Roland Barthes ♥ Annie Leibovitz? Y or N (Circle One) by Scott Navicky




Prose


 


Susan Sontag photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Susan at the house on Hedges Lane, Wainscott, Long Island, 1988.

 

Carlos Spencer-Bayard had never thought about Susan Sontag’s crotch before. Why would he? He was neither an ardent reader of her work nor a crotchophile. To him, crotches – even famous ones – just looked like any crotches. But here he was, staring obediently at the crotch belonging to the author of Notes on Camp. There was really no way to avoid it; there she was, lying spreadeaglebeagle on a clean white couch, her left hand directing the viewer’s gaze towards her sleeping crotch. The image was part of an exhibition of Annie Leibovitz photographs at the Wexner Center. While dutifully trudging through the show, sleeping Susan was the first piece that caused the man known to his friends and family simply as “Ghost” to pause. Was she really asleep? Her pose appeared extremely uncomfortable; it looked more like she was doing Irish Yoga, i.e. she was passed out. Perhaps she had fallen asleep while reading, on the floor near the couch rested a pair of glasses atop what appeared to be a magazine. Ghost narrowed his eyes to read the magazine’s cover: Sports Illustrated’s Complete Guide to the WNBA.

[snicker, snicker]

Ghost loved making Susan Sontag jokes. Once, while drinking scotch in a bar in Portland, Maine, Ghost had been accosted by an angry Sontagian, who demanded to know how his research differed from Saint Susan’s.

– It’s art history, not Cultural Studies, Ghost answered offhandedly.

– Art history falls under the categorical reach of Cultural Studies, the angry Sontagian countered.

– Yeeeeah, so does the WNBA.

This was undoubtedly a rude response, but what did he care? He was already three Taliskers into the evening, and his irritation levels rose steeply whenever any conversation boofed into the swampy bog of Cultural Studies.

He liked Susan Sontag, both On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others were referenced heavily within his own work. He admired her inquisitiveness, sensitivity, and her courage, and by this, he didn’t mean her intellectual or physical courage, he meant her photographic courage. Being in a relationship with a photographer is brave, as there’s always a camera lurking around every corner, but being in a relationship with a portrait photographer who photographs celebrities when you yourself are a celebrity is especially brave.

Returning to the crotchshot, Ghost wondered if these were the clothes that Sontag wore around the house? Had she written On Photography in a grey sweatsuit? Ghost knew that the poet Kay Ryan wrote in her pajamas, but he expected Sontag’s housewear to be more formal. Of course, the casual housewear in which she was photographed looked much better than the outfits he wore around his apartment. Ghost grimaced thinking about an image of him asleep in his housewear appearing in a museum; in his imagination, he envisioned himself sprawled out on his couch, his baggy cargo shorts at “rapper level,” i.e. lowlowlow, his socks outrageously mismatched. Ghost was weird about socks, his current sock craze being for colorful kneehighs with dunking basketball players on them, which he wore mismatched to make it appear that there was an intense game of 1-on-1 occurring on his opposing shins. But without a doubt, the ugliest article of his housewear collection was the black Hawaiian shirt that his parents had purchased for him on Captiva Island. The shirt contained quite the bestiary: rabbits, giraffes, hippos, and flamingoes all frolicking around a large, fiery whitebearded wizard, who Ghost dubbed the “Beast Master.” The shirt was hideous; and still, Ghost wore it everyday. But he had strict rules when it came to his hideous housewear: he never wore any of it outside of his apartment, and he made sure to ghost out of the room whenever a camera appeared.

 

– Is that Patti Smith?

A group of squawkers surrounded Ghost, scrutinizing the crotchshot.

– Nope, one of the squawkers responded after reading the wall label.

– Who is it?

– Somebody named Susan Sontag.

– Who?

Move along, squawkers, Ghost thought, no one über-famous to see here.

Ghost had never seen the Wexner Center this crowded: rumor was that the exhibition was tripling the institution’s attendance estimates. Standing directly in front of the Sontag photograph was a tiny mental oasis in the otherwise throbbing, overcrowded exhibition.

