PRINT October 1974

Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity

Time cuts down All,
Both Great and Small.
—The Bay State Primer
, c. 1800

Time is not, Time is the evil, beloved
—Ezra Pound, Canto LXXIV

HERE ARE SOME HAND-TINTED snapshots of myself, talking with a tall young woman at an imaginary party:

Time out of mind, I find myself seized, at one and the same moment, by a fit of obstreperousness and a female historian. Reasoning, more from circumstance than tradition, that all men, by their nature, desire to know, I desire of her to know just what history is, anyhow.

“Near as I can make out,” she allows, “it’s just one god damned thing after another.”

I put on a reasonable face. “Come now,” I venture, “what about cause and effect?”

“Take your choice,” she says.

“Come again?” I choke.

“Cause or effect: take your choice. Right now, during the Historical Period, causes seem to be inbreeding among themselves, engendering more of their own kind. Later on, perhaps, when life has fled matter, there may remain some residual effects. But don’t worry, it won’t happen in our lifetime.”

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” I quote, clutching vaguely at the sort of aphorism by which astronomy once managed to ally itself with biology.

“Don’t be scientific,” she replies tartly.

I paw and snort. “Change!” I bellow. “Flux!”

She sniffs. “We historians are divided among ourselves,” she recites primly. “Some reason that history began with a Big Bang . . . the appearance of humankind . . . and interpolate occasional Lesser Bangs thereafter. This school proceeds from solipsism to academic territorialism with no intervening period of maturity. Certain others imagine history to be an oscillatory machine that maintains itself in a Steady State: they leave themselves open to political cynicism, on the one hand, and esthetic inertia on the other.”

“But what do you believe?” I ask.

She stiffens. “Listen,” she replies, “the trouble with the Universe, seen from a rigorously historical point of view, is just this: no one was there to photograph the beginning of it—and presumably, at the end, no one will bother. After all, history, like pornography, couldn’t really begin until photography was invented. Before that, every account of events is merely somebody’s panting prose fiction. Have you ever read Herodotus’ description of a crocodile? It is the Fanny Hill of zoology. Nothing is presented to the senses, and so nothing can enter the mind that wasn’t there in the first place.”

She pauses to inhale deeply, and continues: "But assuming a beginning and an end to the Universe, all evidence indicates that the whole contraption is winding down like the spring in a cheap movie camera.

“Now I hope you won’t think me vulgar,” she confides, “but it seems to me that nowadays both the ash-heap and the file of photographs are constantly expanding. I suspect, even, that there is some secret principle of occult balance, of internal agreement, between the two masses of stuff. The photographs are all splendidly organized according to date, location, author and subject; the ash-heap is perfectly degenerate. Both are mute, and refuse to illuminate one another. Rather, pictures and rubbish seem to conspire toward mutual maintenance; they even increase, in spite of every human effort. Just between you and me, it won’t be long before they gobble up everything else.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” I gasp.

“We might try praying,” she suggests.

“Good Lord, are you kidding?” I gag.

“No,” she muses, “that particular prayer doesn’t sound quite appropriate; it’s much too general. I tend to favor The Modernist’s Prayer.”

“And what might that be?” I beg to know.

“We’ll begin with something traditional,” she says, "like a Pater noster, or ‘Now I lay me . . .,’ and then add to it the words: And please, God, can’t you do something about Entropy?”

That was not the end of our tableau vivant . . . but the rest of the album seems to be empty. Wait: here is a picture of my former wife and a friend, walking with a dog in the snow . . . but you wouldn’t be interested in that.

Please remember that these snapshots are, in the first place, only in your mind. After all, I may have told you no more than I want you to know. I may even have forgotten some of the important parts. On the other hand, perhaps I’ve forgotten all of them.

LET US PRETEND THAT THE compound activity of making and experiencing photographs may be examined simply as a form of human behavior. Beginning, during the presidential incumbency of Andrew Jackson, as a novel aberration, it had assumed the proportions of a pandemic when our grandfathers were infants. By now, we recognize that the photographic syndrome is congenital in our culture. While it is most often to be encountered in its chronic phase, acute cases are by no means rare; and occasional individuals exhibit the disorder in a degree that we are obliged to regard as terminal.

