The Assassin and the Camera

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they were haunted by an image, often an old photograph. It is a figurative and evocative expression. To say that an image is haunting is to say that the image has lodged itself in the mind like a ghost might stubbornly take up residence in a house, or that it has somehow gotten a hold of the imagination and in the imagination lives on as a spectral after-image. When we speak of images of the deceased, of course, the language of haunting approaches its literal meaning. In these photographs, the dead enjoy an afterlife in the imagination.

Lewis Powell

I’ve lately been haunted myself by one such photograph. It is a well-known image of Lewis Powell, the man hung for his failed attempt to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. On the same night that John Wilkes Booth murdered the president, Powell was to kill the secretary of state and their co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt failed to attempt the assassination altogether. Powell followed through, and, although Seward survived, he inflicted tremendous suffering on the Seward household.

I came upon the haunting image of Powell in a series of recently colorized Civil War photographs, and I was immediately captivated by the apparent modernity of the image. Nineteenth century photographs tend to have a distinct feel, one that clearly announces the distant “pastness” of what they have captured. That they are ordinarily black-and-white only partially explains this effect. More significantly, the effect is communicated by the look of the people in the photographs. It’s not the look of their physical appearance, though; rather, it’s the “look” of their personality.

There is distinct subjectivity—or, perhaps, lack thereof—that emerges from these old photographs. There is something in the eyes that suggests a way of being in the world that is foreign and impenetrable. The camera is itself a double cause of this dissonance. First, the subjects seem unsure of how to position themselves before the camera; they are still unsettled, it seems, by the photographic technique. They seem to be wrestling with the camera’s gaze. They are too aware of it. It has rendered them objects, and they’ve not yet managed to negotiate the terms under which they may recover their status as subjects in their own right. In short, they had not yet grown comfortable playing themselves before the camera, with the self-alienated stance that such performance entails.

But then there is this image of Powell, which looks as if it could have been taken yesterday and posted on Instagram. The gap in consciousness seems entirely closed. The “pastness” is eclipsed. Was this merely a result of his clean-shaven, youthful air? Was it the temporal ambiguity of his clothing or of the way he wore his hair? Or was Powell on to something that his contemporaries had not yet grasped? Did he hold some clue about the evolution of modern consciousness? I went in search of an answer, and I found that the first person I turned to had been there already.

Death on Film

"He is dead, and he is going to die ..."
“He is dead, and he is going to die …”

Roland Barthes’ discussion of death and photography in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography has achieved canonical status, and I turned to his analysis in order to shed light on my experience of this particular image that was so weighted with death. I soon discovered that an image of Powell appears in Camera Lucida. It is not the same image that grabbed my attention, but a similar photograph taken at the same time. In this photograph, Powell is looking at the camera, the manacles that bind his hands are visible, but still the modernity of expression persists.

Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, “He is dead, and he is going to die …” The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was; he is no more; and, in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.

Barthes also borrowed two Latin words for his analysis: studium and punctum. The studium of a photograph is its ostensible subject matter and what we might imagine the photographer seeks to convey through the photograph. The punctum by contrast is the aspect that “pricks” or “wounds” the viewer. The experience of the punctum is wholly subjective. It is the aspect that disturbs the studium and jars the viewer. Regarding the Powell photograph, Barthes writes,

“The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.”

In my own experience, the studium was already the awareness of Powell’s impending death. The punctum was the modernity of Powell’s subjectivity. Still eager to account for the photograph’s effect, I turned from Barthes to historical sources that might shed light on the photographs.

The Gardner Photographs

The night of the assassination attempt, Powell entered the Seward residence claiming that he was asked to deliver medicine for Seward. When Seward’s son, Frederick, told Powell that he would take the medicine to his father, Powell handed it over, started to walk away, but then wheeled on Frederick and put a gun to his head. The gun misfired and Powell proceeded to beat Frederick over the head with it. He did so with sufficient force to crack Frederick’s skull and jam the gun.

Powell then pushed Seward’s daughter out of the way as he burst into the secretary of state’s room. He leapt onto Seward’s bed and repeatedly slashed at Seward with a knife. Seward was likely saved by an apparatus he was wearing to correct an injury to his jaw sustained days earlier. The apparatus deflected Powell’s blows from Seward’s jugular. Powell then wounded two other men, including another of Seward’s sons, as they attempted to pull him off of Seward. As he fled down the stairs, Powell also stabbed a messenger who had just arrived. Like everyone else who was wounded that evening, the messenger survived, but he was paralyzed for life.

Powell then rushed outside to discover that a panicky co-conspirator who was to help him make his getaway had abandoned him. Over the course of three days, Powell then made his way to a boardinghouse owned by Mary Surratt where Booth and his circle had plotted the assassinations. He arrived, however, just as Surratt was being questioned, and, not providing a very convincing account of himself, he was taken into custody. Shortly thereafter, Powell was picked out of a lineup by one of Seward’s servants and taken aboard the ironclad USS Saugus to await his trial.

