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Tearing Free

A daguerreotype, a picture made with the world’s first practical photographic technology, can’t survive the experience of being looked at unless it is framed under glass. Removed from the frame, the ephemeral image can be wiped off its metal backing as easily as a blackboard is erased. But the crystal that protects a daguerreotype is really an emblem of the barrier between any photograph and its viewer. Separated from us by something transparent yet impermeable to sight, faces that have been translated into images show themselves dimmed and dulled as if by a time-absorbing glass. In this stereograph from the studio of Mathew Brady, Representative Oliver S. “Pet” Halstead seems imprisoned in the historical decor of his image.[1] We peer in at him but we can’t get ourselves past incredulity. How could Pet have dressed like that, posed like that amid billowing curtains and massive books, been what he was without a smile? Like the light in a lamp, Pet shows himself to us only so long as we don’t break the glass and try to touch the apparatus inside.

But the idea of lamplight comes to our minds in different ways. I’m under the impression that the English word “lamp” communicates the sense of a simple on-or-off state, but the French equivalent of “lamp,” réverbère, incorporates in its name a technical reference that communicates an idea of light not as a state but as a process. A réverbère is a street light containing a reflector. The light of a réverbère radiates from its source, echoes back from the reflector, and only then exits through transparent panes into the aether.

Reflecting, the lamp brings into existence what Villém Flusser calls a magic: “a form of existence corresponding to the eternal recurrence of the same.”[2] Read through the filter of the term réverbère, the reflecting and re-reflecting light seems to do to itself what it does to objects in the class of images that deconstructionists call mise en abyme and advertisers call the Droste Effect.

That is, the illuminated object within the image is partially replaced by illumination itself. Reverberation reveals itself to be a double mode of making visible: part radiation from diode or filament or flame, part reflection. The reflection reaches the eye microseconds after the radiation, rendered historical by its delay en route. By acquiring trace elements of time, it has been contaminated, enriched, and converted from a simple magic to a mixed magic. In the réverbère, light volleys among reflecting metal and transparent glass until it slips free of its defining enclosure, mingles with other lights, and ceases to replicate its original range of spectral reference.

Of course, a large part of the spectral record consists of the trace of the original.

You are looking here, for instance, at the online record of an image moderately well known in the history of photography. The catalog of England’s National Media Museum labels it “Woman on a beach, posing with a Felix the Cat puppet” and links it to other data. With the Museum’s helpful assistance, I can enrich my understanding of what I’m looking at by pasting the photograph into one or another album of cultural history. The woman’s hat, for instance, probably indicates that the photograph was taken in about 1930, and someone who knows the history of photography might be able to get specific in the same way about the man’s camera. The cartoon character Felix the Cat, too, has a Wikipedia page to himself, and pages devoted to the history of his collectibles. Backing the scope out from Felix to his milieu, a historian of social class might be able to deduce something about social codes and the training of the codebreakers who get the Linnaean joke about Felix’s schoolroom alias, Felis catus. But all I can know of the schoolboy in the image is the image. There is no institution to teach me his name in the way that culture has taught me Felix’s name and history has taught me Congressman Pet’s nickname. Unlike their pet, the stranded pair with their paraphernalia can’t be imagined outside the immediate circumstance of their image. We’ll never relearn what their carrying case held at that instant on the sand. Felix is part of a living history repopulating itself day after day outside the picture, but within the picture the bipeds obey only image’s rules, not history’s.

But even though I can’t know the image, I can impose on it. After I intervene, some bits of the detail trapped in a camera circa 1930 appear imaginable again, as if they had been moved back within the sound of waves and the feel of damp English sun. To effect that removal, all I’ll need to do is make a few technical adjustments. “Adjust resolution, brightness, contrast and saturation,” I’ll command in the language of Photoshop. “Remove color cast,” I’ll command in the language of one of Photoshop’s Nik filters. Having forced the image back into conformity with a stereotypical understanding of the term “black and white,” I have almost created an illusion that some beings that I’ve been writing about in the past tense have returned from extinction. It’s almost as if I’d persuaded Nurse Droste to change into a bathing suit.

