In this remarkable contribution to photographic criticism and psychoanalytic literature, Ulrich Baer traces the hitherto overlooked connection between the experience of trauma and the photographic image. Instead of treating trauma as a photographic "theme," Baer examines the striking parallel between those moments arrested mechanically by photography and those arrested experientially by the traumatized psyche—moments that bypass normal cognition and memory. Taking as points of departure Charcot’s images of hysteria and Freud’s suggestion that the unconscious is structured like a camera, Baer shows how the invention of photography and the emergence of the modern category of "trauma" intersect. Drawing on recent work in the field of trauma studies, he shows how experiences that are inherently split between their occurrence and their remembrance might register in and as photographic images.
In light of contemporary discussions of recovered memories and the limits of representing such catastrophes as the Holocaust, Baer examines photographs of artistic, medical, and historical subjects from the perspective of witnessing rather than merely viewing. He shows how historicist approaches to photography paradoxically overlook precisely those cataclysmic experiences that define our age. The photograph’s apparent immunity to time is seen as a call for a future response—a response that is prompted by the ghostly afterlife of every photograph’s subject. In a moving discussion of a rare collection of color slides taken by a Nazi official in the Lodz ghetto, Baer makes us aware that it is the viewer’s responsibility to account for the spectral evidence embedded in every image.
About the Author
Ulrich Baer is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University.
“Baer seeks to usurp our common understanding of the photograph with a richly informed and persuasive discourse.”—Robert Pepperell, Leonardo
“Genuinely interesting, original, and well-written. The book’s arguments will be especially relevant to scholars of the still-developing field of photo-history and criticism.”
—Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of Art History, City University of New York Graduate Center
“This book introduces photography into the rapidly expanding arena of interdisciplinary debates about collective trauma, memory, and representation. Arguing that photography and traumatic events have a common structure, Baer pleads with great sensitivity for an ethical way of seeing—witnessing—that both respects and responds to the unknowable reality of trauma. A welcome contribution to an urgent discussion.”
—Rosalyn Deutsche, Barnard College, author of Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics