Keeper of The Hearth (and Critical Mass!)


Photolucida is excited to award 25+ copies of the newly published Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph to Critical Mass finalists this year! At least 25 finalists will be awarded a copy of this critically acclaimed great new monograph in response to the work they entered in Critical Mass. We can’t wait to send these out at the end of the summer when finalists are determined!

Cover image: Bill Jacobson – Thought Series #2571, 1998
Forty years ago, the French literary philosopher Roland Barthes published his small book Camera Lucida (La Chambre Claire) – an ode to photography, death and his beloved mother. In his book, Barthes describes a picture of his mother as a child sitting in a winter garden. He found the snapshot shortly after she died, leaving him melancholic about her loss, but reflectively grateful as well. The book is illustrated with several photographs, but the picture of his mother is not included. Like the mystery of this missing photograph, Barthes’ intimate writing draws readers in, and masterfully examines the two interpretive axis of studium (denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph) and punctum (denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it). In the end, Barthes presents a case for photography’s seemingly intrinsic relationship to both memory and death.

In 2017, artist and educator Odette England was living in Harry Callahan’s house in Providence, Rhode Island, utilizing his former darkroom, working on her PhD dissertation and reading Barthes’ writing. She was inspired to start a project based on The Winter Garden photograph – aptly titled The Winter Garden Photograph Project and she knew she wanted it to be collaborative. She invited more than 200 photography-based friends and colleagues – artists, curators, writers, historians – to contribute an image or text that pays homage to Barthes’ unpublished snapshot. Odette received a spectrum of responses to the idea – including a variety of processes, mediums, vintage/found photographs, and newly-made photographs. Stereo photographs, Polaroids, contact sheet clippings, backs of photographs, photographic murals planted in fields, shredded photographs that morph into  sculptural form. Some of the photographs had accompanying stories. And thus, Keeper of the Hearth was published (Schilt Publishing, 2020).*

Vintage Image: Collection of SARA MACEL

Sara Macel: I do not believe it is hyperbole to say that this photograph contains the story of my entire existence and is probably the reason I became a photographer. To quote Barthes: “It exists only for me.”

You see, the bride’s name is Anne. She was my father’s college sweetheart and my mother’s college roommate.  This photograph is from her wedding to my father in 1970. Anne died during childbirth five years after this photograph was taken. A year after her death, my father married my mother, the bridesmaid in the reflection. And five years later, I was born.

For my mom, this photograph functions as the Rosetta stone to her life: unknowingly waiting in the wings to marry Anne’s husband to raise Anne’s daughters as her own, and to become my mother. For me, this photograph exemplifies photography’s inescapable connect to death and the role photographs play in re-imagining our pasts in search of meaning. And yet, it haunts me.  

Contributors ask: What comprises memory? What comprises truth? What is subjective, what is objective? Many voices weigh in both visually and through bits of creative writing: Rememberances of the ultra-sound image of an unborn child. A significant quote from Sigmund Freud. A newspaper clipping from the local police blog accompanies a photo as the title: “Disturbances: 12:27 a.m. – An out-of-control teenage girl at a South Amherst home was calmed down by police. She was just frustrated with her parents.” Even a polite letter of refusal to participate in the project is published – and it totally makes sense and makes one re-think the entire project. Viewers of the book can pull forth personal associations, identify with specific images, and work backwards if one likes – it is dense with layers to slowly pull apart and re-visit. The contributor index at the back of the book has one making name/image associations based on educated guessing.

Here is Odette England in conversation with J. Sybylla Smith – they talk about the development of the project, making space for each image, the difference between a photobook vs. an anthology, and the evolution of the book’s layered and specifically amorphous design process.

  PHIL CHANG – Winter Garden Unfixed, 2017 (M+B Gallery)
MARK KLETT – First Photograph, September 1952 / 2017 (Courtesy Henry N. Klett Jr.) 
ROSALIND FOX SOLOMON: Remembrance. Salvador Bahia. Brazil, 1980. (Bruce Silverstein Gallery)

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph (Schilt Publishing, 2020).Foreword by Charlotte Cotton, essays by Douglas Nickel, Lucy Gallun and Phillip Prodger.  Design: Cara Buzzell. 320 pages, approximately 200 images.