So we are entitled to ask, with the neo-Darwinists, what there may be in all this photographic behavior that is ‘adaptive’; that is, in what way does it promote, actively or passively, the survival of the organism and of the species? And, given that it does perform such a function, we may also ask how its ways of so doing differ from those of the venerable arts of painting, or of literature.

How, indeed, does any work of art help us to survive?

I admit that my own convictions in the matter are neither complex nor original: I believe that we make art . . . and every deliberate human activity known to me seems to aspire, however obliquely, to the estate of art . . . as a defense against the humiliating, insistent pathos of our one utter certainty: that we are going to die. Of all animals, we seem alone in our stewardship of this intolerable secret—and alone, as well, in our propensity for making art. William Butler Yeats is succinct:

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone—
Man has created death.

The ways we have found out to live in equipoise with this ‘creation’ of ours are, I suspect, encoded upon our very genetic spiral, so that we have no choice in the matter: we do not define our art (although, consciousness interposing the gift of fallibility, we believe we do) but rather it somehow defines us, as hexagonal labyrinths of wax both circumscribe and detail the honeybee.

Toward that cessation of consciousness that is to be our death, as toward a vanishing point in convergent rectilinear space, an instrument within the mind, which we might call conjecture, maintains incessant attention. Along the same axis, the instrument of memory addresses itself to a complementary vanishing point: the incipience of consciousness that first stirred, as some reason, at the instant of our conception. The confused plane of the Absolute Present, where we live, or have just seemed to live, brings to irreconcilable focus these two divergent images of our experience of time.

The impossibility of resolving, simultaneously, two incompatible systems of perspective upon a single plane, may tolerate or favor our perennial uneasiness at living in the moment, as if we were forever being dispossessed from the few certitudes of our own knowledge.

Between birth and death, leaving aside the automatic transactions of metabolism, most animals engage in only one pursuit: the more or less intricate and constant exercise of sexuality . . . which I understand to be a remarkably elegant and economical method for assuring the physical species of virtual immortality by offering immediate rewards to the mortal participants.

Between consciousness’ uncertain beginning and its equally certain end, man superimposes upon animal sexuality the pursuit of art. Seen as a recent adaptive mutation aimed at assuring mental continuity, through historic time, to a species whose individual experiences constitute a testament to the notion of disjunction, art-making appears, thus far, to be moderately successful . . . amazingly economical (as compared with its perverse imitations, like experimental science, or its unsuccessful vulgarizations, like religion) . . . although it is of vacillating elegance, and offers uncertain rewards to its participants.

This is not the time for an extended investigation of the ways in which art, or the creation of immaterial mind—and sexuality, or the recreation of carnal substance—interresonate, seeming always about to fuse in a perception that remains, inseparably, imminent in the moment of experience itself. But it is inevitable that every impassioned act or discourse must, somehow, become a part of that investigation, sharing with it an expectation of imminent revelation which is itself both the ubiquitous center and the invisible periphery of all our thought.

For whatever wisdom language holds, I would point out that our verb, to create, and our technical term for the strictly human part of the brain, cerebrum, both derive from the Latin verb creo, which means: “I beget.” And Aristotle, who excused himself some time ago, says of the gonads and the brain that they bear a functional resemblance to each other, in that both are capable of exteriorizing a form without reference to anything else. He goes on to call spermatikōtatos, “most spermatic,” the optic chiasm, which is that intersection within the physical mind where our two eyes compare notes, before writing home to their respective parents, the twin hemispheres of the brain.

THE TROUBLE WITH PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING, seen from a rigorously inquisitive point of view, is just this: no one was there at the beginning to take notes on the proceedings. Cro-Magnon man, for all his obvious charm and cunning, seems not to have had the forethought to bring with him into the world a camera, a tape recorder, or even (delight of scholars!) a Xerox machine. Of the arts, only photography, along with its prodigious sibling the cinema, has appeared during historic time; and, viewing them from outside, we seem curiously unwilling to trust the discoveries made, in all the arts, on the ‘inside,’ where their substance and implications are recreated, ab ovo, in every really new work.

