A Winter Garden Photograph

It is not a bad time to be a figurative painter. It was, for quite a while. There was formalism, then zombie formalism, and then we got tired of critiquing zombie formalism as zombie formalism. We are talking about people painting people again, and so we are talking about photography again too.

I am, ostensibly, a painter. Perhaps I have taken one too many skeptical studio visits to heart, but I wonder all the time if I am really a traitor to painting, if my affair with photography hasn’t been an open, awkward secret at the office water cooler of artistic discourse for some time. You see, my paintings of people are unabashedly photographic. Not because they look like photographs, per se. I have never really tried to approach photorealism or hyperrealism in the way that I paint, maybe because my favorite dead white men, like Hopper, El Greco, Vuillard, or Courbet, were never all that tight in the way that they painted.

As images, my paintings seem to always take on the logic of the photograph, even if they are not painted directly from a single photographic source. When I see, I am thinking about the frame and what gets cropped in and out. I am always pre-composing a photograph just through the act of looking. Even when I invent something, the scopic regime of the photo rears its head. This is why I can paint something from no photo at all, and people will ask, who took the photo you worked from?

I have for some time seen this observation as a problem. Why am I like this? Why does my fidelity to this medium seem to undermine what I have to say through the medium of paint? But lately, I have been thinking. What if this comment, which I have understood as a judgment, is actually just an observation? And what if I listened to it, very carefully?

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Anthony Padilla, of early-aughts YouTube fame, about my experience living with aphantasia. Aphantasia is the inability to form images in your mind’s eye. The classic test for it involves asking someone to close their eyes and envision an apple. What color is it? Does it have a leaf still attached to its stem? How detailed is it? (My answer to all the above is, I don’t understand the question, because I see nothing at all). Anthony was a strikingly compassionate, curious, and intelligent interviewer, whose questions lingered with me long after my answers had been edited down into punchy, YouTube appropriate soundbites. Among them: is having aphantasia as an artist a handicap? How do you create when you can’t see? Are all of your methods simply workarounds for your lack of internal vision? Do you feel like you’re missing out? If you could see in your mind’s eye, would you? 

My father is an avid amateur photographer, and gave me my first camera, an Olympus Stylus Epic, in 2003. The first digital point-and-shoots had already been on the market for some time, but my dad, an engineer and ever the stickler for image quality, decided to start me off on film instead. It was the beginning of an adolescence spent staring down the little black box of the viewfinder, struggling even then to see what I was shooting at all, between my glasses and my astigmatism. But photography did not become a solution for me until I started reading comics.

It was manga at first, then webcomics and Scott McCloud and Asterios Polyp. I wanted, desperately, to tell stories and build worlds. I could, in a literary sense. I fleshed out the interiorities of my characters, each one a distortion and amplification of some part of myself. I could even, with the help of history class, point at the way race, gender, and geopolitics played out in these imagined worlds. But in terms of visuality, I drew blanks. When you have aphantasia, creating the skyline of your latest post-apocalyptic shantytown,  or just recalling the way the light fades on a particularly pregnant summer evening, is a physical impossibility.

The camera was salvation. By this point, I had begged an old Nikon D50 out of my father’s collection. It gave me what my still-developing ability to paint bodies and spaces from the nothingness of my mind could not. It gave me the ability to produce visuality. It allowed me to develop a world, if not through invention, then at least through the aesthetic discernment of how and what I chose to photograph. Another feature of aphantasia is poor visual memory. It takes particularly concerted effort for me to be able to remember how anyone’s face looks well enough to draw it without them there. This is rather devastating for a figure painter, and the closest I’ve gotten to really being able to do it is by falling in love. And so I have. I love seeing, even though my mind’s eye is a sieve through which the fluid of sight passes without sticking. The Sisyphean futility of looking has only made me more voracious. I look, knowing it will disappear, and I am that much more willing to buy the lies and machinations of the camera for it. 

And that is the coldly neurological explanation for why my paintings look the way they do. My visual cortex is broken, so I replaced it with the image sensor of a late-model DSLR. I would have been better off as a writer, and in fact, I am writing right now, instead of thinking in pictures like an artist might be expected to. My being a visual artist is something of an exercise in perversity and stubbornness, but that is not all that unusual. Most of us are driven by what we lack, and sometimes we call that inspiration. I would be satisfied with this answer, as deterministic as it might be. It need not be redeemed by some more poetic, ineffable explanation, although surely this would be more artistic. 

Last week I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida for the first time, for class. It is an extraordinary, idiosyncratic, beautiful text. Barthes’ subject is photography, and photography’s essence, in a universalizing sense. But he adopts no framework for his theorizing other than his own emotional responses to photographs. Barthes’ basic question is, why do I like the pictures that I like? His answer? Some pictures pierce him. In Latin: punctum, which also means a sting, speck, cut, little hole. Photographs contain little accidents of recording that prick, bruise, and wound. Barthes tells us that a photograph of the Alhambra pierces him because he should like to live there, not literally, but in some utopian second time. Looking at a portrait of an African American family, he tells us the strapped pumps on the woman arouse great tenderness in him. He admits, to tell us what his punctum is in any given photograph is to give himself up. It is to lay bare the idiosyncrasies of his own sight, pinballing from association to association like an unstandardized Rorschach. And it is true. To read Camera Lucida feels a bit like being let in on a slightly too confessional, slightly too revealing letter, but one that still arrests you with its beauty and strange vulnerability, if you are not too embarrassed to let it in. 

