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The instant of a flash

in Ark Review/Musings by

Oh the moments, how they slip through our fingers, seemingly lost to fading memory before we can even claim to have felt them. This month on the Ark Review, we are exploring ephemera; those things so tied to the present that simply cannot come with you into the future. Today, Franek Korbanski explains how writings about photography can reveal even more about the experience of moments themselves.


‘Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.’ (Barthes C.L. 3)—Photography does not particularly interest me: like most people around me I take pictures with my phone (I am, though, a bad photographer), I look at pictures taken by others, I am surrounded by them so completely that I cease noticing them. Photographs, nowadays, appear natural, quotidian parts of our lives. Although this anaesthetising effect of their ever presence makes me largely indifferent towards the photography itself, I do, however, take a certain interests in the texts devoted to it. If I had to explain this paradox (not the thing but reading about the thing), the explanation would go as follows: those who speak about photography, as I realise to my amazement, time and again manage to say so much more about so much else. Is it simply that they see clearer, that they naturally transcend the obvious, pointing towards the surprising? Or is it because there is something about photography that makes it prone to such expansive writing and commentary?—‘What is aura? A peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of distance, however near it may be. To follow, while reclining on a summer’s noon, the outline of a mountain range on the horizon or a branch, which casts its shadow on the observer until the moment or the hour partakes of their presence – this is to breathe in the aura of these mountains, of this branch. Today, people have as passionate an inclination to bring things close to themselves or even more to the masses, as to overcome the uniqueness in every situation by reproducing it. Every day the need grows more urgent to possess an object in the closest proximity, through a picture or, better, a reproduction.’ (Benjamin S.H.P. 20)—The lack of the sustained, methodical interest in photography affects (or reflects itself) in how I read about it: what is left is not a coherent body of thought—that would work contrary to the mode of my original engagement with it—but an eclectic collection of quotes. Underlined passages, sentences copied to a notebook, little bookmarks made out of the scraps of paper, print screens of the selections of pdf documents. All with a purpose, I realise, remotely echoing the one of photography: to capture an element of reality and preserve it, prolonging its existence, single it out as a moment. Quotes, like photographs, the reminders of an interest taken. A fleeting and often superficial one, in many cases impossible to reproduce upon revisiting: (‘What was it that arrested me back then?’: a feeling not unlike one experienced upon re-scrutiny of old photographs)—‘The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings). What you saw depended upon where you were when. What you saw was relative to your position in time and space. It was not longer possible to imagine everything converging on the human eye as on the vanishing point of infinity.’ (Berger W.O.S. 18)—The invention of photography answers one of the oldest dreams of humanity; one on par the with dream of being able to flying (both, in their time, magical in their seeming respective impossibilities): to capture the reality. The instant, however, this power is gained, the very reality and our relation to it become questionable. Like anything of fundamental character, photography attracts admiration as well as it does distrust. Above all, however, it poses question marks all over, questioning with one simple gesture (with a minute move of our fingertip) the various facets of our position in the world. All things considered, this intrusion into our reality of something that seems simultaneously to be our very reality and yet transcend it, the potentially explosive consequences brought about by our ability to imprint the reflection of the world onto this fixed medium, makes photography into the subject that is always greater than itself. It is a paradox of far reaching consequences, leaving us unsure, unbalanced (unless its omnipresence obliterates this capacity.)—‘The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality.’ (Barthes C.L. 115)—In a way, photography relegates the center to the periphery and the brings the periphery into the center of attention. If a clear answer to the question of what is the significance of our ability to capture reality in the form of images seems to be lacking, then the sense that this reality is fundamentally different than it was before the time of Niepce and Daguerre seems clear. Not only do we have to recognise that we now see differently, our thinking has been altered too.—‘The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between the images and things, between the copies and originals. It suited Plato’s derogatory attitude toward images to liken them to shadows—transitory, minimally informative, immaterial, impotent co-presences of the real things which cast them. But the force of the photographic images comes from their being material realities in their own right, richly informative deposits left in the wake of whatever emitted them, potent means for turning the tables on reality—for turning it into a shadow. Images are more real than anyone could have supposed.’ (Sontag O.P. 179-180)—One of the many paradoxes of the world in which photography exists is that it not only allows to capture the reality, but it also directly affects it: dictating how reality should present itself, ergo, how should it be. In this sense photography goes far beyond its original positive capacity to register and instead becomes a normative factor. There is no innocence of photography: it makes sure that the Sartrean gaze organises our existence, from our private life to our public sphere. We may forget that we are conditioned, but it does not make us any less so.—‘The present crisis of the bourgeois democracies comprises a crisis of the conditions which determine the public presentation of the rulers. Democracies exhibit a member of the government directly and personally before the nation’s representatives. Parliament is his public. Since the innovations of camera and recording equipment make it possible for the orator to become audible and visible to an unlimited number of persons, the presentation of the man of politics before camera and recording equipment becomes paramount. Parliaments, as much as theaters, are deserted. Radio and film not only affect the function of the professional actor but likewise the function of those who also exhibit themselves before this mechanical equipment, those who govern. […] This results in a new selection, a selection before the equipment from which the star and the dictator emerge victorious.’ (Benjamin W.A.A.M.R. 247, footnote 13.)—I revisit my collection of bookmarks: some of them fall down on the floor and I realise what they marked may be lost forever: too long ago I read the texts to be able to reconstruct what arrested me back then: perhaps permanence, in whatever form, is just unattainable? Some of them I remember well, I clearly know what was it that stroke me.—‘Life appears fully present along the epidermis of his body: vitality ready to be squeezed forth entire in fixing the instant, in recording a brief weary smile, a twitch of the hand, the fugitive pour of sun through clouds. And not a tool, save a camera, is capable of registering such complex ephemeral responses, and expressing the full majesty of the moment.’ (Rosenfeld in Sontag O.P. 207)—I revisit the bookmarks and as I do, I stumble upon words uttered in a different context, with no relation to photography: they are words about lovers talking about their love. And yet, more than any of the other quotes, they seem to capture the paradoxical nature of the photographs, their strange appeal and the source of the fascination they evoke (for me, but perhaps also for others?)—‘For they transfer into duration something whose truth holds for the instant of a flash.’ (Bataille (O.C. 8:500) in Nancy T.I.C. 36)




Works quoted:

C.L. – Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

O.C. – Georges Bataille Oeuvres complètes VIII

O.P. – Susan Sontag On Photography

S.H.P. – Walter Benjamin A Short History of Photography

T.I.C. – Jean-Luc Nancy The Inoperative Community 

W.O.S. – John Berger Ways of Seeing

W.A.A.M.R. – Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility




Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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