For whatever wisdom language holds, it is common knowledge among philologists that languages spring as it were full-blown into life, and proceed, as time passes, from complex to simple. The most primitive languages we know are, quite uniformly, the most complicated grammatically. The utopian artifices once put forth as “universal languages” are a case in point: the oddity called Volapük, a predecessor of Dr. Zamenhof’s Esperanto, boasted more cases, tenses, moods than Sanskrit (itself a priestly invention based on Vedic). Sir Thomas Urquhart, Rabelais’ first English translator, is said to have brought forth a ‘tongue’ of even daffier proportions.

So we might reasonably expect to find, in the very first scrawls and babblings of an infant art, a map of its later typical attitudes and preoccupations, and even a concise definition of the art’s specific given task, somewhat as we discover, densely folded into a few chromosomes, all the instructions (could we but decipher them) for building a rhinoceros.

In his prefatory essay to the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature (1844)—the title itself is a stew of significations—William Henry Fox Talbot speaks of a vision that had come to him nine years earlier, at Lake Como, where he was trying to make landscape drawings with the aid of a camera lucida:

This led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass of the camera throws upon the paper in its focus . . . how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.

He goes on to call his paradoxical ‘natural images’ “. . . creatures of a moment, and destined as soon to fade away.”

The accent is familiar enough; if we substitute the elevated diction of Madison Avenue for Talbot’s emaciated echo of Keats, we get something like the opening benediction that accompanies every new Kodak Brownie:

Your camera is a magic black box for capturing precious moments that you will treasure for many years to come . . . so always take your pictures carefully, and they will come out nice.

The latter text is imaginary, and disastrously typical; it shares with Talbot’s account concerns that make up, as I shall contend, the (largely unconscious) preoccupations of still photography, to the present day.

There is nothing in the world less ‘natural’ than an image . . . with the possible exception of silence: both are supreme artifices. To the undifferentiated consciousness all the sensible world must be continuously, and infinitely, replete. The act of distinguishing an image, that is, of partitioning a ‘figure’ from its proper ‘ground’ is, if we are to believe with Jean Piaget, one of the first heroic feats of emergent consciousness. Another, and contiguous, appalling accomplishment of developing sentience is the discovery that such figures are, or at least may be, continuously stable . . . that they may persist, independently of our noticing them, even when we shut our eyes, or shift our gaze, or displace our perceptions in space and time. Upon the substrate of those two insights the infant mind erects a structure that is as intricate as the world, because, for the purposes of the animal within, it is the world.

The principles by which the sages and wizards of geomancy decree sites and vistas (and we all do that), or the reasons why the Japanese venerate a seemingly random tree, refuse to rise to the surface of the mind for inspection precisely because they are part of its endoskeleton, to which language has access only when it is, as it were, cut to the bone, and another mind, which is never precisely either present or absent, may speak through the wound as through an accidental mouth.

Disregarding minor statistical variations, the landscape at Lake Como does not change, either, any more than it is handily dissected into images. What, then, is Talbot, who has got to use words when he speaks to us, talking about? Let us examine his circumstances for a moment.

First of all, he is far from his home at Lacock Abbey, in a delectable and strange place where vicissitude may prevent his ever returning. And then, he is immersed (incompetently, or he wouldn’t be tracing his picture on an optical cheating device) in the fashionable activity of pretending to draw . . . indispensable, for Englishmen in Italy, as the piano in Flaubert’s received parlor . . . when, with no warning at all, he sees, for its own qualities and for the first time, the very thing that has been before him all along, and that has been his secret fascination: he realizes, in one piercing instant, that the ‘image’ that he had sought to make is already there. But more: the emergence of that image somehow sufficiently mimes that extraordinary moment when, time out of mind, the unspeakable, primal IMAGE became the first gift Talbot’s mind gave itself. And then: after the merest interruption, thready and insistent as the drone of the brain’s theta wave, faintly overheard in an anechoic chamber, comes the accustomed reminder of mortality.

