I always think photographs abominable and I don't like to have them around, particularly not those of persons I know and love.-Vincent van Gogh, "Letter of September 19th, 1889," The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
Due to the physical action of light and the chemical action of development there is a tangible link between what was photographed, through the developing process to the gaze of the viewer. It is a process involving something that has been, due to the photograph as an object, due to the action of light, due to radiations that ultimately touch me and due to the photograph being something for the gaze, the visual memory, of the viewer. The photograph of a missing being, Susan Sontag says, touches me like the delayed rays of a star.-Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977.
At the age of sixty I now possess a dozen albums of photographs of various sizes and shapes. They could represent a significant aspect of any autobiography I might want to write. This essay, this part of a chapter of this book, tries to put all these photographs in perspective, tries to provide readers with my personal hermeneutics of the visual, at least that part of the visual that got packaged into these twelve albums in a culture which gives hegemony to the visual. More generally, too, I provide here in this part of my memoire a fragmented, an episodic, examination of the phenomenon of seeing. What the famous Italian film director Federico Fellini said about film could also apply to my photographs. "My films are not for understanding,” said Fellini, “They are for seeing." This essay, though, is about understanding.
The French sociologist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, said that "no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. Photo-graphy is the writing of light and this light is the very imagination of the image. Baudrillard sees his photographs as making the world a little more enigmatic and unintelligible, as exposing the very unreality of the world of appearances. Any photograph is never of any “real” world, but rather, it is a record of the momentary appearances behind which the real hides. To him, the world is essentially illusion. I certainly sense this as I look back over nearly 100 years of photographs in my dozen albums.
Kodak has closed its film laboratories and processing plants in Britain and the United States since the turn of the millennium. At this point in the twenty-first century, however, we can still look back on 150 years of a familiar and domestic photographic technology: the black-and-white print, a little-changing record of family life with its own power of revelation. My photos look back on a very small section of 98 years of that century and a half within the confines of my family, friends and many of the landscapes where I have lived, moved and had my being.
I have been working on this essay for several years, since the late 1990s. It finally has a form that is useful and, although not entirely satisfactory, it is appropriate to include in this autobiography. Much more work on this essay is required, but its relevance to my autobiography has at last some clarity to me and so I include it in this fifth edition of Pioneering Over Four Epochs. I have found the content of this essay one of the most intricate and complex of all the sections of this autobiographical narrative but, because the ideas are important to me--and I hope to some readers--I want to include them. The ability of photography to record some of the types of the minutiae of social life makes it an ideal method for dealing with a number of aspects of the autobiographical process and some of the complexities and richness of the human situation. Many people see much more in photos than they even do in written text; for these people, my photographs and the commentary are indispensable. Of course, as Andre Malreau once said, “Images do not make up a life story; nor do events. It is the narrative illusion, the biographical work, that creates the life story.”
This is not to say that vision and perception are not active, that they do not create understanding. When we observe something, then we reach for it; we move through space, touch things, feel their surfaces and contours. Our perception structures and orders the information given by things into determinable forms. We understand because this structuring and ordering is a part of our relationship with reality. Without order we couldn't understand at all. The world is not just raw material; it is already ordered merely by being observed. And photography helps in this ordering process; indeed, our very way of looking at so much of the world is now determined, in part at least, by photographs. Photography gives us an immense amount of experience that normally would be outside our range. The fragment is so often elevated from irrelevance to positions of some priviledge. We are able to see what we looked like as children for the first time in the last century and a half, since the birth of the Baha’i revelation. The photos are full of vanished details of the way life was lived – the styles of chairs, of clothes, of hats and bathing costumes, of accessories like spectacles – and of a wide range of intriguing bits of human activity. As one critic put it, photographs may stimulate, inspire, or seem to document autobiography, but whether they in fact do is another question.
Here are two prose-poems that place this subject of photography in what I hope is a helpful perspective:
TELLING THE STORY
Most of us, without particularly meaning to, have accumulated--from commercials, from ads in magazines, from picture books, from movies--a mental archive of images of the West, a personal West-in-the-Mind’s eye in which we see an eternal pastoral, very beautiful but usually unpeopled. These potent images, pelting us decade after decade, finally implant notions about how the West was explored and developed, in a word, won that are unrealistic. Photography has helped to redress the balance little by little with its rich but disordered resource. Over the last seventy years studies of various kinds and the occasional autobiography, like We Pointed Them North(1939), have helped to alter the picture that is engraved on all our brains from TV and the movies: Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, the Lone Ranger, Butch Cassidy, et al.-Ron Price with thanks to Larry McMurtry, “High Noon”, a review of The New Encyclopedia of the American West, editor Howard R. Lamar, Yale UP, in The Australian Review of Books, December 1998, pp.17-19.
The enterprise began, perhaps as early as 1894 when the first Baha’is landed in America from the Middle East, or even when the Letters of the Living travelled throughout Iran in 1844 and thereafter. The twenty-five years from 1894 to 1919 was a precursor to the year 1919 when the Tablets of the Divine Plan were read and a pioneering program began that is now eighty years old. It is a program that is immensely diverse and operates at local, regional, national and international levels. It is important, as the Baha’i community comes to describe this vast and complex story, that it avoids a tendency to an affinity with the reverential writers of medieval England, to endless edification and to what is called hagiography. There is a need to emotionally individualize stories so that readers will not have to piously wade through hundreds of pages of lifeless prose.-Ron Price, Tasmania