Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. Henri Cartier-Bresson.
We're all familiar with, and guilty of, the suppressed groan or eye-roll the moment someone's photo album emerges from the basement or Flickr slide show arrives in the Inbox. A fascinating disconnect is the distance between the urgency of photos for their owner and the disinterest in the trapped viewer. What a disinterested person is saying, without realizing it, is that beyond aesthetic or historical value these photos have to be made to matter to me, especially if it's a series of your family's trips to Ocean City in the mid-70s. Cartier-Bresson is sentimentalizing the photo's inability to time-travel, to age in a manner that moves the image into the future concurrently with our shaping memories. Once an image is committed in a frame, the magic trick commences: the image is static and immobile, and it moves and shifts. A thing in a photograph can vanish twice: first into faulty memory, second into civic progressivism, i.e., the wrecking ball. Language can retrieve it, though, by placing the vanished thing in a larger narrative context — not simply nostalgia or sentimentality, but history, or an essaying of the valuable, ever-present mess between having and losing. Make that vanished thing matter by linking it with all vanished things, with the woods, the buildings that replaced those woods, the people in those buildings, the people who replaced those people in the buildings, the bigger buildings that replaced those buildings. The revived photo becomes dimensional, bulging, humming with all that it's now holding.
The magic of photography is metaphysical. What you see in the photograph isn't what you saw at the time. The real skill of photography is organized visual lying. Terence Donovan.
What I'm trying to say is that language tells the truth, or reorganizes the truth, in a way the image can't. "That's not what I saw at the time," we claim, yet the photo says otherwise. Who's telling the truth here? One thing Donovan is arguing is that the photograph assembles its contents in deceiving ways; I'll add, but only with memory's OK. How does the photograph lie? In lots of ways: I don't remember that; where's what I remember? There it isn't. Donovan may be describing the happy accidents within a shot's composition; the arrangements between or among figures blessed by a certain slant of light that's as unpredictable as it is welcome. But: "the magic of photography is metaphysical." That's the good stuff, the magic again. It's the narrative's job to bridge the when of the photo with the now of the skeptical gaze, to decode (to tell on?) the photo's organized visual lying, to enhance metaphysics with even more metaphysics.
Take these two:
Who cares, right? Well, I do. Both shots are of University Boulevard in Wheaton, Maryland, a half mile mile from the house in which I grew up. That clicking sound you hear, if you're still here, is a bored someone navigating away from this page in haste. I don't expect you to stay because these photos have intense sentimental value to me; I've got to earn your interest. The photos above seem dated to the late-1960s, early-1970s; I don't know the photographers; I discovered the photos at a Facebook group page devoted to Wheaton. Although the second snap is inferior in terms of quality, I prefer it, for the slight perspective shift westward and thus the reveal of the grainy News Stand: my second-home during adolescence, a vital stop during my allowance walks where I'd sift among knowable and unknowable ingredients: Topps baseball cards; comic books, Chery Smash sodas, dirty magazines, the vague menace and intimidation of adults. The shop is long gone now, and I notice this with dismay each time I visit my parents. When I came across these photos recently, I was startled — not because I hadn't seen such a clear view of my favorite block even in my mind's eye, but because someone else had stood where I once had, impossible! Vain, I know. That someone else can prize the same image you do, from a slightly different vantage point in time and space — there's your metaphysics for you. I've written about this block before (here and here), essayed its fading tattoo, and hope now that your eyes won't glaze over a picture of an anonymous row of shops in Suburb, Somewhere. I won't lie to you; it means a lot to me.
In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it. Susan Sontag.
Language in memory rearranges posed elements in a photo and tells a different story, the one which tens of thousands of people cross the stage to narrate, exit right, exit left, the one where even the extras in the background have vital contributions, "remember when?"'s that lift like scented mawkishness but drift back down as real knowledge. Language in memory tells a story where the set never changes and never looks quite the same, where doors open and close on a random news stand and a man walks out, and a boy walks in, and nothing's the same again.
Photos of University Boulevard in Wheaton, MD via You Know You're From Wheaton, MD Because...