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by Ulrich Baer
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D. on Nov 15th 2002

Spectral Evidence

Orson Welles once said that photographs are not so much a reflection of our own world, but seem to come to us from another one. This new book by Ulrich Baer, Associate Professor of Germanic Languages at New York University, confronts us with an other-worldliness that fixes us with its stare, and examines us as closely, as the camera does itself. It is profoundly unsettling, exerting, as it does, an awful fascination as we explore the link between the photographic image and the traumatic event, remembrance and recall, reality constructed and reconstructed. Baer wants us to ask “what we see, or fail to see in these photographs”.

In order to orientate his position, Baer refers to the Ancient Greeks, notably the flowing river of history of Heraclitus into which no-one can step twice, and, opposing this, the idea propounded by Democritus that the world as we perceive it is nothing but a swirl of atoms and the projections of our own minds. This latter, profoundly postmodern, notion is the point at which Baer begins to question the reality of photography, its perceived ability to freeze time, and the troublesome idea that the camera cannot lie. He is concerned with developing a philosophy of photography.

The second major theme of the book is trauma. Baer bases his work around the Freudian notion that trauma is a disorder of time and memory; it is a pathology of remembering and forgetting, of displaced and intrusive time. This, he argues, is what so disturbs us. Baer, however, is not a psychoanalyst, but a historian, and so he brings forth these conceptions not to show how they may be accessed, but to remind us of their power. He notes that we see the subjects of photographs in a peculiarly atemporal way; that is to say they live with us in the moment, but they are not of our time at all.

Baer is also struck by the coincidence of photographic theory and the first theorization of trauma. It is not, to be sure, as startling as the coincidence of the Lumiere brothers first public cinematographs and Freud’s first published works in 1895, but it is close. Of particular interest here is the series of photographs taken by the great figure of the neurologist and “master-physician” Charcot of patients with hysteria, which so Baer argues, were part of his attempts to see in a fundamentally different way. This chapter, while elegantly and persuasively written, does not cover completely the already considerable history of psychiatric photography, and the work of HW Diamond in particular (nor does it particularly link forward to the work of documentarists like the Geneva Foundation). Diamond, working a decade or more before Charcot, was a psychiatrist and colleague of John Connolly and produced a series of photographs that were a startling and eloquent testimony to his patients, who were incidentally also clinically described by Connolly. Later, in his “Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity” in 1856 he articulated three principles of psychiatric photography; to record, to treat through the accurate presentation of self-image (remarkable insight given the present-day concerns with body dysmorphic disorder), and, somewhat less enlightened perhaps, to facilitate recognition and identification on readmission. Nevertheless, as with Charcot’s portraits, when we gaze at them, and gaze we do, we cannot but feel the shaft of humanity that connects them with us. It is this interaction of our gaze and the way it is returned that is so unsettling, and begins to suggest to us how and why trauma remains so fascinating. We cannot look, but we cannot look away. What we see is not of our world, but the people too clearly are. Sometimes we do not know who is looking at whom. It is at these moments that the book is at its most effective and compelling.

Later chapters cover contemporary Holocaust photography, secondary witnessing of the Holocaust and a commentary on Darius Jablonski’s Holocaust documentary Fotoamator. These chapters, however, seem to be particularly concerned with a certain revisionism, and the Holocaust, which has been so often been examined, is perhaps more of a subject of its own than a model for all trauma. The manner in which it has been recorded and reworked and become familiar to our everyday discourse does not render it less interesting, but puts the locus of its interest elsewhere.

The book is a very thought provoking contribution to the theorizing of photography and memory, both collective and individual. It is at its best when confronting us witnessing, and being witnesses. Perhaps, bearing witness is what we must do, what we cannot help but do, but at what cost and to whom?



© 2002 Mark Welch


Dr Mark Welch is currently a Senior Lecturer and Postgraduate Coordinator in The School of Nursing at the University of Canberra, Australia. His PhD investigated the representation of madness in popular film, and his other research interests include the mental health of refugees and victims of torture, and the history of psychiatric epistemology.