But for one instant, attenuated to the limits of his energy, Talbot has escaped Time, the Evil. For an ecstatic moment, time is not. We may presume that Lake Como, along with everything else, persists in dropping ‘natural images,’ like ripe fruit, into the lapses of the beholder. So that it was not the banal landscape Talbot thought he saw, but the radiant sight of his own insight, that transfixed the artist in a realization too rude for language: that the ‘creature of a moment, and destined as soon to fade away,’ was himself.

He had been to a far place, after all, and wonders had befallen him, and he wanted to bring home some intelligible account . . . some disposition of sensible matter . . . that might remain as a static sign of what had been a fugitive motion. In a life doomed, by the structure of language, as the lives of most Occidentals are, to supine acceptance of history as a linear narrative, that moment on the lake must have seemed a boulder in a rapids, which diminishes neither the force of a stream nor its volume, but rather, by virtue of the local turbulence it generates, serves to measure and demonstrate both.

I imagine, then, that Talbot believed he was somehow augmenting history, by implanting, into brief incisions, new values as stable, as endlessly recurrent and irrational, as the decimal pi. Instead, his discovery . . . and its consequences . . . seem to establish clearly that there are two different sorts of perceptual time. I propose to call one of them historic, and the other, ecstatic.

But there is something that I cannot account for in any way. In 1835, Wordsworth’s dicta must have hung pungent in the air. Perhaps Talbot was protected from literature by his inherited wealth, or by his other interests (he was a mathematician of sorts, and a Fellow of the Royal Society), as he was certainly protected from Beethoven or Büchner by that widest of oceans, the English Channel . . . but we find here, in its purest form, the novel impulse to generate a work of art in the very heat of the moment of conception, and to hell with recollecting emotion, of all things, in tranquillity.

Finally, rather chillingly, he suggests that it would be “charming.” Indeed. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay cheerful about the human mind. Anyway, with nascent Romanticism constrained to a vocabulary of that sort, it’s no wonder the poets went abroad.

Your camera is a magic black box for capturing precious moments that you will cherish for many years to come . . .

We shall have to return, presently, to those precious moments.

HISTORIC TIME CONSISTS ONLY OF a past, whose chief claim to superiority is that we’re not part of it. Science proposes to lay hold upon the future by an inversion of perspective, an adequation of vanishing points, invidiously treating the future as if it were a department of the past . . . and the deception works for as long as the systems of memory and conjecture remain cramped into relative congruence. But the intellect (which is, as Descartes reminds us, one of the passions) is a perfectly elastic medium which can only accumulate stress, in disequilibrium, for a limited time before rebounding with a force that has repeatedly shattered cosmologies. We find ourselves battered by the passing shockwaves of several such explosions at the present moment.

Historic time is the time of mechanistic ritual, of routine, automatic as metabolism. It is composed of sequential, artificial, isometric modules which are related to one another, in language, by the connective phrase: “and then.” This sort of connection, like that between links in a chain, is capable of transmitting energy only under the tension of implied causality. The sentence: “Jack threw the ball and I caught it,” does not establish a trajectory, but only marks its limits, in unyielding postures carved by Praxiteles.

In short, historic time retains its credibility only so long as we each abstain from testing its assertions against our personal experience. I can believe in my own quotidian history, so long as it passes unchallenged, because the ordained tale of hours and days offers me a vague comfort; if the clock ticks, and convinces me that time is passing, then something is happening, and I am reassured in the midst of my sad suspicion that most of life is remarkably unmemorable. But the prosecutor’s opening question to the accused, “Where were you on the night of September 17th?” is one that, ordinarily, only a murderer could answer with certainty.

And when it comes to your history, I confess to utter skepticism. I can recall vivid encounters, and even whole ecstatic afternoons, that I’ve spent in your company, because they make up the warp of my own days . . . but as I watched you through my window, crossing into the park and vanishing among the beech trees, you ceased to breathe, you disintegrated . . . hastily reconstructing yourself, from a random shower of atoms, only seconds before we met, as design would have it, in the Museum, in front of Delvaux’s painting, The Echo. The same thing happened to me.

