A Photographic Negative

Deux pieds sur banquette (1981) © Christine Guibert/Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris.

This summer, the upper galleries of Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art are home to ‘This and More’, an exhibition of black-and-white photographs by Hervé Guibert, curated by Anthony Huberman. Small-format prints depict domestic interiors haunted by absence. There are no faces and very few bodies, certainly none pictured whole. Instead: postcards arranged on bookshelves, an overcoat draped across a sofa, a work desk, a stuffed toy, collections of marbles and Christmas ornaments – so many objects pointing back to lives that have escaped the camera’s capture, the photographer’s own foremost among them. In Deux pieds sur banquette (Two Feet on Bench, 1981), the titular extremities only just jut into the frame. Two right feet, bare: Guibert and whom, positioned how? Impossible to know. In Autoportrait, porte vitrée (Self-Portrait, Glass Door, c. 1986), the material of glass turns against its promise of visibility twice over. On the right is a mottled pane set into a door, one seen also in Vertiges (Vertigo, n.d.), where it transforms a face into an inscrutable grey mass; on the left is Guibert, reduced to a dark silhouette reflected in a framed picture on the wall. The experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton once observed that, owing to their capacity to indiscriminately register detail, ‘photographs, to the joy or misery of all who make them, invariably tell us more than we want to know’. This selection of Guibert’s work evinces a countermovement: photographs can also extract, withhold, let so much fall through their net. Somewhere in between telling us too much and not enough, these images invite the beholder into the domain of fantasy and fabulation.

At first glance, some of them might seem to border on the banal. Shoes placed next to a daybed. And? The delicate force of ‘This and More’ is felt when its selection is considered in relation to Guibert’s broader practice across media. Guibert is best known as an author of queer autofiction, above all for To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, 1990), a novel chronicling his experience with HIV/AIDS, published two years after his diagnosis and one year before his death at age 36 from complications arising from a suicide attempt. In Modesty and Shame (La Pudeur ou l’impudeur, 1991) – the sole moving image work he completed – Guibert trains a camcorder on his emaciated body, videotaping his last months for posthumous broadcast on French television. On the toilet, on the telephone, in surgery, and on holiday on his beloved Elba, he is there in devastating beauty and peerless self-scrutiny. Whereas his friend Michel Foucault, who appears as the character Muzil in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, chose not to make his seropositive status public, Guibert laid bare his life and his death through the transfiguring lens of art. Given this affinity for disclosure, it is all the more striking that the photographs of ‘This and More’ have the quality of a purposely averted gaze. It is as if each exposure were the product of a determined decision not to expose those scenes which might most readily, most conventionally, attract attention or demand commemoration. The unabashed elaboration of illness, friendship and passion found in Guibert’s autobiographical writing is one way of challenging received notions of what deserves a place within representation and what does not. These photographs are another. In both cases, a question emerges: how does one’s private life find its way into a work of art?

La bibliothèque (1986) © Christine Guibert/Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris.

Upon the English-language republication of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life in 2020, Parul Sehgal commented that Guibert’s work has been ‘strangely neglected in the Anglophone world, never mind its innovation and historical importance, its breathtaking indiscretion, tenderness and gore’. Thankfully, this has begun to change as of late, not least because of new editions of key writings that have appeared with Semiotext(e), a publisher long devoted to making the work of Francophone authors – particularly queer authors concerned with sex, art and the self – available in English. ‘This and More’, first shown at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute in 2022, is part of this revival. Still, Sehgal’s comment holds painfully true for the book of Guibert’s that is most germane to the exhibition: his extraordinary consideration of photography, Ghost Image (L’Image fantôme, 1981). Why is this slim volume not accorded the same attention as the book to which it directly responds, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (La Chambre claire, 1980)? A simple answer can be found in Barthes’s towering stature relative to the much younger and less institutional Guibert. This, yes, but there is also more.

Guibert worked as a photography critic at Le Monde from 1977 to 1985, where he reviewed both Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Camera Lucida. Of Sontag, he notes that her book is most captivating when she writes of her own experience. In a similar vein, he gravitates to Barthes’s voice, which is erudite yet anything but stentorian: ‘It is not an arrogant voice seeking to affirm the truth of photography… If there is a truth here, it is in the sincerity of the subject’. Guibert, too, grounds his book in a personal register, but pushes this approach farther than either of his eminent predecessors. In lieu of teachable concepts like Camera Lucida’s studium and punctum, he spins tales of a queer life lived with and through photographs. Corporeality prevails. He treats the photograph as an unfailingly physical thing: handled, torn, creased, purchased, hidden, put on display, printed small, blown up large, retouched. There are photos so damp they stick to the glass of a train window; there is a photo stolen and pressed under an armpit, only to later decay such that the face it depicts appears ‘syphilitic’, ‘cancerous’. Guibert’s own body is ever present. He recounts placing a photograph of Hiram Keller from Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) over his erect penis as an adolescent; as an adult, he wonders about the existence of sexually explicit photographs of his parents. He likens working with a Hasselblad to cruising on public transit (both involve deflection through glass), muses on pornography (expedient yet unsatisfying), and returns repeatedly to his disgust with aging, which is to say, to his concern with physical beauty and with death.