It was aboard the Saugus that Powell was photographed by Alexander Gardner, a Scot who had made his way to America to work with Matthew Brady. According to Powell’s biographer, Betty Ownsbey, Powell resisted having his picture taken by vigorously shaking his head when Gardner prepared to take a photograph. Given the exposure time, this would have blurred his face beyond recognition. Annoyed by Powell’s antics, H. H. Wells, the officer in charge of the photo shoot, struck Powell’s arm with the side of his sword. At this, Major Eckert, an assistant to the secretary of war who was there to interrogate Powell, interposed and reprimanded Wells.

Powell then seems to have resigned himself to being photographed, and Gardner proceeded to take several shots of Powell. Gardner must have realized that he had something unique in these exposures because he went on to copyright six images of Powell. He didn’t bother to do so with any of the other pictures he took of the conspirators. Historian James Swanson explains:

“[Gardner’s] images of the other conspirators are routine portraits bound by the conventions of nineteenth century photography. In his images of Powell, however, Gardner achieved something more.  In one startling and powerful view, Powell leans back against a gun turret, relaxes his body, and gazes languidly at the viewer. There is a directness and modernity in Gardner’s Powell suite unseen in the other photographs.”

My intuition was re-affirmed, but the question remained: What accounted for the modernity of these photographs?

Resisting the Camera’s Gaze

Ownsbey’s account of the photo shoot contained an important clue: Powell’s subversive tactics. Powell clearly intuited something about his position before the camera that he didn’t like. He attempted one form of overt resistance, but appears to have decided that this choice was untenable. He then seems to acquiesce. But what if he wasn’t acquiescing? What if the modernity that radiates from these pictures arises out of Powell’s continued resistance by other means?

Powell could not avoid the gaze of the camera, but he could practice a studied indifference to it. In order to resist the gaze, he would carry on as if there were no gaze. To ward off the objectifying power of the camera, he had to play himself before the camera. Simply being himself was out of the question; the observer effect created by the camera’s presence so heightened one’s self-consciousness that it was no longer possible to simply be. Simply being assumed self-forgetfulness. The camera does not allow us to forget ourselves. In fact, as with all technologies of self-documentation, it heightens self-consciousness. In order to appear indifferent to the camera, Powell had to perform the part of Lewis Powell as Lewis Powell would appear were there no camera present.

In doing so, Powell stumbled upon the negotiated settlement with the gaze of the camera that eluded his contemporaries. He was a pioneer of subjectivity. Before the camera, many of his contemporaries either stared blankly, giving the impression of total vacuity, or else they played a role–the role of the brave soldier, or the statesman, or the lover, etc. Powell found another way. He played himself. There was nothing new about playing a role, of course. But playing yourself, that seems a watershed of consciousness. Playing a role entails a deliberate putting on of certain affectations; playing yourself suggests that there is nothing to the self but affectations. The anchor of identity in self-forgetfulness is lifted and the self is set adrift. Perhaps the violence that Powell had witnessed and perpetrated prepared him for this work against his psyche.

If indeed this was Powell’s mode of resistance, it was Pyrrhic: ultimately it entailed an even more profound surrender of subjectivity. It internalized the objectification of the self which the external the external presence of the camera elicited. This is what gave Powell’s photographs their eerie modernity. They were haunted by the future, not the past. It wasn’t Powell’s imminent death that made them uncanny; it was the glimpse of our own fractured subjectivity. Powell’s struggle before the camera, then, becomes a parable of human subjectivity in the age of pervasive documentation. We have learned to play ourselves with ease, and not only before the camera. The camera is now irrelevant.

In the short time that was left to him after the Gardner photographs were taken, Powell went on to become a minor celebrity. He was, according to Swanson, the star attraction at the trial of Booth’s co-conspirators. Powell “fascinated the press, the public, and his own guards.” He was, in the words of a contemporary account, “the observed of all observers, as he sat motionless and imperturbed, defiantly returning each gaze at his face and person.” But the performance had its limits. Although Ownsbey has raised reasonable doubts about the claim, it was widely reported that Powell had attempted suicide by repeatedly pounding his head against a wall.

On July 7, 1865, a little over two months since the Gardner photographs, Powell was hanged with three of his co-conspirators. It doesn’t require Barthes’ critical powers to realize that death saturates the Powell photographs, but death figured only incidentally in the reading I’ve offered here. It is not, however, irrelevant that this foray into modern consciousness was undertaken under the shadow of death. It is death, perhaps, that gave Powell’s performance its urgency. And perhaps it is now death that serves as the last lone anchor of the self.

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41 thoughts on “The Assassin and the Camera

  1. Fascinating topic, and this photo now haunts me, too. It is so strange to look at it,his face shirt and hair, as if it was taken yesterday. The reality that we are not any different than we were then. We have been the same for generations – same afflictions, dysfunction and emotions. It’s funny how the mind convinces us otherwise through the dates lighting of old civil war time photos.

    1. Really a true haunting aspect on how a photo, which would have been taken on a casual aspect haunts many others of different mindsets and the like are disturbing. A lot must be going on in one’s head. Just look at the way he looks at the first image, ,mostly terrified by the imagery. so vivid in color.

