Instantaneous

1

When photography was in its infancy, cameras didn’t have shutters. During the 1840s, when exposure times were measured in minutes, there was no need for a shutter because a second or two plus or minus wouldn’t have any visible effect on the image. Instead of pressing a spring-loaded release, a photographer would only uncap and then recap his lens, keeping an eye on his watch but also on his skylight. What timed the sitting was light dimming and brightening: light as the only live action that the image could record.

But by the 1860s, reaction kinetics were getting faster and photography was entering a new relationship with time. Since a photograph has something of the immediacy of communication of a lyric poem, its relation with time can also take on a relation with language. When the change came to photography, therefore, it did indeed come in the guise of language: by altering and amplifying an old word for a way of being in time. The word was instantaneous. It encouraged its speakers to think of time no longer just as a chronology but also as a clicking apparatus for dissecting, isolating, speaking of and then for the first time experiencing as beginnings and endings the separate realities that once were knowable only as a single current circulating heartbeat by heartbeat around and around a body.

2

On the high shelf in my closet is something that has happened to travel along with me: a Monopoly set dating from the 1950s. Though I haven’t opened its box in more than half a century, I know that if light ever falls on it again it will look not like a game to be played but a history to be studied. The houses and hotels, I do remember, are made of wood, and the tokens are made of pewter. A part of my sensorium still remembers all those as if by sight and feel and clinking sound. In the box, too, is an instruction sheet bearing rules, and on it are some penciled scores of games played in the 1950s between me and my late younger sister.

In the dark in its box, the childish penciling that I approximately remember retains meaning only for me. If I ever look at it again, it will tell me I am its last reader.

The House of the Seven Gables, chapter 12

3

Between 1920 and 1991, The Daily News bore on its masthead the words “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Diminished and dying in its second century, the former picture newspaper now publishes almost nothing but words. The images of crime scenes that once made its pages lurid in the dimness of the subway are now only LED cellphone afterthoughts. Online, however, the News’s icon is still a representation of a Speed Graphic, the huge apparatus that the crime-scene photographer Weegee the Famous used in the 1930s and 40s to record the instants when murder blood oozed thick across white pavement and was converted to monochrome black. We can no longer know life as it was before that spectral change; we can only see what happened at the instant Weegee’s magnesium-thread flashbulb stopped the reaction and transformed now to too late. The image that you read as a story is a mere trivial narrative history of what happened outside the camera after that. As it gave the story what looked like the previously latent form of a past, it entered it into the larger invisible history of crimes committed off camera. Read underground then, subjected in the dark to swayings and jostlings, it will nevertheless retain an intelligible connection to a language unchangeable in the light. Its significance won’t die and disappear. Only you will.

https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/weegee

4

Think of your life as a crime. You know it won’t pay, but you want to see how the story will come out. That will happen when the time comes for its words to file off the page in chronological order and march to oblivion.

But the illustrations may stick around for an instant. The possibility remains to be seen. Of course, the seeing won’t be understood. Because understanding is a mortal thing, seeing can never show what you were. Yesterday’s lightfall on silver halide was always gone forever. But because the instant of the lightfall originated with the mechanical click of a shutter, its trace can remain when mortal memory is gone. It can’t show what you were, but it must show that you were. The instantaneous process cut away and discarded everything except that. It’s a cold lifeless remainder, but it’s an ever after. It was “obtained in a fractional part of a second of time,” too.

Venite, adoremus

In a technical email to a friend, I typed “Exakta,” the name of a classic single-lens reflex camera.

Android’s autocomplete function decided that I must have meant “Exaltation.”

It’s to be regretted that Alvin Langdon Coburn didn’t supplement his suite of photographs for Henry James’s novels with a companion suite of photographs for William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Persistence of vision

Chekhov is famous for the effect: just before the end of one of his plays, a sound will add its wordless voice to the words’ dramatic irony. Just before the end of Three Sisters, both the actors onstage and we in the audience hear a shot in the distance, and that (we and the actors are about to learn together, a moment too late) is the sound of Solyony killing Tusenbach. Just before the end of Uncle Vanya we hear jingle bells, and that is the sound of Astrov going away forever. Just before the end of The Cherry Orchard we hear saws and axes, and that is the sound of the orchard being cut down. After the play’s context has enabled us to establish a verbal interpretation for a wordless sound effect (“That is the sound of . . .”), the interpretation turns its newly real countenance toward us and wordlessly says that there will now be no more happiness, before or ever after the final curtain.

Of course, if we’re sophisticated enough to be in a Chekhov audience, we won’t be naive enough to think the sound effects themselves are real. Of course we know they were written into the play. But because they emanate from offstage, they seem somehow to be at least as much a part of the audience function as of the stage function. If they aren’t onstage, then they’re at least partly offstage with us, down here in the dark of our offstage being where we are simultaneously experiencing the sound of the shot (what was that?) and the memory life we brought with us into the theater (did I remember to lock the garage?). A part of the mixed, impure ongoingness of memory, the sound we hear in the theater seems real in a way we can’t fully believe the actors to be. The actors inhabit a system of meaning with a “The End” at the end of it, but the sound can’t. It propagates forever.

But it isn’t just sound that propagates. History seems to impose a Chekhovian irony on certain visual artifacts too – for instance, photographs taken just before a moment of change, or taken during the change but focused elsewhere. That photograph of people smiling at their desks in an office? Little do the people in the photograph know that those desks are in the World Trade Center and the date is September 10, 2001. Or the long-skirted women in that black-and-white street scene, going about their business unaware that just on the other side of a monitor there are now, forever after, troubled young men desperate to overlook them and catch their sight of Hitler.

In its bin at Costco, the piece of cardboard holding a blister-wrapped camera is big, to discourage shoplifting. With lots of space at its disposal, the cardboard uses that space to signify that this camera, a Canon Elph 100HS, is marketed to women. Words printed all over the front of the card promise that the Elph is small and light and easy to use, and through its blister we can see that the camera itself comes in a variety of pretty colors. The card also offers consumers a look at a picture: a picture of a picture that we are to think might have been taken with a woman’s camera like this one, even though some fine print on the back of the card says it wasn’t. The picture within the picture comes from a woman’s social system, and it seems intended to remind buyers how pictures function as part of a feminine experience of the world.

See: within their pictured frame, three women sit at a table in a restaurant, eating and talking and looking into one another’s faces and laughing. This is a picture that you too will be able to take, promises Costco’s piece of cardboard. You will take the picture, you will pass it around among your friends, and then there will come, for you together with them, a moment of intimate happiness. You will have come into possession of an image that first derived meaning from a context, like a pistol shot offstage, and now reestablishes that context, over and over, one view at a time, as it is passed from hand to hand to hand, forever. Remember yesterday in the restaurant? How happy we were?

Look.

Not yet cut apart and discarded, the cardboard implores us to open its blisters and begin. At the moment you take your picture, promises the cardboard, you’ll be both director and camerawoman, you’ll be active. But a moment later and forever happily ever after, you’ll be a part of an audience, passively taking in the picture as you once passively heard the sound of Solyony’s pistol. From then on, there won’t be a thing you can do about it. Your pretty new camera will have taken in a few meaningless milliseconds and changed them to a meaning, forever.