Photos by Shinoyama Kishin
In 1993 Jaques Derrida curated Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, an exhibition at the Louvre of prints and drawings featuring depictions of blindness. In the coinciding publication, he considered blindness in art and the relationship between visibility and invisibility. A drawer cannot see at the same time both the thing in the world that is being drawn, and the drawn lines on the page. “Doesn’t one have to be blind to one or the other? Doesn’t one always have to be content with the memory of the other?” Derrida asks, concluding that “From the outset, perception belongs to recollection.” Since drawing is always instantaneous, always from memory, always a gesture made in the dark – the artist must be blind in order to draw.
In the same year as the exhibition, Derrida applied similar thinking to photography, images made directly from lightness and darkness, in an essay that was published in Japanese in the journal Shincho, with the title Aletheia (a Greek word meaning something like ‘unforgetting’ or ‘the state of not being hidden’, which Heidegger in the early twentieth century used in developing his concept of the disclosure or ‘unconcealedness’ of things).
Responding to a series of black & white images of the actress Shinobu Ōtake in a photobook by Japanese photographer Shinoyama Kishin, Derrida in this article makes some illuminating observations about the dark side of illumination, and the reversibility of seen and unseen. “Visibility itself is invisible, it is thus dark, obscure, nocturnal and it is necessary to be blind to it (immersed in darkness) in order to see,” he says, and continues, “Nothing is more black than the visibility of light, nothing is clearer than this sunless night.” On the reversibility of light and dark, he comments on “the photographic ‘negative’ to be developed, the always possible inversion of the projected image, the nudity of the body unveiled by the veil itself which calls for and suspends desire …”
Attempting a deconstruction of the light-dark binary in a specific photo (showing Ōtake’s head and bare shoulders in dramatic Carravaggesque tenebrism with the English title Light of the Dark - see below), Derrida equates photography with skiagraphy – ie. ‘writing with light’ as ‘writing with shadow’ – and asks of the image, “Why does it appear not only to come out of and proceed from the night, as if black gave birth to white, but also to belong still to shadow, to remain still at the heart of the dark abyss from which it emanates?”
(The article was recently published for the first time in English in The Oxford Literary Review Vol. 32 No. 2)