The pernicious fragility of a photograph

The pernicious fragility of a photograph

by Pasquale G. Casullo

“Often something disturbs us more in photographed form than it does when we actually experience it.” [Susan Sontag]

TORONTO –  Whenever I come across on Instagram a freshly-posted photograph of British artist David Hockney, I become frightened. I am certain that this is it, his time has come, something stopped his clocks, he is no longer with us: a death is being announced. Of course, it is over-reactionary as well as morose that my first thought upon seeing either a present-day or younger-years photograph is, “Oh, dear. Oh, no, say it ain’t so.” I should by now know, rather than pondering over Hockney’s presumed death while taking in the big round spectacles, the bemused cat-who-ate-the-canary grin, the wild wintry-frosty hair pictured, that it is best to quickly skim over this offending post’s caption to see what it is all about, before getting all lathered-up. I can merrily roll along, realising that this is simply one Instagram post by one followee in inspiration or appreciation of Hockney, not a hundred Instagram posts by a hundred followees in mourning of Hockney. Once, passing in succession two photographs of Hockney, I gasped, then saw that this was nothing regarding his passing, then cursed Instagram’s algorithm for making my heart-rate rise and assuming that the inevitable had happened. (Yet I didn’t tell myself I really ought to spend less time on Instagram.)

At eighty years-old, Hockney is no spring chicken. But he is going, going, going strong. Hockney remains in reasonably sterling health, is still producing a great deal of work, and, most importantly, his bright-blue eyes continue to sparkle – as lively as a splash of pool water from one of his 1970s-era paintings. Back in late-November, last year, he was all smiles and jaunty and buoyant, when joining in on the opening-night party at his major career retrospective, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. There really is no worry that he is disappearing any day soon – I think, I hope.

“But in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes,” said Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when an aged member of society dies: death makes unawares of everyone. And, it is especially jarring to learn about a death on Instagram, scrolling past pretty pictures of doggies and flowers and interior design and well-dressed seniors along with an occassional skateboarding trick — my feed, in case you are wondering, contains multitudes. Roland Barthes writes, “photography creates a new social value, which is the publicity of the private,” and along with broadcasting our feelings over the gigantic Internet void, comes spreading our day-to-day doings via video, text, and photograph, through Instagram, as well as FaceBook, Twitter, Snapchat, et. al.

It isn’t important. It isn’t perfect. But it is enjoyable. Instagram, a space where we can escape some reality for a minute, hour, days, sometimes lets in some real life: a big news story can break through the more news-focussed Twitter, or opinion-sharing FaceBook, and arrive in Instagram-land. A major disaster, mass shooting, and occasionally a death. Personal, filtered-bubbles are popped for a pressing matter, and a story beyond ourselves, our lives, is shared.

Learning about a death of an artist over Instagram is one thing, but it is an entirely different, shaking situation when it is a death of a friend.

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Robert Gage at a party, his natural nocturnal habitat, when in Toronto

February 16, 2017. 3-something p.m. I am scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, in between writing an assignment. I see a familiar photograph: Robert – dressed as always in a black suit and a white shirt, tight-lipped grimace for a party-pic, big black Mr. Magoo spectacles, sandy-white hair – snapped a year prior, and posted by his neighbour-friend from his country-town. Odd, I thought, why is she posting this? A caption: “Devestated that our dear Robert has left us… loved by so many, just doesn’t seem possible.” Oh, no, no, no. It couldn’t be true, could it? I dashed about, emailing this friend, texting that friend, and receiving confirmation. Yes, it is true, it did happen. Around 4:30 p.m., that was all the info I had. I was confused. I was in tears. I was in disbelief.

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Robert posing for Toronto Life’s Best Dressed list, in 2013.

Susan Sontag, in her definitive 1973 book on photography, “On Photography,” writes, “Most contemporary expressions of concern that an image-world is replacing the real one continue to echo, as Feuerbach did, the Platonic depreciation of the image: true insofar as it resembles something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance.” (If Sontag had lived long enough to see Instagram, we can only imagine what amusement she’d have dissecting it.)

At 7:15 p.m., in came a telephone call, from a mutual friend of Robert and I, to tell what had happened. A major heart-attack, shortly after arriving in Toronto for hair-cutting appointments — he was a recently-retired, highly revered society hairstylist, living full-time in the country, returning to Toronto once a month for special clients. Upon debarking a train in Union Station, Robert hopped into a cab, and travelled north on University Ave. – unknowingly – one last time. Up, past Wellington St., King St., Adelaide St., Richmond St., Queen St. I think only that cab driver knows where exactly this heart attack struck. Robert, being a chatty man, especially with cab drivers, wouldn’t have stopped chatting for no reason. Looking back in his rear-view mirror, our cab driver saw Robert slumped in his seat, and so continued along University Ave., driving directly to Toronto General Hospital. Robert was declared dead, after a brief attempt to resuscitate him, in the hospital’s emergency ward.

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Robert photographed by photographer Jimmy Allen, 1990s. «The roughest I’ve been photographed,» said Robert.

News was spreading over Instagram – as well as FaceBook, according to those on FaceBook – and slap-dash online memorials started coming in. More photographs of Robert, accompanied with “R.I.P.s,” and standard “I remember Robert,” and “I knew him,” and “I adored him,” and so on. Instagram, being ‘me me me’ gives some a chance to chime in, inserting themselves into such situations, but that is a different essay for a different day.

Instagram was the medium, but the message came through in a telephone call. From now on, I prefer reading my news, or hearing my news first-hand from either a publication or someone’s voice. Seeing it on Instagram is just too un-real.

“I long to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world. It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! It is the very sanctification of portraits I think – and it is not at all monstrous in me to say, what my brothers cry out against so vehemently , that I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced. –” [Elizabeth Barrett, 1843, letter to Mary Russell Mitford]


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