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Jay Prosser. Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss.

Jay Prosser. Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss. Minnesota UP, 2005. 248 pp. ISBN 0816644845. $69.00.

Is there a text on photography cited more often or more approvingly these days than Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida? Does any new book on photography fail to mention "that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead"? (1) Can any writer on photography resist the trap of recycling, as if it were a properly analytical distinction, Barthes's openly subjective opposition between the studium and punctum of a photograph? At one point a useful provocation to historicists, Barthes's last book has been well and truly canonized in both academic and wider circles. It makes one nostalgic for the times when serious photography theorists like Victor Burgin and John Tagg were roasting Barthes for betraying the cause. Along with Abigail Solomon-Godeau and others, they spent the late 1970s and 80s on a critical enterprise diametrically opposed to the stated objectives of Camera Lucida. Whereas Barthes set out to discover the "essence" of photography, Anglo-American photography theory at that juncture was at great pains to demonstrate that there was no essence of photography, that photographs could only be read and understood in terms of the institutions which frame them (Art, art-historical, medical, legal, scientific) and the practices which define them (amateur, professional, commercial, documentary, surveillance). In this project, they regularly drew inspiration from writings by Barthes from the 1960s, writings that he seemed in Camera Lucida to be disavowing. No wonder Tagg felt compelled to indict the book for its "regressive phantasy ... of photographic realism." (2)

In retrospect, Camera Lucida was not the act of heresy that it was taken to be. As it turns out, the "ontological desire" (3) Barthes sets out to satisfy quickly reaches an impasse, for encountering the essence of photography prevents one from saying much at all about it. Here, for-me, is the crucial passage: "I exhaust myself in realizing that this-has-been; for anyone who holds a photograph in his hand, here is a fundamental belief, an 'ur-doxa' nothing can undo, unless you prove to me that this image is not a photograph. But also, unfortunately, it is in proportion to its certainty that I can say nothing about this photograph" (107). Anyone who has tried to write about photographs soon runs up against the fact that they are, as Barthes puts it, "matte and somehow stupid" (4). What choice, then, but to consider them in relation to those meaning-making institutions and practices which produce them? And yet, Camera Lucida continues to exercise a powerful influence, its subjective approach licensing, for example, the first-person meanderings of Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing-Moment (2005). It is also the guiding theoretical text for Jay Prosser's Light in the Dark Room, which adopts Barthes's basic proposition on the "referential" nature of photography, dedicates its first chapter to a reading of Camera Lucida, and at the end confesses to a misreading of the text in an earlier book (Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality). Prosser's reading of Camera Lucida is careful and subtle, recounting some of the irritation and misunderstanding Barthes engendered, and his public correction of the error in the previous book takes considerable intellectual honesty. However, an admission of fault is not proof against further error, and Light in the Dark Room continues to betray the text that legitimates its discourse. As well as wheeling out yet again that purely private category, the punctum, Prosser cannot resist the temptation to make photos speak, with the very un Barthesian verb "reveal" much in evidence. He also succumbs throughout to the first-person plural; for example, starting his book with a universalizing gesture one cannot imagine Barthes risking: "We treat photographs as if they had a kind of presence. Photography is the commonest way for us to record our own and our loved ones' lives" (1).

The subject of Light in the Dark Room is a minor twentieth-century genre that Prosser has unearthed: the photographic memoir as palinode. A palinode is a recantation or retraction of a previous position, and in Prosser's terms it becomes a ritual of impossible contrition. Consciously or unconsciously, his writers and photographers return, in late work, to earlier work, in order to reconsider and re-evaluate. His examples are Camera Lucida, the second half of which is palinode to the first; Claude Levi-Strauss's Saudades do Brasil (1994), a collection of photos from the 1930s in which Levi-Strauss abandons the distrust he had always expressed about the use of photography in anthropology, a series of autobiographical texts by Gordon Parks articulating his regret over an assignment in Brazil for Life magazine in 1961; an unpublished work on Brazil by Elizabeth Bishop, Black Beans and Diamonds, which attempts to make amends for the fiasco of Brazil (1962), a coffee-table book the poet "co-authored" with the editors of Life; and, finally, Prosser's own palinode on photography and the transsexual body. In each case, "the palinode is ... a return that realizes that realization could only come with loss from the original" (163). The realization of loss is best achieved by way of photography, Prosser contends, because photography itself is a mode inextricably tied up with loss--the loss of a referent, to which, paradoxically, it promises access.

This is nicely neat and symmetrical, and once we've got the hang of Prosser's palinodic logic, we know pretty much where each chapter is headed (to an encounter with loss which is more or less redemptive, if always slightly out of reach, like the referent in photography). For this reason, the paths that Prosser takes to his conclusions are generally more interesting than the conclusions themselves. Easily the best chapter is the one on Gordon Parks, the first African-American staff photographer on Life, who did a series of photographs in 1961 of Flavio da Silva, a young Rio favela-dweller. Very much in the mode of Tagg and Solomon-Godeau, Prosser charts the fate of those photographs as they were taken up by the institutional context of Life magazine and inserted into and interpreted through U.S. ideological imperatives in Latin America. After this rich and nuanced account of the social contexts of photography, it is disappointing to find a rehashing of the myth of the gifted photographer in Prosser's uncritical assessment of unpublished photos by Elizabeth Bishop: "These are places journalists and Life photographers don't go. Like paintings, like poetry, they are mediated. Unlike them the photographs catch a reality that we can see really was there" (150). (The syntax is a bit confusing: "they" and "them" refer, I'm assuming, to the work of "journalists and Life photographers," although "them" also refers to painting and poetry. The point, I guess, is that Bishop's photos manage to transcend all of them).

The back cover of Light in the Dark Room tells us that it engages with "the photographic reflections of figures as different as Roland Barthes and Claude Levi-Strauss, Gordon Parks and Elizabeth Bishop." The diversity of "figures" treated, which includes of course the author himself, is clearly meant to be a strength, but we might equally ask what makes the whole thing hang together. One linking thread identified in the Introduction is Brazil and, particularly, the term saudades. In an epilogue which makes a plea for the preservation of the rainforest, Prosser explains that saudades is "endemic melancholy" and that it is "intrinsic to Brazilian self-conception. It is native, national loss: the realization that we are born into loss; that it inheres in the human condition" (183). In Camera Lucida, Barthes teasingly and playfully seeks out the "essence" of photography and duly discovers it, only to find it empty ("nothing to say"), while Prosser, who admits to having visited it twice, claims to have identified the "intrinsic" core of a country. Prosser is not a Luso-Brazilianist (there are no Portuguese-language references in the notes), and, if he were, he would presumably not hazard such a generalization, particularly since saudades (usually in the singular--saudade) is neither intrinsic nor exclusive to Brazil but originates in Portugal.

Finally, I wish that the University of Minnesota Press had intervened a bit more decisively in the editing process, because much of this book is not well written. Transitive verbs used intransitively, the muddled heaping of sub-clause on sub-clause, a profligacy with dashes, and numerous awkward expressions: all these things make Light in the Dark Room something of a chore to read, as well as obscuring the arguments it seeks to make.

Peter Buse

University of Salford

(1) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (1980; London: Flamingo, 1984), 9.

(2) John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 4.
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Author:Buse, Peter
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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