  2. Fascinating research informs me of much regarding the attempted murders and the assassin. Chilling, and he carried, still, a viable and magnetic forcefulness–although heavily resigned as well as you note–in shoulders, chest and face. Haunting, yes. Excellent writing. Thanks.

  3. I am curious what lead you to delve into this! Didn’t know you are a history buff, and have outbuffed my knowledge of the appendages to Lincoln’s assassination!
    BRAVO!! Allanya

  4. I, too, have come across these photos and been arrested by their strange “out-of-their-time” quality. So strong is this sense, that, at first, I thought they might have been posted in error.
    Your discussion dove-tails with some ideas that I have been mulling over for some time in quite a fascinating way. A decade or so ago, I was in the habit of taking my young son and his cohorts for an annual fall trek through Algonquin Park to see the leaves and do a little hiking. Of course I took my camera. What I noticed, whenever the camera was aimed in their direction, was that they instantly, and apparently intuitively (as there was no discussion amongst themselves as to how it was to be realized) arranged themselves into a tableaux that was easily recognizable as a music video band shot, or “hip young people in a group.” seen in fashion ads. This occurred, as well, at junior high school graduation — a chance to observe many young people react to a camera! They seem acutely (and as I said, intuitively) aware that the camera represented (a perhaps indirect but nevertheless powerful) way of communicating their “selves,” and knew to take control of that interaction in a way that would have been completely foreign to my generation at that age. They reacted not to the camera, but to the people they knew would view the photos. Perhaps their behaviour could be equated to the way we instinctively modulate speech tones, or posture, when communicating directly to people in our presence.

    I have, also, been struck by the way that the camera (photos, videos, and by extension social media) has been showing up in some literary fiction of late, and seems to function as a sort of “true eye,” — a way to assess oneself without being blinkered by one’s subjective, internal self-image, or to communicate the part of oneself one considers most true or wish to be true. The self-image, has, in a way, been recognized, or identified, as inadequate. Perhaps our visual age has provided us with so many examples of times when our sense of ourselves has been in obvious error (I’m thinking of those “awkward photo sites, as well as one’s own collection of humbling images) that we have grown wary of trusting it on any level. In any case, there seems to be an increasing fascination with knowing what others see when they look at us, and then being able to adjust it to our own ends.

    Musing over your thoughts on the Powell images, I wonder if this individual, knowing he had few chances left, and obvious at odds with his own time, recognized (perhaps intuitively, subconsciously, as my son and his friends seemed to) the camera as a conduit of communication to future viewers — one that he could, in a very modern way, use to project his personality (complex, defiant as it seems to be) into the world. Perhaps that act of projection is what gives his portrait its very striking modern quality?

    The maddening thing, though, is that we can’t ever really know.

    1. Starting with your last, indeed, we can’t ever really know what was going on in Powell’s mind when these shots were taken. Consequently, I’m not really sure what to call this post. I’m certainly not offering it as a definitive statement of what Powell was thinking, I suppose it is a kind of speculative foray occasioned by the photograph. In any case, your observations are certainly on point.

      What you’ve called “an act of projection” is, I think, basically what I was trying to get at with the notion of playing oneself before the camera. And we are very adept at it; paradoxically, it comes naturally to many (as you noted). And this ease with which we understand our personality as a part to be played or an ideal to be projected strikes me as a characteristically modern way of understanding, or, perhaps better, inhabiting identity. It’s a sense of identity as a message. We can’t simply be; our mode of being is to be saying something. Identity itself becomes a communicative act.

      Well, a little more speculation anyway. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Ever seen photos of Helen Keller? Well, neither did she, nor had she any idea as to how to arrange herself. Most photos of her have her in profit–not looking at the camera, or the photographer whom she could not see.
    Powell did try to resist and subvert the process but in the end, he knew how to arrange himself as a tragic figure. Compare to oil portraits of the same period–the Pre-Raphaelites were in full swing.
    Personally, I think the colorization is dreadful.

  6. I have studied this era and find I have more questions than answers. There is also another famous shot of the conspirators being hung. This included the board house lady. The nation was quite irrational after Lincolns death and the hanging occurred rather quickly. Today they would have been put in Guitmo for years.

  7. Great read!
    I did have to click on the link to see that the photo was actually the photo you were writing about, as it does look like it is a recent photo, possibly of the author. Honestly, the gentleman struck me as having a sexy look about him. I must be a freak or attracted to killers… hmmm. Anyway…
    Congrats on getting pressed!!

  8. I feel the ‘present’ in most Autochromes.
    There is something about the colour which seems more natural than most modern processes, to my eyes at least. Nice little glass plates. Thaks for your post; you have a new follower.

  9. This is SO fascinating. Now, I would have just assumed he was a time traveller …but you did proper research and offer a really thoughtful explanation. Thanks for this. I really learned a lot.

  10. Lewis Payne/Powell has a role in the novel I’m currently writing. I came to Payne via Barthes. What most strikes me about your piece, aside from its intelligence, is how little a photograph speaks without someone to speak for it. Context, of course. On their own, photographs make for very good vehicles for any manner of theory. And no, I don’t mean this as an accusation; I feel it’s the nature of the medium.

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