On Hervé Guibert
by Anthony Huberman
On the occasion of Hervé Guibert: This and More, the exhibition dedicated to the French writer, journalist and photographer Hervé Guibert (1955-1991), produced in collaboration with CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, the following is a text in which Anthony Huberman, curator of the exhibition, engages in an imaginary dialogue with Guibert, returning us to a reflection on his work and photography as a medium of expression.
This is an exhibition of photographs, but it’s also an exhibition about what lies beyond the grasp of photography.
The photographs are by the French writer, artist, and activist Hervé Guibert (1955–1991). He is best known as a writer, working as a critic for Le Monde from 1977 to 1985, and authoring dozens of works of fiction and books about photography. When his own photographs are shown, it’s usually images of people.
The photographs in this exhibition are not images of people but images of interiors, objects, and empty rooms. And while none of them involve a face, each one is a portrait—they are not pictures of people but pictures of relationships with people. Perhaps this exhibition is about the difference between the two.
Monday, 9am. It’s drizzling.
I pick up my copy of Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image (1981). It’s been on the nightstand since the beginning of the pandemic. Its sixty–three short essays, each one a deeply personal meditation on photography, were written in response to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980), which is also a series of short personal reflections on photography. Both books are about death—they are not only about the actual death of a loved one, but they define photography as an agent of death.
Photograph only those closest to you, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your lover. The emotional antecedent will carry the picture along with it.
This strikes me as a particularly mournful and melancholic idea, but a beautiful one nonetheless. It seems to say that photographs are fragile entities and aren’t suited for just anything or anyone. That a photograph needs help from something that’s not in the picture—an emotional antecedent. That a picture needs something that predates the picture and that animates it from beyond its frame. Without it, it risks being stranded within the flat space of an image, like a castaway lost at sea.
It reminds me of that picture I’ve used as my phone’s background image for the past decade or so…probably even longer. It’s a picture of an empty field, with a short stone wall on the bottom left hand corner. And yet the fact that it’s an image I choose to see whenever I look at my phone indicates that it carries within it more than a field and a wall, right? I wonder if anyone else can feel that, when they see it. Only my brothers and mother would recognize that it’s the wall that encloses the small cemetery, in Laconnex, where my father is buried.
OK, off to work.
Tuesday, 8pm. End of a long day. Cold beer.
How can you speak of photography without speaking of desire? Good question. The image is the essence of desire and if you desexualize the image, you reduce it to theory.
Ha. It’s funny because Guibert wrote this right around the time when photography was becoming the theoretical object par excellence—and developed by his close friends and mentors Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, no less. The book that caused the biggest stir was his novel To the friend who did not save my life (1990), where Guibert writes about his life with AIDS, and about a close friend, whom he names Muzil but who is obviously Foucault, who has an even more advanced case of the disease and is living out his last few months. The famous philosopher had not revealed his illness to the public, and Guibert’s book played a significant role in changing public attitudes in France toward AIDS.
Photography is also an act of love. Sex and Death. Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, David Wojnarowicz. “Sex and Death” is also the name Dodie Bellamy gave her graduate fine arts seminar at CCA last semester. FINAR–6020–1: THEORY: SEX AND DEATH; Wednesdays, 4 – 5:55PM; Units: 3.0. Her course description seems relevant:
This course will stare the inevitable in the eye, focusing on a wide range of reactions to death, such as memorialization, sublimation, abjection, terror, grief—particularly where mechanisms intersect with eros. What do we owe the dead? How do we pay tribute? We’ll look at a variety of cultural artifacts, including obituaries, photos, film, webcasts, poetry, memoirs, diaries, performance, sculpture, graves. We’ll consider a range of artists and writers whose work confronts death and terminal illness, and how death has affected the careers of various artists. We’ll look at AIDS–inspired art, recent as well as historical examples. We will pay particular attention to social media’s impact on private and group mourning. How has it redefined the divide between public and nonpublic figures? Does death on social media make everyone a bit famous? We’ll consider work that suggests a sort of sexiness to illness and death— as well as work that shocks us out of sentimentality. How does our collective mourning for diminishing environmental and social safety nets impact our personal mourning? The class will include a field trip to the Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.
Wednesday, 6:45am. The cat woke me up again.
I’m on Instagram. Who isn’t? I know, I know, it’s such a trite thing to say. But it doesn’t even matter if you’re on it or not, because it’s enough to know that it’s a way photographs have been engineered to move around right now. People on there are supposedly “sharing” images with each other, but none of it is about generosity or selflessness. It’s just about desire—the desire to prove, validate, capture.
I’ll go ahead and double–tap on this blurry image of a happy family in front of what looks like a circus tent, but I can’t be sure.
