A great deal of contemporary photography has revolved around the theme of absence and presence — an antagonistic albeit inseparable twosome that has informed photography in two ways.
In general and theoretical terms, photography is the representation of an object that is no longer there, or that is not there what it once was. And for this reason melancholy has been in photography from the start.
In a more particular, material way, the tangible object, namely, the print in the form of a piece of matt or glossy paper, tends to be forgotten in favor of the image that our mind discerns on it. The print is a transparent presence to our imagination, yet given to the agreement of our senses.
Any reflection on photography leads us through a series of mirrors down a corridor of fears and wonders where illusion and reality echo one another in an abyss of alternating facets.
One of the worst disgraces of our time is no longer knowing how to live in familiarity with the dead. In bygone days, the presence of the dead was sensed everywhere, not so much as frightful ghosts but rather as advisors consoling and accompanying us in our daily lives. The here and the beyond were separated by indistinct boundaries or rather by a whole land where the two mingled. Thrust back down to the level of reality as we are today, we feel ourselves separated from the world of death by a razor-sharp cut as clear and inexorable as the one that separates the photographic image from everything that surrounded the object or person photographed. We collide with death but the shock produces no echos; it is no more to us than absence through and through. Or rather, death is no longer a prolonged intertwining between nostalgic presence and haunting absence, each softening the other. It is a brutal, radical opposition between the reality of being and the pit of nothingness.
Photos also grow old and die, more or less quickly; even those that have been set in the hard smoothness of enamel. One wonders whether humans make funerary monuments with the vain aim of postponing the evidence of death or, just the opposite, for the sake of being more deeply imbued by it at the sight of crumbling stones. It is a custom among certain peoples to give their dead successive burials. After the first burial, the presence of the dead (that which ethnographic literature awkwardly calls the “soul”) remains close for several months or years. On the occasion of the second funeral, the defunct officially and definitively passes away into another realm. The medallions on tombstones can be regarded as a discreet, implicit development of this rite, and through them the 'lost beauties' die twice.
The rampant, ineluctable presence of decaying matter acts to confirm and deepen the person’s absence. A body decomposes there for the second time. Yet, whereas the gaze was the first thing the dead women lost, here it is often the last thing that lingers after the rest has turned into crystal and lichen.
Their gaze sinks into matter, receding without an echo, as the beauty of flesh gives way to another beauty, that of the grain of stone and of the cracks due to rain and wind. The image's material presence is no longer transparent; increasingly it draws attention to itself and the habitual illusion of recognizing someone fades. Photography begins to work in a way that is just the opposite of its usual functioning as a material which unleashes the imagination but to which one pays no heed.
And as it does so, the part played by the imagination deepens in a different way. The used, worn surfaces, photographed in turn, lose some of the roughness of their relief and gain in vibration of light and shadow. The blacks cease to indicate an alteration, and evoke the clear depths of the night. Darkness amounts to infinite spaces, and the spots of mineral dampness that destroy the flesh tones become like constellations. We have left the crystal plane for the realm of stars. The fading faces take on a cosmic dimension, as vast as the night sky, and their gazes, still filtering through, span as great a distance as the light of long dead stars.
A long time ago a poet said that the reflections of trees and grass were like the dreams of slumbering water. But between the roughness of the altered stone and the crystal darkness of the suggested night, between these two forms of returning to mother-nature, the faces of the 'lost beauties' remain irremediably closed on the enigma of their thoughts. Their laughter and their tears are no longer of this world.
Nonetheless their innerscape can still lend itself to our imagination.
If there is a question that should never be asked in life, it is, What are you dreaming of? since all are entitled to keep their thoughts secret. The best possible form of communion in such situations is to begin dreaming as well, by the other's side but in one's own way. As the landscapes appeared on the photographic paper, in one of those moments when reality seems so eery and so lovely that it seems to open onto another universe, Xavier Zimbardo believed that he had found the inner worlds of his beloved.
Each one of them has the happy or strange vision that she took with her into death. Each has her hidden land. Each has her double in space and light.