To Look Lifelike in a Photograph One Must First Pose as if Dead

Jess Stoner


To photograph is supposedly to extend remembrance. Some say this is a form of reverie.

I want to take a photograph of myself looking at the photographs of everyone I've ever fucked. 

Some says this extended remembrance is false. That photography blocks memory, creates counter-memories that are as ugly as they are untrue.

I want to take a photograph of myself looking at the photographs of everyone who ever fucked me over. 

I want to know what remembering them looks like.


Normal grief means emancipation from the bondage of the dead, means restoring the living to the world in which the dead are missing, means the formation of new relationships.

It's not like I have the bondage of herpes from any of these. The days when their absence was a presence are long past. The days when their abscess was a presence are not so long passed.

In my post-relationship-mortem reverie there is still sometimes acute grief: the kind that cannot be discussed. Only written as fiction.


I threw a lamp during a fight with this one because it was all I could think of to say.

Newspaper photo-editors insist we resist the lure of visual mayhem; they believe when we look at the photograph of a corpse we need competing points of focus: for instance, the broken lamp, the presence of the emotional bystander. Because the physical presence of the corpse torments.

When I look at this photograph of him, I don't see the photograph you see. I see me sitting on his lap, singing a fairytale with the Pogues on Christmas Eve; I hear the sounds of him stirring his rum and coke with a certain finger; I wonder how his mother is doing; I think of how I thought we'd play Van Morrison's "Caravan" from The Last Waltz to end our wedding and we'd say "radio" the wrong way Van does—"rah-dio"; I hear the screaming that brought the cops to my back door on Thanksgiving. Newspaper photo-editors should know better: memory is the emotional bystander, it obliterates the photograph; it translates the visual of the photograph into an every-sense-mayhem.

The dead body, the relationship that is no longer, becomes so other in a photograph that  it becomes animate. The corpse cannot become a rug. A board game left on the floor to walk past. Maybe nudge just to watch the Scrabble match end in defeat for all involved. A photograph of people in a relationship before it has ended certifies that the relationship in the present is alive as a corpse. The living image of what is dead. Like the effortless nursing of ignorant plants. Like how there's an entire history of breath in a photograph of an ex. Like how what was forgotten can become a remembrance extended into perpetuity.


Here's another former lover: Jeremy Bentham. This one left notice upon his death that he wanted his body to be taken apart to aid the learning of medical students. He wanted to be made for display. This was his "further uses of the dead for the living." He wanted them to preserve his head, but the students didn't have the stomach. They could never get it right. They took his parts apart in public. Put hay inside him. I wish I had been there. To watch them replace his heart with barley. It's true he carried around, in his pocket, the glass eyes he wanted inserted into his dead head when the time came. I often felt them when he got hard in public, all three things pressed against my thigh. 

The students who messed up on his head realized it didn't have the facial expressions they wanted, that it was "decidedly unattractive." This is a form of reverie: the bastard and his high-waisted pants and lower-front-gut. His friend Lord Brougham said the likeness was "so perfect it seems as if alive." My revenge: in death the man who left me is just as unattractive as he ever was.


In my basement is the literate projector, a contraption I invented that translates image into text. In my basement I stop myself from licking what I spilled on an envelope seven years ago and find a photograph inside.

There he is. He'd won fifty dollars on a scratch off, his hands gripped around the ticket. Instead of that day, I'll think of the pulsing cheek zit he had when I tried to end it. Except on the television he muted when I started to speak, we learned that the Columbia exploded. So we stopped breaking up to think of the families of dead astronauts. 

I'd never before been resentful of the attention given to disintegrated space shuttles. That's not true. I once wrote this in a notebook: "and you cared so much when the Challenger exploded / I wished I was on it."

It is true: it's not the photograph we see when we look at photographs. Without them, we'd be just like the old Kodak advertisement: "He showed pictures of his children while I had to talk without snapshots--I couldn't seem to find much to say."

Like every line ever written, and every photograph ever taken, what I mentioned before was a lie. I wrote "and you cared so much when the Challenger exploded / I wished I was on it." For a different reason. 

I feed the day he was lucky through the literate projector to make it silent, to bury his image in text. 

It reports afterwards only: this man, the inspiration for your broken ankle, you made him pancakes, took him hunting.


