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The Weight of a Body in a Photograph

By Elisa Taber.

Edward Hopper, Eleven A.M., 1926, oil on canvas, 71.3 x 91.6 cm. © Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

To be morbid is to be attracted to what repulses you. The Spanish, morbo, endows the corrupted object with both appealing and revolting qualities. Once the subject comes into contact with it, his or her moral constitution is impaired, thus the interaction becomes recursive. A steak can make you hungry in the same way that watching someone picking meat from his teeth can hold a repellent fascination. The latter can be substituted with a painful or shameful memory. As it can be summoned or incited it is intrinsically contagious and corruptible. That it must be suppressed means that it is at once repulsive and attractive. But why must this summoning be suppressed? Why is the object considered intrinsically repellant and by who?

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I first saw E.J. Bellocq’s portraits of the prostitutes of New Orleans’ red-light district, Storyville, circa 1912, in the hallways outside the main reading room of the New York Public Library’s Main Branch when I was eighteen. In July of last year at the Punta della Dogana Museum in Venice, I saw Marcel Bascoulard’s self-portraits (Bourges, circa 1940-1970), images of an increasingly gaunt homeless man disguised as his murderous mother. Both series could have disappeared into obscurity after their creators’ deaths. That they didn’t makes them similar. I experienced morbo when I first “discovered” each one.

In both instances, I found I could only concentrate on one feature at a time. A hand, a foot, the way the legs bent, a branch in the background, the velvet curtains over the windows, the door or the way the trees gave way to light where the passage from the house into the garden began. The human subjects—Bascoulard himself or Bellocq’s women—were so careful; their feet barely touched the ground. I could not understand what their weight rested on.

When I returned their gaze, I felt the way I do when I really love someone, embarrassed and at the same time immovable. There is strength in vulnerability. That is the revelation I am trying to suppress.

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The Self-Portraits

Marcel Bascoulard, Pose 3, 7 juillet 1969, 1969, gelatin silver print, 13 x 8.8 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Christophe Gaillard. © Pinault Collection

I cannot stop noticing his hands.

Body wrapped in a dress the way the white-feathered wings of a bird, plucked from a torrential sky, collapse when its red, seemingly sore, not-scaled claws perch on the thin branch that sprouts from an olive tree’s tortured trunk.

Right arm bent, long delicate fingers gently caress the satin that covers the lower abdomen, the site of the missing womb, where the visible male body could curl into itself, concealed, if it still belonged to its mother. In the left hand, an oblique rectangle, as heavy as the bird’s nails are sharp, a piece of a broken mirror.

Bare feet and chest peer out from under the rim of the dress, the emaciated body reveals where feathers do not grow, and it collapses into itself. Toes, capped in dirt, meet, he must trip when walking. A gaping shadow where breasts grow, sternum and ribs cave in, back bent, padded shoulders lean forth and towards each other.

I will not show you his eyes.

Small sunken eyes, furrowed brow, and thin lips pursed like something’s funny. His gaze makes me feel like I should let go of something.

The steel counter door that is the backdrop rolls up. Behind him I see myself leaning over the railing of the balcony of the building where I lived my adolescence. Through the lens of the camera I am holding I see the man that lives in the abandoned zoo across the street. He stands before the baroque oval building that housed an elephant, atop soil compacted by years of heavy treading, below a blazing sun. He frantically kicks, wriggles, and rolls to relieve his flesh of the heat it soaks in – a dust bath. I press the shutter. He looks up. Lightning does not strike. In my photograph all I see are his red pupils. It is not a cataract cloud like the shadow the moon casts over the sun or a resemblance to the bird’s eyes, the white, not the iris, must be bloody. It is the flash that reflects off the fundus.

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Marcel Bascoulard asked employees of the anonymous Morlet photo studio to take each of the twelve 13 x 8.8-centimeter photographs that hang on the wall in the Punta della Dogana museum. He stands inside or outside but always full-length and alone, facing the one behind the lens. The following words are typed in a miniscule font on a white placard below the first frame: His mother murdered his father. Someone murdered him.

He knew something about his death since birth.

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The Portraits

E.J. Bellocq, Plate 18, Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912, gold-toned printing out paper, 20.3 x 25.4 cm. © Fraenkl Gallery

She wears shoes.

Tiny feet encased in stiff black slip-ons with a short heel. Bare legs crossed at the ankles lead up to a plump body with small breasts. Hands cradle a bird to her chest. There is nothing erotic about this. Only stillness and a nudity that conceals so little she nearly seems dressed.

Her hair feels like fur. As black as the velvet couch she sits on, the curtains and the rug that cover the scaffolding of a home. A ray of light shines through the open window onto the rug directly below the drawing on the wall. Both are at the center, horizontally. She traces a perpendicular that cuts between them but leaves her occupying the opposite but same proportion of the frame.

Erin sent me a photograph of an Edward Hopper painting. The dark brown mane of a body turned towards the city beyond the open window she faces. On a plush blue armchair completely nude. Except for stiff black slip-ons with a short heel. So pale. Bent mid spine, elbows rest on knees. Hands held. It is Josephine, his wife. He rarely shows her face.

The text below the image read: “it reminds me of you.”

Likeness arouses memory. I can only see myself the way I looked in the passport photograph I had taken that year. Then, I forget to remember and realize she is smiling. The smallest gesture. Like someone moving aside to let you through. I enter.

My mouth tastes like an ashtray. I take a cold strawberry from the silver bowl with four tiny legs that lift it slightly off the table before me. Sweet and sour then, like swallowing water but denser. The cold enters through my bare bum on the steel chair. I get up and thread my arms through the robe’s sleeves. It is made of silk. I do not feel warm but exposed in a way that keeps me awake, afraid enough to be vigilant. I sit back down on the chaise lounge. Rest my head and lift my legs. The sound of the people below my window puts me to sleep.

I dream of the sea. Entering fully clothed where the tide ends. Diving in where the waves break. My wet hair feels as slick as the fish that swim past caressing my sides. I want to remain here. At first it is hard to keep my body from floating up. Then, it becomes heavy. I sink to a place opposite the sea floor where a substance neither like air nor water keeps all bodies both apart and touching. The fear you feel when you hear or see someone who approaches, then disappears.

*

I never felt as happy alone as when I stood before each of the thirty-four 20.3 x 25.4-centimeter photographs hanging on one wall of the long hallway leading to the main reading room. Resemblance ceased to matter to me. The expression on each face transported me elsewhere. Where gravity ceases to be a force in control of my body. Below ground or above the clouds.

*

Like a buried body that drowned in the ocean but you imagine floating in the sky, the sitters in Bellocq’s photographs and Bascoulard himself are dead. Photography is a medium that transforms the sitter into a phantom. Allowing the dead to rest in peace means forgetting them. I prefer to be morbid, to continue remembering them, even those I never met because they lived before I was born. Even the room I write in was inhabited by someone who is now absent. They may have sat where I do, not writing, but sitting for a photograph that someone keeps in an album in another room elsewhere.

I feel their absent presence.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the indigenous narratives of the Paraguayan, Bolivian, and Argentine Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 9th, 2019.