In this collection of 400 photographs, at least 100 photographs are of a woman with white hair. She is unnamed. The photographs, dated between 1925 and 1955, were in no clear order when I received them. When I review the photographs, I watch the anonymous woman both age and become younger. Time becomes flexible. It can be rearranged through the order of the photographs. Sometimes a man is photographed alongside her. He’s tall and handsome and wears a pair of thick rimmed glasses. Sometimes a younger woman who I imagine to be her daughter is with them. I realized at one point that the white-haired woman might in fact be many different women in the collection. I decided she was a single character and chose to view the entire collection as her story. I think of the collection as titled ‘Lilliane' though this is not her name but the name of the baby, the only name written on any of the photos. She remains nameless. I wanted to know her but I ultimately couldn’t. Some things could be gleaned from the photographs alone. The people were athletic – they were often pictured skiing or hiking. They enjoyed spending time outdoors. They appeared to be wealthy as they travelled often and were usually very well dressed. It seemed like a large family, or they had a lot of friends. The woman seemed well loved and the family appeared happy. I wanted to know more and I couldn’t.
This collection became the impetus for the production of a series of images titled Liliane. In this body of work, I began making copies of the photographs and embroidering them. By reworking the images, I cause them to exist in an altered trajectory. They are imbued with new meaning and given a new life. The embroidery serves to hide parts of the photograph while revealing others.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes introduces the term punctum, defining it as an element of a photograph that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me” (26). The punctum is accidental and it finds you. The punctum is an unintentional detail in the image that strikes the viewer. Shawn Michelle Smith comments upon Barthes’ haptic use of the punctum, “Deeming the punctum a wound, Barthes reminds one that desire and grief register powerfully in the body. Feelings have physical effects. Indeed, Barthes’s entire understanding of photography is remarkably tactile; his experience of viewing is one of being touched” (35). I pierce the photograph when I embroider it as the photographic punctum described by Barthes pierces me. I am making the punctum more physical.
I use the process of stitching through the images to work through a sense of separation and longing for a history that I cannot be part of. The process is slow and laborious. Through the labour of stitching I am forced to revisit each photograph again and again, committing them to memory. My fingers trace the lines of embroidery as I work. The process demands that I focus on the minuscule details in the image. The choices as to where and how I will alter the image, and what colour thread should be used arises from a conversation between myself andeach individual image. In some instances, I block out the faces in the image because I want to draw attention to the impossibility of knowing the subjects. There are times when I focus my stitching on a particular part of the figure’s body and cover it. The embroidery tricks your eye into seeing movement and, in this way, I can animate the photographed figures. This gesture resists the notion of the frozen image and its existence is effectively altered.
These photographs carry both the narrative of the subjects they depict and of their physical experiences as objects. With Liliane, I began exploring how photographic objects move through space, change hands and transform themselves, get misplaced or forgotten. They exist in a state of fragile fluidity. They are objects marked by their history.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
Smith, Shawn Michelle. “Photography Between Desire and Grief: Roland Barthes and F. Day Holland.” Feeling Photography. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. 29-46.