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.
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
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.
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.
One day the pioneer modern dancer Ruth St. Denis changed her clothes and underwent metamorphosis into an event. During the time leading up to that success, her body and her closet full of cloth had had separate histories, but now they were adorning each other in a single aspect of forever after: history itself, history large and one. Within history, Ruth had become a read chapter. Thereafter, in penciled words and photographic images, she set about compiling the chronology of her body’s triumph, and the New York Public Library’s Denishawn Collection is now custodian of the corpus. It is 949 chapters long, and this is one of the chapters cataloged in 1904 as Radha.
Because what remains of Ruth is a history of a dancing body, its meanings are a flow which changes from chapter to chapter, and reading a chapter-to-chapter translation is a matter of understanding how clothes and the body keep changing each other. See, for instance, how much this Radha clothesword has changed since the day in 1906 when it was written.
“Wriggler” wouldn’t be what we say these days — not now that ways of talking about Ruth St. Denis have been codified and made canonical. But of course no translation, no matter how contemporaneous, can ever represent complete synonymy. Even in long-skirted 1906, barefooted didn’t stand merely for the shock of flesh suddenly realized to be naked.* A rendering capable of justice to the whole of partially garbed Ruth’s swish and sway might have been better written as something like outfit. In the language of outfit, articulating itself fabric by fabric, a body expressing itself by means of cloth might be understood as saying, I change and I will change forever, always fashioning new bodies for the next clothes-hangers over. Among the technical vocabularies capable of describing such a flow of meaning in 1906, one actually was a Linnaean binomial: Awfully artistic. Utilizing that, The World’s curator of dance pinned wriggle to his page about Ruth and characterized it as a looping around the wriggler’s name.
Then somebody else turned the page, and on a different page there was revealed a scrapbook inventory, this one not pinnable down by doodle but already pasted into place. On a sheet of dark paper, some of Ruth’s body’s parts (“jeweled hands and feet”) were now exposed separately to the light which had once fused them into a single grace. On the glass of a photographic negative, Ruth had been seeable as a whole. Wholly self-explanatory to anyone with memories of his own body, she was fully comprehensible in any of body’s languages. But on paper, pasted to a substrate in the mode of a dismembered and de-completed set of positives, Ruth’s isolated hands and feet could only be read — and read only as an analytical treatise representing dissociated thought and the disintegrated self.
During the instant before change, Ruth’s body in its first costume must have filled the entirety of Ruth-space with wriggling, gem-shimmering light. But then it stilled itself within the narrow space allotted to it for a pose, passed through the camera’s lens, and became the silver halide trace of an outfit permanently smoothed down upon dark paper. Unlike body’s nonce-wriggling, however, outfit’s stillness remains on record. There in its still remainder we will be able to look up the nature of outfit, representing forever after what can no longer be seen.
On a different page, a different body remains: a body of words set down about a teenaged girl named Rose who once raised to her lips a death-bringing vial of iodine. The world’s first photographs were creations of iodine and silver bonded by light, but no light had been allotted to Rose. The rags she wore were once described but never pictured. Between the covers of Ruth’s history, the Rose chapter is read-only and in the dark. Any light that may fall upon it will have to originate from within the text, as a reflection from silvered Ruth. Like the silvery photographs in the Denishawn Collection, Rose’s image in the mind has been separated from flowing time and stilled in a single aspect. But a photograph’s stillness can be exchanged in memory for a memory image of unphotographed life moving in its flow, and Rose’s unseen stillness can’t. The instant that the Rose of unpictured text exited her courtroom, entered her mental hospital, and became an orphan of the living but also unpictured, the plot of her no longer readable story stopped moving. We’ll never know how it turned out. And Radha is only to be known dancingly.
* “What matter if the baser minds put their programmes before their eyes and announced that the brown feet of the whirling dancer blended into the tints above the anklets too realistically for the legs to be clad in tights? What matter if the movements of the torso below the short jacket divulged every undulation of the flesh?”
With thanks to “On the Road: The Woman and the Car (1909),” Public Domain Review https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/the-woman-and-the-car
Afterward, the snows of yesteryear have ceased to be sharp-bordered flakes and ceased to be little. At some time in their past they seem to have gathered themselves into a single body. We remember that as a shape and also as a feeling within. We seem to believe, now, that it wasn’t cold to the touch.
Prince, have a care for the down-drifting white crystals modifying the dark. You are the warm body among them, and they serve for your life.
In large letters, his muse inspires him to despair. Wishing is futile, sing her lyrics, because even under high tension his brain will accomplish little. His city is New York, the year is the year of The Waste Land, and the choir giving voice to its libretto of events is named The Lonesome Million.
But the fine print will deliver doubled Peter to hearty laughter and constant protection against all the troubles of the world. All he’ll need in advance of that is whiteness, 75¢ a month, and facility with the etiquette of the word thus.