For Barthes, photography is ultimately about love and death. After he loses his mother, he goes in search of a photograph that encapsulates her totality, and finds that they all fail. It is not until he goes back in time, to a photograph that predates his birth, that he finds it. In a photograph of his mother at five years old, he finds ”the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever, without her having inherited it from anyone; how could this kindness have proceeded from the imperfect parents who had loved her so badly - in short: from a family?” In what he calls the Winter Garden Photograph, he discovers ”all the possible predicates from which [his] mother’s being was constituted.”

We talk about this passage in class. The consensus is that Camera Lucida is elegy at its finest, but indefensible on theoretical terms. Margaret Olin asserts in Touching Photographs that the Winter Garden Photograph never existed (Barthes never shows it to us). At the very least, it doesn’t need to, for Barthes to see the fabric of his mother’s being laid bare before his eyes. His formulation of punctum isn’t about what might or might not be there, indexically recorded on a photosensitive substrate - it’s about what the viewer projects. The relevant question isn’t what the photograph is doing, but rather, what we are doing to it. Olin issues an important corrective to Barthes - photography is, ultimately, relational. And we have a laugh about Barthes making photography about his dead mother, in the final analysis. 

I say nothing because I think it would be terribly unfashionable to defend Barthes’ sentimentality in an academic setting. But I believe in the possibility that the Winter Garden Photograph actually existed. To say why is to reveal my punctum, to give myself up too. So let me unravel, if it will not embarrass you too much. 

Last August, I was writing love letters, working through the first time I had fallen in love, or something like it. To save myself some face, here is only the relevant excerpt: 

This is a story about you, or maybe about me. It is a story about how human it is to search the interstices to knit together meaning, regardless of what we call it when we find it. 

A long time ago, I found a picture of you as a young boy. In the narrative of love, the idea that you “find” someone occurs and reoccurs. This, like the fact that the words for “meal” and “rice” are the same in Chinese, reveals something about how we conceptualize the thing. You do not “meet” the one you love, because when you do, something about that meeting seems original, and something about that person antedates the literal fact of your meeting. This is why we sit through the kitsch of love stories again and again, and why, when two lovers discover that they unknowingly met as children, the story goes viral all over the internet. 

In the picture, you are probably no more than five or six. Your hair is bowl cut and starting to turn brown. The grain and overexposure instantly date it to the decade when we were both young. You are clutching a puppy, almost desperately, but your eyeline is trained towards the viewer. I think you are thrilled, and I think the puppy is less so. It is by any account an exceedingly sweet picture. And what I see in it cannot be accounted for by formal analysis alone. Because the first time I saw it, and every time since, I feel as if you are found. In your gaze, I see that you are old enough to know that you are supposed to address the camera, but not old enough to hide what that gaze might telescope. That you are loved, happy, and safe, but lonely also, lonely already. That the effusiveness of your being has already struggled to find purchase in the world, even at this tender age. In those eyes I think I can see a kernel of the vulnerability and sensitivity that make you who you are. That this boy grew into this man, the one who helps people battle the bad stories they keep alive in their heads, makes as much sense as Newton’s laws.

And maybe I am seeing things, but your eyes are still the same. 

I would ask you to forgive the simpering, blind prose of someone in the throes of love. The point is, I believe Barthes because I had a Winter Garden Photograph of my own. The beats feel eerily similar - the objects of our love are the same age in these photos, which predate our knowing them. Maybe because it’s easier to project what we want onto a time before these people were real to us, before they could (and surely did) fail us through all the fallible contingencies of their humanity. What we see through the lens of their childish innocence seems to constitute their original, transcendent good, which persists in spite of the unkindness of the world. Of course, Margaret Olin is right. It doesn’t matter if either of these photographs really are real, because the meaning we produce from them doesn’t reside in their physical existence. What I saw was pure projection, and bears no relation to whatever “truth” that photo really holds. Though we are talking about photographs, neither of us is really talking about photography. Perhaps Barthes and I are fools, and perhaps me more so than him. I have since concluded that what I saw in that photo was not really love at all.

You see, in the aftermath of heartbreak, reading Barthes was a tether to devastating, necessary clarity. What Barthes saw in his Winter Garden Photograph was precipitated by grief. His mother was gone, and so images were all he had left. The boy in my Winter Garden Photograph is not dead. After I wrote that letter, which I never shared with him, I still saw him frequently. What business would I have reconstituting the living through the tableaux vivant of photography, if I did not implicitly know that he was always already lost to me? Through Barthes I accepted that my love for him was always, firstly, a kind of grief. 

Whether the projection is of love, grief, or some complicated admixture of the two, what does not change is my susceptibility. I still looked, and I still narrativized what I saw with lyrical abandon. What is it, to be pierced by images in this way? What cuts and holes do the act of looking reveal, or create? What if my susceptibility to photography is, like Barthes suggests, a wound? What if I simply have a wound for sight? What if artists are people who choose to open that wound again and again, instead of letting the thicket of scars heal over? If I ever wanted a more poetic defense for the reasons I make the way I do, I suppose this would be it. 

But this is not a defense of how or why I paint. I do not call upon Barthes and Camera Lucida to buttress my thinking with accepted scholarship any more than I think aphantasia fully explains my predilection for photography. It is simply that I am still searching, as I suspect I always will be, for ways to understand what I do in relation to others. Part of why I make art is the camaraderie of time travel. To be able to reach back forty years and think, good old Roland and I, how wonderful that we found the same way to mourn through the slippage of meaning in a photograph. To reach back four hundred years and wonder, did El Greco - or perhaps I could call him Doménikos - see? Could he hold the View of Toledo, which pierces me as the Alhambra pierced Barthes, in the memory banks of his mind? It is one of the ways I know I am not alone, and not an original either. There is great comfort to be found in the ordinariness of my vision. So perhaps, I will claim that this piece is neither apology nor defense for the way I am, but just my latest, best relational hypothesis. I reach out and seek my place, in the community of sight.

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