Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Stories, etc.

"I have confidence in my eye." 

So writes Luc Sante in "Instantaneous," a small essay in his terrific new book Maybe The People Would Be The Times, a collection of his recent magazine, journal, and blog pieces. "Instantaneous" explores the powerful allure of photographs, long an interest of Sante's. He posits a "John and Mary," imaginary fellow enthusiasts with equally keen eyes, presuming that if they were debating "Bordeaux vintages or minor Augustan poets or alternate takes of 'Koko,' we could each cite authorities to back us up, could refer to a history of opinions, could generally act as though there was such a thing as an objectively correct view. You can’t do that with snapshots, and you never will be able to do so."
The snapshot forces everyone who sees it to make an authority-free decision, and—if an explanation is sought—forces everyone to become a critic, in the best sense of that word. Everyone who looks at a snapshot can become an exemplary critic, one who doesn’t generate pull quotes or ritually invoke boldface names or rely on a mess of filters. Historically, the snapshot was a great equalizer, allowing people of all classes to make pictures, and once again it is a great equalizer, forcing everyone to think for themselves.
And yet, the one in possession of the snapshot, for whom the image holds sentimental value, the thinking is of a far different order than of someone picking up the snapshot in thrift store or an estate sale, gazing at strangers. Our family photos matter because the they tell, or evoke, or hint at stories that have undergone generations of revisions before and after the image, but are read only by the members themselves. To a stranger, the family snapshot is a riddle, or a kind of puzzle piece; there may or may not be pieces around to complete the picture. The sentiment (or sentimentality) that my family pictures produce in me is of untold value—to me, and my closest friends who may generously sympathize, or put up, with me. 

In "Other People's Pictures" later in the book, Sante explores this disconnect between the cherished personal attachment to family photos and the disinterest they provoke in passive onlookers. "If I look at my family photos hard enough I start to see them as types," he writes, "distinguishable from the great mass of their anonymous kin only by a few threads of oral tradition, of which I am the custodian. They are nothing much as pictures, really, barely worth a pause while digging through the crate for the outliers and the beautiful accidents."
If they were released from my hands they would merge into the photographic sediment—the endless numbers of dull family snapshots, inert group scenes, pro forma portraits that flow sluggishly through the low-level secondary markets of the world. Each of those is a marker, the living trace of a human who may otherwise survive only as a census entry, or not even that. We cannot discern their accompanying stories, and we can’t do anything for them. They are specters. They live in the photographic sediment as in a bardo, suspended within the world, still visible but very gradually being absorbed into the dirt that constitutes our past. 
That's my sister in the photo above. She's thirteen. She's posed beneath the maple tree in our front yard on Amherst Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland. Behind her, just in front of our Gran Torino station wagon in the driveway, is a small crabapple tree. The photograph was taken in May. 

Already your eyes are glazing over. I don't expect you to care about this image as I do, and yet I'm baffled by your apathy. Maybe you'll acknowledge that it's a pretty photo, that the trees are gorgeous (maybe you'll say "nice"), and that it captures Spring in all its glory. What I see is of unfathomably greater dimension than that: my sister's stories, mine, the history of my birthdays, which occurs in May, and of years of attendance at Saint Andrew the Apostle church, where I believe Jane is going on this day, or has returned from, the windows of my neighbor's house behind which lay the far unknown, the station wagon and memories that spool forth of long family drives to western Ohio, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, occasionally New York City. Transparencies atop transparencies atop transparencies, urgently felt, much of which is beyond my ability to adequately describe. As a custodian of this photo—and many others, as I've unofficially dubbed myself archivist of my family's cache—I hold it above the "photographic sediment" where so many nameless snapshots end up, and in my hands the photo hums, a perpetual motion machine, telling stories eons away from your capacity to understand, or to care. On a precious day that's an affront. Every day it's mundane.

No comments: