As was reading around this topic, I came across Roland Barthes’ “Camera Lucida” (1981, NY), in which he makes the claim in the quote above.The fact that Barthes’ reflection is based on a picture of his mother gave this extra resonance.
This is similar to the other patchwork piece, but it is different in mood and tone. This one starts (if we assume a top to bottom “reading”) pale and barely defined, and becomes steadily darker, going through various forms of distortion, including both positive and negative forms. Unlike the photograph that the first patchwork piece is based on, this one shows my mother self-assured, striking a pose reminiscent of a glamour shot. The photographer here is most likely my father, the car his too, and there is perhaps a sense of pride of ownership.
Barthes described a photo as the moment when the subject becomes an object. The repetitions here help to underline the process of becoming.
Suspended between subjectivity and objectivity, the image in the photo is also suspended between the past and the present, between life and death. Barthes describes how the image of his mother created insights and recognition for him that would not be available to anyone else, and likewise, this image must necessarily have such an effect on me, one that will elude anyone else. On a personal level, I am using these images for therapy, both for myself and for my mother, trying to stir recognition in her, to jolt her into memories of who she was, in order to help her remember who she is. In this connection, Barthes’ description of the photo as a “tableau vivant”, and the image within it a “Sleeping Beauty” is particularly poignant.
A photo of a person is “the return of the dead”, according to Barthes: not that the person in the image is necessarily dead, but that the version of that person is gone, and the objects, and the photographer also gone, so that the photo is not just making the subjects objects, but even making them “museum objects”. This idea is echoed in my piece, as the image is clearly recognised as one from the past, and the use of the patchwork may evoke memories of old pastimes, and preserved objects of the kind that could be found in a folk museum. There is also a reference to the idea of an image being burned into cloth such as in the Turin shroud, explained as the chemical release of energy upon death. Here, the energy comes from the chemical reaction of light- not once but twice, firstly the photograph, and then again in the cyanotype process.
I am still struggling to decide what kind of “object” to make this piece into- is it “just” a picture? Like the first one, I was not overly concerned with the actual needlework. The fact of its being a patchwork cloth suggests a function, and I wonder if I should continue the process of finishing it, to turn it into an object, a child-sized quilt. How would that alter it? If it was left as a picture, it is demanding only to be looked at, rather than handled. There is a sense that this is appropriate, as the photo itself says “look at me” with its direct gaze, and “look at my possessions” from the photographer.
Making it a quilt would stress the materiality of the cloth, its softness and texture, as well as its function- would evoke the sense of family and folk history. It might also “feminise” it, in the sense that sewing has traditionally been associated with females and domesticity.
An alternative would be to make it into something unexpected, avoid the cliche of cloth squares necessarily being translated into a quilt, to make it “strange” or surreal. I’m thinking of a cup and saucer covered in fur, and whether this type of transformation could be meaningful, given that at times, with her dementia, my mother has slipped “down the rabbit hole” into a surreal landscape.
The grid pattern of the patchwork is a reminder to me of my mother’s calendar, the grid that measures her time, and by which she attempts to locate herself in this world. It’s a sad sad document, mostly recording “got up, dressed” in shaky handwriting, some days blank, days that got away.
Our measures of space and time are merely conventions- geometry a theory that fits conveniently, units of time a handy way of synchronising our movements- a grid overlaying the flux of experience. The original unity of the image has been multiplied, fragmented, cut up, stitched together, to make a “best fit”. Perhaps if I leave this unfinished, clearly a piece of handiwork with ragged edges, it expresses this concept better. It reflects my mother’s effort to “be here.”