Sunday, November 22, 2009

Photography: setting as tragic intimation

Gisèle Freund's photograph of Walter Benjamin at work seems to be a study in the physical context of mind. Crammed into a corner of his image, Benjamin appears to have been, for the instant that Freund's shutter remained open, a functional part of a library; that is, an institution which exists to detect the airy traces of words and build around them a sense of shelter and permanence.

But the library where Benjamin busied himself, looking away from Freund's remorselessly disinterested lens toward a cataloged reference to some words elsewhere in the building, was the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the year when he sat among its words on his plain wooden chair was 1932. That year, France's President Doumer was assassinated at the opening of a book fair. The next year, the government of Germany would fall before the bookish Adolf Hitler. Books and their libraries, perhaps, provide us readers only with an illusion of order. They offer us grammar and syntax and dictionaries and firm wooden furniture and bright, flicker-free lighting and an exhilarating sense of exegi monumentum aere perennius, but all it took was a flick of the switch to extinguish Walter Benjamin.

Yet the library into which Benjamin so lovably inserted himself for that fraction of a second in 1932 looks real, looks lasting, looks as permanent as the Edwardian decor we see now in photographs taken, shortly before sailing time, in the salons of the Titanic. That, we can say now, is tragic. Can we go on to say that the camera, because of its mechanical disinterestedness, possesses a unique ability to insert itself into the stuff of history and potentiate us readers' sense of tragedy in history's aftermaths? Can we say that photography's most disturbing property is the mute accent it assumes when it speaks tragedy's key stage direction, "Little did he know"? When her camera took into itself an instant of the light of 1932, Gisèle Freund erected a barrier of dumb wordless irony along the camera's image plane between a wordless image of some words and us wordy talkers about them.