Photographing Jesus

The Turin Shroud
The Turin Shroud

For the forthcoming Images, Icons and Idols conference at the University of Manchester, I hope to present a paper with the title and abstract below. Forming part of my doctoral research, this paper will contribute to a chapter on the iconic characteristics of the photograph, particularly as they relate to the interpretation of biblical texts:

Photographing Jesus: Truth, Typology and the Turin Shroud

The first photographs depicting Jesus in the nineteenth century were typically defined by fine art conventions relating to symbolism, dress, age and pose (Gabriel Harrison, Léon Bovier, Fred Holland Day among others). A relatively young medium, the interpretation of photography’s realism, to our modern eyes, is not convincingly suited to ideal representations of a religious or mythological nature. However, in the person of Jesus Christ, the combined aspects of an historical flesh-and-blood figure and an iconic, divine being receive a unique hermeneutical treatment in the form of photography. Taking the specific example of the Turin Shroud when it was first photographed in 1898, this paper will present the photographic aspects of its representation of the crucified body, and examine the visual interpretation by which these have become evidentially and ontologically ascribed to Christ. The extent of the denoted and the connoted photographic image (Roland Barthes) on the Shroud will be discussed with reference to, respectively, the physical record of truth (as it correlates to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death) and the notion of the icon as a form of typology in reverse. With regard to the latter, the perceived presence of the real object of veneration is, I suggest, less the subject of discourses relating to material idolatry and instead a visual correspondence after-the-event to the textual pre-figurations of Isaiah 52-53.

The shock of the new

Baby Beaumont the Second
Baby Beaumont the Second

It feels slightly odd marking this post in my ‘research’ category, but the photograph is such a departure point for so many thoughts, that I can’t help but mull it over:

  • Up to the point of climbing on the hospital bed for the first scan, the knowledge of pregnancy is somewhere between an abstract mark on a test stick and the lurching bodily reminders of a sea-change happening somewhere underneath. Plus it’s a knowledge contained from the majority of others. So it’s almost a form of not knowing, or a knowing that refuses to declare itself outright. It’s a knowing without language.
  • The only connecting line is offered in the first midwife appointment, when you get the glowing yellow book – yes, here is a text, a language that seems to offer some proof. But it’s a text in code. With numbers and acronyms for so many statistics and states. The marking out of a programme of appointments and tests says that this is, and will be, about lines, results, dates, charts. My head finds it reassuring, because it seems like a solid, sensible construction around that first state of not knowing.
  • But the second the picture grain solidifies into a foetus shape, as the ultrasound scanner presses onto my skin, my heart comes crashing into the room. It really is the shock of the new. And the grain moves where the baby’s heartbeat pulses away. Life turns out to be uncontained by the half-knowing of early pregnancy and also uncontained by the NHS-knowing of monitored states. More than that, it breaks out through an image – a pattern of black and white that seems to need tuning to be revealed, and then BANG! it’s there.
  • It’s such an important image – important for the potency it has for the mum. It makes an internal thing externally present and real. And that real thing hinges on having the inner, ongoing connection with my body. It’s about seeing, and being the seer, in the prophetic sense of making visible what isn’t yet. It’s surely that spark of a punctum which Barthes talks about – a kind of puncture in space and time. To others, it probably doesn’t have that jolt, though it is usually received as celebratory – an image with some magic and wonder.
  • Finally, there’s the filling-in language around the image you take home. On the precious scrap of paper, something is slightly lost from the first experience of seeing a shape appear. But there’s that reassuring medical speak again, at the edges of the frame, counting, dotting, testifying that you are the bearer, you are the inscriber. The bearing of an image has so much resonance here – resemblance, heritage, gift, God-in-humanity. A bigger picture, as Hockney might say.

Why I get hooked on Roland Barthes

Barthes and his mother Henriette
Barthes and his mother Henriette

By way of markers to locate some of my emerging research around the image and text relations of particular biblical photographs, here I note the terms from Barthes which I cannot avoid. Benjamin, Barthes and Baudrillard – the three B’s who hang around photography’s dark room like prophets in the wilderness. They script stories of the image which seem like revelation, meditation, oracle – they don’t write like ‘normal’ academics on the subject, they don’t do technological teleology, they don’t inventory a catalogue of styles or meaning. They write the metaphysics of the photograph:

  • Early Barthes was more systematic about understanding photographs: The Photographic Message (1961) and Rhetoric of the Image (1964) are like so much structuralist French thought. Here is the ‘denoted’ and ‘connoted’ image, the separated ‘message without a code’ (what the image is of) and its ‘code of connotation’ (what the image means). The ‘photographic paradox’ consists in the apparent dependence-for-success of the latter on the former, especially bizarre when considering that the very objectivity of photographic seeing is a by-word for impartial understanding, a by-word for the opposite of connotative culture.
  • To this duality is added (in Rhetoric of the Image) a third non-iconic message, the ‘linguistic message’. The text is an ever-present anchor and/or relay to fix the meaning of the image. Identification and interpretation tie down the denoted and connoted messages (respectively), which are like a dysfunctional surplus of meaning.
  • The early photographs discussed by Barthes are press or advertising photographs, which perhaps lend themselves more readily to a linguistic dissection on account of their obvious visual context surrounded by specific practices of showing and reading. What is performed in Barthes’ own writing, he acknowledges as an impossible division of the image, which retains its own ‘flat anthropological fact’ – its ‘real unreality’. Describing the process of representation may rent the image with words, codes, categories, but it does not, cannot, displace ‘the story of the denoted scene … a lustral bath of innocence’.
  • Later Barthes found more to write along post-structuralist lines. Camera Lucida, 1980, is more a reflective, searching, and discursive exploration of the photograph’s spellbinding power (noticeably through photographs of people). Though the hints of structuralism remain in a duality now defined by the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of the image, these are firmly located in the photograph-viewer relation; more specifically, in his own relation to particular photographs. That which is his polite interest, his liking of certain images is the studium; that which ruptures this gaze with a ‘wound’, a jarring detail, is the punctum.
  • Such is small-p photography for Barthes – not necessarily different from other forms of 2-dimensional representation. Capital-P Photography (the second half of Camera Lucida), is a diving again for its ontology, a wrestling of its unique identity, via the seminal example of a photograph of his mother (not the image above). The truth of the ‘that-has-been’ has a scandalous effect, ‘something to do with resurrection’, of the tangible ‘proof-according-to-St-Thomas’, ‘the simple mystery of concomitance’. All by way of his own realisation of death and life. Though we may have lost institutional rites for the place of death in society, perhaps the photograph replaces these asymbolically.
  • ‘The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’. The photograph ‘is a magic, not an art’. Art and culture may try to tame the photograph into banality, such that we become indifferent to our relations with reality. Barthes says keep the faith, keep the madness alive, keep the ecstasy: that face-to-face, nose-to-nose encounter with ‘the wakening of intractable reality’.

Light From the Middle East

Tal Shochat ‘Pomegranate (Rimon)’, 2010

At the V&A, Light From the Middle East: New Photography is an Art Fund sponsored exhibition bringing together over 90 works from 30 artists, broadly representative of contemporary practice in the greater Middle Eastern area (including North Africa). Photographs range from black and white documentary coverage of conflict (including work from the Iran Diary series of the well-known Magnum member Abbas), to wry commentary on the incorporation of Western materialism by Islamic culture.

Less a critical engagement with familiar political and religious topics, than a conceptual arrangement of different approaches to image-making, the exhibition presents artists who “investigate the language and techniques of photography”. ‘Recording’, ‘Reframing’ and ‘Resisting’ are the titles given to the 3 rooms of the exhibition, within which artists explore such media-interventions as digital and paper collage, scratched or burned prints, and assemblage framing. The highly successful film of Jananne Al-Ani, Shadow Sites II (2011), builds a sequence of desert aerial photographs into a semblage of stealth-like movement with slow zooms and closely-aligned fades, accompanied by a soundtrack of background noise from both ground and air.

In some instances, the imagery seems too quick to connote, rather than denote, to borrow Roland Barthes’ terms. “At once invisible and active, clear and implicit,” connotation plunges the viewer into the ready assimilation of cultural codes: so we see, and immediately grasp, the visual cliché of Shadi Ghadirian’s series Qajar (1998), featuring Iranian portrait photography with traditionally-dressed sitters holding a soft-drinks can, or sitting alongside a mountain bike. Burqa-clad women show off their Louis Vuitton accessories in Hassan Hajjaj’s Jama Fna Angels (2000), and in a reference to Manet’s Olympia (1863), Raeda Saadeh’s self-portrait Who Will Make me Real? (2003) shows the artist in a similarly reclining pose, wrapped in Palestinian newspaper.

Where the photography becomes more interesting is in playing to the slow-burning strength of denotation: “the message without a code” that underwrites any rhetorical or artistic inflexion carried by the image. So the hyperreal clarity of Tal Shocat’s series of fruit tree studies (Persimmon (Afarseman), Pomegranate (Rimon) and Grapefruit (Eshkolit), 2010-11) reflect an absurdly unnatural state of perfected ripeness. Meticulously cleaned and separated against a black background, these naturally-growing trees thwart an Edenic lushness with their knowingly artificial and contrived image. Similarly subtle, Magnetism I and II by Ahmed Mater (2012) seem to depict pilgrims circling the Ka’ba in Mecca, but in fact show the close-up view of iron filings drawn to a cube-shaped magnet. Here, the technique of scale and tilt-shift effect (whether in camera or digitally produced) present an abstraction of scene that comments on the abstracted symbol of religious festival.

Noticeably, the absence of the human figure in these two examples perhaps lends photography a hand out of short-circuited documentary imagery. Depictions of a Sufi festival by Issa Touma (1995-2005) certainly bring us into the circle of Islamic practice that otherwise discourages representation of the human form, but here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, the images of crowds and worshippers remain the documented ‘other’. A more suggestive invitation to assess the incarnational and interdependent aspect of belief and faith comes in the series Light (2006) by Waheeda Malullah, who photographs herself lying next to simple white-tiled tombs in Bahrain. She comments on the Shi’i Muslim custom of seeking blessing by touching the tombs of revered people, occasionally with light-heartedness, and also more poignantly as in the image of her cruciform body with arms stretching across tombs on either side of her.

Such human presence is undoubtedly a key way in which a viewer finds in photography immediate context, if not close identification. The work of Ansel Adams (see last post), in marked contrast, is completely devoid of figures. We may well ask what type of photography may include the body, and maintain an open commentary, less attached to particular religious observance, on things felt or intuited (as well as seen), even to a spiritual degree.

Quotes from: the V&A website, accessed 21/12/12; Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message” in Image Music Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), p.17, 19.