenite window]

Seen through the window, the world would look like ill-fitted pieces of mosaic crushed together, pressed and refracted by the translucent material into a nearly indecipherable pattern. The window’s inclusions, its grit and spalling sheets of rock, would make the window more a reminder of the lit world beyond it than a representation of that world.

Photography can be compared, I thought when I first found the photograph, to that selenite window. It promises a view of the world, but it gives a flattened object in which the wrecked reminders of the world are lodged.


So I thought that looking into a photograph is like standing on black lake ice and looking down into the water beneath it. Like black ice, the material surface of a photograph is often transparent to vision: my eye moves right through the thin shiny surface of the photographic paper, except where I see scratches or dust, or where the coating reflects my face.

How seldom Barthes mentions the surface of the photograph: he looks through, habitually, and does not reflect on how his gaze has penetrated the paper.

Rosalind Krauss calls this the “it’s” response: “it’s a portrait”, “it’s a landscape”, “it’s a very beautiful woman” […]


And Barthes is right, because normally looking at a photograph is only looking beyond its surface, seeing the people and landscapes back there somewhere beyond or behind the photograph itself.

Even the black ice hardly catches my eye at all. Only its cracks, its surface imperfections, and some faint reflections show that it is there at all, and so I look deeper, below it, searching for something to see: but there is nothing definitely there beyond the flaws and frighteningly thin thickness of the nearly invisible ice.

By contrast, Barthes looks confidently straight at the objects he desires. I am not sure of those objects. I am worried about the surface. And I wonder if the surface and the spaces beyond it are as different as they might seem. 

The black lake ice stills the water beneath it, and floats weightlessly on the surface of the water, so that the water has no surface, no beginning. Indeed there is no distinction between the coldest, most frigid water just below the ice, and the softest boundary of the ice itself: the pane, and the world beyond the pane, fused.

I chose these examples of stunted seeing because photography tends to be conceptualized with the help of brilliant metaphors: people write about perfect windows, lucency, transparency.

Cameras are still imagined, despite their increasing complexity, as machines of logic and light.

The pinhole camera, the camera obscura, the diagrammed eye with its inverted retinal images, and the Euclidean ray diagram, are all metaphors of the ease with which photographs are thought to capture accurate images of the world. 


[…] the actual machinery [of the camera] prompts the metaphoric machinery, facilitating the notion that photography is mechanical and therefore, in the logic that can only be persuasive to people who don’t think too closely about their machines, potentially the equivalent of the simple pinhole camera.

The camera lucida, Barthes’s choice for master trope and title, could be mistaken for one of those metaphors of light.


The camera lucida is just wrong for Camera Lucida: its not about photography; it is a weird, difficult little instrument, not a metaphor of light; and it is not connected, by any logic I can follow, to Blanchot’s observations about intimacy.

But even the camera obscura is too light for my purposes, too effective at pulling the world into a dark room and projecting it on the walls: too spectacular, too easy, too successful.


All this is just to say: Barthes’s chosen metaphor isn’t about light, as he hoped, and the metaphor he rejected, the camera obscura, isn’t enough about darkness.

The indexical theory of photography’s nature was helpful for some art criticism in the moment of minimalism, when it was important to stress photography’s material nature and its independence of ideation. 

What is gained, Barthes might have asked, by proposing that the familiar elements of photography are best understood in terms of Aristotelian cause and effect or the most esoteric and abstract interactions of subatomic particles?


The indexical sign might not be a good fit for photograph, but in another sense all photographs are about touching.

If the photograph is onscreen, I may touch the glass to point out something, smearing it a little with the grease in my fingertip.

I can’t agree with the notion that photography has become “information in the pure state” just because it is digital. (Joan Fontcuberta, Photography: Crisis of History). There is always the surface, and now there’s light from the screen.


This surface, traditionally invoked and then forgotten, has been there from the beginning. William Henry Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings were made by brushing or sponging silvers chloride over paper soaked in salt. They were, in effect, paintings before they were photographs.

My eyes can touch the surface of a photograph. If it is a print made in a darkroom, I can see its surface as a griffonage (an illegible handwriting) of marks and scratches. If it’s onscreen, I can just barely make out the fuzzy mosaic of RGB phosphor dots. (I also can’t agree with writers who speak of the weightlessness of ones and zeros, when digital photographs are always overlays of pixels, hardware routines that manage them for display, and screen sub-pixels  of entirely different shapes and sizes – not to mention the environmentally-appalling objects that give us those images.)

The handling of photographs is a social act and the optical feel of a photograph’s surface is something that almost everyone who writes on photography ignores. (With some exceptions: Olin, Touching Photographs; Peter Geimer’s wonderful book Bilder aus Versehen: Eine Geschichte fotografischer Erscheinungen.)


As an individual photograph, the selenite window is a good but imperfect model of imperfect visibility. 


The black ice photograph is also an intricate and specific model of imperfect representation.

The odd shadows of the selenite window, the imbricated layers of the black lake ice: I looked at them, wondering if they were too obstinately particular to have meaning for photography is general. They said the right things about photography, but perhaps they said them too narrowly, with too many qualifications.


I wasn’t after the aesthetic qualities that some photographers and collectors admire in the distressed surfaces of photographs. I only wanted to say: This, or something like it, is what actually happens in photography, when we stop thinking in optimistic metaphors of light, representation, and realism.


Maybe, I thought, photographs do not work well as metaphors, because they keep splitting into layers, distracting me with inappropriate detail, with clutter…

My third model was a photograph of a piece of rock salt about two inches wide.


It is a truly lovely photograph. It asks me to see something I have never seen, which has not been seen at all, by any eyes, since the Permian age: and at the same time, I know that nothing here can be seen. The subject is unrepresentable using this kind of photography, and its invisibility is expressed, eloquently and inadequately, by the difficulty of peering into to fractured chunk of rock salt.


