Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
Not much history seems to have survived this remnant. It is a daguerreotype, apparently American, apparently dating from about the 1850s, and that seems to be almost all we know about it now. The Library of Congress’s catalog link at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/item/2014655145/ notes that the image was acquired in 2014 from a Dennis A. Waters, but Waters
was a commercial dealer, not an archivist. In any case, this isn’t one of the pictures in the Library’s daguerreotype collection that are archivally identified by name and place and date. Almost all that remains to be known about it now is almost all that remains to be seen. It is almost nothing but picture. Almost nobody except a fashion historian or possibly a medical historian could articulate a word about it now. Because all the words that were once spoken over it by the people it depicts have fallen away, it has become an abstract idea of what was once flesh-round and warm to the touch.
Consider a lens, then. It seems to be a portal through which life goes into the past and brakes to a stop.
To record any moment is to make it supreme. When a memory prosthesis (in a cave in the Pyrenees, a finger dipped in soot; on an American lawn during the Edison era, a camera) translates a momentary perception to something that can be referred to in after times, perception’s momentary allotment of time within life comes to an end and it is translated to memory and the immortal dead language of history. You could call the text of such a translation a truth.
Or at least a word: a word that says “Truth” to you about itself. You’re reading it now. It reads itself to you about what you have just seen, and so it reads to you about yourself.
I can pose. See what that seems to teach you. If I could write, I would autograph a glossy of my pose for you, and that would make you happy. It would seem to prove that during pose’s historical fraction of a second, I knew.
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.
That’s the title of my new (and free) Issuu photobook about (1) photoshopping the only known photograph of Dickinson to bring out detail, and then (2) thinking about what then makes itself seen. Click here:
Background in the dark: Anna Sewell’s 1877 horse story got its title from this poem by Edward Herbert which was first published in 1665. As you see, its subject is the philosophical beauty of the idea of blackness: the one reality (you could call it death) that remains after color (you could call that life) goes dark.
A historical technicality is that in the seventeenth century the word inaccessible was pronounced “in-AC-sess-EEBLE,” as if in French. In the last two lines, “alone our darkness” means “only our ignorance.”
And a Metaphysical witticism is that although this sonnet’s prosody follows the form’s conventional division into two verse paragraphs rhyming in an 8 + 6 pattern, the idea expressed by the paragraphs is inverted, black to white and white to black, into a negative whose dimensions are 6 + 8. Read that way, lines 1 through 6 say, “Black beauty,” and lines 7 through 14 complete the predicate by saying, “what you are is the one eternal thing.”