After the squawkers were gone, Ghost recalled his favorite quote from On Photography: “The photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough.” C’mon Susan, Ghost thought, when has reality EVER been enough? Humans have been augmenting reality for millenniums. Imagereality, and its accompanying daily avalanche of images, is just the latest augmentation. Reality, of course, is a drinkwater word. And any offshoot of a drinkwater word is a tricky concept. Here’s another example: Talkreality, also known as Squawkreality.

The confusing thing about Squawkreality is that it so blatantly contradicts Nietzsche’s theory “that for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Was it possible that Nietzsche was wrong? Squawkers certainly felt no contempt in their act of speaking; instead, the act of speaking appeared to give them great comfort. In fact, the argument could be made that squawkers only felt comfort while squawking. The issue was anxiety. Anxieties aren’t real: they only exist when spoken aloud. Within Squawkreality, the act of self-overhearing is a form of self-representation: anxiety needs an audience. The same thing can be said of Imagereality. Imagereality is an anxiety that needs an audience. Images manufacture the illusion of control, but this is only an illusion, an unreality.

Turning away from the Sontagian crotchshot, Carlos Spencer-Bayard ghosted up the Wexner Center’s central ramp, feeling slightly bemused. Here he was surrounded by glamorous movie stars and gorgeous celebrities and all he kept thinking was: look at all of these fucking has-beens! Imagereality turns everyone into a has-been. Every image is a reminder that, visually-speaking, our best years are behind us. This realization reminded Ghost of Samuel Beckett’s quote: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.” Ignition: that’s what Ghost asked of an image; images should ignite a fire inside you. Most images are a cold milk bath, but a select few ignite.

At the very northernmost end of the Wexner Center stands a large, two-story glass wall that separates the museum’s calm solitude from the outside world. Because of the museum’s location within The Ohio State University’s campus, this wall offered unprecedented vistas of slouching college students and their neverending trudging. To class: trudgetrudgetrudge. Back home: trudgetrudgetrudge.  To the bar: trudgetrudgetrudge. Back home: trudgetrudgetremble. To the health clinic: trudgetrudgewince. Whenever he visited the Wexner Center, Ghost inevitably gravitated towards this wallwindow. As he observed the steady trudging, Ghost wrestled with his conflicting emotions towards Annie Leibovitz. The problem with Leibovitz’s photographs were that they didn’t live in the world. Gorgeous celebrities? Elaborately staged backdrops? Multi-million dollar make-up? What world did these photographs belong to? Certainly not his. For one thing, his world included darkness. Imagereality is a new chiaroscuro: the lightest light against the darkest dark. Imagereality is bright and beautiful; people take photographs of things they want to see and remember, but lurking just outside the circumference of every camera’s flash is the world, and the world emanates darkness.

So what would be the ideal unLeibovitzian image? An image materialized in Ghost’s mind: Weegee’s The Critic. The two glamorous operagoers were Leibovitzian, while the leering old drunken hag was of this world. While researching the image, Ghost was surprised to learn that Weegee’s image, like all of Leibovitz’s work, was staged; Weegee’s assistant had located the old hag at Sammy’s Bar in the Bowery, transported her to Lincoln Center, and propped her up for the shot. Ghost was less surprised by the posed nature of the image as by the knowledge that Weegee had an assistant. Wow, Ghost thought upon learning the image’s backstory, what a shitty job that must’ve been.

 

WANTED: Photographer’s assistant. Must be willing to work all hours of the night, sleep in an automobile, and bribe police officers; applicant must also feel comfortable around corpses, perpetrators of domestic violence, drunks, streetwalkers, homeless families, circus performers, and murderers. No prior experience necessary.

