By Andrea Aramburú
‘Is it not the task of the photographer — descendant of the augurs and the haruspices – to uncover guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?’[i] So wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1931 essay “A short history of photography”, where he claims that photography gains revolutionary value only when it comprises an attention to its own mode of production. The caption, an inscription of language alongside the photograph, for Benjamin, appears as the necessary mark of literary technique, which cracks the barrier between image and text and, by so doing, foregrounds and ‘turns the relationships of life into literature […] without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the approximate’.[ii] In the photographic construction, it is only in this added language where a subject becomes to effect a critical revision of himself and of the world.
But what kind of caption is at work when the platform that mediates it is no longer the written text? Agnès Varda, a filmmaker that came into prominence in the 1960’s French Nouvelle Vague, addresses this question in her short essay-film Ulysse (1982),[iii] where she interrogates her 1954 photograph of the same name that features a naked man (the Egyptian), a child (Ulysse) and a dead goat in a beach around Calais.[iv] Varda’s development of the concept ‘cinécriture’ to characterize her own approach to filmmaking, where ‘the way of narrating’ rather than the story becomes ‘what cinema has to deal with’,[v] is an imaginative account of the Benjaminian task of naming the guilty in a photograph translated to the medium of cinema. In Ulysse,[vi] most notably, she mirrors this bridging of the past into the present through the dialectical encounter between image and language, as she interviews her models, and recollects the bits and pieces of her life within the historical occurrences which surround her over 20 years old photograph. The caption, here, must be understood as the awakening of ‘a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been’[vii] in the picture, yet an awakening that is not necessarily confined to any written medium. Put yet another way, in Ulysse, Varda sets out on quest to construct a film caption for ‘Ulysse’, and she does so by meditating on her own process of creative production through a recollection of images, represented by the photographic stills; memories, her own and those of her models; and, finally, temporalities, by placing her image within a historical lapse.
A long still of ‘Ulysse’ opens the short essay-film. Laura Mulvey notes that, in cinema, the frozen image signals the emergence of ‘another dimension’ because ‘while movement tends to assert the presence of a continuous ‘now’, stillness brings a resonance of ‘then’ to the surface’.[viii] This then, the past that jumps into the present through the still ‘possesses an evidential force’ whose ‘testimony bears not on the object but on time’[ix]; differently put, the frozen image of ‘Ulysse’, in its stillness, takes the viewer back into the original space-time cut Varda made in 1954. Nevertheless, beyond avowing the evidence of what it depicts, as a ‘certificate of presence’,[x] and although being coupled with the sound the water’s edge makes when it reaches the pebbles in the beach, the still of ‘Ulysse’, to the viewer, hovers soundless. Due to the ‘unspecific evidence inherent in photography’, as Herta Wolf puts it, and the fact that ‘the actual referents of photographic images are to be found not in the images themselves but in the discourses that influence the way they are read’,[xi] a single still of an image cannot, by itself, shape the caption a photograph requires. Yet, in the flow of a film, where the propensity to cross boundaries between mediums is enhanced, a frozen image can be reenacted in often surprising ways.
Ulysse breaks the silence of the still in a remarkable manner: Varda brings the autobiographical ‘I’ into the frame through a voice-over which focuses the viewer’s attention on the relationship between herself and her own technique. The photograph, upside down and reversed: ‘the man on his head, lower right; the boy centre-right instead of left; the goat floating in a sky full of meteors’, is shown in the same way Varda first saw it ‘on the frosted glass’[xii] of her late 20th century plate-camera. This action, coupled with her voice-over, explicitly names her voice as the voice of the film and provides her the chance to establish a singular relationship with the image as the starting point for her quest. As she marks her “I” with a specific relation taking place in the photographic situation itself, she constructs ‘a representational image for the autobiographical act of looking at oneself’.[xiii] Ulysse, thus, begins with a disassociation, as the frame shows the point from where the image was articulated. From this disassociation, which cracks the division between the cinematic subject and the autobiographical ‘I’, Varda is able to construct a space for self-reflection within her own work of art. However, because, in film, the reflexive “I” of the autobiographer is always mediated through the eye of the camera, which simultaneously represents the eye of the other,[xiv] Varda’s autobiographical account also evokes the involvement of other types of ‘otherness’, that of the models of the portrait and that of the viewer. This logic of fragmentation that inaugurates her film-caption brings movement to the stillness of an otherwise fixated self, and it is precisely these permeable boundaries of self-representation that open up a space where an autocritique can happen, as they render the photographer conscious that her meaning is being produced and, hence, that it can also be transformed.
