Death Mask

Shock of Now iii; Trace

’The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent.  From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant’. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida p80.

Shock of Now; Death Mask; Light box tracing; graphite on tracing paper

The lines on his face, distinctive, deep lines for such a youthful looking man, around his eye brow, more fitting the more years went on, hard to describe without cliché, lines on a face. Indelible presence of past. But these were so material/physical, they looked drawn on. And the eyebrows bushy, unruly at times, I loved his commitment to them (in relation to the barber always keen to tidy them).

Speed combined with a surreal slow urge to record his face, the aperture opened slowly as the shutter closed, theories of indexicality piping up through the roaring rows of grief, lined up and waiting their turn for my attention. An exhausted drive, necessary and definite focus. All the official wake and funereal actions at that time were futile, rituals, processes, to let him go, to help us let him go. Three days (left) of intense importance. I futilely wanted to keep him. I collected all I could. My mum surprised me, she said do what I needed to do before the wakers arrived. Stories of death masks were already settled in my head from my first reading of Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, the idea made sense and that was what I was making. I knew my trace would be the etch of quiet spring light reflecting from his face onto film, and I wanted to keep the lines filled with it. I used to sit opposite him at the table, I’d consciously admired and wondered at those distinctive lines. I wanted to trace them then, an itchy unaddressed  wish.

Afterwards the image was the most terrible, the most true and the most calming. Again theories, photographic theory rose to the surface as the questioned truth of photography startled me with its innocence. I gave thanks for my belief that its indexical aspect could indeed render the photograph faithful to its referent.

“It is the indexical aspect of the photographic sign, located as it is in a preserved moment of time, that allows these movements to take place across the boundaries between the material and the spiritual, reality and magic and between life and death.” – Laura Mulvey

Dark tributaries filled to the brim with light from those days of waking. Tracing these lines was like tracing a shadow map. In my original work plan, I had intended to trace his shadow map, instead I found tracing those lines were the shadow lines and my process, tracing a live line moving away from me, pulled by the light of the sun,(cruel resonance again), much like death, evasive always under the threat of fading lines, strong resonance working, following a line, feeling foolish, futile. Always under threat of fading.

The image I took still brings comfort, stemming from the comfort and relief of having his body returned. The same day after the relief of going to where his soul had left it on the mountain. This need for the material, the physical… I always thought I would rely more on the spiritual (not the material) remains, there was more than the body to pursue. No, having him dead and his body remote instilled a surge of initial panic , then the importance, validity of the body thrived, and in this surge of realisation I planned to photograph the light from his face. I wanted the air from this room, where he had been so present resting in this absent state, captured. (I still shudder and question my depth of character at this material need, to gather, to have, to keep…). The reality of, the presence of, the unbelievable absence so evident in his corpse. The horrible comfort, the desire to go to the room when it was empty of wakers; early in the morning, late in the evening.

Did it speak at some level to my rage…Unacceptance? Rage. This was truth and the truth was terrible, calming. Below my grief. Before being buried, this place still contained him. Speaking to my denial? The meeting of two truths. Unwillingly moving in a new world. In this layered path the two truths met and reconciled something. I knew it would happen, it had happened. It will be. Calm. I had known all along. About finitude. Why then, so shocked like this? Stupefying grief.

Ref. CS lewis quote re: truth and terrible thoughts, ‘Don’t speak to me of consolation, or faith or worse, both together’.

It began here, this certainty of photography, in the way many find certainty of faith through a death, photographic theory, the role a photograph can play settled me. The corpse settled me. A distant security. Commitment to this medium. Medium, how tempted I was for a medium to contact him to correspond, I gathered air and light, as much as I could, 24 120mm frames, 36 35mm frames. Still a modest amount, each morsel was heavy-weighted and valuable.

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