Barthes/ Freud/ De Duve- time&Photography





Space?, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 1975-8 Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 

after some reading, a piece of writting/thoughts on Francesca Woodman commenting on the lond exposure technique and its ability to capture/trap some ‘more’ time within the photographic paper…

The camera is pointing at the young artist, who for quite a while now, is exploring the abandoned house and herself within it. When suddenly the shutter of the camera opens ready to absorb as much of the event as possible, engulfing within its body as many moments as it can accommodate. However, it would be important to question, how the viewer can relate to her work and how his own contribution is going to affect the interpretation and therefore the ‘continuity’ of the work. In fact, what appears in the picture, suggest very little of the event occurring.

Looking at Woodman’s work, we cannot doubt that we witness a division of time in the past and future. We have indeed tasted few moments of the event occurring, but as Thierry De Duve (1978,p117) quotes, we are still, “too late to see the event occur at the surface” therefore, “too late to witness its happening in reality”. The young artists after the shooting, changed her clothes and finally stepped outside the abandoned house, or proceed to her new photographic project. Nevertheless, in the photograph she had yet to do so. What De Duve explains, is that the photograph might introduce the stream of time, but ironically enough, this fluidity is interrupted. In other words, what Thierry De Duve suggests, is the ‘here and then’ of the photograph. According to the former theorists, these two examinations conjure trauma. It seems that we are witnessing a filming passing, but right there in the peak of the event, this fluidity vainly stops, leaving us in the middle of the unknown.


The photograph for Ronald Barthes has a similar approach. In Camera Lucida he describes the photograph as ‘that has been’ explaining that the photograph illustrates what was occurring at the past and only. However his opinion does not stop there. He states that the photograph suggests something of the future as well.

“I read at the same time: this will be and this has been, I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future.” (Barthes, 1981)

In the cases were long exposure technique is used, Barthes (1981,p.13) suggest that the technique portrays a ‘kind of prosthesis’ the plinth of the statue which will be made. As a result, the sitter experiences an unbearable state of transformation from ‘subject to object’. Francesca Woodman’s figure transforms in front of our eyes into a substance that does not seem to touch our reality.


Let us examine figure 6 above. This photograph taken while she was studying in Rhodes 1975-1978 is part of the Space2 series. In this image, Francesca Woodman’s figure is moving in an empty space. This time, no other object is present in the room; it is just her and the space. Due to the extensive exposure technique she uses, her body seems to take a discorded, transparent substance which reminds us very little of what we know as a human figure. The optical illusion conveyed by the snapshot, what Thierry De Duve suggests, as ‘impossible posture’, creates a conflict in between the image and reality. Although the image testifies a real event, it does not appear compatible with the reality occurring event, making an unexpected alternation in our perception. In reality the artist is not a ghostly presence nor has a certain power, allowing her to dissolve in the surroundings. The artist was not aiming to make a self-portrait, but rather, wanted to investigate the possibilities of representation of her body in space. According to McDowell (cited in Chis Townsend, 2006p17), the use of long exposure “blurs the trace of the subject and boundaries between it and the space it occupies”. This blurriness caused by the serial capturing of movements although they admit the durational time of the event occurring, concur with the definition of trauma. Therefore, this traumatic feature stems by the traces of time and space in her work. This impossible and imaginary scene recalls our past reality, where the fluidity of the completed event lives and agrees with our sensibilities. The use of the protracted exposure technique gives the key to the viewer and pushes him to take part in the continuity of the imaginary scene. It is this very fear of the unknown that causes the feeling of trauma. In other words as Barthes states: “We possess then, as a kind of precious miracle, a reality from which we are ourselves sheltered”


Alternative to trauma, De Duve’s approach can be associated with the theory of Curiosity introduced by Sigmund Freud. Curiosity is a natural behavior of thirst and desire for knowledge .We then seek in gathering as much information as possible in order to understand the nature of the circumstances. However, this curiosity takes a larger and more traumatic scale when we became unable to find answers right away. In our occasion, trauma becomes more of a tragedy, when we realize that we are unable to find answers.


In order to continue this course, we need to invoke past reality, were the flux of the particular event exists under the frames of our logic. It is in this particular fluidity that we conjure up to our past reality. If we take Bergson’s concept of duration into consideration, what urges us is not just consciousness but therefore the experiences we gained in life till now. As Bergson suggests, ‘we do not think real time, we live it. We carry all our experiences from the past in the future. Our memory overlaps and projects in the future. Therefore, the interpretation and understanding of the future would not be the same, if there was no fluidity and passing experience in our life. This recall of the past, as Bergson explains, does not necessarily derive from conscious acts, but from the experiences that remain preserved in our subconscious. As Freud explains, the unconscious mind stores thoughts inside which we cannot introspect. These thoughts are a result of our experiences arriving by the time we were born till now and have stigmatized the course of our lives without us being aware. These thoughts project in our behavior and on the way we perceive situations and circumstances. The characteristics of flow depicted in the long exposure pictures operate in the same way as the fluidity of our memory. If we think that our live experiences differ, then we would agree that each and every one of us would add a different scenario in the continuity of the event.

As we explained before, the snapshot of an event might embody part of its durational time; therefore, this does not mean that these few moments depicted are enough to predict the events future. As De Duve argues, in order to read and understand for an image, it requires a language to be applied. Language fails to operate in front of the pinpointed space of the photograph, and the onlooker is left momentarily aphasic.

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