A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

Oscar van Alphen (2): The Photo as a Shroud

“The photo shows reality as the shroud shows the dead body
without identification, without name, without history.
What remains is the external intensity of the neutral,
the fascination with the ever-recurring question about concealing or revealing.”

Thus reads the first of two stanzas copied into an “Untitled” picture of 1987 by Oscar van Alphen—I promised I’d come back to him. The photo is a black-and-white one, with a large, rolled-up white sheet (the shroud of the poem) in the foreground; the rest is a Dutch, flat landscape. A rather empty picture, accordingly. Which fits the poem alright.

Van Alphen’s photo is the only one of over a hundred in the 1991 exhibition catalogue ‘The Decisive Image: Dutch photography from the 20th century‘ with a text in it. (Must have been difficult in those pre-digital days to get a text into a photo with darkroom techniques rather than printing techniques. Probably a slide of white letters on a completely black background copied into the large photo. But that was not the point of my blog entry.)

His text is indeed a question about the truth in photography: what is “in” a picture? What is its relation to reality? How external is what we see in a picture? These are not easy questions—were not easy in the analogous days, and have become more complicated in the digital days in some (but not in all) respects. It is too late in the day for me to even try to approach the question intellectually. Perhaps Van Alphen was not so crazy when he tried to do it with a photo surrounding his text. Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera lucida’ with his musings on the photo of his deceased mother are not a very readable alternative… Strange that death plays a role in Van Alphen’s picture as much as in Barthes’ classic text on photography. Or has Van Alphen read Barthes’text? For although we see only the ‘external intensity’ of the photo, it may lead to the thought of where it came from: what was the photographer trying to tell us? Why was s/he trying to tell us precisely this? That is where Van Alphen’s reading on photography may come into play.

Even more to muse upon, when the evening gets still later.


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