Archives for posts with tag: Roland Barthes

 Perfect and ephemeral: Chaplin as cinematic sign

Bruce Bennett

Driving back and forth past this outhouse on the small island of Waiheke in New Zealand/Aotearoa over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the incongruity of finding this image of Charlie Chaplin at what feels like, from a Eurocentric perspective, the edge of the world. The figure of Chaplin dressed in the costume of his most familiar character, the tramp (or ‘the little fellow’ as Chaplin called him), must surely be one of the most universally recognisable individuals ever to have existed. Like portraits of Che Guevara or Bob Marley, this has become a free-floating signifier that is detached from its original context and is familiar to people who’ve never seen the films.


Although all the extant material is available on DVD now, Chaplin’s films are rarely screened in cinemas or on TV, and so it is odd that he remains such a familiar figure  that even children who’ve  never seen any of his films  are nevertheless able to imitate his splayed-feet walk. The insistent after-life of this mute cinematic figure may have something to do with the effectiveness of the films; whenever I have taught Chaplin’s satirical and sentimental feature film, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), the finely judged ending always leaves one or two of my worldly undergraduate students with tears in their eyes, and I’ve watched my children in tears of laughter at some of the early Keystone comedies. However, it’s also a testament to the perfect construction of this cinematic persona, which reduces a character to a few disconnected, reproducible (and easily imitated) visual elements – the dandyish cane, bowler and jacket with tails, outsized trousers and clown shoes, and pedantic moustache (as borrowed later by Oliver Hardy and, to Chaplin’s intense irritation, Hitler).


The costume was first used in the brilliantly simple Keystone production, Kid Auto Races in Venice (Lerhman, 1914) – the first film in which Chaplin appears – a short commentary upon performance and celebrity, in which the tramp, noticing that cameramen are filming the go-cart races on Venice beach, tries nonchalantly to insert himself into every shot, sidling into the frame as if he hasn’t noticed the camera. Although he wears normal shoes in this film, the costume is more or less fully-formed and is used with little variation thereafter in different narrative contexts so that Chaplin’s character stands apart visually from those around him, emphasizing his (self-) importance.

Writing about Great Garbo’s icon-like face (or face-object) in the Hollywood film, Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Roland Barthes suggested that,  ‘In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn, but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once, perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’. This captures very well the contradictory quality of Chaplin’s image – smooth, flour-white, fragile, perfect, totemic. It is not an image of an individual – and, indeed, in photographs of Chaplin out of costume and not wearing make-up he can be hard to recognise – but of an individual rendered as a pure cinematic sign.



Roland Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies

Beautiful decay: Notes on Darren Andrews’ Beloved

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University

(This is the introductory essay I wrote for Beloved, the latest book by Darren Andrews which features this series of photographs, and which is available from his website. The essay is an expanded version of the exhibition notes which were in an earlier blog post on this site.)


Death is the principal subject of photography. The fascination a photograph holds for us lies in our knowledge that the frozen moment captured in the image has passed. Whether chemical or digital, and whether taken over eight hours (like the earliest surviving photograph, which was a view from his study window taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826) or exposed in a fraction of a millisecond, a photograph is a monument to dead time, to the past. In appearing to stop time, the photograph offers the consoling fantasy that we can return to a particular interval in the past by gazing at an image of a certain face, object, building or landscape. This illusion is one of the main reasons we accumulate and store photographs in family albums, smart phones, and on hard drives and servers. However, a photograph is also a paradoxical record of loss. It is, as the French critic Roland Barthes puts it, an ‘image which produces Death while trying to preserve life’ (Barthes 1990: 92). Thus, the ambiguous, bittersweet pleasure of viewing family photographs rests on the knowledge that the people, places and events on display in the images are all locked irretrievably in the past. All we retain of those moments is a fragile trace that is steadily fading and yellowing (in the case of analogue photography), or susceptible to sudden, irreversible erasure and loss (in the case of digital photographs).


A photographic archive is a mausoleum, therefore, populated by symbols of dead people and dead time. Perhaps the clearest and most moving historical example of the photograph’s memorial function is the Victorian practice of ‘post-mortem photography’ in which formal portraits were taken of newly dead family members – often infants and young children – laid out in coffins, beds and cribs, or, disturbingly, posed by themselves or with living family members as if still alive.


It is appropriate, then that this latest series of photographs by Lancaster-based photographer Darren Andrews takes death as a central theme, and it is one that runs through his work. A similar subject was also explored in the previous series, Dark Corners of the Land (2012), a collection of images of the route through the Trough of Bowland that may have followed by the Pendle Witches when they were taken to Lancaster to be tried and hanged. Taken with pinhole cameras and marked by lens flare, blurring and visual distortion, those black-and-white images of empty landscapes represent the roads and wuthering fells of contemporary Lancashire as haunted spaces scarred by a violent history.  


