Prince and Avicii-composite

Above: The last known photos of Avicii (top) and Prince. Credit: Muscat Hills Resort/Carver County Sheriff's Office.

Last Things

This week what seem to be the last ever photo-images of Prince were released (by Carver County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota). Also this week, the untimely death of twenty-eight-year-old Swedish DJ Avicii was widely reported, with photos emerging that were also taken a few hours before his body was discovered.

Writing in 1931, German theorist Walter Benjamin noted that when we look at this type of last photos of someone who has died a violent or untimely death, there is a tendency to scrutinize the image for some scrap of evidence of the known-to-be-forthcoming event (we apply our hindsight to the photos). Benjamin described this way of looking as a search for a "spark of chance." Searching for a spark of chance tends to make each viewer scrutinize as if a police detective (or a private investigator if you prefer). Benjamin noted that this effect is photo-specific--you cannot do the same detective scrutiny with a painting since it is not a neutral reliable source; a painting or a drawing is not a document in that what is depicted is already mediated by human agency. (In the 1980s and 90s, postmodernists used to write this as "always already" meaning: unavoidably so.)

When confronted with such a piece of visual evidence, a detective is looking for something, anything, which--through experience and talent--seems wrong, does not fit, is not quite right. Strikes him or her as notable, awkward--incorrect.

In the case of the picture of Prince, the image seems to tell us a lot about his relationship to prescription drugs: the haunted expression; the striding so purposefully into the doctor's surgery--on auto-pilot; zombie-like. The man seems lost--ghostly. As if already dead. And it seems appropriate that the photographer is a machine without agency (CCTV) taking a photo of Prince as he would see himself in an out-of-body-experience (up above, but close, looking down). The photo seems to add evidence to the thesis that Prince was a chronic drug addict at the end.

In the case of Avicii the photo-image appears shows evidence of the endless glad-handing and meet-and-greets that the DJ often complained about having to do all the time. His forced smile seems to say everything we need to know about the ceaseless obligations that can dominate the daily life of a celebrity.

The danger, or hazard, with such hindsight interpreting, is, of course, that it can tend towards fallacy: "a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound arguments; the notion that the camera never lies is a fallacy (ODE)."

(21 April 2018)