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Does the attention we pay to the world around us when we photograph destroy the inherent truth of it, as it was when Orpheus looked back at Eurydice? Is our attempt to understand the world by preserving it through a photograph only a fleeting attempt for survival in the face of eschatological thought? Or does pho- tography -- the act of looking itself --- render the opaque into a living clarified truth through poetic action?
As Roland Barthes notes in Camera Lucida, “the Greeks entered into death back- ward: what they had before them was their past.” What Orpheus had behind him was his memory of Eurydice, brought to life by imagination, not by Hades. Barthes again notes that history “is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it
-- and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul I am the very contrary of history.” Photography is a tool of exclusion, photographs sepa- rate us from life. Photographs, like Orpheus, don’t see the truth. Eurydice vanished when Orpheus looked back because she was never there, she was beheld only in his mind. In the viewer’s completion, photographs can show what was never there, if the viewer is possessed with the presence of mind to parse the difference. Such an education is no mean feat. Photographs are direct records of a moment in time and space. Light reflected off of the world chisels itself into a semi-permanent re- cord of enchanting stardust -- to the enchanted.
The frame of an image is incontrovertibly finite, yet there is an infinite world to which the frame opens: an image is as much what you bring to it, as what it brings to you. “It is what I add to the photograph, and what is nonetheless already there,” Barthes says. It is a cyclical relationship. The window to which a photo opens is partially a reflection of your own experience, one that contains the image itself. Acknowledging this cyclicality, the writer David Campany notes that “Photo- graphs turn things into signs of themselves.”
Photos are inert, they don’t change, but how we see them does, and thus animat- ed with fresh meaning in this dynamic much may be newly realized and what they reveal is potentially infinite.
Like Orpheus, both the photographers and the viewers of their images look back. Who and what is your Eurydice?
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Aronson, Gus, "eurydice" (2020). Senior Projects Spring 2020. 355.
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