In ‘Camera Lucida,’ Roland Barthes asks whether history is not simply that time when we were not born? He writes:
“I could read my non-existence in the clothes my mother had worn before I can remember her.”
The study of history necessitates the consideration of our own non-existence. To imagine a past event, as it was before our birth, requires us to see that event without knowledge of what was to come, much as how we don’t know what is coming tomorrow. But to imagine our non-existence, our being not-yet-born, becomes in our conscious minds nothing less than the image of death; such is why perhaps we struggle to comprehend the past, to look upon a turn of the century photograph, where our coming-into-being is so precarious.
Looking at photographs of Oxford, taken around the beginning of the 20th century (such as that below taken in Cornmarket in 1907), I can’t help imagine that somehow, amongst the numbers pictured, are some of my ancestors, or, failing that, someone they at least knew. Perhaps there might be someone unknown to them, who nevertheless crossed their path and in some small way (or, in the case of my own coming-into-being, no small way) made an impact on their life and indeed on all those to come.
But then of course, by thinking this, I am doing just what I shouldn’t do when trying to properly understand this image or rather this moment in time. I am placing upon it the weight of future history. But when I recognise the buildings in the picture, how can I take myself ‘out of the frame’ altogether? Is it not impossible?
Is history then not simply the study of the past, but rather the study of how we got here today? A study of pathways, intersections and the spaces in between – a form of cartography? Well, it is and it isn’t. To study an event we must discover what really happened, and what could have happened if things had been different, what might its protagonists have done otherwise? History therefore – through these other possible outcomes – requires us to examine our own fragility, our unlikely selves and the possibility of our never being born to ask the questions at all.
At the moment the photograph above was taken, when all those pictured were going about the business of their lives, the chance of my Being was practically nil. Now, as I look at the photograph I know that everyone pictured is dead; I can read my own non-existence in the clothes they are wearing, just as they might have read theirs in the photograph itself. But here we have a difference between not-Being and being dead and the photograph is an illustration of that very thing.
Susan Sontag wrote:
“From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”
When we look at a star in the night sky, we can be assured that in most cases, the light which hits our eye, is at least hundreds of years old. It might even be that the star no longer exists, yet we can be certain that it did exist. The same can be said of those we see in the photograph; somehow the light as Sontag writes is like the delayed rays of a star – an umbilical cord which links us with them and vice-versa (if any of those pictured are indeed my ancestors, then the metaphor becomes more vivid). The moment the light left them (and the star), we did not exist; the moment we received it, they did not exist, and yet here we both are and here we have been.
This umbilical light, which springs from each of us, links us to our own non-existence. History is indeed a study of pathways, intersections and the spaces inbetween, and these pathways are made of light.