Slowly, from the moon

My grandmother was born here, in Canada, in 1893. She was almost 100 years old when she died. In the course of her almost century-long life I don’t think she ever acquired a camera, but she did have photographs. At the end of her life, the last few years of which were spent in a nursing home–a nice bright place where she was allowed some of her own accustomed furnishings–there was a cardboard carton of photographs. I don’t recall seeing albums in their house; in fact, I’m certain there were none. My grandmother had about her idiosyncratic, stylish and engaging self, her own sense of order. Photographs were dropped into inlaid wooden boxes or slipped into the drawers of writing desks. Some were identified in various scripts on the reverse side, some were recognizable as family at various ages, and others, while unknown, clearly “belonged” to us. My mother took the box home. The prod of sentiment was too pointed and the box was put in the basement.

Similarly, I don't remember my parents owning a camera other than an infrequently used, inexpensive box Brownie. Photographers, evidence shows, were engaged for requisite baby and early childhood development photos. Some were enlarged and framed, some bound in booklets held by a single brass-tack assembly. Most just accumulated in shoeboxes, chocolate boxes and bedside drawers. Family living away sent some, friends printed duplicate copies of shared occasions. There were official group shots commemorating sporting events, banquets, anniversaries, tributes--all records and traces of the lives of a couple, a family, people engaged actively in the various communities that comprise an integrated, full life.  

When my parents died--happy, long lives lived in tandem and separated in their deaths by only 20 months--I was left the houseful. Packing, I now had boxes and boxes of photographs--documents of their working lives, our life as a family, their friends who they'd known lifelong, starting as teenagers. Through telling many times over, I could pick out and identify a number of them. Others were just wonderful, bright faces; athletic young men in a pyramid in a park somewhere, their girls in modest bathing suits and headscarves knotted in bows. (This would have been just pre-war or early war years.)  

By the time I was living my adult life, cameras were ubiquitous--all kinds. The photographs: Polaroids with their colour going wonky, snapshots, endless records of travel, babies, birthdays, family dinners. It seemed that any assembly of more than three people warranted a record. Boxes, leatherette albums with fold-out plastic pockets, one, it seemed, for every year. Photo-developers' envelopes, mini-albums for single events, printed cardboard boxes specifically for storing important memorabilia--boxes and boxes of photographs. After I'd closed my parents' house, I also changed my own address and these boxes moved with me. You can sort and give away good glass sealers, unworn clothing, dishes and pots, golf clubs, skis, luggage, lamps, tables and folding chairs, and be glad if someone finds utility there, but you can't give away photographs, just like that. So they moved with me and, almost one year later, rest in my basement where the movers stacked them.  

Photographs interest me a lot. I have shelves of books on the work of contemporary photographers, and studies on this phenomenon of light. I own the work of photographers I admire and, there are those boxes and boxes in my basement. When I travel I always visit bookstores. Recently I purchased a book titled *anonymous: enigmatic images from unknown photographers*, edited by Robert Flynn Johnson, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005). Drawn and bound as I am to photography, this was a perfect book. I bear no obligation to the photographs printed inside, no need to sort, remember, respond, regret, locate or assign, no need to keep, designate or weep. Without compunction I can give the book away to a friend. Floating on its paper covers, I can pole across the River Lethe unburdened by memory and the need to respond, other than with interest and pleasure.  

Graham Macphee opens *The Architecture of the Visible: technology and urban visual culture* (London, New York, Continuum: 2002), with a wonderful quote by Hannah Arendt, from *The Human Condition*. She wrote, "It was not reason but a man-made instrument, the telescope, which actually changed the physical world view; it was not contemplation, observation, and speculation which led to the new knowledge, but the active stepping in of *homo faber*, of making and fabricating." Galileo's early telescope: circa 1610; the first photographs: the 1830s--technologies that altered visual culture, after which nothing was the same. Both devices expanded vision, both subjected sight to doubts and questions. As Graham Macphee points out, while expanding our range and knowledge, the telescope also shifted our earthbound point of view, and like Arendt's positioning us beyond the earth with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, a firm foothold was lost, and the certainty that was carried with it.  

With the telescope and what it revealed, with the shift in representation to single-point perspective, with new engraving techniques where a few well-placed lines could conjure a landscape, what the senses revealed appeared to be only illusion and subject now to uncertainty. What fills the head may be dreams and illusions, but as Macphee explains on Descartes's behalf, the fact of thinking is certain--even when the subject is illusions and dreams. This is Descartes's "when the mind understands," and the confirmation of the existence of "I." Separating the soul and mind from the physical world has the following effect, Macphee writes: "This distinction reposes the question of knowledge and its relationship to visual experience by bracketing the question of vision, or the sensory perception of extended substance, and focusing attention on the operation and nature of consciousness instead." Sight is fraught and shaken. After all, if the eye perceives single-point perspective on a two-dimensional surface and is confused into believing it even for a flash second, then the eye can't be trusted.  

Where technology altered perception in the 17th century through the agency of the telescope, for Baudelaire in 19th-century Paris technology was inserting itself in a transforming and unrecoverable manner. *The Flowers of Evil* was published at the same time that the Rue de Rivoli and Boulevard Saint-Michel opened up in wide vistas and broad avenues. "The reconstruction of Paris revealed the nature of technology in a new and unprecedented way, as the capacity not simply to enhance visual definition and range," Macphee wrote, "but to reorganize the visible world." Traditional apprehension and the function and place of memory weren't contiguous now with the city's newly constructed form; the result was a misalignment between what was seen and the context created by the subject's or viewer's own history and memory.  