Through a selenite window, a sharp bright day will appear fractured and broken; in lake ice, everything beyond the surface sinks into night; in rock salt, the photograph is just a reminder that something cannot be seen.

These are all failed looks into or through something. In them, the world is fractured, folded, faint, undependable, invisible, more or less ruined. Photography doesn’t work, the way it does for Barthes, diligently supplying memories, faces, love, and loss.


If Roland Barthes were still alive, so this book could be along letter to him, I would propose this as an opening argument: Photography sees most of the world as it sees selenite, ice, salt, fireflies, and gamma rays, and not as it sees gypsies, prisoners, ex-slaves, or Ernest, the schoolboy Kertesz photographed in 1931.

Of course, Barthes is right again: photography can be used to produce soft-focus romance (Kertesz), hard-grained reportage (Sander, another of Barthes’s favorites), shallow-focus realism (Nadar), floodlit fashion (Avedon), poignant social portraiture (Van Der Zee), or virtuoso provocation (Mapplethorpe). But where, exactly, is the photograph itself in all this romance and novelization?

Where is the visual incident, the detail, the light, shade, shadow, depth, anything at all that would convince me these had to be photographs, and not film stills, paintings, memories, or hallucinations? And where, for that matter, is the matter of photography, the ground-level proof they are photographs?

At ground level, photographs like the ones Barthes has of his own family are compacted layers of paper and chemical grains, with protective layers on top. Photographs like the ones he saw in magazines are hairy mats of paper fibers, caked with dried flakes of printer’s ink. In Barthes this material, this substance of photography does not exist.


If I think just of photographs, their simple material, their surfaces, then I fail to find Barthes’s Photography. Surfaces are not photographs – I am not reducing photographs to paper, glass, and chemicals – but once surfaces are forgotten, photographs are also forgotten.

Barthes’s view is normal, and that is why I keep saying he is right – we all use photographs to help us think of ourselves and our world – but there must be a cost, because selenite, ice, and salt are what we actually continuously see and scrupulously ignore.

Ordinary photography is made strange – so Barthes implies – by the hunt for the punctum.

[The punctum] is the very exemplar of romantic attachment, as Barthes himself knew so well: it is mine and only mine, it is unpredictable, outside the rule of reason, and always intensely personal. But it wears thin. In the end, it is not really adventurous: it’s a kind of deliberate eccentricity, a self-consciously “aberrant” pensiveness.

[The punctum] is always is danger of being less affect than affectation.


Barthes’s adventure were never much of an adventure, after all. We pretended to be looking in a new way, askew, astray, awry, to one side of ordinary meaning.

We found a few things that were overlooked… but those things were all attached to figures.

It wasn’t such a long trip, after all, from the woman to her pumps to her necklace, or from the child to her bandage and back.

It’s true these little journeys are slightly haunting.

[Rather than “wounding”] they are toy journeys.

They are like amusement park rides that scare us a bit and then console us: by mimicking genuine terror, they half-remind us of real terror, and by half-reminding us they confuse us, blurring our image of terror with a toy version of terror. Or they are like detective stories – to which Barthes owes so much – in which the sleuth discovers an overlooked detail, apparently far from human meaning, and instantly solves the murder, wrapping up the harmless story in a delightful flourish.

Suffering, pain, anguish, and mourning play no part in detective stories, and that is famously why they are so palatable as amusements: they put us in mind, just a little, of the fact that people we love will die – but then they make it seem that if we are clever enough, those deaths can somehow be solved.

The punctum is thrilling, to a point, because it mimics in its harmless way something more unsettling that waits beyond it. It half-hides the continuous slight unconscious effort it requires to ignore the photographs themselves and look beyond them for romance and memory.


Without our suspecting, Barthes’s toy journeys shadow other far more upsetting journeys that we could have taken, and still can take.

The punctum cannot be expanded and shared unless it is diluted by quantities of studium.

The popularity of Camera Lucida may stem from abuse of the punctum, and those abuses might also account for the punctum’s conflicted and under-theorized reception, because scholars interested in the punctum would not be in a rush to acknowledge their motives for misreading.


It is just what the text presents to us as inviolate truth – the propulsive search, the diconsolate mourning that drives it – that is the last remaining cover, the safest defense, the best fiction.

[citing Erin Mitchell] In the end “to write photography, to make photographic images virtual,” is not a way of expanding representation, but a way “to contain and tame the excess of images.” And therefore, I add, showing other photographs, and avoiding the Winter garden photograph – which, as we now know, must have been with him as he wrote – is a way of proposing that all strictures have been obeyed, all dangers met.


[Brief discussion of Bourdieu]

[…] I recognize that by asserting my lack of interest in that understanding of photography, and by choosing things like rock, ice, and salt in place of family photos, I am wholly susceptible to Bourdieu’s observation that asserting some “new” taste in photography is just a typical middle-class gesture of rebellion.

For Bourdieu, photography is bourgeois to its bones, and it even includes its own futile anti-bourgeois gestures, like my own attraction to things that aren’t family photographs.


Bourdieu’s kind of critique is always available, and it always threatens to explain everyone’s uses of photography, but it is not always in need of an answer because the practices themselves have meanings outside of their significance for social relations.

I don’t disagree that “we” – the billions who take family photos and vacation snapshots – need to find photographs touching, that we need to arrange them and share them, to preserve them and have them around to help us think about ourselves and our lives.

But because we are distracted by faces and memories, because we do not notice, photography is released to do something wholly different.

I still have my collections of family photographs, but when the subject is photography, I find it more rewarding to reflect on images that do not reflect a face in return.

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