Social media photography is photography in its most optimized form. It’s photography–on–an–IV–drip, with images delivered straight into the bloodstream, sidestepping the time it usually takes the body to turn nourishment into energy. But its efficiency is brutal, almost violent, and it leaves me wiped out and bored at the same time. It’s not even 8:30, and all I want to do is go to bed.
Wednesday, 8:30am. Papaya for breakfast.
But isn’t sex and desire also all about what is being withheld, not about what’s effortlessly available? It seems to me that photography is too available. Isn’t there a way for distance to creep back in, somehow, and pull images slightly away from visibility?
Thursday, 8am. Took the time to iron my shirt today.
If I had photographed it at once, and if the picture had turned out ‘well’ (that is, faithful to the memory of my emotion), it would have become mine.
Faithful to the memory of my emotion—what a nice definition of a good photograph. Because the memory of an emotion is not something that is visible in a photograph. It’s beyond the grasp of what photography can do. Instead, it hovers around or within a photograph, haunting it, tickling it, or perhaps even teasing it, like a carrot on a stick. The point is not to capture or to document but to turn an image into a ghost.
The subject of that photograph of the marbles on the couch, for example, doesn’t appear in the frame. It’s like a ghost picture of a relationship. The person involved might still be in the apartment, cutting vegetables in the kitchen, or perhaps left months ago, and this was all he left behind after his body finally broke down for good. Even more likely is that these marbles had never before been on that couch, in that way, and Guibert staged the entire thing. But it doesn’t really matter either way, because the subject of the image is not the couch or the marbles or the shadows on the bed sheet or even the person who might be in the kitchen or the one who might have passed away. Right? Going back to Guibert’s own formulation, the picture points to the memory of an emotion—and these visual elements are succinct and evocative containers for much messier and entangled emotional charges that can’t possibly appear on a roll of film.
The photograph of the marbles on the couch isn’t a photograph of marbles on a couch as much as it’s Guibert’s attempt to “find form that accommodates the mess,” to quote the timeless Samuel Beckett.
Just my opinion.
Thursday, 8:20am. Spilled coffee all over the kitchen counter.
Wait…what I mean to say is that instead of providing a sense of objectivity or “truth,” like a journalist documenting a scene, these photographs get at what photography can’t do. It can’t depict memories, anecdotes, absences, subjectivities, the warmth of a body that has just left the room, or the aching sense of grief that emerges when reminded of a lost love. If these photographs feature a table, a doll, or a windowsill, devoid of people, their actual purpose is to make space for all that lies dormant within an image, invisible to the eye and yet central to the picture. They are images about what is absent from images. They address the limits of photography. They turn photography’s shortcomings into a strength. If a photograph is always about the “has been,” as Barthes argued, then Guibert doesn’t use it to document or hold onto anything, but to open up a ghost–like distance between an experience and its afterimage.
Thursday, 3:30pm. Between Zoom meetings.
I wonder if Juana noticed the new flowers I put in the dining room.
Thursday, 10pm. There’s a gap in the bedroom curtain.
I read that Guibert was obsessed with all that leaves or goes away, which completely makes sense.
Many use photographs as a way to prevent that kind of loss, as if an image of a moment or person that once was might preserve its presence. But not Guibert: I have no desire to remember any of those petty scenes when we assembled to have our picture taken—they’re dull and much less violent than the memory itself. His photographs are ones that allow disappearances to run their course.
Even though Guibert often took photographs of people, he also recognized the paradox that they were pictures that stubbornly revealed only a part of her, a physiognomy. An image of her face said nothing of the relationship we may have had, of the attachment I may have felt to her. In fact, perhaps a face is precisely what’s in the way—its too–clear representation has the effect of obstructing the more abstract forces at play. The face is what’s available, but the relationship is what matters.
Yet I know that that face, the real one, is going to disappear from my memory, driven out by the tangible proof of the image. The best way to remember that face, then, will be to take a photograph of marbles on a couch.
Friday, noon. Really loving this radio station.
The first essay in Ghost Image is great. It tells the story of how Guibert, after great effort, finally convinced his mother to sit for a portrait. His father wouldn’t allow it, so it needed to be done behind his back, when he was away. As Guibert began shooting, his mother allowed herself to inhabit a person she was usually forbidden to be and appeared, in his viewfinder, years younger than she was, her face so smooth and relaxed that he no longer recognized her. But the film had not been correctly loaded into the camera, and the photograph never was. By writing a story about it, Guibert gives the image a different shape—one that operates outside the realm of the visible. One of many ghost images, latent images, images that are so intimate that they become invisible. The opposite of Instagram.
These photographs don’t say anything about what has occurred, but attend to what is within what has occurred. They weave plots, merging fact and fiction, like any good storyteller does.
Friday, 11pm. Finished packing.
Just remembered to book a cab for the morning. Need to buy a new toothbrush at the airport.