And along came photography. For Baudelaire the urgency of mid-19th-century urban life interrupted and disturbed aesthetic harmony; the eye was assaulted. Macphee refers to Baudelaire's salon review of 1859 where he wrote, "the whole visible universe is nothing but a storehouse of images and signs to which man's imagination will assign a place and a relative value," and where "a good picture must be created like a world." Baudelaire's emphasis would be on "created," on formal and prescriptive aesthetic deliberations mediating a visual world in need of this intervention and ministration. The camera, alas, was too much of the world, too exact in its replication and its technological inability to select out. For Baudelaire, the camera's fault, as Macphee points out, is that "the photographic image is 'narcissistic' in the sense that it returns to the contingent gaze an image of its own temporal disunity." What it also does, which is aesthetically disruptive, is provoke memory, history and expectations that are called up by their being absent from the photographic image or frame.  

Still, I love photographs and here, untrammelled by direct or immediate association, are some of the images from the book titled *anonymous* that interested me particularly. No captions, photographers unknown, assumptions frustrated--I can only look and respond. This is the first. I'm guessing from the furniture and dress that the photograph I call *Baby before mirror* is from the late 19th century. I started with this image because it's an example of photography tickled with itself. A fat baby lies on its back but turned toward the camera. It rests in a shallow basket, frilled with lace and ribbons. Baby is unclothed with a full head of hair, for a baby. Maybe eight months old with well-defined features and a substantial nose. The shallow basket, which the baby fills completely, sits on a glass-topped dresser. This is bedroom furniture. An oblong, tilting mirror with bevelled edges is affixed to the back of the dresser. Reflected in the mirror is the process made evident. Centred on its surface is a camera on a tripod. On the right, in the mirror, is the figure of a man, in profile, from the chest down. He's wearing dark trousers and a vest, which is snug over his substantial belly. Over this he wears a duster or lab coat; one sleeve is rolled back. He appears to be nudging the camera with his belly. On the other side of the camera and slightly behind it is a woman, slender waist, dressed in a pale-coloured dress with gathered skirt and long sleeves, one of which is evident since her hand rests lightly on the camera. I'd say she's about to take the photograph; I'd say she's the mother of this satisfied, quiet baby whose gaze is directed, it appears, to her. It must be summer--the woman's dress is a lightweight fabric, the baby is uncovered, naked and comfortable. Forensic scrutiny would note a sizeable thumbprint on the left side of the photograph, which shows lighter where the heat and moisture of the thumb have lifted some of the emulsion.  

Another photograph, which I titled *Space*, is both a tribute to Atget and a commentary on the temporality of photography. The corner of a street, which could be 19th-century Paris, a seven-storey building with elaborate stonework tilts in the frame from left to the image's centre. The photographer, noting the image's real subject, has shifted perspective to include a luminous, cigar-shaped blimp almost bridging the gap overhead between the building on the corner and the building across the street--a space it will hold forever. This sepia-toned image is about immanence, but not for the man in a light-coloured fedora, visible only as a bent head and one shoulder, walking beside a horse who is only a neck and two slightly flattened-back ears. Both are at the photograph's lower left edge, almost out of the frame, and neither has noticed the aircraft that glides silently by.  

Two of the photographs are poetic in their content. One I call *Telegraph* has a man standing in profile, writing a message on a chalkboard posted outside what I assume to be a railroad station. A small, just visible sign above reads "Western Union Telegraph & Cable Office." A window is lifted behind the man and through it a telegraph set is visible. The man wears a cap, a jacket, trousers hemmed to just the right length to break once over his shoe tops. His hair must just have been cut, and so carefully that it appears etched behind the visible ear and the back of his neck. He has one hand on his hip as though about to declaim. With the other he writes the poem "No. 8 1 hr. late."  

The other poem is in the photograph I name *Tombstone* because in this simple image, printed in sharp contrast, the shallow foreground is filled by grass and low vegetation, the background with shadowy trees. The near, middle ground is almost fully occupied by an elegant and simple white marble tombstone shaped with a cornice like the outline of a house drawn by a child. It reads, "Buried Here Circus Ponies. Victor. Prince. Nancy. Rosie and Squibs. Also Zebra Charlie: Burnt In The Fire Sept. 29th 1935. 'We Think They Must Have Souls.'"  

I'll close with a performance piece, a photograph I've called *Nov. 9th 1896* because that's some of what has been hand-printed on the surface. The photograph of a young man has been glued to a commercial card mat on which is embossed across the bottom in elaborate script, "Johnson Cor 12th & Grand Ave, Kansas City Mo." The photo is nearer to the top edge. The young man wears a heavy dark wool coat, double-breasted, lower two sets buttoned. The collar is turned up in an assertive gesture of stylishness. In his right hand he holds a small, unlit cigar; in his left, a hat, crown creased to form two small felt bowls. His collar is stiff and high, his pale silk tie carefully knotted. His hair is oiled and parted in the middle to form two flat dips over his brow. He has a small moustache, steady gaze and slightly prominent ears. The fingernails, which are curled around the brim of the hat, are very short and evidence slight traces of dirt or grease. Either the subject of the photograph or someone after has printed a series of brief statements on the mat around the image, intruding onto the photograph only a little and not on the image itself. They say across the top, "Nov. 9th 1896, then De Only Pebble On De Beach, then Who, and Yours With Out A Struggle," and other such notes. At the bottom, "Guy Whittaker." The photo's frame clips the hat's brim at the outer edge and this, in combination with the lettering that rides both inside the photograph and on the mat around it, have the figure stepping forward and out of the picture, as though on a proscenium stage. It is absolutely contemporary.  

Baudelaire is correct in identifying the unavoidable contingency with which photographs frame the visible.