Shot in cemeteries around Lancashire, Beloved extends this exploration of the symbolic landscape of death through the documentation of headstones, memorial statues, and the makeshift shrines and grave tokens left by grieving relatives. This poignant series of photographs offers a record of contemporary rituals around death in an increasingly secular culture, and the ways in which we commemorate the loss of friends, family members and lovers with sculpture, flowers, children’s toys, kitsch decorations, letters, poetry and religious text and imagery.


Consisting primarily of close-ups, small details of text on headstones, small wreaths and bouquets of flowers, and objects placed on graves, one of the most striking features of these images is the sheer eccentricity of these memorials. Like miniature post-modern art installations they offer a strange, unexpected juxtaposition of images so that we see neo-classical stone carvings alongside ceramic figures of Christ or the Virgin Mary, angels, cartoonish animals and plastic gnomes. Indeed, the work of the American artist Jeff Koons consists of an almost identical inventory of images, replete as it is with flowers, giant bunnies, teddies, Christian iconography and incongruous pairings.


In one respect this suggests that there is an aesthetic continuity between the sober Victorian repertoire of monumental statuary (consisting of urns and figures in diaphanous clothing) and the disposable, kitsch detritus of contemporary consumer culture. There is, perhaps, little difference between a century-old melancholy angel carved from marble in the manner of a renaissance statue, and a vinyl Mickey Mouse doll, a ceramic fairy or a Santa Claus gnome sat astride a motorbike. As these photographs imply through their careful selection of details, none of these objects is necessarily any more authentic, tasteful, intimately meaningful or any less strange than the others.


Rather than inviting us to laugh at the bad taste of some of these memorials, however, this collection instead invites us to reflect upon the aesthetic conventions of the representation of death. It invites us to ask why it is that certain images, certain forms, certain phrases have come to dominate our expectations of how death should be publicly symbolised. What makes some of these photographs particularly moving is the sense that people have found their own ways to mark the death of a loved one, with Christmas tree baubles, for example, a motorcycle helmet or a meerkat. In the dark, impersonal, formal context of the cemetery, with its conservative and anachronistic architectural aesthetic, we find in these images a democratic aesthetics of mourning. Friends, lovers and family members are interfering with, customising and individualising this space in sometimes irreverent ways and there is a striking contrast between the heavy fatalism of some of the messages carved into the headstones and the inappropriateness or disobedience of some of these decorative offerings, refusing to let their dead friend or relative go gentle into that good night beneath a tastefully uniform grave marker. 


Andrews is a technically accomplished photographer who enjoys the craft of analogue photography and the physical materiality of cameras and photochemical film and paper, and is conscious of both the limitations and possibilities that are set by the medium. For example, a photographer has to select and compose an image with comparative care when shooting on film, and so on a typical excursion with a 35mm SLR camera Andrews might only shoot three or four frames. By contrast, shooting with a digital camera offers the photographer the opportunity for almost endless waste (since taking 100 pictures costs no more than taking one), and a much greater capacity to revise and modify the image later. With digital photography, some of the selective decisions the analogue photographer would have to make at the point at which she releases the shutter (such as which precise moment to take the picture at, how closely to frame the shot, how far to over or under-expose the image, which lens filter to use) are deferred until later. This is not to say that taking a ‘good’ digital photograph is any easier, but rather that the specific properties of the digital camera and the digital photograph require the photographer to think differently about the types of image digital photography can produce in terms of both subject matter and form.


This is the first body of work Andrews has shot with a digital camera, and it is a particularly suitable intersection of form and content since the hyper-clarity and intense colour of the digital medium reveals another unexpectedly moving dimension of this imagery. Beloved shows us in high resolution the way in which these symbolic monuments to the dead are also all undergoing beautiful decay. Thus, these images are about death in another much broader sense, reminding us that every surface and every substance is subject to weathering, degradation, disintegration, and entropy. The photographs capture the rich textures of frost-damaged, acid rain-etched, soot-stained and lichen-covered granite and marble. They also record the rich colours of withered flowers, rotting wood, fading plastic, and the sodden, matted fur of soft toys. There is a long artistic tradition of the ‘memento mori’[1], moralistic art-works that remind us of the fragility and brevity of life (and earthly wealth) through the symbolically loaded imagery of skulls, burning candles, delicate blossoms, ripe fruit and hourglasses. There are examples of such art from around the globe, but it is best epitomised by the emergence of the allegorical still-life ‘Vanitas’ painting in 17th century Holland comprising exquisitely detailed, sometimes almost photorealist renderings of objects that are emphatically impermanent, subject to change and decline. Although the moral framework of Beloved may be rather different since the photographs don’t impose a symbolic significance upon the objects within them in the way that these paintings do, nevertheless this series of photographs about death and material decay is a subtle, moving and fascinating contribution to this artistic tradition. 




Roland Barthes (1990) Camera Lucida (London: Fontana)

[1] Latin for ‘remember that you will die’ or, perhaps, ‘remember to die’.

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