The black-and-white photograph shows a strapping young man sitting with his back against a riveted metal plate. He is clean-shaven and undeniably handsome. His gaze is directed toward the camera, his expression a bit hard to read. He could be pensive, sad, even a touch defiant. Is that a troubled look on his face? Judging by the fact that his wrists are manacled, he is certainly in trouble – a great deal of it, as it turns out. The young man is 21-year-old Lewis Powell (a.k.a., Lewis Payne or Lewis Paine), and he has been identified in a police lineup as the assailant who attacked U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward with a knife on the same night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Powell was photographed on board the ironclad vessel U.S.S. Saugus, where he was held after his arrest. Within two months he would be hanged along with three co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate the president and key cabinet officers. The significance of the photograph now becomes clear. When we return the unwavering gaze of this handsome young conspirator, we are looking into the eyes of a dead man.
For cultural critic Roland Barthes, Powell’s impending execution was the central fact about the photograph, which contained no clues to his fate beyond the manacles on his wrists. Every photograph, according to Barthes, bears the same unspoken message: that the person depicted is going to die, if he or she hasn’t already. His thesis was presented in his highly influential monograph on photography, Camera Lucida, published shortly before his own death in 1980. Each image sets up a dislocation of time in which the photograph’s subject dwells in a frozen present that points to a future that may already be past to the viewer. Thus, the young conspirator who stares fixedly into the camera on board the U.S.S. Saugus is forever going to die and is also dead. Barthes writes of the “terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”
In selecting the portrait of a condemned man, Barthes might be accused of stacking the deck to make his case. However, Exhibit A was not the image of Lewis Powell but a family photograph that he deliberately omittted from his book. He wrote Camera Lucida soon after the death of his mother Henriette, to whom he was deeply devoted. She had raised him as a single mother, and he lived with her most of his life, caring for her during her final illness. Shortly after she died, Barthes came across a faded sepia snapshot of her as a child. This became the unseen centerpiece of the book, which he could not bring himself to reproduce because for his readers “it would be nothing but an indifferent picture." Although Henriette is no more than five in the snapshot, Barthes recognizes “the truth of the face I had loved,” and he weeps. "I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” He goes on, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”
Granted, Barthes was still grieving when he wrote these words, but I wonder how many of us would describe the death of an elderly parent as a “catastrophe,” much less extend that description to everyone in a photograph, whether or not they were already dead. Certainly I have felt the pang of loss in looking at old photographs of people I have loved who, in one way or another, are now departed. I sometimes even get wistful looking at photographs of busy street scenes from a century or more ago, realizing that the people in them are all gone, every one of them. And yet what generally comes through to me is not that these people are dead but that they are alive, if only within the frame of a photograph. Indeed, the very fact that the subjects of these photographs appear to be alive is what gives them their poignancy.
There are, of course, many ways to interpret a photograph. But we might start by applying philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous admonition, “Don’t think, look!” When I meet Lewis Powell’s gaze as he sits for the camera, I do not have a sense that I am looking into the eyes of a dead man. I can draw such a conclusion only if I understand the photograph’s context. It is not even clear from the picture that he knows his fate, notwithstanding his manacled wrists. What is most striking about the photograph is its “eerie modernity,” in the words of Michael Sacasas. There is none of the stiff formality usually found in portraits from the mid-19th century. My first thought is not that Powell is long dead or about to die but that he is so very much alive.
For Barthes, the grammar of a photograph is always past perfect: “this has been.” I would suggest another formulation, borrowed from photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who said life is “once, forever.” By this he meant a photographer has one chance to capture the “decisive moment” in an image, after which it is irretrievably lost. However, there is also a sense in which the photograph itself is once, forever. The subject will always be there as he or she once was, a tableau vivant, if you will – not dead, as Barthes would have it, but forever alive. For example, I would like to think that Barthes’ mother Henriette is forever smiling in the photograph we never see of her as a little girl. After all, in the photograph at least, she still has her whole life ahead of her.
Michael Sacasas, “Dead and Going to Die”, New Inquiry (October 21, 2013)