Portrait Photographs are Necromancy

I’ll start by saying that I have begun to read Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. I haven’t got to the parts of it that discuss his feelings and discussions around the photo he found of his dead mother as a child, so at present I remain ignorant of any discussion around this. What I write here is where I am at right now in my ignorance. I will get to a study of this topic soon because it seems very relevant to me as a person who takes photographs every day and often with the question of why in the back of my mind. However, with photography it seems I have a lot of reading to do as the questions it raises are never ending and the whole academic study of it seemingly spreads out ad infinitum to encompass everything.

Two days ago I visited my father’s two old aunts who live in Acton. ‘Betty’ is 76, ‘Bubbles’ is 97. I will admit here that I have no idea what Bubbles’ real name is. Perhaps it could actually be Bubbles?

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Auntie Bubbles, aged 97, doing a huge piece of embroidery. She has ‘So much embroidery thread I could open a shop.’ Sewing skills run in the family; her mother was a court dressmaker.

Anyway, Betty and Bubbles are the gatekeepers of the family photos, and while I was there, as well as being fed cheese sandwiches and fruit cake and being shown the horror of the royal memorabilia collection which includes a life-size baby Prince George doll, I was also fortunate enough to not only be shown the old family photos, but to be given a photograph of my great-grandparents on their wedding day taken 25th December 1919.

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My great-grandparents Walter and Hettie on their wedding day, Christmas 1919.

I have vague memories of my great-grandmother sitting in the corner of the room, much like Bubbles does now, usually silent but always with a strength behind that visible frailty that seems a given for everyone who approaches 100 years old. I suppose you have to be strong to get that far. I vaguely recognised her from the wedding photograph, perhaps because I have others of her when she was merely old and not ancient. But my great-grandfather was a surprise to me as I don’t think I’ve ever seen any photographs of him at all.

Suddenly, there was this real person looking at me.

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Walter. I think he was in The Royal Horse Artillery. But given that so many of the men in the family album were in uniform, I know remarkably little about the army, so don’t quote me on it.

I’ve heard about his death before I think. He had cancer of the mandible – the lower jawbone – and so they removed his jawbone, stitched his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and that was it; treatment over. It was so horrific the nurse sent to change his dressing couldn’t do it, and his brother fainted when he saw him. Not nice, but honestly I’ve never really given it much thought beyond a sense of vague discomfort and not really wanting to know. But seeing a photograph of him makes him real. He’s a real person now, a person who really existed. A person I can now feel emotion towards. Suddenly I can feel empathy and begin to understand not only his suffering, but also that of his wife who had to feed him and nurse him and see her husband in that state. It’s not that I cannot feel empathy for a person I’ve never seen, but the image somehow increases that sense of connection for me.

Looking at those photographs for the first time, I think I must have felt a slight sense of what it must be like for those who are about to meet a parent they have never met before. The first thing I did was look for similarities between us. I have the most unruly curly hair; for me it is a huge part of my identity, and that of two of my children who also have it. That curly hair comes from him. I found myself now wanting to know more about him: what did he do for a living?; what sort of father was he?; how did he communicate when he couldn’t speak, or it seems, write?

There were photos in that album of my great-great grandparents too. My great-grandmother as a small child in the arms of her Irish father. Again, another dead person has now come back to life. There he is, looking at me even though generations separate us. If I hadn’t seen it, I almost wouldn’t believe it. It would be as if he had never existed, just a name on paper (if I had ever bothered to seek it out). But now I have that image of him in my mind, he becomes a person, important, loved in a way.

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My great-grandmother Hettie with her father who was Irish; more things I didn’t know.

I turned page after page in that album, Betty beside me explaining who all these people were and what they were like. Without the photographs to resurrect them, it would mean nothing.

I think I’d have liked to have met Aunt Ive. She looks like a laugh. “She was a real lad,” says Betty. Now these photographs of her have made me miss something that time decreed I should never have. I can see her clearly, she comes through more than anyone else, like she has etched herself onto that paper by sheer force of personality.

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Aunt Ive looks like fun to me


So, I’ve read some of the arguments about portraits; about what we see here in this image and what we don’t. But Aunt Ive, I can see you even though you’re dead. These photographs have brought you back from the dead. And now when I take a photograph of a person I will feel like a necromancer. Because one day someone else will look at that photograph and that person alive in front of me in the moment I press the shutter will one day be raised from the dead by my handiwork.

(Betty let me take photos of the photos in a rush before I left, and those are what you see here hence the poor quality).

And here’s a slideshow of what I have for my family. I’ve left the labels intact!


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Published by Sarah Cassin Scott


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