- In Looking Back One Learns to See: Proust and Photography by Mary Bergstein
It takes resolve to add one’s voice to the vast corpus of studies and reflections on the place of photography in the work and thought of Marcel Proust. In In Looking Back One Learns to See: Proust and Photography, Mary Bergstein shows genuine determination to offer her own perspective on the topic, in response to thinkers from Susan Sontag to Brassaï, from Stephen Infantino to Jérôme Thélot and more recently, Aine Larkin. Of course, it would be a cumbersome (perhaps impossible) task to be exhaustive, which may explain the absence of critics like Dora Zhang or Jean-Pierre Montier. Admittedly, Bergstein, a cultural historian, proposes to approach the question of Proust and photography less as a literary critic than as an anthropologist looking at photography as a cultural system.
Beyond a rather expected argument that “Proust was deeply involved with various kinds of photographs, photography, and photographic ways of seeing in his life and work” (21), Bergstein presents a well-researched volume, enriched by dozens of illustrations, many of them in color (the quality of which warrants praise for Rodopi). One of the main strengths of the book comes from the author’s power of synthesis and clarity. Bergstein brings forth a trove of information and swiftly enables the reader to get a sharp sense of the stakes at play in the golden age of photography.
The first chapter on Photography and Memory expands on the somewhat convoluted title (the origin of which is explained in the Preface), invoking philosophy (through Bergson, of course) and psychoanalysis (Freud) in order to engage with the question of latent or unconscious memory, stemming from Walter Benjamin’s concept of the discovery of the “optical unconscious” through photography (37). Chapter Two, “Photography as Cultural Archive,” provides an insightful exploration of Proust’s collection of images, from books on art, history, and travel, to personal postcards. Through this visit to the writer’s “imaginary museum,” readers come to envision the author’s elaborations of many tropes, places and figures constitutive of A la recherche du temps perdu, from Balbec to Venice, from churches to [End Page 160] Giotto. But an otherwise engrossing experience awaits in the next chapter, where Bergstein excels at walking us through Proust’s exercise in studying photographs of individual people “for clues as to their social origins and moral characters” (91). This is the occasion for an enlightening journey through the development of medical and police photography, especially with the techniques (and ideology) developed by Alphonse Bertillon, at the apex of the obsession for physiognomy, or by Charcot, to name only two of the most infamous examples. The Belle Epoque’s fixation on the Other substantiates Bergstein’s move to address, in Chapter Four, figures of alterity defined as “Jews, Orientals, and Ghosts.” Beside the oddly brief chapter on Odette, this is the section that might lead to relative disappointment inasmuch as it is more descriptive than analytical. The grouping of these widely different cases of Proust’s attraction to “Orientalism” or “exoticism,” in its widest conception, could have called for a sharper theoretical stance. Bergstein’s statement that “nowhere was the imaginary Orient more present than in spirit photography around the century” (156) stops short of justifying this eclecticism. The last chapter, however, makes for a gratifying coda. Invoking the most influential artists in Proust’s creative reflections, Botticelli, Vermeer, and Leonardo, Bergstein showcases her most personal critical stance in suggesting the latter as the main source of his inspiration. After stressing how Proust’s knowledge of these painters stemmed mainly from access to photographic reproductions, the author offers an interesting take in her comparison of Leonardo’s techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumato with their equivalent in photography, proposing eventually that we see Proust as a “Modern Leonardo.”
Overall, Bergstein’s essay represents a pertinent historical approach to photography as a cultural phenomenon, and offers a variety of insights into its influence (and its limitations) on Proust. Some may...