The title of this X-Files episode that I am using to explore some ideas about death and photography, which both illustrates and embodies them, comes from Greek mythology: Tithonus was a human loved by the goddess of the dawn, Aurora. She begged the supreme god Zeus to grant her lover eternal life but forgot to ask also for eternal youth, thus condemning him to an immortality that would carry with it aging and perpetual dread towards prolonged life. In Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name, Tithonus laments:

Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither …
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
… this gray shadow, once a man…

Using loops created from the episode, the connections between the idea of the "eternal return" and photography-as-death are explicated. In the final scene shown here, the conceptual culmination of photography and its blinding flash as a manifestation of the abyss of Jacques Lacan's Real reveal this space as a potentiality for propelling a singular desire for life – FBI Agent Dana Scully's – , as brought into force with the lack of becoming and desire of the protagonist Arthur Fellig. The interlaying of the film clips with the text are designed for you to play the first three loops as you read the text which follows it. The last scene, as instructed, is meant to be viewed in its entirety without accompanying text.

The very last words we hear spoken in this episode are between FBI Agent Fox Mulder and his partner Agent Scully as she is lying in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound after being shot by another FBI agent.

She says to Mulder: “I don’t know what I was thinking… people don’t live forever.”
Mulder replies: “ No, I think he would have, I just think that death only looks for you once you seek its opposite.”

This episode is about photography, theoretically and historically. It’s about a photographer, Alfred Fellig, who is uncannily right there to “take the shot” of someone dying; first it's somebody in a terrifying elevator mishap, then a heart-attack victim, and then someone who gets hit by a truck. We see their deaths through his eyes as he sees them through his camera’s lens from an objectified and mediated distance. Theory connecting photography to death is embodied in this episode quite literally through the actions of Fellig who, as Scully notes mid-episode, “seems to know an awful lot about death.”

Susan Sontag theorized in her groundbreaking work of 1977 On Photography that:

[T]here is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects… [T]o 'take' a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

The character of Alfred Fellig is a direct homage to the real-life 1930’s New York City newspaper photographer Weegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig: “He was the supreme chronicler of the city at night. He was the only one that would make it to a crime scene before the cops”. The fictional Fellig shares this predatory instinct that Sontag wrote of, in his case the prey being death itself. The people who he photographs dying are indeed treated as objects, mediating for him his relationship to death. The Film Noirish 1930’s mise-en-scene of this episode, as seen in the clip provided, emphasizes the coexistence of shadow and light, darkness and illumination, life and death… the old fashioned blinds and filing cabinets an anachronistic blurring of past and present.

Here at the quiet limit of the world,
… this gray shadow, once a man…

The fictional Alfred Fellig’s various names throughout his 149 plus years of life are also homages to the history of photography and a blurring of fact and fiction: Henry Strand for the real-life Paul Strand, LH Rice for Jacob Riis, and Lewis Brady for Matthew Brady.

Sontag’s concept of photography-as-appropriation, as being about ownership and thus control, is revealed in the language surrounding photography: “taking” and “shooting”. Fellig is trying to capture death as it itself “takes” someone, so that he may perhaps be taken as well via the proximity to death that he thinks the camera affords him since his immortality is, as Tennyson’s Tithonus laments, “cruel”. Yet the distance created by the mediation of the camera cuts him off from the presence – and present – of what unfolds before him, thus keeping death at bay; he is stuck behind the camera and thus unable to realize that, as long as he chooses to experience life vicariously through the camera, his damned immortality will continue.

Roland Barthes, writing in his seminal work Camera Lucida (1980), was exploring his response to photographs, why certain ones moved him or animated him, and why others did not: "I wanted to explore photography not as a question but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think" (p. 21).

He came up with the term "punctum" –taken from "punctuation"– to refer to points or marks or wounds: cuts, stings, specks or pricks; a visual detail within a photograph that elicits from him an affective response: "A photograph's punctum is that acccident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)" .... "attracts or distresses me,"....."a certain shock"... "lightening-like" (p. 27).

"Lightening-like", flash-like. This episode uses the flash on the top of Fellig's camera as just such a punctuating mechanism, especially in its use of the ominous sound of the battery warming up when it is turned on, this high-pitched signal that someone is about to die, an auditory punctum and, just as the mechanical whirring of the shutter being released is emphasized, highlighting what Barthes referred to as “the noise of time” (15).

Photography is also about loss and what Fellig has lost is his desire for life, thus, as Mulder inferred in the quote from the end of the episode, death will therefore not seek him. He is caught in a tired notion of time as circular, barred from an eternal return which would require him to value something to return to. Instead he is defining his life through a cycle of identical habit, as opposed to a Deleuzian or Nietzchean conception of repetition as the pure form of time; repetition as that which differs-from-itself and thus embodies a becoming, a time that allows for repetition to become anew with every return, a force of creation as opposed to the stasis he appears to be caught in.

Fellig does not become, he stays the same, as evidenced here in the sameness of his images across over one hundred years. To quote Deleuze from his book on Nietzche (1962): "The subject of the eternal return is not the same but the different, not the similar but the dissimilar”

Photographs have been thought of as “the return of the dead,” so if the photograph is of someone who is dead, are they doubly dead?

In Jay Prosser’s book Light in a Dark Room (2004), the photograph is a revealing of Jacque Lacan’s psychic register of the Real, a realm without language or boundaries, and thus incapable of expression or representation. It is only through ruptures or tears in the fabric of our life within the symbolic order that we are ever faced with the Real’s coexistent state; it is a space of pure affect and often returns unexpectedly to us as traumatic breaks. Barthes punctum is akin to Lacan’s Real, the inexplicable response one experiences in the presence of certain photographs, the emptiness they open up, the abyss of meaning they signal.

A flash of light that blinds you opens you up to the abyss that the Real is, what cannot be accounted for, a blind spot in knowing.

As you will see in the following ending scene which pairs Scully with Fellig that for Fellig it is only through his relation to Scully and her utter insistence on inquiry as a form of desire, and thus a force of affirmative life (something inherent in her character throughout the X-Files and played out through her devotion to her religious faith) that he is able to finally see an escape from his darkness and immobility; death appears to him without the mediation of the camera. A reprieve and, perhaps, an ethical act by way of his choice.

"I do know more about photography than you do". Fellig uses photography and its adherence to death as a vehicle to escape life, to escape living, through all of his painful decades.

"How can you have too much life", Scully asks. When the life lived is one that lacks creation, becoming, celebration, than "too much" is literally too much. Fellig's initial choice of avoiding death and wishing it upon another when stricken ill with yellow fever was his cutting, his break from a life that would have included death. His last act , as seen here, afforded him another choice, to take death from Scully and claim it as his own, breaking the viscious cycle of a life not worth living.

copyright: gayle gorman

presented at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association, 2006.


Barthes, Roland (1980). Camera Lucida. Hill and Wang: NY.

Deleuze, Gilles (1962). Nietzche & Philosophy. Columbia University Press: NY.

Prosser, Jay (2004). Light in the Darkroom: Photography and Loss. University of Minnesota Press: MN.

Sontag, Susan (1973). On Photography. Anchor Books: NY.

X-Files: Tithonus (1999). Director: Michael W. Watkins, Writers: Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan. Ten Thirteen Productions/20th Century Fox.

play loop: Fellig trying to capture death, various noir mise-en-scenes:
play loop: death-as-punctum, the still photographs of death with time-as-punctum, "Fellig's" photos as impossibly historic:
play loop: Fellig as Strand, Rice and Brady, forever recurring:
play SCENE: Fellig faces Scully's life force and makes his choice: