What Really Happened:

Barthes’s Winter Garden / Boltanski’s Archives

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Artes, 2 (1995): 110-25. Rpt. in slightly different form in Writing the Image After Roland Barthes, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté, U of Penn Press,1997), pp. 32-58.

I begin with two photographs, both of them family snapshots of what are evidently a young mother and her little boy in a country setting (figures 1 and 2). Neither is what we would call a “good” (i.e., well-composed) picture. True, the one on the left is the more “expressive” of the two, the anxious little boy clinging somewhat fearfully to his mother, whereas the impassive woman and child on the right look straight ahead at the camera.

Here is a second pair of photographs, this time of class pictures (figures 3 and 4). On the left, an end-of-the-year group photo of a smiling highschool class with their non-smiling male teacher in the first-row center; on the right, a more adult (postgraduate?) class, with their teacher (front row, third from the left) distinguished by his white hair, and smiling ever so slightly in keeping with what is evidently the collegial spirit of the attractive young group.

Both sets may be used to illustrate many of the points Barthes makes about photography in La Chambre claire. First, these pictures are entirely ordinary–the sort of photographs we all have in our albums. Their appeal, therefore, can only be to someone personally involved with their subjects, someone for whom they reveal the that-has-been (ça a été) which is, for Barthes, the essence or noeme of photography. “The photographic referent,” we read in #32, “[is] not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. . . . in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.”(CL 76). And again, “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent” (80). In this sense, “every photograph is a certificate of presence” (87).

But “presence,” in this instance, goes hand in hand with death. “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (4). As soon as the click of the shutter has occurred, what is photographed no longer exists; subject is transformed into object, “and even,” Barthes suggests, “into a museum object” (13). When we look at a photograph of ourselves or of others, we are really looking at the return of the Dead. “Death is the eidos of the Photograph” (15).

Christian Boltanski, whose photographs I have paired with two of the illustrations in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes , shares Barthes’s predilection for the ordinary photograph, the photograph of everday life. Like Barthes, he dislikes “art photography,” photography that approaches the condition of painting. For him, too, the interesting photograph is one that provides the viewer with the testimony that the thing seen has been, that it is thus. In Barthes’s words, the Photograph is never anything but an antiphon of ‘Look,’ ‘See,’ ‘Here it is’; it points a finger at certain vis-à-vis, and cannot escape this pure deictic language”(5). But, as we shall see, in Boltanski’s oeuvre, this pure deictic language, this pointing at “what has occurred only once” (4) takes on an edge unanticipated in the phenomenology of Camera Lucida.

Consider the mother-and-child snapshots shown above. Both foreground the “real” referent of the image, the outdoor scene that the camera reproduces. But in what sense are the photographs “certificates of presence”? The photo on the left portrays Roland Barthes, aged five or six, held by his mother, who stands at some distance from a house (her house?) in a non-specifiable countryside. The mother’s clothes and hairdo place the photograph somewhere in the twenties; the long-legged boy in kneesocks, shorts and sweater seems rather big to be held on his mother’s arm like a baby. The caption on the facing page accounts for this phenomenon: it reads, “The demand for love.” [1]

The photograph on the right is part of a work (similarly of the early 1970s) called Album de photos de la famille D., 1939-54.–which depicts a “family” (are they a family?) Boltanski didn’t know at all. He had borrowed several photo albums from his friend Michel Durand-Dessert (hence the D ), reshot some 150 snapshots from these albums and tried to establish their chronology as well as the identities of their subjects, using what he called an ethnological approach: for example, “the older man who appeared only at festive occasions, must be an uncle who did not live in the vicinity.” [2] But the sequence he constructed (e.g., figure 5) turned out to be incorrect: “I realized,” the artist remarked, “that these images were only witnesses to a collective ritual. They didn’t teach us anything about the Family D. . . . but only sent us back to our own past.” [3] And, since the snapshots in the sequence date from the French Occupation, and its immediate aftrmath, the question arises: what was this bourgeois provincial family doing during the War? What, in short, is it that has been in the snapshot of the young woman and small boy, resting on a shady meadow?

Similar questions are raised in the second Boltanski photograph above. Again, the two class pictures make an interesting pair. On the right, we have one of the “S ” entries in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: a photograph of le seminaire, that is the Barthes seminar, taken some time in the 1970s. The caption reads: “The space of the seminar is phalansteric, i.e., in a sense, fictive, novelistic. It is only the space of the circulation of subtle desires, mobile desires; it is, within the artifice of a sociality whose consistency is miraculously extenuated, according to a phrase of Nietzsche’s: ‘the tangle of amorous relations'”(RB 171). The “real,” “referential” photograph thus becomes an occasion for pleasurable erotic fantasy.

