Armenian archive 6. The spectacle

Original image

Original image

I had flipped through the recent couple of boxes from the Armenian archive a few times, almost in an attempt to ‘find’ something. I was probably alert to the scenes that promoted the spectacle from the public executions images in the previous selection from the archive I was provided with. I returned to the photograph above after remembering it.

Click for larger version

Click for larger version

In Barthesian terms it was the size and ‘publicness’ of this that caught my eye and suggested that I look further. The space in the centre ground is a stage, for those masses who have gathered to witness. The military presence, those in white tunics and rifles who seem to be holding back the hoards on on-lookers to this public enactment, which isn’t easy to decipher, and in order to better investigate I transformed the image to a uniform greyscale after scanning the image at a high resolution in order to investigate the image in greater detail.

That it is a public spectacle is, in my mind, without question. There are many people striving to get a view of the proceedings of the central area in front of the viewer.

Detail

Detail

As if it were a sports match, the crowds seek a place with the best view, climbing trees or any elevated platform to witness the enactment that had either happened, was happening or was about to happen.

The gender of the spectators is an interesting point to consider. There are a few women in the central arena:

Detail

Detail

But they are alone amongst men. The only other women I can see are at a very respectful distance, behind the walls of the buildings in the rear of the image:

Detail

Detail

Within the central area, and seemingly holding a privileged position is this man, and he looks directly at the camera – towards the viewer:

Detail

Detail

Another man looks on from the right of the image:

Detail

Detail

Though neither of them are looking at the floor. The man on the right of the picture looks to the horizon, whilst the man on the left looks directly into the camera, to the viewer, as if the photograph – this record of a spectacle was a record of this man’s endeavour – whatever that may be, was to be used as witness to the scene around them, as testimony.

And what is it he is holding away from his side, this man on the left? Looking at the viewer, and holding whatever it is away from himself as if he doesn’t want it contaminating his clothing:

Detail

Detail

Two knives or a pair of shears? It is difficult to discern, even at this magnification.

And what of those other people, those men near the women, what can we make of them?

Detail

Detail

It appears to me to be about the man in the middle. Is he being held back or controlled in any way by the men on each side of him? If so, why? Or is he being consoled?

And what is this? this collection of objects that are strewn(?) displayed(?) scattered(?) around the central characters in this diorama:

Detail

Detail

Does that look like a hand and forearm – lower right? Or does it just look like one because I have seen other atrocious images from this archive before and now expect, maybe want, to see others? There is a spectacle in this image. The image is one of spectacle, we are invited, from a privileged position to view the very public event. What though are we witnessing? Entertainment or something else?

This photographic image has been living inside me now for a few days, when I first saw it I moved quickly past it and returned to it late when I wanted to see what I could ‘find’. And whilst I don’t want to over intellectualise my reading of the image, I am re-reading Camera Lucida again and the notion of Punctum and Studium are within me also.

Barthes talks a lot towards the end of part one of his book about these twin aspects, and of how we are drawn to certain images. About how images can work on the mind of the viewer after it has been looked at. I suppose when the sub-conscious works to uncover some connection to the image. “Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes” p53. Is that then what happened when I looked away? That this image ‘worked on me’? Initially I wondered about the unnamable object(s) in the centre of the image carelessly/or carefully lain on the dirt floor as the ‘Punctum’, but that was after I had studied the image and I started to study the image after my curiosity had been roused from, well, I’m not sure where. So, now I think it was the crowd; that swell of male spectators to witness whatever it was they witnessed.

The trio of masked women, the man being held back, the man standing with some kind of instrument in his hand are all evidences of ‘Studium’ therefore? No matter really, as it surely isn’t the point to wonder why we are drawn to an image, but maybe the point is what the image reveals about ourselves that is more interesting. That these punctures and studied readings will paint a picture of ourselves/ the reader. I then found Barthes’ comprehension of Mapplethorpe’s self portrait, as an ‘erotic’ photograph quite interesting, and this was after he had ‘read’ the image by G. W. Wilson: Queen Victoria 1863 p56/7, where he remarked that the ‘Punctum’ wasn’t anything to do with the mounted “majesty” but rather the “kilted groom”, which he saw as ” I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behaviour:..”. Well, as an ‘other’ to this Victorian mis en scene, both in terms of a Frenchman and the discovery of the notion of Mr Brown’s ‘other’ duties, why would Barthes think otherwise? The, and particularly Barthes’ French ‘egalitarian’, view of Royalty will not have been fed with an overreaching benevolence. A servant serves, what other point can there be? Barthes is informed by this ‘knowledge’; he ‘knows’ certain things and those things he knows have placed the servant mistress relationship firmly in it’s place. She above, he below,

young man

This image by Mapplethorpe is defined by Barthes as an ‘erotic’ image. Barthes writes: “The photographer has caught the boy’s hand .. at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimeters (sic) more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence …. the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.” p59. The “photographer” is Mapplethorpe – so an image of narcissism? Well it wouldn’t be the first time Mapplethorpe has been accused of that, but somehow I don’t think this is what Barthes is meaning here.

What this blog is about isn’t a discourse of the atrocities found in old archives, or one on the differences of ‘erotic’ to ‘pornographic’ imagery, rather it is about how I understand how we(I) come to read/comprehend images. If Barthes finds the Ghillie in attendance to one of our royal forebears a singular visual metaphor for the subservient relationships within the classes in British life, he is not wrong; if others find another narrative underpinning the image, they are equally right. The same can also be said about the Mapplethorpe image, that Barthes finds it distinctly erotic, but not pornographic, is for him a learned response.

My studied response of the scene from the archive is one of horror. I am he who has written here, I am that man who wonders and wanders, who knows that what I know, as a truth, is still only a temporary grasp on reality that will surely change with new information as it drifts my way. If others see that image without taint from this viewer they will perhaps see some other entertainment, perhaps a sporting show, a boxing or wrestling match? However I can’t rid myself of what I see.

I look forward to seeing the next batch of images on this macabre journey through an Iranian/Armenian photo history.

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3 thoughts on “Armenian archive 6. The spectacle

  1. I was somehow expecting this to be an execution so that’s what I saw without even zooming in.
    Something just occurred to me in a general sense. If you (being ‘anyone’) are drawn into looking at such an image in greater depth then you are a live witness to something that happened long ago and so can feel the horror of what was done. It’s being a witness that bothers me as I wouldn’t stand there and watch in ‘real’ life. It bothers me even more that this kind of event continues even in modern Britain. It makes me despair and then I feel helpless and so become cynical about human nature.

  2. Yes, I know what you mean Catherine. It is the ability of the image to force one to confront what is being depicted. Goya did it with his firing squad image about a century before these photographs were taken – that is less time than from the time the photographs were taken ’till now!

  3. Pingback: Armenia archive 7 – an answer | John Umney - Documentary

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