Several weeks ago, I blogged about the French writer and photographer Herve Guibert. Below, I have published a remarkable essay he wrote which chronicles image, memory, immortality and the fundamental desire of men to both capture and control the images of women. Guibert’s writing style is characterized by parentheses which give a curious sense of the very informed afterthought. His writing is highly cinematic and evocative. The writer artfully captures the universal sense of loss all human beings rather continuously battle. The fact that this talented and highly original writer died so young is particularly resonant given the focus of this essay.
I took her picture. At that moment, she was at the height of her beauty, her face completely smooth and relaxed. She didn’t speak as I moved around her, and there was an imperceptible smile on her lips, undefinable, of peace, of happiness, as if she were being bathed by the light, as if this whirlwind circling around her, at a distance were the most gentle caress.
PHOTOGRAPHY is also an act of love. Once, when my parents were still living in La Rochelle, in that large bright apartment entirely surrounded by a balcony overlooking the trees in the park, and a little further off, the sea, I decided to take a picture of my mother. I must have been eighteen years old, and I had returned home for the weekend. I suppose it was May or June, a sunny day, a day of fresh, cool, and gentle sunshine.
I had already photographed her on vacation with my father, without giving it much thought. They were quite ordinary pictures that said nothing of the relationship we may have had, of the attachment I may have felt for her, pictures that stubbornly revealed only a part of her, physiognomy. Besides, most of the time my mother refused to be photographed, pretending that she was not photogenic, that the situation immediately put her one edge.
If I was eighteen, it must have been 1973, and my mother, who was born in 1928, must have been forty-five, an age when she was still quite beautiful, but a desperate age, when I felt that she was at the threshold of old age, of sadness. I should mention that until then I had refused to photograph her because I didn’t like her hairstyle, which was artificially curled and lacquered into one of those terrible hairdos that my mother wore, alternating it with her permanents, and that encumbered her face, framed it inappropriately, hid it, falsified it. My mother was one of those women who take pride in resembling some actress, Michelle Morgan in this case, and who go out to their hairdresser with a picture taken from some magazine, so that the stylist, with the picture as his guide, re-creates for her the identical hairstyle. So my mother had her hair done almost like Michelle Morgan, whom I obviously began to hate. My father forbade my mother to wear makeup or dye her hair, and when he photographed her he ordered her to smile, or he took the picture against her will while pretending to adjust the camera, so she had no control over her image.
The first thing I did was to remove my father from the room where the picture was to be taken, to chase him away so her image would no longer pass through the one he had created of her, through his need to keep up appearances, so that she was thus temporarily freed of all the pressure that had built up over more than twenty years, so that there was nothing left but our own complicity, free of husband and father, just a mother and son. (Wasn’t it in fact my father’s death that I wanted to stage?)
The second thing was to rescue her face from that mess of a hairdo. As she crouched in the bathroom, I put her head under the faucet myself so that her hair would uncurl, and placed a towel over her head to keep her shoulders from getting wet. She was wearing a white slip. I had her try on several old dresses (I remembered them from my childhood), for example, the blue dress with the flounces and white polka dots, which I associate with Sunday, with festivity, with summer, with pleasure; but either my mother could no longer “get into the dress”, or the dress seemed too much to me, it assumed too much importance, was too loud, and ended up “hiding” my mother again, but in an entirely different way than my father had, although in retrospect, all of our efforts only served to reveal her further. I combed her blonde shoulder-length hair for a long time so that it would hang absolutely straight on either side of her face, without volume, without form, letting the purity of her features show: her long straight nose, her narrow jaw, her high cheekbones, and – why not, even if the photograph would be in black and white, her blue eyes. I put a little powder on her – very pale powder, almost white.
Then I led her into the living room, which was bathed in light, a gentle warm light, the enveloping and restful light of the summer’s beginning. I placed one of the white armchairs among the green plants, the fig tree, the rubber tree, angled so the light would fall more gently upon it, and I lowered the blind a little to soften the light’s intensity, which threatened to obliterate and flatten her face. I then removed anything “distracting” from the field of view, like the plexiglass table where the TV guides lay. My mother was sitting straight up in that armchair in her slip with the towel on her shoulders, waiting, but without any sign of stiffness, for me to finish my preparations. I noticed that her features had already relaxed, and that the little wrinkles that threatened to pinch her mouth completely disappeared. (For a moment I was able to stop time and old age. Through my love for my mother, I turned back.) There she sat, majestic, like a queen before an execution. (I wonder now if it wasn’t her own execution she was expecting, for once the picture was taken, the image fixed, the process of aging would continue, and this time at a dizzying speed, and at an age between forty-five and fifty, when it so brutally takes hold of a woman. I knew that once the shutter was released she would let herself go with detachment, with serenity, with an absolute resignation, and that she would continue to live with this deteriorating image without trying to recapture it in front of a mirror with beauty creams and masks…)
I took her picture. A that moment, she was at the height of her beauty, her face completely smooth and relaxed. She didn’t speak as I moved around her, and there was an imperceptible smile on her lips, undefinable, of peace, of happiness, as if she were being bathed by the light, as if this whirlwind circling slowly around her, at a distance were the most gentle caress. I believe that at that moment she was happy with the image that I, her son allowed her to have and that I was capturing without my father’s knowledge. In fact, it’s that: the image of a woman who had been criticized by her husband, enjoying what she would never have, a forbidden image, and the pleasure between us was even greater as the forbidden burst into pieces. It was a suspended moment, a moment of peace, serene. In some of the pictures, I had her put on a big straw hat folded back, which was for me the young boy’s hat in Death in Venice and which I occasionally wore. In addition, I may have been projecting my own image onto my mother’s; wasn’t the image of my adolescent desire also a confidence I made her assume?
The session was over. My father returned. My mother put her dress back on and quickly redid her hair with the help of curlers and a hair dryer. She became once again her husband’s wife, the woman of forty-five, while the photograph, instantaneously, as if by magic, had suspended age, had made it only an absurd social convention. At that moment, my mother had been beautiful, more beautiful that than she had ever been as a young woman. That is what I wanted to believe. I no longer recognized her, I wanted to forget her, to stop seeing her, to remain forever with the image we were going to extract from the developer.
My father had just bought a camera, a Rollei 35, and it was the first time I had used it. He had also bought a developing kit, which he set up in the bathroom. We decided to process the film right away, and the time it took to process it corresponded to the time it took my mother to remove the powder from her face, dry her hair, and restore her earlier image.That earlier image had been totally, irrevocably reconstructed as we tried to create the chance image, the subversive image of the photograph. But that image didn’t exist. Looking at through the film against the bluish light of the bathroom, we saw the entire roll of film was unexposed, blank from one end to the other…
Correction: 3 April 2014
Since this complete essay can’t be posted without permission, readers will have to settle for an excerpt of Guibert’s Ghost Image, finely translated by Robert Bononno.