But yes, of course: “The choice of the ‘object’ to be photographed is free, but it also has to be a function of the program of the camera” (Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 36). Because Nurse Droste can’t be sent home from the computer to change, I too have to keep playing with the keyboard. Whatever I see of the man with the camera is still only an accessory attached to another camera. I am not imagining the man with the camera; I am only looking at his picture—and, as Pablo Picasso began realizing at about the time he began mapping an African mask onto the face of Gertrude Stein, looking at a picture is not the same thing as looking at a picture of. Trying to look through my Photoshopped representation until I can detect somebody “real,” I am as stupid as the relatives of the Spanish soldiers that Picasso once told Gertrude Stein about: the ones who thought they could look through a sheet of photosensitized paper and see a man on the other side.[3] From a different sheet of photosensitized paper a different man seems to aim a camera in my direction, but the unenclosed, unglassed-in air between the image and me holds him and whatever purpose he has at a remove. Nowhere except in what Flusser defines as the apparatus can the picture make connection with the human. Outside the apparatus, in the landscape of toxic Supersites that is photography’s environmental legacy to the United States, the image glows toward me but cannot touch my face with warmth.

A moment ago you looked at another reverberant image. It once seemed to mean no more than the words it said about itself, to itself and its faithful cupbearer: “Droste’s Cacao, NETTO 1/10 K.G.” Now, though, the passage of time has rusted and dented that meaning into a fiction beginning “Once upon a time, if ever.” The fable has begun to contaminate itself with footnotes and exceptions. Once upon a time, perhaps, we could think it meant only something purely allegorical, such as “The theme of mise en abyme,” but now it has also begun to mean something R-rated such as “The theme of memento mori.” But something hopeful about this particular memento is that its damage is limited to the extra-imaginal and the pre-conceptual. Only this particular tin bears this particular trace of the passage of time; only this particular tin has this particular history. Likewise, once upon a time during or after 1930, something like the process of damage intervened in the photobiography of a couple on a beach and added a datum unique only to it.

The datum is a tear in the document’s upper right corner. It has inflicted harm on the record in two steps: first stripping away some of the print’s image-bearing emulsion but leaving its paper ground intact; then destroying the rest of the corner, paper and all. Everywhere else the record retains evidence of what looks now, in its restored state, like a partial biography of a man, a woman, and a fuzzy toy. But of course we’ll never be able to return the biography to a non-fictional state. All we’ll ever again be able to read of it will be the part that begins “Once upon a time” and then ends. The tear on the page translates for us what transcriptions of ancient texts sometimes say in their dead language: desunt cetera, “the rest is missing.” We’ll never be able to understand it, any more than we’ll ever be able to see the face of the boy in the lapping water below the tear. But that tear comes to us as the trace of something that is understandable, even if it’s understandable only as a hope that something once must have been there. In his poem Der Schuh des Empedokles, Bertolt Brecht, writing as a Communist, realizes that hope in a vividly sensual image of a shoe that has escaped destruction in a volcano. It is the material; it is the real that always survives:

Der aus Leder, der irdischer

(“the leathern, the earthly”).[4] But at a corner of the boundary between this picture of the dead and my hope that I am alive, something has been torn away. It reminds me that the rest of the material is going too.

Now that I’ve been reminded, my English-teacher impulse may be to quote something elegiac. Because the negative of this photograph is almost certainly gone, all that survives of the beings on their beach is a single damaged relic, one that also (the damage reminds us) is losing more information month by month as it deteriorates under the glass of its vitrine. But because it has been seen before now and thought worth remembering, it is no longer alone under there. Outside the glass-bounded space there now subsist images of the image. To see the image under curation, juxtaposed to a caption card that asks us first to see it but then to interpret, is to understand that we are see something reverberating light not just back into itself but outward too. The image under the glass and its multiple translations outside the glass have a complicated relation to each other. Each depends on the other for whatever significance it may communicate, and the glass can never admit us to direct contact with the image. All of it that we can see, we see with light which has managed to escape the réverbère.

There isn’t much of it, it can’t be bright, and the black-and-white shadows that it casts are blurry. In the blur, I still don’t know how I could ever read to the end of the story of the man and the woman and their Felix. But I think Photoshop and the librarians of the National Media Museum may have changed the angle of a reflector a few degrees from inward to outward, from image to text, from reflection against time to transmission through time.


Notes

[1]“Halstead, Oliver S. (Pet) M.C.” Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/brhc/item/brh2003000067/PP/. Adjusted for contrast and blemish removal in Photoshop.

[2]Villém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Anthony Mathews (London: Reaktion, 2000), 84.

[3] Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1984), 14.

[4] Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems, trans. H. R. Hays (1947; rpt. New York: Harcourt, 1971), 138-143. My translation.

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