Closed-Eye Photo

Post by Anna Hegelson

I can't help myself.

I am drawn to stacks of surrendered photographs sitting in baskets at flea markets, under dirty sheets at garage sales, or in flat files at antique shops. Searching through family portraits, "autographed" Elvis headshots, and authentic portraits of Jesus Christ in all his blonde, blue-eyed glory is a crap-shoot but it can also be exhilarating.  On my best digging days I feel intoxicated by the strange and wonderful things people have decided to capture and immortalize; on the worst of days I think about all the wasted time, chemicals, paper, money, and effort gone into preserving a memory or celebrating a moment only to end up as one more thing to deal with after someone dies. As I search through these stacks I am not looking for anything in particular, but I know it when I see it. I feel a gut reaction, a laugh, a WTF.

My response to this photograph came gradually. First I was pulled in by the rich, faded grays only possible from a century or more of sunlight on silver gelatin. Next it was the clothes: the starched white collars and slicked-back hair parted in the middle. The lace collars and velvety looking dresses. The sweetness of the subjects poses also drew me in: the closeness of bodies, casual arms draped over relaxed knees. Then, I noticed their eyes, or rather, their eyelids. As my own eyes moved from face to face my gaze was not returned but instead met with eyelid after tender eyelid.

And this is when it became a WTF.

Why, why was every single person closing his or her eyes? Clearly this was choreographed, right? The photographer directed everyone to close his or her eyes as some sort of joke. Maybe, given the Victorian interest in photographing the recently deceased, it was some kind of twisted joke. ("Hey, everyone! Pretend you're a corpse!") Considering the standard photographic technique of the late 1800s required at least a five-minute exposure, then lugging film cassettes back to the darkroom, processing each negative one at a time, letting them dry, creating a contact print for each sheet, reviewing, selecting, enlarging, and finally printing the selected image, this would have been a rather expensive and time-consuming joke: all in all, at least a one- or two-day venture.

Maybe this photograph was an error. Perhaps the shutter was open when the photographer thought it was closed.  Maybe the photographer instructed everyone to relax their eyes because they would not be allowed to blink once the shutter was open. Maybe she didn't realize her mistake until reviewing the negative in the darkroom, squinting in the red light and cursing into the darkness.

There is a certain tenderness, a vulnerability to this particular pose that I am also drawn to. There is an intimacy in seeing someone with his or her eyes closed. This is how we see the person laying in bed across from us, or the person we sing to sleep at night. People you trust and who trust you, people who are unguarded around you.

This brings to mind the Punctum, the concept made famous by Roland Barthes in his raw and strange little book, Camera Lucida. I have to admit, it took me a while to come around to Barthes. But the odd connection I felt to all these inward-gazing eyes got me thinking about the Punctum again. Barthes chose this Latin word, meaning to prick, punctuate, or mark with a pointed instrument, to describe the unexplainable emotional connection to certain photographs--a personal connection that stands in contrast to the Studium. Studium refers to a general study or interest in a particular photograph. The Studium of the closed-eye photo is due to my general historical interest in Victorian culture. The more slippery, elusive, and personal nature of Punctum is what gives a particular photograph an emotional, versus an intellectual, charge. This is why photographs are more than just historical documents, why they connect us to the very core of what it is to be human. According to Barthes this has to do with our relationship to mortality. Bound up in photography's history is a shifting of consciousness around death. The idea that a person's likeness could be separated from their mortal body, that we could look at a loved one after they'd died, signaled a profound shift in the way we experience life itself. For Barthes, the awareness of his likeness being separated from his body makes the act of being photographed extremely uncomfortable.
 I (Barthes) do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares). In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis). (13).
Also bound up in the history of photography is the ongoing struggle to understand time, to understand what a moment actually is. There is something about this closed-eye photograph that brings me closer to what Barthes tries to elucidate here:
What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once. The photograph always leads to the corpus it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This, in short what Lacan calls the Tuche, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real….the fact of being thus of being so. (4).
So I will continue searching through stacks of rejected photographs, seeking more closed eyes, another jolt of mortality, another way to understand what it means to be human and experience time-hey look it's Elvis!


Anna Helgeson is curious. Curious about the ever-present past, how fantasies become common sense, cultural erasure and how we decide what is funny. Using performance, photography and words she invites you along to explore the absurd and splendid within these questions.

Helgeson has staged performances, hung photographs and created installations throughout the United States including exhibitions at Work Gallery (Detroit, MI), The Milwaukee Art Museum, Lucky Star Gallery (Milwaukee, WI), UW Milwaukee Union Gallery and Rose Street Gallery (Burlington, VT).   She has also presented papers about queering art for The Queer Studies Conference hosted by UNC, Asheville, and lectured on topics of race and whiteness at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Milwaukee School of Art and Design, and is featured on the website companion to “Reframing Photography; Theory and Practice” (Routledge Press). 

Helgeson received her BA from Ripon College and her MFA (Cum Laude) from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina and works for the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design.

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. Hill and Wang The Noonday Press, New York, 1980. Print.