neXos. New Perspectives in European Documentary Photography
Does He Hold Me by the Hand?
By Rebecca Sanderson
Davide Meneghello’s photographic series entitled Again He Holds Me by the Hand presents photographs from archives that could be interpreted as homoerotic imagery. In doing so, the series reflects on the potential presence, or perhaps absence, of homosocial intimacy as an involuntary record of non-normative expression of emotions and desires during a prohibitionist past. In this essay I aim to research what these photographs represent. Are they indexical and factual observations of the past? By stripping them from their pre-existing context, how has the time of the photograph been affected? Is the past relevant at all? Has the message, the object within the picture due to time and spatial passing, changed the message or intent of said photograph?
Again He Holds Me by the Hand consists of three photographic collections as well as the poem ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’ by Walt Whitman, presented in a book. The collections of photographs, all of which focus on the importance of the hands toughing, feature three different approaches and presentations. The first is a collection of what could be most simply described as ‘couples’ pictures, which seem to be private snapshots. The second cluster of photographs features a group of pictures that appear to be one image, cropped into 3 segments of the same size. This collection features men in what appears to be a range of different uniforms,. The last collection consists of close-ups of men grappling in what seems to be a wrestling match or practice. The importance of the poem ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’ by Walt Whitman plays a quintessential role to the overall experience of the exhibit. It should be noted “when a poem describes such photographs, it runs the risk of simplifying what they recorded and diminishing complex historical facts by reducing them to a mere surface details”.1 Nevertheless in this case, the poem offers context as to how the exhibit should be viewed as well as a possible sociohistorical time frame that could have influenced the creations of these photographs. In regard of the questions this essay asks, German photographer Lendvai-Dircksen offers the most intriguing train of thought, stating that “it is never the what that is decisive in its significance, but rather the how of this what”.2 That is to say that the ‘what’ has not changed, but rather, how it is regarded, singled out and exploited — in short: how it is interpreted.
For instance, regarding the collections of wrestling men, the collection of these images originally appear to have been taken in order to promote or report on the sport. These have then been singled out, in addition to being cropped and enlarged, and are now being exploited in order to visualise potential homosocial interactions. It is during this singling out and exploitation phase that interpretation of the represented gets room. However, when considering photography as a mechanical analogue of reality, all of the pictures in this series should be regarded as an index. Furthermore, when analysing the photographs it becomes apparent that they are clearly dated and old, indicative of anywhere ranging between early to mid-twentieth century. This can be assumed purely by observation of aesthetics in fashion, as well as photographic style. In other words, trace indicators of the time period these images represent. However given the lack of information about the images, merely referring to them as archival footage, further underlines this assumption of something that has been almost seemingly lost in time, giving more possibilities for further abstraction by ‘singling out’ and ‘exploiting’ them.
Taking the subject matter of the photos as the truth and therefore as index, there is a visualisation of a coincidence between representation and the proposed and presumed reality of a particular society. This requires complex formation of codes of behaviour, which in turn, are the norms that control the attitude of humans towards their particular environment or background.
To understand photography, it is necessary to understand why it is needed and how it is used. Leaving out scientific means of documentation as well as commercial approaches, the camera is best suited to revive the substance and quintessence of the object or moment photographed, regardless of the motive.3 An example of this is photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose recreated historical scenes with wax figures offer the illusion of a photograph that has been taken predating the birth of the camera. In doing so, he creates the previously mentioned, in this case illusionary, qualitatively credibility as well as ‘reviving’ the object captured.
In Meneghello’s series the potentially intimate and homoerotic touches between the subjects captured could present possible social historical difficulties that were prominent of the time. When considering the poem in this context, or even reviews of the poem, there is an evident conflict between “the desire for and confidence in intimacy” but also “the stunning lack of evidence for any such mutual understanding”.4 With no clear factual evidence, proving or disproving that the photographs capture homosocial intimacy, the true meaning of both the photographs and neXos. New Perspectives in European Documentary Photography 29 poem seems ubiquitous as well as rather a matter of interpretation. Photography offers insight to not only the world of the photographer, but also their audience, in doing so they present symbols as well as themes that are context-dependent. The images seem to have been captured within a society that appears rather urban or even mundane. The grappling men seem to be in an organised athletic group training, the group of men sporting uniform commemorating a possible excursion or meeting, and finally the pictures of couples are all of everyday life, as if almost in accordance to the ‘pragmatism and urbanization’, honing in on the American culture of Whitman’s poetry.5
Considering the limited information given, that is to say where these images come from, what the circumstances were of them being created, and ultimately what purpose they were to serve, leaves mere speculation as possibility. Symbols which can however be interpreted are the ones restricted within the pictures, and solely with sociological interpretations of today’s society, rather than the time in which image was taken. Lacking satisfactory analytical studies about attitudes and conceptions about homosexuality these remain questionable. Gestures, glances and postures in these pictures do offer a potential level of intimacy, but whether these or definitively of homosexual nature is mere speculation. In some cases it may apply, in others perhaps not, so what these images do offer is a glimpse into the past.
Henry Fox Talbot suggests that photography, rather than capturing objects located in space, fixes events occurring through time6 , which is an essential concept within the theory of photography. Gilles Deleuze states that photography creates a relationship to time, describing this “as a prehension of a prehension: a self-enjoyment”.7 That means that the present moment is not a moment of being or of present ‘in the strict sense’. Instead it is the passing moment that “forces us to think of becoming, but to think of it precisely was what could not have started, and cannot finish, becoming”.8 For instance, as the lifespan of a person progresses, it is experienced in a linear manner — one is born, lives and eventually dies — leading to the assumption that time is a strict progression of cause and effect. Yet, by means of photography it is possible to review life, or certain moments that have been captured in a non-linear non-subjective viewpoint. Thus approaching photography abstractly, it can potentially be seen as a time machine.
However unlike with a time machine, in which supposedly one could travel back and relive the events that have been captured, photography merely evokes a sense of nostalgia to those who actually experienced this specific moment in the past or have a connection to it. For those not ‘involved’, which view it without any pre-existing knowledge, history or connection to the photograph, it only suggests and implies rather than preserving incidents that have been witnessed. Be this intentionally or by chance, photography allows the viewing of times flow at different speeds.
If the collection of photographs for this series as well as the addition of the Whitman’s poem does deliver a possible interpretation of homoeroticism and homosexuality, this would be only of contextual interpretation. Academically speaking, the lack of evidence or what could be argued as potential evidence can be interpreted either way. What these photographs do offer is a window in time, to a past unknown for those not involved.. In order to make a sound defence for or against possible homoeroticism and/ or homosexuality in the presented pictures, more background knowledge as to origin and circumstances of the photographs would be needed. The images represent hands touching, which could be seen as an indicator, but lack the certainty of an index.
Baetens, J., Streitberger, A. and Gelder, H. (2010). Time and Photography. 1st ed. Leuven: Leuven University Press. Carroll, N. (2010). Theorizing the Moving Image. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. Dickey, F. and Killingsworth, M. (2003). Love of Comrades: The Urbanization of Community in Walt Whitman’s Poetry and Pragmatist Philosophy. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 21(1), 1-2. Kemp, W. ed. (1999). Theorie der Fotografie II (1912-1945), 1st ed. München: Schirmer/Mosel. Weston, E. (1924). Präsentation statt Interpretation, Tagebucheintragung (1924-1932), 66. Miller, A. (2015). Poetry, Photography, Ekphrasis: Lyrical Representations of Photographs from the 19th Century to the Present. 1st ed. Liverpool: Liverpool university Press. Rodowick, D. (2003). Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. 1st ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Sutton, D. (2009). Photography, Cinema, Memory. 1st ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press. 1. Miller, 2015, 119. 2. Kemp, 1999, 158. 3. Kemp, 1999, 66. 4. Dickey and Killingsworth, 2003, 2. 5. Dickey and Killingsworth, 2003, 1. 6. Baetens, Streitberger, and Gelder, 2010, 22. 7. Deleuze quoted in Sutton, 2009, 108.