Messing with Facts: Photographic Traces in Life Writing

Auteur / Author: 
Nancy PEDRI (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada)
Lundi 22 Août 2011 - 15:15


Photography, Mary Ann Doane has argued, “shares the indexical status of the stain — as the trace and hence corroboration of an existence”. It is precisely the lure of the indexical that is intimately linked to what Didi-Huberman calls the photograph’s “fantasy of referentiality”. In fact, the photograph’s strong referential pull is what has traditionally made it so attractive to writers of autobiography and biography. Surprisingly, however, a number of writers forgo the lure of the indexical by including not (traditional) documentary photographs in their autobiographical narratives, but rather empty photographic frames, blurry or damaged photographic images, provocatively cropped images and other such traces of photographic images.

Rather than approaching the photographic images as “clumsy or unsuccessful” (Bourdieu), I will argue that they betray a deliberate act of resistance to restrictive norms governing understandings of self and its representation. They do so by uniting what John Szarkowski — past director of photography at MOMA — identified as a fundamental dichotomy that characterizes contemporary photography (and, I would like to add, autobiography): those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a means of exploration. Indeed, because these photographic traces nod at once toward what a photograph promises to be and what it will never be, they function to reveal subjectivity in its full processural dynamics, its fictiveness, instability and temporality. The representation of self thus takes place through the substitution of the photograph as trace of the real with the photographic trace of that which never was and could never be.

Literary texts that I will consider include Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, George Elliot Clarke’s George and Rue, Claude Cahun’s Disavowels, and Diane Schoemperlen’s Double Exposures.