Following this, when the voice-over is displaced to the Egyptian, one might note that although the autobiographical self’s voice is gone, Varda remains in the picture nonetheless. As she pairs up the Egyptian’s voice-over with other photographs where he appears, she makes the ‘space-off’ –what remains inferable in the frame although one is not able to see it- ‘to exist concurrently and alongside the represented space’.[xv] As the Egyptian’s memories intermingle with Varda’s own text constructed through the sequence of stills, the latter is integrated into a new form of movement, one that carries glimpses of the Egyptian’s past. If, as Mulvey asserts, ‘the still photograph represents an unattached instant’ and ‘the moving image, on the contrary, cannot escape from duration’,[xvi] the conjoined account of stillness and movement conveyed through the sequence of stills together with the shifting voice-over is precisely what adds movement to an otherwise frozen situation.
On the other hand, it is the absence of the voice-over that which highlights how the viewer is integrated into Varda’s account. Before interviewing Ulysse, Varda shows a sequence of images taken in Rue Daguerre, which include herself and Ulysse’s family, among other neighbours. Her voice narrates the first sequence of photomontage, but, towards the end, two stills are shown silently: in one, the camera moves up through a photo of Ulysse’s father, while on the other, it pans down through a picture of young Ulysse with Bienvenida, his mother. Silence, here, beckons the viewer. Through this gesture, the camera now seems to take the place of the viewer’s eye going through the photographs, as it parallels the action of looking through a family photo album. Her use of the camera, thus, allows ‘Ulysse’ to become part of her autobiographical collection and at the same time invites the spectator to take momentarily her place and become instead the collector. This reconceptualization of the self in account of the other explicitly signals that there is no centre[xvii] in the act of seeing a frozen image: movement and stillness both define Varda’s technique and the multiple perspectives her account takes. But if so, one might ask, how is this decentred experience of seeing also determined by its radical singularity?
‘In order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me, but perhaps memory sometimes would’,[xviii] alleges Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, as he defines the punctum as the traumatic point that emerges in the act of looking, an element which ‘rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces’ the viewer, that, when seen, not only ‘pricks’ him but ‘also bruises’[xix] him. Although the subject remains fragmented in the autobiographical act of captioning, singularity emerges in the persistence of the undevelopable,[xx] which remains always different. This element, Barthes insist, can be traced in the processes of memory. Paralleling this idea, Benjamin constructs an analogy between the human memory and the photographic plate,[xxi] wherein the image is only captured in a flash of light. And Varda follows, as she collects the memories of her models regarding ‘Ulysse’ to demonstrate that the processes of memory are structured in vignettes where the punctum, as a mark of singularity, appears, rather than in a disclosed narrative of meaning. Similarly, her own way of captioning also lets the punctum shine through her camera and, by so doing, reenacts the qualities of the mind.[xxii]
Following a zoom into the goat’s fragment in ‘Ulysse’, Varda undergirds her definition of memory in the representation of a goat literally eating the fragment of the photograph that features it[xxiii]: ‘Without making animals talk, like in American cartoons, or defining memory as a rumination of mental images, may I suggest that there is an animal “eatingmagination” […]?’[xxiv] Rejecting an understanding of memory as rumination, where memories would hover in the subject’s mind, Varda suggests that there might be instead a ‘self-predatory imagination’[xxv]: the moment where images from the past are interrupted and broken apart, here through the metaphor of eating them -digesting them rather than ruminating on them- is where the work of memory, for her, begins. This means that the productive destruction of one’s own memories in the act of recalling is precisely what allows a space for critical self-reflection. Moreover, what this predatory action generates is what is also being added to the photograph by the subject and, thus, making the punctum rise. This is why Barthes claims that the impact ‘triggered’ by the photograph is always an ‘addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’.[xxvi] His assertion sheds light over Benjamin’s singular caption, rooted in the ‘beholder’s flight of affective imagination’[xxvii] and suggests that perhaps the reality of a picture depends much more on the impact it generates on the viewer,[xxviii] mediated by the subject’s singularity being added and simultaneously emerging from the interaction itself, than in anything the picture can show directly.
