The Body as a Concept of Representation

March 4, 2008

The Body as a Concept of Representation in Photographic Imagery.

The body as a means of representation of various aspects of human concerns was always present through the ages in different artistic creations. However, with the appearance of photographic camera and the first pictures of human body scholars began to question the psychological aspects of such actions. The evident advantages of prolonging the memorable moments of the surrounding realities of human life through the photographic imagery posed also the question of how far it is, and if it is a real experience, and how psychologically it relates to the time the picture was taken and the viewer itself. Roland Barthes[1] in his last book “Camera Lucida” elaborated on the psychological effects of the photographic images and their relation to the past and the present. According to Barthes famous phrase “this-has-been,” each picture contains the testament of the past and the presence. What we see on the paper is the reality of the past that is imprisoned by the camera on the film and can be reproduced at any time, but only in the form of past realities. Following his thought it is possible to say that through the photographic imagery we preserve the memories of the past truth reincarnated in the photographic image every time we look at it. Every time we glance at the picture, we are recalling the absent presence, and as Sartre stated the “photograph represent presence in absence.” To Sartre[2] the photograph is only the object that permits the absent presence to be present in front of us. ” To Barthes each photograph has indexical force that is related to the beholder or user of it. When posing for the picture, we become a subject transformed to an object. Each time somebody is taking our picture he is registering our passage towards unavoidable death. According to Barthes, when looking at the picture we are exposed to two principal elements. One of them is “studium” and the other is “punctum.” The “studium” is the general image or story presented to the viewer without any necessity to be interesting. It could be compared to the background of the painting. The “punctum” is the element in the picture itself that provokes our attention to it. It is the main element of the picture; it is the essence of it. It is the “punctum” that makes the picture interesting and worth to remember. Another words, the “punctum” represents the intellectual meaning of the story of the depicted situation. It represents the strongest element that struck at the viewer by it obviousness. Barthes explores also another important aspect of the photography: posing. For Barthes the fact of posing for the picture does not reflect the real personality of the model. By knowing that somebody is taken a picture of us, we are trying to give the best impression of ourselves in front of the camera. This means that we are exposing the image of us to the camera and not the real image of us. It is a staged reality. This is why the image does not correspond with the truth about us. The pictures, which reflect the reality, are always those taking by surprise, by accident, or basically without the model’s knowledge of being pictured.

The photography, because of its particularities, became very popular not only among the general public, but most of all in the artistic world. Artistes have discovered the mysterious ambiguity of photographic images. They realized the utilitarian qualities of the camera in the exploration of their artistic venues. The earliest example of such discovery might be one of the first pictures taken by Hippolythe Bayard[3] of himself in 1840, as a drowned man with his hands already beginning to decay. After Bayard many other photographers[4] were exploring the possibilities offered by the photographic camera. However, the beginning of twenties brought the real boom in photography, which has been exploded in twenty first century in many various and interesting photographic explorations.

In Modern artistic photography the subjective aspect of the body and its relation to the photographic camera is analyzed through the prism of psychoanalytic representations. Browsing across the artwork of few Contemporary artists it is possible to see how their work relates to the content of Barthes’s divagations on the photography.

In Christian Boltanski photographic composition “Reliquaire” (see fig. 1), the concept of “identities” of the children killed during Holocaust is approached through the rectangular composition of the series of facial pictures suggesting the grave and the crematory of the concentration camp. Boltanski wants to restore the identities of these missing children. He wants to restore the realities of their presence. The spotlights suggest the desire to get out to the light their identities and to save them from of the abyss of obliviousness. With the spotlights directed straight to the eyes, he also indicates the “punctum” of these pictures. He directs our gaze to the eyes of the disappeared children. The eyes tell the stories of those beings smiling and happy looking at us without any fear of their evident only to us unfortunate destinies. These pictures captured the once alive children and preserved the memories about them through the photographic image. These pictures represent the real time of their existence preserved to us in the form of pictorial representation of it. The spots have double meaning in this case. They suggest also the last road these children were going to, as the gas chamber and the cremation of their identities. Boltanski, in his composition relates to the “absent bodies” and their “identities” of the preserved realities of their past.

Looking at Thomas Struth picture “Audience” (see fig.2) the aspect of “identities” emanate mysteriously reflecting the visitor’s deep concentration during their visit in the Hermitage museum. In this particular picture various identities are captured together. The reality of the visitor’s presence in the museum is preserved in the same time together with the historical “absent bodies” and the “identities” of the authors of the artworks they are looking at. The connection between these two: “identities” and the “absent bodies,” are preserved in the image by the audiences gaze at the artworks and through it with the artists themselves. This is the perfect example of the picture illustrating the Barthes theory of captured reality on the photographic image without the object knowing about it. From such picture by psychoanalytic readings we are able to deduct the visitors state of mind not obstructed by anything. The obviousness of total concentration is overwhelming. In this picture the “punctum” would be the intellectual context of the depicted situation underlined by the three frontal characters and their focused gaze at the object of their interest.

The Rineke Dijkstra picture “Tecla” (see fig.3) deals with the “body absence” and the “identity” of the body in a very simple and elaborated central composition of the standing mother who just gave a birth to her infant. The two aspects of the representation of the body are joined together in one picture. The capture of the first moments of the new “identity” of the just born and the “absence” of the surrounded body of his mother, which hosted for the baby during nine months of pregnancy. What the camera registered for the child, it did the same for the mother. She lost her previous “identity” of pregnant woman and the “absent body” of her child from her womb. In both cases Dijkstra registered very important moment of the transformation of the bodies to the different stages of their existence. She captured the end and the beginning of two opposed realities and in the same time she started to document the process of their eventual death and unavoidable separation from each other.

The “absent bodies” takes diverse forms in the pictorial work of such artists as Donigan Cumming, Ana Mendieta, and Francesca Woodman. Donigan Cumming picture “Pretty Ribbons” (see fig. 4) referring to the “absent body” of the past. The photographed woman is exposing voluntarily her breasts to the camera showing how the passing time affected her personally. By doing so she allowed the artist to capture what is left of her femininity. Ana Mendieta in her work (see fig.5) reflects on her obsession with death. By living the shape of her body imprinted in the surface of the ground she illustrates the unavoidable end of each living human. Her presence on the picture is strictly symbolic. We are all framed by the eventuality of death. Francesca Woodman explores through her works the possibilities of the existence of the body after the death. She is trying to simulate the appearance of the “absent bodies” in the abandoned houses. It looks like as Woodman’s work (see fig.6) is inspired by the belief that each house preserves the traces of previous tenants in the form of electromagnetic fields. In the same time her staged compositions are trying to catch the passing time and its surroundings.

The diverse representation of the body by photographic imagery inspires many Contemporary artists. Some of them explore these possibilities by fragmenting the body in order to express stronger their concerns. Others use hybrid combinations creating the world of intrusion into the generally accepted traditional imagery. The surrealist phantasms question protests, and disturb the viewer in order to provoke a reflection on the Modern world. The Jean-Luc Nancy moral battle with the “other” that invaded his body in order to prolong his life reflects the fragility of such hybrid relations. The psychological aspect of the dilemma of double identity is rather a heavy price to pay for the possibilities of living little longer. The Nancy’s example of mental and physical struggles with the fragmentation of his body resulted in hybrid coexistence of theoretically two identities. Nancy’s body with the fragmented self-hybrid has to deal continuously with two devils: his mental psychological balance and his unpredictable rebellious immune system. Many Contemporary artists explore the question of fragmentation and hybrid bodies. Each artist represents a particular approach to these subjects.

Annette Messager in her work “My Vows” (see fig. 7) is comparing her body to the vow of the multitude various fragmented pictures of her corpse composed together in the three dimensional form of cell, or woman ovary. Such fragmentation of her entire body suggests also the hybrid and the genetic coded structure of our identities. Douglas Gordon in his work “Confession of a Justified Sinner” (see fig. 8) illustrates perfectly the situation of Jean-Luc Nancy. The positive face and the negative one reflect the same identity composed from two different entities. Tony Oursler’s bizarre fragmented hybrid composite could demonstrate Nancy’s mental perception of the intruder in his body, which is reflected perfectly through the picture of Pinar Yolacan’s work (see fig. 10). The Nancy’s immune system. The sawed clothing looks perfectly strange because of the attached to it two stakes that eventually will decay with the time and destroy the clothing. The Matthew Barney futuristic hybrid creatures (see fig. 11) from his “Cremaster Cycle” provoke a reflection on the possibilities of coexistence of the fragmented and hybrid bodies in the future. Barney evokes by his fantasist surrealist world that the hybrid realities are beautiful too, especially if they help us to live longer and enjoy the beauty of life.

Each of these artists explores in their respective way the creative opportunities offered to them by the invention called photography. However, the images they capture would certainly speak clearer to them than to the viewer.

[1] French theorist and philosopher (1915-1980) elaborated on the various aspects of photographic images after the death of his mother in 1977. He was interested in the photography since early fifties, writing articles about the various practical aspects of it.

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) – French existentialist philosopher. He wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1964. He refused the price, but after he asked for the financial reward only, which the Nobel committee rejected.

[3] Hyppolythe Bayard (1801-1887), one of the first photographers, inventor of the process of direct positive printing, which is still in use today.

[4] Robert Demachy (1859-1937), was a banker, his professional position permitted him to explore such novelty as photography. He became one of the leading photographers at the end of nineteen century. He established The Photo Club of Paris, and was a member of London’s Linked Ring and of the Photo-Secession. He was considered as a photo-painter, because of the particularities of his compositions. Man Ray (1890-1976), He was for a long time the only surrealistic photographer. Man Ray contributed largely with his work to the Surrealist and Dada movements.


Carson, Juli and Kelly, Mary. “Mea Culpa: A Conversation with Mary Kelly.” Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 75-80.

Crimp, Douglas. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” October, Vol. 15, (Winter, 1980), pp. 91-101.

Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Spring, 2005), pp. 539-574.

Halley, Michael. “Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. Diacritics, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 69-79.

Ilea, Corina. ARTH-384 Course Pack, Theories of Representation: Framing the Body. Concordia University, Faculty of Fine Arts, Fall-2008.

Olin, Margaret. Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification. Representations, No. 80 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 99-118.

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