6. Notes on Photography & Language

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Burroughs blew off Joan Vollmer’s head in Mexico while playing the most famous scene of the life and adventures of William Tell. They were married. Eighteen years later, he published The Job (1969), interviews in which the author describes with stomach, madness and sharpness the going and coming of the writer’s profession. Nevertheless he escaped the proper punishment—which, after all, very little or nothing would have fixed—, it seems like Burroughs got seriously damaged by Vollmer’s death. By the way it happened, mainly. I have never shot a fire gun, neither in training camps nor for sport. Burroughs used to draw on wood boards and, when the drawing was ready, he would use his shotgun against the board. The last touch to his work: the shot was part of the technique but, mainly, a signature. Often I think Burroughs’ style is like a shot on the face. In The Job Burroughs attacks the shame that looks for a new Garden of Eden, the one looking for certain trip back to an animal innocence. At the same time, Burroughs opposes Alfred Korzybski’s semantics, then a trend, with the classical philosophy: “Aristotle’s either-or is one of the biggest mistakes of western thinking—he says—, it does not even corresponds with what we know about the physical world”. We need to keep this in mind to see in the same person the Burroughs-Murderer, the Burroughs-Clown and the Burroughs-Author. But on top of these characteristics and after reading The Job, the one I see is the Burroughs-Moralist.

Diane Arbus thought the photographer’s seemed to her a perverse activity: “the first time I felt very dirty”, she said, and Sontag closed the idea comparing the camera with a fire gun. But here is the biggest risk behind the development of the photography, according to Sontag: “it implies we know the world if we accept it the way the camera captures it; this is the opposite to understand, a process that starts by not accepting the world as it seems. Every possible comprehension is based on our capacity to say no” (On Photography, 1977). To say no in this case is every day a little bit easier: the forcefulness of any photographs fades down since we count with very simple tools to fake images. If it seems obvious that photographs do not acquire the status of art immediately, we ought to doubt about photography’s status of reality as well. On the opposite side, famous Hans Holbein’s canvas The Ambassadors (1533) communicates better reality than many ordinary photographs. Like John Berger suggested (Ways of seeing, 1972), there are delicate textures perfectly reproduced at the level of making us want to get closer and try to touch the work of carpenters and tailors, blacksmiths, paper and leather manufacturers: the job, the style, the signature—Burroughs’ shot—of many men are there represented, therefore their truth. Photography has this ability, but not as much as Gustav Janouch believed while arguing back to Kafka’s skepticism: “camera does not lie” (Gespräche mit Kafka, 1951). Kafka’s answer is well-known: it is a very advanced criticism against the tool and an invitation to look a little bit more into the things. The prisoner 03618 smiles. Into what things? Also the prisoner 00581 smiles. Into oneself, but into the image as well. The prisoner 00581 is a boy, the 03618 is an old woman. Into oneself means: to turn the passivity of reading to activity: not to get, but to add something to the text. The Cambodian Genocide Archives has only five thousand portraits of countless victims imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Into the image means: there where the hidden life vibrates, beyond the mix of shade and light.

The prisoners have no name—they are not Joan Vollmer—only numbers; we can call them however we want to. Although this one is an archive from a system completely antidemocratic, the readings of these pictures radicalize at the end the very idea of democracy: it equalizes us all. We look at ourselves in the portraits: victims, and at our work—The Ambassadors—: perpetrators. Meanwhile, Diane Arbus feels dirty and William S. Burroughs holds a shotgun.

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August 2010

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  1. Pingback: 7. Notes on Photography & Language | I Repeat Myself When Under Stress

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