The Exquisite Corpse? by Emily Nonko

In a photograph my image exists outside of my physical body but does my body still live in a photograph? When applied to the photography of dead bodies, specifically crime scene photography, these questions take an interesting turn.

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How to consider the space captured in a photograph, and what can we consider truth within an image? In a photograph my image exists outside of my physical body but does my body still live in a photograph? What a photograph captures is undoubtedly a truth—a scene that once existed in a certain space—but how do we take into account the photographer’s intent, or the pose we assume specifically to be photographed?

When applied to the photography of dead bodies, specifically crime scene photography, these questions take an interesting turn. The physical space in crime scene photography, while a part of our mass media, also exists as myth or imagined event, as the viewer rarely experiences these crime scenes in reality. A normally banal space is transformed by the presence of the dead body—the space becomes evidence, every detail is important to cracking the case. And yet the photograph captures the scene too late: the remains and effects of the actual root of the photograph, the murder itself. While we can look at a normal photograph with “the knowledge that this subject will someday die,” as Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, the crime scene photograph confronts us with that death head on.

Author Henry Bond discusses these issues in his book,Lacan at the Scene (MIT Press, 2009), analyzing crime scene photography using the technique of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Bond doesn’t dwell so much on the medium of photography as he looks at how photography allows the viewer to perform a unique, if limited, psychoanalysis on the murderers themselves. The murder photograph becomes doubly inscribed—on one hand, the photograph visually speaks for itself, but Bond attempts to find the pathological in the visual, and seek for “even a complete inversion of the most obvious reading.” Bond does his analysis with the belief that, “The unconscious of the visual—specifically in terms of the documentation of human activity—may be recognized as a residue that is always an index of a thought or thought pattern.”

In true psychoanalytic fashion, Bond picks apart individual crime scenes—categorized as either perverse, neurotic, or psychotic—with an impressively detailed analysis dedicated to each image. In the perverse crime scenes, Bond writes on a murder’s fantasy brought to life: “The perverse are motivated to murder by their fantasies… they murdered to make happen what they’ve seen over and over in their minds since childhood….” And from the perverse crime, this attention that the pervert seeks through his murder, Lacan’s concept of the Other comes in. The Other is the onlooker of the crime, the authorities who deal with the dead body, or even ourselves, as we gaze in on the scene. And so the photograph creates an interested relationship between the absent pervert/murderer, the body as means to perversion, and the Other who is drawn in by the perverse crime itself. And so the audience (us) shares with the murderer this “horrifying secret.”

While the book admirably focuses on the minute details of each photograph, attempting to pull the mind of a murderer out of a black and white photo, Bond does not grapple with broader questions concerning the medium of photography, or as Slavoj Zizek characterizes it in his introduction: “the weird status of the camera’s eye.” While Bond ponders the absent murderer, we’re left with the voiceless, and yet eternal, bodies in the photograph. In his introduction, Zizek brings up the viewer’s relationship with the murdered body: the viewer becomes a spectator of an event that took place in their absence; the photographed body becomes the spectacle of viewers they never anticipated. And yet, the uncanny status of the body (and our relationship to it) is never resolved; Bond does not spend time on the personal politics and ethics of why we’re drawn to look. (Luc Sante, in his short essay in his crime scene photography book, Evidence, writes more on this. And Susan Sontag devoted a book to it, Regarding the Pain of Others, but her analysis falls somewhat short in her refusal to submit herself to the reality that we are drawn to looking at photography of painful things.) Lacan at the Scene ultimately presents a complex dynamic between both psychoanalysis and medium of the camera, the way that photography permits the viewer to delve into both the murder’s mind and the victim’s corpse, the psychological as well as the corporeal. You don’t have to be an expert in Lacan to follow Bond’s argument, but I would at least recommend that you approach with an appetite for the gruesome underbelly of crime scene photography.

Lacan at the Scene is out now from MIT Press.

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