That privileged moment: Proust and Photographic Vision

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by · Posted in: musings

I'm out of town for a little over a week, so things will be slow here (although there will be new stuff in the iPhone gallery). I leave you with an idea from Proust.

One of the things photographers quickly learn when examining their photographs is that our perception, that confluence of eye and mind, is often a liability to our work, emphasizing elements in the scene that a photograph can't capture, making small elements loom large only to find them receding to miniscule areas of the print, endowing a person or place with emotional content without showing how to capture it photographically. Learning to see is in many ways learning to distrust the perceptual apparatus we were born with, to see the world as frozen abstractions surrounded by a box. This Passage from Volume Three: The Guermantes Way of Proust's Remembrance is a striking description of viewing the world like a photographer. Proust was critical of the idea, the very possibility, of living purely in the present, our lives instead a mixture of memory and anticipation, the present a raw and imperfect thing. As such he is critical of photography in spite of using photographic imagery persistently throughout this work. In this passage the narrator catches a glimpse of the present in its undigested form, a snapshot of that privileged moment.

Alas, it was this ghostly image that I saw when I entered the drawing room, before my grandmother had been informed of my return, and found her there reading. I was there in the room, but in another way I was not there, because she was ignorant of the fact, and, like a woman who has been caught unawares at some piece of handiwork that she will hide away if anyone comes in, she was absorbed in thoughts she has always kept hidden in my presence. The only part of myself that was present—in that privileged moment which does not last, and which, during the brief space of a return, we suddenly find ourselves able to perceive our own absence—was the witness, the observer, in traveling coat and hat, the stranger to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places that will never be seen again. What my eyes did, automatically, in the moment I caught sight of my grandmother, was to take a photograph. We never see those who are dear to us except in the animated workings, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images their faces represent to reach us, draws them into its vortex, flings them back onto the idea of them we have always had, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it. How, since I had interpreted all that was most subtle and permanent in my grandmother's mind from her forehead and her cheeks; how, since every habitual glance is necromancy, and every face we love a mirror of the past—how could I have done otherwise than to neglect what had become dulled and changed about her, given that, in the most indifferent spectacles of daily life, our eyes, burdened with thought, pay no attention, as classical tragedy pays no attention, to any image that does not contribute to the action of the play, and limits itself to those that have the power to make its purpose meaningful? But if, instead of our eyes, it should happen to be a purely material lens, a photographic plate, that has been watching things, then what we see—in the courtyard of the Institut, for example—instead of an Academician emerging into the street to hail a cab, will be his tottering attempts to avoid falling on his back, the parabola of his fall, as though he were drunk or the ground covered in ice. Similarly, some cruel trick of chance may prevent the intelligent devotion of our affections from rushing forward in time to hide from our eyes what they ought never to linger upon, and, outstripped by chance, they get there first, with the field to themselves, and start to function mechanically like photographic film, showing us, not the beloved figure who has long ceased to exist, and whose death our affection has never wanted to reveal, but the new person it has clothed, hundreds of times each day, in a lovingly deceptive likeness. And, like a sick man who has not looked in a mirror for a long time and who constantly composes the set of the features he never sees in accordance with the ideal image of his face he carries in his mind, then recoils when he catches sight in a mirror of a monumental red nose, slanting out of the arid desert of his face like an Egyptian pyramid, I, for whom my grandmother was still myself—I who had only ever seen her with my soul, always at the same point of the past, through the transparency of contiguous and overlapping memories—suddenly, in our drawing room, which had now become part of a new world, the world of Time, inhabited by the strangers we describe as "aging well," for the first time and for a mere second, since she vanished almost immediately, I saw, sitting there on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy, and vulgar, ill, her mind in a daze, the slightly crazed eyes wondering over a book, a crushed old woman whom I did not know.