Image repertoires

Phil provides an excellent excerpt from a mid-19th Century studio photographer talking about how he conned customers into taking other people’s pictures as their own:

Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d. instead of 6d. The fact is, people dont know their own faces. Half of em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

It seems incredible think that people once were so unaware of what they looked like in our image-conscious age. How many people these days could be passed off with another’s photograph as their own? Most of us probably look in mirrors half a dozen times a day, let alone a lifetime. But even so, we often have misconceptions of what we look like – people rarely like images of themselves, perhaps having a mental image of someone better-looking. Roland Barthes described this as the ‘image-repetoire’; the condition of never being able to see yourself as others see you – a dynamic, mobile subject – but instead as a fleeting series of glimpses captured in the lens or mirror:

“But I never looked like that!” – How do you know? What is the “you” you might or might not look like? Where do you find it? – by which morphological or expressive calibration? Where is your authentic body?
You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image; you never see your eyes unless they are dulled by the gaze they rest upon the mirror or the lens (I am interested in seing my eyes only when they look at you): even and especially for your own body, you are condemned to the repetoire of its images.

This is from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, a late work produced before his famous Camera Lucida, and equally melancholy and poetic. Its a kind of autobiography, but structured – like A Lover’s Discourse – as a series of aphorisms, preceded by a small photo album and the handwritten introduction:

“It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”

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