I think about how conversations with this one were like empty calories. I think about how I got his issues of Popular Science stolen from the library wet when I read them in the tub in a respite from the rain. I think about when I almost left and stuffed what I owned in garbage bags. I think about the note I left him: "When we're not smoking cigarettes, we're not friends." I think about how I thought when I left him I would never dream again of snipping bigfoot's toenails. I think about how much I wanted to say, "No I haven't read Catch 22. Go to hell." I think about why I don't remember him saying, "Seeing you is like finding five dollars in my pocket when I'd been collecting pennies to pay for cigarettes." I think about how I don't remember him saying that because he never said that. I think about how I never took a photograph of the city where we lived, San Francisco. Because it is a terrible place. I think about the way his voice hid underneath the bed with the unfinished knitting. I think about how much I disliked his brother who threw Scrabble pieces and didn't believe me when I said, "Sometimes a col is just a valley." I think about love like the hair of the dog. I think about love like scissors in my left hand. I think about that city of microclimate torture where only one promise was kept: my umbrella will break in the rain. I think about when he said, "When the moon is new it gives less light," and how I should've said, "But it has never. Not once. Rained on the moon."


Turns out some people hate photography because it doesn't reproduce the "unique existence" of the real life that happened in real life at the moment the photograph was taken in real life.

I emailed my sister to let her know that, should she be amenable, I wouldn't mind if she posed for photographs with my dead body. I only asked that she do her best to not make it look like I had a double chin. She never responded, and when I went home for Christmas and asked her what she thought about it, she said the email was probably sent to her junk folder and anyway she wasn't interested.  

"Where would I hang that kind of photograph?

"That's why it's so perfect. It can go anywhere." 

"But what if I don't want it to?"

Because I get defensive quickly, I told her that I didn't think she'd style me well anyway. What does she know about caring for curly hair? And she'd probably spitefully put me in ill-fitting pants.

"People are going to ask me who you are. And I'll have to correct them and say who you were."

I reminded her the photograph didn't have to have a caption that would indicate my demise. In a caption, "it is information we want, not elaboration of the obvious." I reminded myself that the caption is a form of control, is why I created the literate projector: because its translations are objective. Except I built it. I am beholden to what it writes. The literate projector puts into words things that never promised the possibility of translation.


We think photographs provide information. Here is a former lover giving a conference paper on bumblebees, standing in front of a projector where the title of his presentation can't be seen. No one has ever taken the temperature of a bumblebee. We only think we know what it is. 

Photography, some argue, captures too much information to function as memory. It obeys the rules of creative non-fiction: everything is malleable.

I should tell you: I never fucked Jeremy Bentham. I only thought about it. I always wanted to do it in a panopticon. 


All I want is to look at a photograph of someone I've fucked and feel indifferent.

When you look at this photograph, the only story it tells is that three people didn't look at the camera. It is better this way. You can't know what we had done before. And what we did after it was taken.


The only thing I can say about this man is that I'm going to put this photograph of him in the toaster.  I am going to put it in the microwave with a fork and hope it explodes.


Some argue that photography makes the real physical duration of the thing in the picture obsolete. Whether we were together for six days or 18-months, it doesn't matter in the photograph. Because it recreates the pre-grief past in the present. 

The subjects of painted portraits grew into them; they had to sit still for so long they became the image of themselves that was painted. This is why they look waxen and dead. Their heads held up by mechanical devices.

Yet if he looked handsome the day his photograph was taken, he will be handsome forever. Meanwhile I can only hope he got fat. I can only hope he doesn't know that I did when he finds that photograph of me he promised never to show anyone.


Sometimes I think this is the real question of photography: what deserves to be reproduced? Certainly not what I wrote about this one:

Cocksucker cocksucker you're stupid
green hat you're not the breeze
in the trees you are certainly not
the breeze in the trees believe it
you love me less than you can bench press

If Susan Sontag is right: "to take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged," then maybe I'm fucked because maybe a little bit of what makes us look at photographs is that we want things to be as they were. The back-to-the-future stasis a photograph creates is an anathema to the present.


This is a photograph of me. Because before I met him I was a virgin. That text is cancer to an image. 

The literate projector does more than translate: it transcribes the body. Which is why I won't put him and his cat through it because it might say something like: why did you waste your hymen on that? Which is why this is the only way I know of ruining these people. Fuck everything you just read: let me paint you a picture, would you please?