The Sound and Feel of Photographs
by Elizabeth Edwards
Photographs, quite common-sensically, are always explained in terms of the visual. However, arguably their effect, and thus meaning, is not contained solely in the visual but in the embodied experience inherent in the social use of photographs. Photographs are not merely looked at- they are handled, caressed, stroked, kissed torn, wept over, lamented over, talked to, talked about, sung to, written on, exchanged, displayed and performed in a multitude of material ways; all of which are stimulated by the visual but cannot be explained wholly by it.
There has been increasing concern over the way in which the primacy of the visual in Western thinking about photographs have suppressed their sensory and emotional impact. The increasing awareness of the materiality of photographs, and the exploration of oral, tactile and embodied ways of thinking about them is part of a broader response to concern about the way in which the senses have been marginalised in a mind-body dichotomy. Thus thinking about photographs is becoming increasingly inflected with phenomenological concerns, a 'being-in-the world', saturated with intentionality, inter-subjectivity and existential immediacy. Whilst this possibility of sensory knowledge is emerging in a number of disciplines at present, from neuro-physiology to archaeology, work in anthropology has pointed to an awareness that different cultures have different hierarchies of the senses and different regimes of embodiment in the world. Thus in Mimisis and Alterity Michael Taussig argued the necessity of rethinking the term 'vision' in relation to other sensory modalities and Chris Pinney, in Beyond Aesthetics, developed the term 'corpothetics' as "the sensory embrace of images, the bodily engagement that most people... have with artworks".
In our 're-corpolisation' of photographs I want first to consider language and sound. Many commentators have noted the integral relationship between language and the 'language' of photography. However the problem has been seen largely as semiotic, while the embodied act of speech in which photographs are enmeshed is largely ignored. Martha Langford, in her analysis of Canadian photographic albums Suspended Conversations, positioned series of photographs in terms of the oral in and around them - the narratives they engender. However it is possible to extend Langford's notion of the oral dimension of the photographs by exploring voice as active, sensory, and embodied rather than in formal terms. In everyday use, photographs are spoken about and spoken to - the emotional impact of the image articulated through forms of vocalisation to the extent that spoken and seen cease to be separate ways of understanding the image. The oral is not simply the verbalising of content,- 'this is how the street looked when I was a child' - 'I remember that dress - my aunt gave it to me' - but rather the way in which photographs have dynamic and shifting stories woven around and through them imprinting themselves and being played back repeatedly through different tellings, as they are performed through the spoken or sung human voice, telling stories to an audience, formally or informally.
But the sound around photographs is not confined merely to 'writable' words, there is also sobbing, laughing or the production of melody. Likewise, extending our idea of the oral beyond the linguistic notion of discourse, places photographs in the embodied experience of the sound of voices, spoken or sung, in rising and falling rhythms, tones and volumes. Watching people turn the pages of a photographic album and vocalise their story will amply demonstrate that these are not single voices of linear narrative but a polyphonic dialogue. The rhythms of the voice are crucial as different qualities of sounds demand different sets of responses from listeners, who adopt appropriate modes of response, elicited by the teller from his or her audience: for instance, laughter, shakes of the head, the clicking of tongues or sucking of teeth. The ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has described the flow of sound as "The flow of poetic song paths [which] is emotionally and physically linked to the sensual flow of the singing voice... A fusion of space and time that joins lives and events as embodied memories"
Sound, of course, communicates directly and immediately through hearing. Hearing forms an embodied porous boundary between the external and the internal. As many an installation artist has realised, hearing implies listening, an intentional engagement with sound. Consequently, the heard sound of the oral draws the photograph deeper into the world of the perceiver and their social relations, reinforcing and moulding its visual apprehension. The power of this is perhaps gauged through the sound metaphors whicli gather around photographs. It is not unusual to describe historical or found photographs as 'voiceless' or 'silent', the 'voiceless' photograph signifying perhaps political disempowerment. For example, an exhibition of Plains First Nations photographs in Canada Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery (1999) proclaimed on its website that "photographs can speak, they can whisper or shout" but they are also described as voiceless: "Many photographs... are silent. When individuals, events or other details are not known, photographs do not have voices".
Responses are not necessarily ordered, but multi-layered and dynamic. Photographs allow people to articulate histories in interactive social ways which would not have emerged in that particular figuration if a photograph had not existed. Photographs literally unlock memories and emerge in multiple soundscapes, allowing the sounds to be heard and thus enabling knowledge to be passed down, validated, absorbed and refigured in the present. Thus the oral entanglements of photographs render them truly multi-vocal.
Within this there is a strong tactile or haptic component in oral expression of photographs because very often persons are in the presence of one another to communicate. Stories are woven around photographs which are experienced phenomenologically as they are held, passed from hand to hand and caressed. Touch is in many ways the most intimate of the senses, and perhaps the accompaniment to the silent contemplation of the photograph. It registers the body to the outside world physically. Touch gives solidity to the impressions of the other senses - it connects people to things. Thus touch on the photograph mediates the presence of the subject, it confirms vision as the 'real' is defined through the combination of touch and sight: for instance, when photographs, perhaps an image of a deceased family member, are held, caressed, stroked. In this, perhaps for a moment, touch transfigures the indexical into the real. One only need think of Victorian photographic jewellery, often containing hair which absorbed the warmth of the wearer's body - almost reanimating the subject. Ruth Finnegan states in Communicating: "Human memory is extended and embodied through our tactile as well as our visual or auditory experience. Something of a commemorative function can be performed through the handling of familiar objects [such as photographs]... symbolic tactile contact between humans through external artefacts is yet another way in which human beings extend their experience beyond the here and now into the longer ranges of the past".
However photographs are not simply touched, they are enmeshed in a fluid continuum of touch and gesture. For instance, when photographs are viewed in groups, bodies touch, leaning together over an image, hands brush as it is passed on, giving a sense of the social. Proximity brings into play embodied, non-verbal channels of communication - facial expression, gesture, even smell - all of which contribute to photographic meaning in that they create environments for the affective experience of images. As I have suggested, touching is one of the most expressive gestures which both links the personal, idiosyncratic and context specific and frames the pragmatic content of the oral image, marking the story. Gesture co-exists with speech, to the extent that the gesture and the spoken utterance are effectively different sides of a single underlying mental process. Even small movements reinforce both voice and image and thus narration, making it more vivid and revealing the speakers' conception of the discourse. Now obviously gesture like other sensory forms is profoundly cultural and so generalisation can only take us so far, but it is essential that we see photographs as embedded in gesture just as they are in sound. This link between body, gesture and oral narrative has, of course, been widely recognised by oral historians - it is part of the performance. So it is equally important to recognise that the material presence of the photograph will elicit specific gestural and haptic forms which shape communication. The fact that touch and gesture become so important in the unspoken relations with photographs can be linked back to the nature of the photograph, for they constitute embodied responses to its indexical quality.
Touch and gesture bring us back to the social relationships of photographs because they demand the immediate bodily presence of interacting participants of which the photograph is one. The experience of the photographs, their meaning and impact cannot be reduced merely to a visual response but must be understood as a corporal engagement with them as a bearer of stories in which visual, sound and touch merge. The interpretation of, and through, the senses points to the way in which photographic meaning becomes a collective, material experience revealed through gesture, experience and performance. If touch and sound are defining characteristics of visiontin relation to the social use of photographs then we should not neglect the material, and thus the sensory, in thinking about photographs. This applies equally to the embodied experience of space looking at the gallery wall, the visceral quality of projection in a darkened room or the photograph of the absent, silently kissed and caressed. It is perhaps time to consider whether we should extend our thinking about photographs beyond the visual and to explore the ways in which to understand photographs not only with our eyes but with our bodies.