 

Darkness surrounds every photograph. Ghost thought of this darkness as the unphotographable. The unphotographable is what people don’t want to photograph, because they don’t want to see and remember it: ugly moments of loneliness, physical abuse, drunkenness, and despair. Glancing through the George Eastman House Collection’s A History of Photography from 1839 to the present, an imagethinker might mistakenly believe the world is a brightbeautiful place, but every so often the darkness of the unphotographable bursts through Imagereality’s façade and a photograph captures it.

 

The Critic by Weegee, NY NY, 1943.

 

Slowly, Carlos Spencer-Bayard’s attention turned back to the collegiate trudgeparade. It was December and a thick covering of snow whiteblanketed the ground; of course, this didn’t stop students from wearing short-shorts, mini-skirts, and hoodies instead of proper winter coats. He even saw a few flip-flops. It was Ohio: of course he saw flip-flops. The longer he observed any large group of Ohioans, the more apparent it became that he was living in a foreign country; this was an odd realization seeing how he actually had lived in a foreign country. Who were these people? Why did they look so comfortable, so satiated? Why were they such slowmoving creatures; didn’t they have anywhere they wanted to be? What was the deal with all those calf tattoos? Who saw those, pets? My Miniature Schnauzer just loves your Celtic cross calf tattoo! Why were so many people who obviously didn’t do yoga – “Irish yoga” notwithstanding – wearing yoga pants? And what exactly are yoga pants? Extra long biker shorts? Extra tight Hammer Pants? And perhaps most importantly, why did everyone look so much like an eager cocker spaniel? Love ME LoveME LoveME LoveMEloveMEloveMEloveME the eyes of these shaggy, needy creatures pleaded. But who were YOU and why did YOU feel so unfulfilled? Staring out of the Wexner Center’s wallwindow, Ghost was struck by an overwhelming sensation of sameness, especially on the inside. Without inwardness, appearance is all and calf tattoos are the verbose statements of character. Imagereality is our interiority now. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche cautioned that if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you; the longer we stare vacantly into images, the longer Imagereality’s vacancy stares into us. Imagereality hollows us out. Empty/Emptiness: that was a good way to describe Ghost’s feelings towards Annie Leibovitz. He did not dislike her work. How could he? Her photographs were beautiful images of beautiful people. But Leibovitz’s entire leviathan oeuvre was completely ignitionless. The question every image must answer is: Who gives a damn? Leibovitz’s answer to this question was obvious: her images are cultural documents. As such, they are the provenance of Cultural Studies, and as Ghost had learned from reading Walter Benjamin, Cultural Studies is an exercise in empty/emptiness.

At first glance, the connection between Leibovitz and Benjamin appeared bizarre, but upon further reflection, it made perfect sense. Benjamin had been a cousin of Hannah Arendt’s first husband; when the young couple moved to Paris in 1933, Benjamin befriended the young philosopher; after Arendt relocated to New York City, she befriended a young Susan Sontag; of course, Susan Sontag – and her crotch – eventually befriended Annie Leibovitz.

The more Ghost contemplated The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the more he began to see Walter Benjamin everywhere in Leibovitz’s photographs: posing in blueface next to John Belushi, standing diminutively next to Wilt Chamberlain, roostering on stage with the Rolling Stones; but more than anywhere, Ghost saw Benjamin in Leibovitz’s images of bodybuilder/actionhero/governor/buffoon Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his imagination, Ghost saw a shirtless Benjamin smoking a cigar while astride a white horse, skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, nakedassing around a hotel room, and wearing a snaptight blackspeedo while flexing his intellectual muscles. Hasta la vista, Vichy!

Cody J. Boston, Walter Benjamin Flexing, 2017

 

 

1 Drinkwater word: (adj) Any word that attempts to describe something so obvious that it renders description impossible.

 

Scott Navicky is the author of 3Essays on Imagereality (Montag Press, 2018) and Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2014). He attended Denison University and the University of Auckland, where he was awarded an Honors Master’s Degree in art history with a focus on photography theory. His work has appeared in Chicago Literati, HYPERtext Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Necessary Fiction, ZO Magazine, Chaos + Words, and Loveliest Magazine. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio.