Photography and the work of mourning

This morning/mourning, I think of Agnes, who died not long before Christmas. The world has changed since then, and you may say that to post grief for a dog is unworthy of the moment. She was not less to me than others. After the convulsions of our history together, a series of losses that settled, finally, into an everydayness that helped me find a measure of peace, she was far more. There will be other mournings for all of us, I know. They are coming. But hers need not fall away. She was a significant life and a significant death.

This morning, I long for our walks, her freedom, the warmth of her burly body, when all I have is photographs. I turn to them in an attempt to recall her joy. How she grounded me in place and in the hours. Her thick coat, where I might bury my troubles.

I recall too her seriousness. Her unknowability. Dark-eyed gaze. I see her watching to see what I might do next. Agnes watched and waited, stayed close during my changes.

Sometimes it helps to look. But other times, I am reminded that photographs carry (as Roland Barthes noted) the “defeat of time… this is [photography’s] pathos, its melancholy.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980)

I am looking at Agnes both before she died and after she died. I see before with the painful knowledge of after.

Taking — as a more troubling example — Alexander Gardiner’s portrait of Lewis Payne as he waits to be hanged (Payne was one of the Lincoln assassination plotters), Barthes notes that the “flash” he experiences in looking at this photograph is not so much its historical interest, but the realization that Payne is going to die. This is what Barthes reads in the photograph. “He is dead and he is going to die… This will be and this has been… By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future.”

For Barthes, this is revelatory of something in his responses to his own photographs.

“What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence: in front of the photograph of my [dead] mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die. I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida)

Barthes moved from Lewis Payne to his mother to find the pathos in our relationship to old photographs.

We already know that “as soon as the shutter clicks, what was photographed no longer exists.” (Marjorie Perloff, “What Has Occurred Only Once,” 1997). But now Barthes brings death and history to the center of the frame. He reminds us that the same century invented both photography and History (as academic field). Jules Michelet conceived of History as “love’s protest” against historical loss. This is grand scale stuff, but as Barthes notes, it can be pulled back to our smallness:

“In front of the only photograph I find of my father and mother together, this couple who I know loved each other, I realize: it is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear forever; for once I am gone, no one will be able to testify to this.” (Camera Lucida)

This, in part, is why our photographs of loved ones bring anguish, even as they may bring a smile of recognition, and memories we wish to preserve despite the impossibility of any memory remaining intact. Each of us knows which of the cherished photographs in our collection produce this dual effect.

There are times when we need to look; times when we cannot bear to look.

Yet it is in/through this contradiction that photographs may come to our aid during the “work of mourning” following a death, a process described so eloquently by Freud in his 1918 essay, Mourning and Melancholia.

In a discussion of photography in relation to Freud’s seminal essay, Christian Metz reminds us that mourning is, after all, “an attempt to survive.”

We learn to love the person “as dead, instead of ignoring the verdict of reality, hence prolonging the intensity of suffering.” (Metz, “Photography and Fetish”, 1985)

The funeral rites that exist in all societies have a double signification: “a remembering of the dead, but a remembering as well that they are dead, and that life continues for others.” (Metz, 1985)

“Photography, much better than film, fits into this complex operation, since it suppresses from its own appearance the primary marks of ‘livingness,’ and nevertheless conserves the convincing print of the [deceased person]: a past presence.” (Metz, 1985)

My mother and her mother, c1929

“All this does not concern only the photographs of loved ones…

There are obviously many other kinds of photographs: landscapes and so forth… In all photographs, we have this same act of cutting off a piece of space and time, of keeping it unchanged while the world around continues to change, of making a compromise between conservation and death.” (Metz, 1985)

Writing in the pre-digital age, Barthes noted the decay of the photographic print: “like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages… Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away.”

“Earlier societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death itself should be immortal: this was the Monument.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida)

On a moor in West Yorkshire, my friends made a cairn and have been adding to it since their Border Collie died, more than two years ago. It happens that this same moor is where Agnes had her first big walk as a puppy.

Young Agnes, not far from where the cairn is now

After she died, my friends took me up to the cairn so that I might add a stone for her. Since the lockdown, I have been unable to return, but they kindly send me regular photographs of the cairn, adding to it on each of their walks up that way. Sometimes Jessie, their new Collie, appears alongside the cairn in the photographs.

Cairn/Jessie, by Mark Gibson

Barthes may lament the passing of the monument in the age of the photograph, but it is Barthes who grasps what, from its very beginnings, made photography so powerful: its character of invisibility. How the power of the content renders the photograph itself invisible.

He tells us “a photograph is always invisible; it is not what we see… A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally.”

This is what Barthes calls “the stubbornness of the referent.” Show your family photographs to someone. She may show you hers. She won’t say, “Look, this is a photograph.” She is more likely to say, for example, “Look, this is me as a child. Here I am with my parents in the old house. Here’s my brother with his best friend.” And so forth.

We’ve all had these exchanges. Memories we try, mostly in vain, to share. Proof of lives lived, proof of a past, evidence to which we cling. The photograph, Barthes reminds us, is rarely anything but a recitation of “Look, See, Here it is.” Or more aptly, here it was.

What do I see in this last photograph? Jessie, who is life. Beside a cairn, a monument that holds a stone for Agnes. A stone I placed there. Look. See. There it is. Agnes has been there. I have been there.

When it’s too painful to look at photographs of Agnes, I look at this photograph of the cairn. But they are all photographs. She is gone.

The work of mourning.

A blog by Amy Kenyon, historian/writer/photographer. For further publications (books/essays/short stories), see

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