Camera Lucida is the apex of Barthes’s autobiographical turn. Its exquisite prose is deeply moving, weighted with grief for the author’s recently deceased mother. But by comparison with Ghost Image, it is a work of distanced generality. It is remarkably chaste. In what is tempting to read as a criticism of Camera Lucida, Guibert asks, ‘How can you speak of photography without speaking of desire? If I mask my desire, if I deprive it of its gender, if I leave it vague, as others have done more or less cleverly, I would feel as if I were weakening my stories, or writing carelessly… The image is the essence of desire and if you desexualize the image, you reduce it to theory’. You reduce it to theory: Guibert conceives of this abstraction as a diminution, rather than an intellectual elevation. He has no aspiration to transcend particularity, to extricate his discourse on photography from his life. This is integral to the fascination and poignancy of Ghost Image and, given the contemporary proliferation of memoir/criticism hybrids, speaks to the volume’s enduring relevance. It also may also help explain why the book has yet to reach the audience it deserves. Its ideas are less transportable, less citable.

‘R.B. the writer’ makes a cameo late in Ghost Image, but an engagement with Barthes is there from the start, when Guibert discusses a missing image of his mother – a reply to the ‘Winter Garden’ photograph that sits unseen at the heart of Camera Lucida. That time-bending picture of Barthes’s mother as a child shocks her adult son with a premonition of his own death and thus becomes a guide in his attempt to discern the essence of photography. Barthes chooses not to reproduce the image, for its bruising, spectral power exists for him alone; others would not see what he sees. Guibert echoes this precursor while departing from it in important ways. Frustrated with his controlling father – with the images he took of his wife and how he policed her appearance – Guibert gets his mother to produce a different, truer, picture. He does her hair, chooses her clothing, adjusts the lighting. In this moment, to which he attributes ‘the secret power of incest’, she becomes more beautiful to him than she has ever been or will be. The processing of the film reveals that a catastrophe has occurred: nothing has been exposed. ‘For my mother and myself’, Guibert writes, ‘it was a moment of despondency and pain, a sensation of powerlessness, of fatality, of irremediable loss’. Like the Winter Garden photograph, this highly cathected image is unreproducible and entirely private. But unlike Barthes, Guibert infuses his story with illicit sensuality and rebellion; unlike Barthes, he approaches photography as a maker as much as a beholder. To ask whether the scene, with its perfect contrivance, ever really occurred is beside the point.

Message incomprensible (1990) © Christine Guibert/Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris.

If that ‘forbidden image’ had been realized, Guibert remarks, he would have had no need to write Ghost Image. But it was not. As the book progresses, this first missing picture is joined by others. Twice, Guibert writes of witnessing acts of friendship between boys that he wanted to photograph but could not because he had no camera with him. He calls these glimpses ‘the perfect image’ and ‘the beautiful image’, respectively, as if to suggest that the most prized pictures are those that do not come into being but remain etched in memory. As much as photography conditions experience, experience eludes photography. It drains away the affective thickness of life. Ghost Image is shot through with a love of the medium that is matched by a reckoning with its limits and failures. Guibert calls the book ‘a negative of photography’. The phrase might sound like a play on the notion of the photographic negative as an ‘original’, but his aim is not to isolate any essence, any noeme. Instead, the ‘negative of photography’ names something else: that his book ‘speaks of photography in negative terms, it speaks only of ghost images, images that have not yet issued, or rather, latent images, images that are so intimate that they become invisible’.

There is likely no better way to describe the photographs of ‘This and More’ than as a variation on this last kind of image: so intimate that they are barely visible. One can look at them, of course. But they refuse to yield fully to the gaze, to confess their secrets. They court insignificance yet hint at a potency of feeling that is accessible in its fullness to their maker alone. The obvious curatorial emphasis for an exhibition of Guibert’s photography would be to show the many gorgeous portraits he made of friends, lovers, and himself. ‘This and More’ takes a risk in leaving all that aside. In doing so, it stays true to the photographic autofictions of Ghost Image, following them to the threshold of incommunicability, where the opacity of private experience shows itself and the viewer’s imagination must take over. There, photography gives up the arrogant posture of revelation, delights in a modesty that verges on muteness, and allows itself it be haunted by all that it cannot make present.

Read on: Hito Steyerl, ‘Mean Images’, NLR 140/141.