In contrast, the other class photograph is a picture Boltanski came across by chance of the 1931 graduating class of the Lycée Chases (Gymnasium Chajes), the Jewish high school in Vienna, which was shut down shortly after this end-of-the-year group photograph was taken. If, as Barthes posits, the photograph is co-terminal with its referent, here the “death” of its subjects produced by the camera may well have foreshadowed their real death in the camps. In his 1986 installation Lycée Chases , Boltanski took this “ordinary” class photograph and enlarged, as if maing X-Rays, each of the smiling faces to the point where they resemble death masks (figures 6 and 7). Yet this version is no more “real” than the other, Boltanski never having learned what actually happened to these smiling students. When Lycée Chases was shown in New York in 1987, one of the students in the photograph, now a man in his late sixties, came forward and identified himself to Boltanski. But this Chases graduate, who had emigrated to the U.S. in the early thirties, knew nothing of the fate of the other students. [4]

Every photograph,” says Barthes, “is somehow co-natural with its referent” (76). But what is the referent of the Chases graduation picture? What “evidential force” does it possess and for whom? To tackle these questions, we might begin with the famed Winter Garden Photograph, the photograph whose punctum (the prick, sting, or sudden wound that makes a particular photograph epiphanic to a particular viewer) is so powerful, so overwhelming, so implicated in Barthes’s anticipation of his own death, that he simply cannot reproduce it in Camera Lucida :

(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most in would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.) (73).

The Winter Garden Photograph thus becomes the absent (and hence more potent) referent of Barthes’s paean to presence, a paean that takes the form of an elegiac ekphrasis.
“One November evening, shortly after my mother’s death,” Barthes recalls, “I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of ‘finding’ her. I expected nothing from these ‘photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by merely thinking of him or her'” (63). And Barthes puts in parentheses following the quote, the name of the writer who is the tutelary spirit behind his own lyric meditation–Proust. Like the Proust of Les Intermittances du coeur, Barthes’s narrator has learned to expect nothing. The mood is autumnal, sepulchral, and the image of the dead mother cannot be recovered–at least not by the voluntary memory. Different photographs capture different aspects of her person but not the “truth of the face I had loved” : “I was struggling among images partially true and therefore totally false” (66).

As in Proust, the miraculous privileged moment, the prick of the punctum , comes when least expected. The uniqueness of the Winter Garden Photograph — an old, faded, album snapshot with “blunted” corners– is that it allows Barthes to “see” his mother, not as he actually saw her in their life together (this would be a mere studium on his part), but as the child he had never known in real life, a five-year old girl standing with her seven-year old brother “at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory” (67). We learn that brother and sister are united “by the discord of their parents, who were soon to divorce” (69). But in Barthes’s myth, this little girl is somehow self-born. “In this little girl’s image I saw the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever, without her having inherited it from anyone; how could this kindness have proceeded from the imperfect parents who had loved her so badly–in short, from a family?” (69). In an imaginative reversal, the mother-as-child in the Winter Garden Photograph now becomes his child: “I who had not procreated, I had, in her very illness, engendered my mother” (72). The tomb-like glass conservatory thus becomes the site of birth.

“The unknown photographer of Chennevières-sur-Marne,” Barthes remarks, “had been a mediator of a truth” (70)–indeed, of the truth; his inconsequential little snapshot “achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being” (71). Impossible, because the uniqueness of that being is, after all, only in the eye of the beholder. Like Proust’s Marcel, the Barthean subject must evidently purge himself of the guilt prompted by the unstated conviction that his own “deviation” (sexual or otherwise) from the bourgeois norms of his childhood world must have caused his mother a great deal of pain. Like Marcel, he therefore invents for himself a mother who was a perfect being, her goodness and purity deriving from no one (for family is the enemy in this scheme of things). Gentleness is all: “during the whole of our life together,” writes Barthes in a Proustian locution, “she never made a single ‘observation'” (69). Thus perfected, the mother must of course be dead; the very snapshot that brings her to life, testifies as well to the irreversibility of her death.

Barthes understands only too well that the punctum of this photograph is his alone. No one but Roland Barthes himself would read the snapshot as he does. The “emanation of the referent” which is, for him, the essence of the photograph, is thus an entirely personal connection. The intense, violent, momentary pleasure (jouissance) that accompanies one’s reception of the photograph’s “unique Being” is individual and “magical,” for unlike all other representations, the photograph is an image without a code (88), the eruption of the Lacanian “Real” into the signifying chain, a “satori in which words fail” (109).

As an elegy for his mother, as well as a kind of epitaph for himself, La Chambre claire is intensely moving. But what about Barthes’s insistence on the “realism” of the photograph, his conviction that it bears witness to what-has-occurred-only-once? “From a phenomenoloigal viewpoint,” says Barthes, “in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (89). Authentication of what and for whom? Here Boltanksi’s photographic representations of everyday life pose some interesting questions. Indeed, the distance between Barthes’s generation and Boltanski’s–a distance all the more remarkable in that such central Boltanski photo installations as La Famille D, Le Club Mickey , and Detective date from the very years when Barthes was composing Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Fragment d’un discours amoureux, and La Chambre claire-– can be measured by the revisionist treatment Boltanski accords to the phenomenology of authentication practiced by the late Barthes.

Roland Barthes was born in the first year of World War I (26 October 1915), Christian Boltanski in the last year of World War II, specifically, on the day of the liberation of Paris (6 September 1944)–hence his middle name Liberté. Barthes’s Catholic father was killed in October 1916 in a naval battle in the North Sea; the fatherless child was brought up in Bayonne by his mother and maternal grandmother in an atmosphere he has described as one of genteel poverty and narrow Protestant bourgeois rectitude. Boltanski’s father, a prominent doctor, was born a Jew but converted to Catholicism; his wife, a writer was Catholic. To avoid deportation in 1940, the Boltanskis faked a divorce and pretended the doctor had fled, abandoning his family, whereas in reality he was hidden in the basement of the family home, situated in the center of Paris, for the duration of the Occupation. The death of Barthes’s father, an event his son understood early on as being only too “real,” may thus be contrasted to the simulated “death” of Dr. Boltanski at the time of his son’s birth. Indeed, this sort of simulation, not yet a central issue in World War I when battle-lines were drawn on nationalistic rather than ideological grounds, became important in the time of the Resistance, when simulation and appropriation became common means of survival. Georges Perec, for example, a writer Boltanski greatly admires and frequently cites, was miraculously saved from the concentration camp in which his parents perished by being sent to the South of France on a Red Cross transport, his arm having been put in a sling as if he had been wounded. He was five years old.

Under such circumstances, authentication becomes a contested term. How does one document what-has-occurred-only-once when the event itself is perceived to be a simulation? And to what extent has the experience of studium versus punctum become a collective, rather than the fiercely personal experience it was for Barthes? In a 1984 interview held in conjunction with the Boltanski exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Delphine Renard asked the artist how and why he had chosen photography as his medium. “At first,” he replied, “what especially interested me was the property granted to photography of furnishing the evidence of the real [la preuve du réel]: a scene that has been photographed is experienced as being true. . . . If someone exhibits the photograph of an old lady and the viewer tells himself; today, she must be dead, he experiences an emotion which is not only of an aesthetic order.”

Here Boltanski seems to accept the Barthean premise that the “photographic referent” is “not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. . . . in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.” But for Boltanski, this “reasonable” definition is not without its problems:

In my first little book, Tout ce qui reste de mon enfance of 1969, there is a photograph that supplies the apparent proof that I went on vacation to the seashore with my parents, but it is an unidentifiable photograph of a child and a group of adults on the beach. One can also see the photograph of the bed I slept in when I was five years old; naturally, the caption orients the spectator, but the documents are purposely false. . . . In most of my photographic pieces, I have utilized this property of the proof one accords to photography to expose it or to try to show that photography lies, that it doesn’t speak the truth but rather the cultural code. (BOL 75, my emphasis).

Such cultural coding, Boltanski argues, characterizes even the most innocent snapshot (say, the Winter Garden Photograph). The amateur photograph of the late nineteenth century, for example, is based on a pre-existing image which is culturally imposed–an image derived from the painting of the period. The amateur photographer, he notes, “shows nothing but images of happiness, lovely children running around on green meadows: he reconstitutes an image he already knows” (BOL 76). Tourists in Venice, for example, who thinks they are taking “authentic” photographs of this or that place, are actually recognizing the “reality” only through the lens of a set of clichés they have unconsciously absorbed; indeed they want these pictures to ressemble those they already know. So Boltanski makes an experiment. Together with Annette Messager, he produces a piece called Le Voyage de noces à Venise (1975), composed of photographs taken elsewhere (BOL 76). And in another book called Dix portraits photographiques de Christian Boltanski (1972, figure 7), the temporal frame (the boy is depicted at different ages) is a pure invention; all the photographs were actually taken the same day, using different children. “This little book,” says the artist, “was designed to show that Christian Boltanski had only a collective reality . . . [that of] a child in a given society” (BOL 79).

But Boltanski’s is by no means a simple reversal of the Barthean noeme. For the paradox is that, again like Perec, there is nothing he finds as meaningful as the ordinary object, the trivial detail. Photography, for him, is a form of ethnography and he has often spoken of his early fascination with the displays in the Musée de l’Homme, not so much the displays of imposing African sculpture but of the everyday objects–Eskimo fishhooks, Indian arrows from the Amazon valley, and so on:

I saw large metal boxes in which there were little objects, fragile and without signification. In the corner of the case there was often a small faded photograph representing a “savage” in the middle of handling these little objects. Each case presented a world that has disappeared: the savage of the photograph was no doubt dead, the objects had become useless, and, anyway, no one knew how to use them any more. The Musée de l’Homme appeared to me as a great morgue. Numerous artists have here discovered the human sciences (linguistics, sociology, archeology); here there is still the “weight of time” which imposes itself on artists. . . Given that we have all shared the same cultural references, I think we will all finish in the same museum” (BOL 71).

Does this mean that art discourse can be no more than a cultural index, that the individual art work no longer counts? On the contrary. For whereas Barthes posits that what he calls the impossible science of unique being depends upon a given spectator’s particular reading of a photograph in itself perfectly “ordinary,” Boltanski enlarges the artist’s role: it is the artist who creates those images that are “imprecise enough to be as communal as possible”– images each viewer can interpret differently. The same holds true, so the artist posits, for captions, the ideal situation being one in which a picture from, say, an elementary-school history book every child has used is reproduced, bearing a caption like “Ce jour-là, le professeur entra avec le directeur” (“That day, the teacher entered with the principal)” (BOL 79).

One of Boltanski’s favorite genres is thus the inventory. If many of his “albums” use “fake” photos to tell what are supposedly “true” stories, the Inventar series work the other way around. Here, for example, is the Inventaire des objets ayant appartenus à un jeune homme d’Oxford of 1973 (figures 8 and 9). Boltanski had read of the untimely death of an Oxford student and wrote to his landlord asking if all his personal effects, “significant” or otherwise, could be sent to him. In photographing these objects against a neutral background, everything takes on equal value: the Pope’s photograph, a folded shirt, a set of pamphlets–whatever. The question the inventory poses is whether we can “know” someone through his or her things. If the clothes make the man, as the adage has it, can we recreate the absent man from these individual items? Or does the subject fragment into a series of metonymic images that might relate to anyone?

Is there, in other words, such a thing as identity?

Here again Barthes offers an interesting point de repère. One of the sections in Barthes par Barthes is called “Un souvenir d’enfance– A memory of childhood,” and goes like this:

When I was a child, we lived in a neighborhood called Marrac; this neighborhood was full of houses being built, and the children played in the building sites; huge holes had been dug in the loamy soil for the foundations of the houses, and one day when we we had been playing in one of these, all the children climbed out except me–I couldn’t make it. From the brink up above, they teased me: lost! alone! spied on! excluded! (to be excluded is not to be outside, it is to be alone in the hole, imprisoned under the open sky; precluded); then I saw my mother running up; she pulled me out of there and took me far away from the children–against them.” (RB 121-22).

We could obviously submit this text to a psychosexual reading and discuss how being “alone in the hole” and rescued by his mother “against” the other children prefigures Barthes’s later linkings of the sexual and the textual. But here I want to stress something else: namely that Barthes does not question the existence of memory as a force that can bring back the past in its concrete, specific manifestations. The image of Marrac with its dangerous building sites is graphic as are the remembered emotions of fear, panic, and release. The “souvenir d’enfance” is just that: a short, imagistic, film-like narrative. However painful, memory relates past to present and creates the individual identity.

But for those writers and artists, especially the Jewish ones, who came of age after the Second World War, the Proustian or Barthean souvenir d’enfance had become a kind of empty signifier. “I have very few memories of childhood,” Boltanski tells Delphine Renard, “and I think I undertook this seeming autobiography precisely to blot out my memory and to protect myself. I have invented so many false memories, which were collective memories, that my true childhood has disappeared” (BOL 79). This echoes Perec on the opening page of W: The memories have disappeared.


See Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1977), p. 5; Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 7: the caption reads “La demande d’amour.”

See Lynn Gumpert, “The Life and Death of Christian Boltanski,” in Christian Boltanski: Lessons of Darkness , ed. Lynn Gumpert and Mary Jane Jacob (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988), p. 59. This catalogue is subsequently cited in the text as LD.

Christian Boltanski, interview with Suzanne Pagé in Christian Boltanski-Compositions, exhibition catalogue (Paris: A.R.C. / Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1981), p. 7; cited in Lynn Gumpert’s translation in LD 59.

See Christian Boltanski, Catalogue, Books, Printed Matter, Ephemera 1966-91, ed. Jennifer Flay, with commentaries by Günter Metken (Cologne: Walther König, 1992), p. 155. This catalogue is subesequently cited as COL.

Delphine Renard, “Entretin avec Christian Boltanski,” in Boltanski (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1984), p. 75. This catalogue is subsequently cited in the text as BOL. All trans-lations are my own.