Photographic Trace & Sympatheia

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote of “plunging” into the image, Roland Barthes of being “pierced” by the image. These are two complimentary descriptions of a passionate bodily engagement with photographs—a gesture to our carnal imaginations when viewing photographs. Together, these descriptions show the reciprocal encounter of photograph and person in a somatic embrace. This reciprocity occurs when we are interior to the photograph, when we see its parts from within it and when we experience its affect within ourselves; that is when we are not separating ourselves from the photograph by looking at it as an object.

With this passionate engagement, we see from within the photograph and we also locate what is coming into vision through the image. That is to say, the viewer of the photograph experiences not only what is corporally present, but also what is physically “invisible”, but existentially present. The word “invisible” is a term we give to a felt presence that is not locatable in what is materially before us; yet it is something that influences our relationship with what we are seeing. The invisible inheres in the reciprocity of viewer’s body with what the image reveals. The possibility for this reciprocity is found in the progression of the very process of photography itself.

Photography begins with a circumstance that Jacques Derrida calls “the trace”. This is a moment of experience found within and selected from an unceasing flow of life by the photographer. In photography, the trace exists not in time or in place, but only as an occasioned selection by the photographer when it is removed from the continuation of that flow. The trace is an original inscription made with light, and it is also a copy that permits other copies.

The “original” of the photographic trace is likewise itself a trace: as the source of the photographic image the trace is but a contingent space of biography, culture, and historical context connecting photographer and subjects to be photographed. The origin of the photographic trace is the “meta”, the “beside” of what is physically and identifiably present. Whether the photograph is staged, posed, or spontaneously “found”, its so-called source, its conjunction of biography, culture, and historical context connected in its spacing is always a bundle of perceived signs and resonances of affect.

It is photography that gives this conjunction a physical presence and a place in memory (biographical and familial memory) and history (the national story). It is the bundle that we try to unpack when viewing. With the quiet meditative presence of the photographic print we can find more in what is present at the temporal and spatial moment of its extraction from the flow. This is why we are continuously surprised by what photographs offer; it is also why we discover what we did not notice in the occasioned moments of photographing, yet find in the photographic image of those occasions. Though we often refer to the photograph as self-evident, it is illusive as a fixed representation and, as Barthes has noted, it is simultaneously what has been and will be. The photograph conceived as trace is demanding of its meaning, its identity, its signification, its timeliness, because it exudes the absence of all of these.

It is because photography holds so complicated a relationship to the material reality of the here and now that the photograph necessitates it’s meaning in terms of time and place. We feel obliged to assign its time and place. We continually try to prevent photography’s paradox of offering temporal, spatial images and seek its identity as we would seek a fingerprint of a person, and we continually demand a priority of the real over the representation. We read the photograph as a journal of our lives and our society.

Photographs possess a potential for finding our heritage. The creating of the trace is a consequence of the sensitized operator of the camera who sees within the landscape, person, occasion, and site, what is essential and emerging, but not yet visible. The trace is always irrupting and coming into view. That is why photographers have their own so-called style or signature. They each find a particular potential that is yet invisible in relation to the manifest materiality of the person or place.

Photographing is an act of revealing what has been “veiled” from us by personal anticipations and cultural judgments. The photographic process is subject to chemical and physical constraints, but what it yields goes beyond jocularity to offer us what we do not yet see. The full bodily engagement informs us about a presence not perceived by the organ of the eye. As such, photography introduces shifts in our perception and in our feelings about what we can see.

This medium offers an opportunity to discover dimensions of others and us through continued sensitized receptiveness. For example, photographs that break that mode of visually alter our understanding of perspective as a natural, geometric system of receding distance. Such images offer us systems of perception that call into question the relationship of depth, size, and distance. In this way, we move beyond culturally prescribed “laws” of seeing to recognize a world that is otherwise; yet it is a world plainly in our midst as photographic image.

And with regard to social conditions, documentary photography opens our eyes to the pain and suffering that is often within our neighborhoods and city, conditions immediate to us, yet somehow hidden from our daily view. And, as well, we find that those with whom we anticipate our greatest life-style differences, they too confront the same anguish in their daily lives. We realize through photography how much we share with those that we find physically different from ourselves. Through a passionate engagement with photographic images we experience shifts in our perception and alterations in our interpretations that lead us to conclude that what has been distant and strange is proximate and known to us.

The photographic process includes the sensitized surface of film receiving the trace of an occasion and the dark room practitioner’s act of transmitting the film’s trace onto a sensitized paper (or other material support). It is in the subsequent viewing of photographs, a viewing from within another sensitized somatic source by the viewer, that the image’s potential becomes actualized and, thus, fulfills the initial engagement of photographer and subject. Museums can offer conditions for this type of viewing, and in so doing permit a receptivity that we call “sympatheia”.

Sympatheia is a condition and mode of perception with poetic, perceptual and cognitive functions. Sympatheia aspires to a reciprocity of all that is possible. Photography offers an opportunity to exchange moments of experiential truths between person and person and between people and people. The photograph creates a pause in the flux of an occasion and the resulting image is a trace of a moment lived that, in its subsequent viewing, may become a part of biographical and cultural memory.

In the progression of the trace from its (always unknown) “origin” to image to viewer we recognize that the image offers an intimation of the “invisible self” of the subject within the image. This so-called “invisible” quality is what the viewer finds and attempts to interpret and to know. The invisible is not a function of a lack of familiarity with a print. The invisible remains palpable after a number of viewings. That is why we return to the photograph, again and again, never satisfied, never finished in our longing to know what is present. The invisible is always in a state of coming-forth-for-recognition because it holds the very essence of what is communal.

For heritage photographs the communal may be of the family, or the village, or the city or it may be of a tradition of a people with historical and geographical identities. The communal dimensions of photography offer an opportunity for reciprocity between image and viewer. This is an opportunity to recognize and understand our differences and our similarities.

Film and television direct our viewing toward a future. The photographic image materially is a residue of the past, however, it is continuously temporal, thereby permitting the viewer to consider what is existent now, in the past, and in the future. Thus, the temporality and spatiality of image as trace permits the assignment of time to a photograph through the viewer’s interpretation. The entrainment of traces, of lives then and lives now, of the past into the present, of our maternal roots to the land and sea and to the labor that connects us all are encountered through our plunge into, and our in-sight from, the photograph.

The passionate viewing of photographs, the reciprocal failing into the image and the image falling within us, is the way in which sympatheia registers its significance upon our lives. Sympatheia is found only in the occasioned opportunity of the presence of reciprocity between image and viewer.

Have More Questions? CONTACT US