The Taste of the Archive
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The Taste of the Archive

À la sauvette

The man stepping out from behind the curving metal is looking away, his head slightly tilted back in exhilaration or relief. The displacement of his gaze gives the photograph an air of the illicit: the surreptitious exposure of one caught unaware at a moment of vulnerability. His hair is immaculately coiffed, his double-breasted suit jacket buttoned, which only serve to draw attention to the incongruity of his hands still zipping his fly as he steps out of the public toilet. At the same time, there is a certain insouciance to his attitude, for he seems well aware that he has crossed the threshold of the urinal: he is deliberately daring us to look. In the photo, we cannot see past his hands, but that imagined opening is echoed by the space between his legs and by his parted lips in a manner that seems to capture in a rigorous interplay of forms a broader insight about the pissotière as a construction unique to Parisian street life. This toilet is a “convenience” designed to provoke as much as to assuage, in a disturbing confluence of the shame of private male bodily necessity and the conventions of public display.

The photograph is dominated by iron, as though the toilet were a rampart or barricade, and yet its predominance emphasizes its porosity: the features designed to ventilate the edifice—the fleurs-de-lys cut-outs distributed at eye level, the open roof and shin-high gap at the base—ironically seem to invite the stray glance in, or out. In other words, the illicit is built into the architectural form of the pissotière itself, rather than a fleeting conjuncture in this scene. The blatant joke of the photograph is its visual pun between two kinds of display, erotic and commercial. The outsized, serpentine tongue in the Krema poster (its curve reverberating in the lily petals and the elongated “l” of Le meilleur) is at once an index and a fetish, pointing outrageously to the man’s crotch while standing in for what is not there. It is only appropriate that Krema is a French confectioner especially known for licorice caramel candies whose milky sweetness conceals a sting of anise.

By the wayside

The photograph is intriguing in its own right, but what made it an object of particular fascination to me was the place I first encountered it more than a decade ago: it is the [End Page 944] single item in box 18, folder 595 of the archive of the Jamaican writer Claude McKay, conserved in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The archive provides no contextualizing information about the 7 × 9 print, which made the questions it raised seem all the more puzzling to me. Why did McKay have a photo of a man exiting a sidewalk urinal in the French capital? Where did he get it? Why did he keep it? Could he have taken it himself?

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In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously employs a Latin word, punctum, to describe an element in a photograph that goes beyond its historical circumstances, the context it alludes to or captures, to attract and even to “wound” or “mark” the individual viewer. Often it is a matter of incongruity: a belt that seems too garish or clashing, a disconcerting hand placed on a thigh. “Certain details,” Barthes writes, “may ‘prick’ me” (47). The French verb is poindre, which is somewhat less lascivious than Richard Howard’s English translation might seem to imply: as an intransitive verb, poindre means “to break” (like the dawn), “to come up” or “to peep out” (like the bud of a plant), whereas in its transitive form in this sentence, it means “to afflict” or “to sting” (in the manner one is touched by sorrow or love). If it is felt in the body, for Barthes the punctum is nonetheless an affective response; as he writes, it “bruises me, is poignant to me” (27).

Although it would be possible to discuss the photo in these terms—for me, the punctum would be the angle...