Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography

December 3, 2020
Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography

Photography has transformed the way we picture ourselves.Although photographs seem to "prove" our existence at a given pointin time, they also demonstrate the impossibility of framing ourmultiple and fragmented selves. As Linda Haverty Rugg convincinglyshows, photography's double take on self-image mirrors the concernsof autobiographers, who see the self as simultaneously divided (inobserving/being) and unified by the autobiographical act.Rugg tracks photography's impact on the formation of self-imagethrough the study of four literary autobiographers concerned withthe transformative power of photography. Obsessed with self-image,Mark Twain and August Strindberg both attempted (unsuccessfully) tointegrate photographs into their autobiographies. While Twainencouraged photographers, he was wary of fakery and kept a fiercewatch on the distribution of his photographic image. Strindberg,believing that photographs had occult power, preferred tophotograph himself.Because of their experiences under National Socialism, WalterBenjamin and Christa Wolf feared the dangerously objectifying powerof photographs and omitted them from their autobiographicalwritings. Yet Benjamin used them in his photographic conception ofhistory, which had its testing ground in his often-ignoredBerliner Kindheit um 1900. And Christa Wolf's narrator inPatterns of Childhood attempts to reclaim her childhoodfrom the Nazis by reconstructing mental images of lost familyphotographs.Confronted with multiple and conflicting images of themselves,all four of these writers are torn between the knowledge thattexts, photographs, and indeed selves are haunted by undecidabilityand the desire for the returned glance of a single self.