This ambivalence that characterizes the punctum, as something that the subject adds and nonetheless is ‘always present in the image as potential waiting to be actualized in experience’[xxix] is represented in the ways the Egyptian and Ulysse construct their memories in the act of seeing. Although the Egyptian seems to have a certain connection with the image, this seems to be a superficial one, as he only remembers the clothes in the picture, but nothing else.[xxx] In his approach, he seems to be involved only in the order of ‘unconcerned desire, of various interest’, which Barthes recognizes as the studium.[xxxi] His experience of ‘Ulysse’ is negotiated through a conscious desire to evade memories -‘I don’t want to remember’,[xxxii] he declares-, and this conscious decision does not allow the punctum to break with the order of the studium. This is also suggested when Varda shows him the photograph for the first time, handing him as well some pebbles from the beach; likewise, the Egyptian appears naked, mirroring the naked-ness of his image in the photograph.[xxxiii] These gestures show that materiality can trigger memories, indeed, but only when the subject invests himself in the experience of remembrance, only if he holds a desire for memory. Due to the Egyptian’s reluctance to remembering, the referents for him remain silent; indeed, ‘it is the act of describing that enables the act of seeing’,[xxxiv] that is seeing beyond what the photograph has to show.
Unlike the Egyptian, who at least remembers the clothes he was wearing, Ulysse at first declares not having memory of the photo at all.[xxxv] Because it was taken during a meaningful period of his childhood, when he suffered from coxa-plana -a hip-bone condition that, if not treated, would cause him to limp his entire life-, this absence of memories suggests that Ulysse unconsciously erased from his mind the images associated with his pain. If one draws on Cathy Caruth’s notion of trauma as an event with a retrospective temporality, that arises in the present rather than in the past,[xxxvi] one might be better able to understand why Ulysse is able to recognize this period as traumatic only through the viewing experience of the photograph. Captioning the picture, for him, involves an enactment of Barthes’ punctum: he adds something to the photograph through the recognition of the experience of trauma retrospectively, yet the punctum also ‘bruises’ him, as if it had been always already there. This bruising, that lies beyond representation, is shown but how he remembers his body and his pain perfectly[xxxvii] yet not the image: the pain of the body, brought into question by the photograph, cannot be explained with words. In Barthes’ terms, Ulysse’s pain acts as an expansion of the punctum, in which ‘paradoxically, while remaining a “detail”, it fills the whole picture’.[xxxviii] While for Varda it remains crucial that Ulysse becomes able of imagining his childhood[xxxix], it is through the body and the idea of pain that the latter deals with the viewing experience of ‘Ulysse’. Yet, just in the act of captioning, Ulysse, in a self-predatory action, enacts a conscious integration of a painful memory into his life.
But how does Varda deal with these memories? How does she remember? As the recollection of memories in the medium of film opens up a space where she is able to reflect on how remembering works, it also lets her own technique become a way of remembering. Her use of the collage, for instance, performs the gesture of collecting the Egyptian’s and Ulysse’s memories, and remembering through them. The structure of repetition, on the one hand, allows for memories that don’t belong to the autobiographical self to retain their singularity; on the other, it lets Varda’s own singularity to rise. This twofold undevelopable element that cuts through Varda’s film-caption is represented when she superimposes several images of the same still where Ulysse is laying down in the sun, trying to talk about his pain. Likewise, the still of ‘Ulysse’ returns throughout the film: it fills the entire frame sometimes; it is fragmented depending on the bit Varda wants to highlight; it is put together in a collage with other photographs in some occasions, and with the repeated image of itself in others. If the collages use repetition as a way of translating the punctum to the medium of cinema, by doing so, they also leave a space for a potential remembrance to happen: they serve the purpose of ‘asking the viewer to “remember” something that does not belong to his or her specific past’.[xl] Varda’s filmic structure, in this sense, ‘resorts to mnemonic places and images’ to construct her own ‘textual space’[xli] of memory, one that is fragmented, dialectical and singular.
‘If we don’t remember, we’re in trouble’.[xlii] So claims the Egyptian in Ulysse. Varda deliberately places the photograph she took 26 years back in the midst of a historical timeline, in her life and in its time,[xliii] to show how bridging temporalities can become an ethical task. Put yet another way, Varda’s film-caption is ethical because it leads to a ‘development of a critical and/or narrative practice of writing that remains faithful’ to her personal accounts of the photograph but also ‘safeguards them in the wider context of cultural life, creating and maintaining a space where they are able to occur’.[xliv] And what is this wider context of cultural life? She addresses this inquiry through an audio-visual outline of ‘what was happening on May 9, 1954’, the day she took the photograph: ‘What was real that day I went to the beach?’,[xlv] she asks. Whilst the images and memories that hover over the non-linear narrative she’s constructed around ‘Ulysse’ seem to have collided with herself unintentionally, she actually had to research the official ‘historical’ events that took place that 9th of May.
In order to represent what belongs to the performers of History, those who hold its official memory, she constructs a collage of the ‘the sand, the newsreels and newspapers’[xlvi] that bear witness to the historical occurrences on May 9, 1954. The spectator learns, through the engagement of her voice-over with these images, that, on that day, France was mourning ‘the fallen for whom the flame burns’[xlvii] as the country had lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, an event which led to the ending of the French involvement in Indochina. In light of this, Benjamin’s assertion that ‘there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’[xlviii] makes perfect sense, as ‘Ulysse’ is unwittingly attesting for the grief of France and, thus, carrying with itself the period of French colonization that, in that same day, was put to an end. If this is the official History behind the image, who will, however, corroborate the existence of those excluded from it? Who will speak for Ulysse, the Egyptian or even the goat? By looking backwards and redeeming the memories that lie in ruins, the ones that represent the other History -that of Ulysse, the Egyptian or herself-, those memories that would never appear on the archives or newspapers, Varda takes the task of Benjamin’s ‘historical materialist’, as she dissociates herself from barbarism ‘as far as possible’ and brushes ‘history against the grain’.[xlix] Varda moves away from the simplistic view that History can be narrated and that it is constructed only by those in power; rather, she proposes that History can only take place when it is deconstructed and, for this to happen, one has to be conscious of the mechanisms of its construction first.
A final long and silent still of ‘Ulysse’ closes the short essay-film. Its circular structure, beginning and ending with just the image, reiterates the fact, as Varda states towards the ending, that the caption doesn’t appear in the image -‘but anecdotes, interpretations, gossip…, nothing appears in the image’[l], she remarks- and nonetheless it remains crucial. Who if not her, the photographer, will make ‘Ulysse’ say something?
* * *
Varda’s Ulysse, as I have attempted to show in these brief meditations, exemplifies Benjamin’s rereading of the cultural as something that should seek emancipation and, by so doing, thinks about its own meaning as a work of art. The significance of her take on photography, thus, lies in the way in which she succeeds to embody the ethical demand of liberating the images of the past from silence. If, as Barthes simply put it in Camera Lucida, ‘ultimately, Photography is subversive nor when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’,[li] one might say that Agnès Varda is making ‘Ulysse’ think. In turn, she is making us all, the viewers, think after her: how can we now name the guilty in the pictures we take ourselves?