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This article is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

A Personal Memory: Autobiography & Photography Paul Carter

According to his grandson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Schweitzer was 'victim of two recently discovered techniques: the art of photography and "the art of being a grandfather".' But were not these really one and the same? In attaining the statuesque inertia proper to grandfatherhood, what better training could have been contrived than the photographic discipline of freezing a gesture or holding a pose? What could better distinguish a grandfather of the old Empire than an ability 'to adopt a noble stance or to turn to stone'? It would be interesting to know whether our patriarchal image of Victorian society is not so much recorded by the camera as produced by it. Photography reinforces a penchant for the melodramatic. It also proposes an identity. Enduring that age of exposure, the sitter feels a temptation not to be himself: the politician betrays a tremor of doubt, the syphilitic poet smiles inadvertently. Old men develop into grandfathers. Sitters become what they were not: themselves - someone for whom, in real life, they are never mistaken.

With photography, we surmise, new autobiographical possibilities were invented - prospects which were nothing if not confusing. For what photography discovered was not a new 'self', but the reality of appearances. It mocked metaphysics, redefining essences, like Sartre himself, as nothing more than a series of presences. There was nothing 'behind': nothing any longer lay concealed. Illusion had been authenticated. The photograph transferred attention from speech to gesture: it introduced theatrical intuitions into the family circle. ...


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