Monday 6 February 2017

Photography and Truth

Ferdinand von Schirach is a defence lawyer who became famous with Crime, a book of cases that are fascinating. His most recent book is a novel: The Girl Who Wasn’t There.

The first third of the novel is about someone called Sebastian, who grows up without much affection, though he has fond memories of a lake near where he lived as a child. The second part of the novel is about photography, in which Sebastian becomes interested, and in which he undertakes an apprenticeship. He starts to do very well as a photographer, and is offered commissions, many of which are to take pictures of women.

He doesn’t seem to have friends, and he is not very involved with women in a romantic way until he meets Sofia. He takes photographs of her, and after they have been seeing each other for a while she says to him, “You’re never entirely with me. There’s always only part of you here.” The chapter in which this appears ends with this sentence: “All he knew was that he would hurt her.”

The book then moves into some sordid aspects, about why men like to look at photographs of unclothed women, although by the the end of the book one can see some of their purpose.

The last third of the book is about Sebastian’s trial for murder, of a young woman whose body can’t be found, of whom, perhaps, he was taking photographs.

It seems as if this novel will be a detective story (a mystery) and, indeed, the murder trial to which the book leads up seems to bear this out. But whereas the typical detective story turns out to be some version of  “it was the butler who did it,” this one is completely different. it is about the relation of photography and certain kinds of painting to truth.

When we see a photograph of a woman, we infer that although the picture might have been posed and touched up, that there was someone there whose visual likeness has been recorded. But what does a photograph or a painting tell you about the person?  And what might it tell you of yourself as you look at it?

von Schirach, Ferdinand. 2015. The girl who wasn't there. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Little Brown.

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