Academic festival: forever piping

That June morning in 1903, the rain that fell overnight had let up. The green of the leaves and their smell can still almost be sensed. The academic gowns, too, are a fashion that hasn’t changed between 1903 and now. In their photograph they drape the passage of time in black.

“Senior parade, commencement day, University of Michigan.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail.

But at some time between 1903 and now there occurred a break in the photograph’s glass negative, and when we look through the break we see nothing. What remains unbroken in the image is what photographers two or three decades years earlier would have called an instantaneous. By 1903, however, advances in photographic technology had made that noun (“the name of a person, place, or thing”) redundant. By 1903, everything seen could be seen at will to be in passage, instant by instant. It no longer had to be anything nameable. Whatever it was as it passed, it passed into oblivion. The function of the instantaneous shutter could now be seen to be a breaking off.

But in the part where the glass was unbroken, the passage across the glass could also be imagined as a returning with the seasons, passing away but recurring like rain on sidewalks or sun warming black gowns. And yes, you see: the piper who played io paean is still playing. Motion-blurred in his image against sharply focused ashlar and bark, right foot down and left foot up, he dances away, at least for now, from the break.