Nevertheless this fiction of historic time, which we have just refuted, at once brightens us and wears us away, like the centuries of kisses bestowed upon the Fisherman’s Ring. It even contaminates a present that we are left to embody, since, like Yeats’ Truth, we may never know it.

“I am told,” Borges writes in his essay “A New Refutation of Time,” "that the present, the ‘specious present’ of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and a tiny fraction of a second; that is how long the history of the universe lasts . . . The universe, the sum of all events, is a collection that is no less ideal than that of all the horses Shakespeare dreamed of between 1592 and 1594. . . .”

Even James Joyce, that most ardent of newsreel devotees, said that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. It is obvious that historic time, though quite well suited to the needs of matter, is a terrain too sparse to afford the mind any lasting amusement or sustenance. So we must clear out, stand aside, and enter, if we can, the alternate and authentic temporality of ecstasy. I assume that everybody knows what that is.

QUESTIONS CONCERNING TEMPORALITY HAVE haunted photographers of every generation since Talbot; oddly enough . . . for they have always been a notoriously unlettered bunch . . . a number of photographers have even written on the matter. Not surprisingly, most of the writing is pseudo-scientific mystification, synesthetic gobbledygook, or plain evasion. In a 1911 note, all of three pages long, called “The Relation of Time to Art,” the painter-photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn achieves something of a tour de force by mentioning his subject not at all, and then closes with an intriguing submerged metaphor that aborts just as it shows promise of being as fancy as any of my own.

Well, I may be getting nowhere also; what is important is the redundance of an urgent pressure to say something, as if to obviate any possible misunderstanding concerning the esthetic thrust of the new art . . . as if to repudiate, in the spasmodic single gesture of a revulsion only half-sensed, the wavering concerns of painting, purifying and reclaiming for itself those perfected illusions, spatial and tactile, which alone could arrest consciousness, and suspend its objects of contemplation, outside the ravages of entropy.

We must remember that the most serious painter of Talbot’s day was J. M. W. Turner, in whose centerless late works painting methodically abolishes perspective both geometric and atmospheric and, turning upon its own materiality with something like a vengeance, abandons all but the most tenuous claims to illusion.

On the other hand, photographers inherited, at the very outset, and hardly unawares, some centuries of hard-won knowledge of just the sort that painters were losing interest in: as much as the Renaissance, North and South, had learned of perspective, chiaroscuro and surface rendering, was simply incorporated by the lens-grinders into their optics . . . so that photographers were able to plunge straightaway into the maze of time. Only color was lacking, and even that problem yielded, theoretically at least, in little more than a generation: the earliest color photograph dates to 1865. Which is not to say, at all, that painting has ever ceased to bedevil photography: no man who refuses to clean his house can remain long untroubled by vermin.

From the beginning, then, we shall find photographers employing a variety of strategies for confronting, and then eluding, historic time; and all of them are, as we shall see, operational in the present day. But before examining these strategies, I think, after all, that I should offer an example of consciousness at work in ecstatic time.

UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS, WE feel the measured passage of historic time to be altered, or to stop entirely. In the extremes of terror and rage, in erotic rapture and its analogues, in suicidal despair, in sleep, and under the influence of certain drugs, consciousness seems to enter a separate temporal domain, one of whose chief characteristics is its apparent imperviousness to language.

As I sit writing this text, on one of the days of the only life I shall live, a fine April afternoon is passing outside my window. Like a novelist, or a painter, I have walled myself into a room, away from the passage of time. Photography, uniquely among the visual arts, allows us to have our cake and eat it too: if I were making images, today, I could be outside, within that day, converting its appearances to the requirements of ecstasy. Instead, I am enmeshed in these very words. But I can’t find words to tell you what it is like to be writing them.

Saints, the berserk and the possessed, speak in tongues (there is even something called erotolalia) and sleep talkers speak our own language, but with impatient terseness and an alien inflection; so it is seldom that we have extended verbal reports from the domain of ecstatic time. From any point outside the general locus of art, I can recall only one.

Several years ago, a man by the astonishing name of Breedlove became, for the second time in his life, the holder of the world land-speed record. He did this thing at Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, in a rocket-powered car called The Spirit of America. For two runs over a marked course one mile long, with a five mile running start, this Breedlove averaged a little over 600 miles per hour . . . slightly faster than the legally established speed of a trans-oceanic passenger jet. Had the ride been uneventful, we may expect that he would have had nothing at all to say about it; the efficient driving of an automobile at any speed neither requires nor permits much in the way of conscious deliberation.

But, as it turned out, something did happen. At the end of his second run, at a speed of about 620 miles per hour, as he was attempting to slow down, a brake mechanism exploded, and in the space of about one-and-one-half miles both drogue chutes failed to operate, and the car went entirely out of control, sheared off a number of handy telephone poles, topped a small rise, turned upside down, flew through the air, and landed in a salt pond. Incredibly, Breedlove was unhurt.

He was interviewed immediately after the wreck. I have heard the tape. It lasts an hour and 35 minutes, during which time Breedlove delivers a connected account of what he thought and did during a period of some 8.7 seconds. His narrative amounts to about 9,500 words, which is about as long as this text will be when I have finished writing, and it has taken me all my life.

In the course of the interview, Breedlove everywhere gives evidence of condensing, of curtailing; not wishing to bore anyone, he is doing his polite best to make a long story short. Compared to the historic interval he refers to, his ecstatic utterance represents, according to my calculation, a temporal expansion in the ratio of some 655 to one. Proust, Joyce, Beckett, seem occasionally to achieve such explicatory plenitude.

But perhaps Breedlove’s most amazing remark came before all that. Rescuers, expecting to find him mangled as by a tiger, discovered him, instead, intact, prone at the pool’s edge, still half in the water. He looked up and said to them, very distinctly: “For my next act, I’ll set myself on fire.”

_Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end.

Question: Can a photograph be a work of art?
Answer: A photograph is a disposition of sensible matter and may be so disposed for an aesthetic end but it is not a human disposition of sensible matter. Therefore it is not a work of art._
—James Joyce, Paris Notebook, 28 March, 1903

I EXCERPT. WE MAY JUDGE the level of Joyce’s perennial exasperation by an earlier question in his catechism: “Are children, excrements and lice works of art?” Perhaps I do no more than reveal the extent of my own exasperation, in remarking that the camera is an instrument neither less nor more ‘human’ than the typewriter upon which I now dispose intelligible matter to no esthetic end: Joyce, sensibly, preferred to ruin his eyes proofreading his own handwritten works of art.

But if human deliberation is a criterion for art, then Fox Talbot failed his dream . . . and perhaps, in that failure, became an artist after all. The reason was simple enough, and enough, in another time, to drive anyone gifted with a shaman’s vision to hack in fury at everything around him.

The photographic machine, simply put, is a device for accumulating energy. Talbot’s machine was inefficient, his lenses narrow as eyes slitted against antarctic glare, his materials unreceptive to light. It took long minutes, rather than instants, to make his images. His means had betrayed him; Omar Khayam’s bird had flown even as he had it in hand. And he succumbed, politely tormented as he was, to that heartbreak known to every artist since Plato: the slow fabrication of an equivalent for his singular vision.

His household servants must have been models of patience, for he trained them to pose, motionless as children playing the game called Statues. We may imagine that he prayed, in a rapture of chagrin, for windless days. Where he had imagined a process of angelic velocity, he was constrained to work in a manner almost vegetative: his process resembled nothing so much as photosynthesis. Remarkably, his very first image was of the mullioned windows in his scholar’s study . . . which he escaped, through that other window, the camera, into a tense world of tableaux vivants whose inhabitants, wavering ever so slightly under false arrest, seemed perpetually about to break into a smile.

Question: If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood make there an image of a cow (say) has he made a work of art?
Answer: The image of a cow made by a man hacking in fury at a block of wood is a human disposition of sensible matter but it is not a human disposition of sensible matter for an aesthetic end. Therefore, it is not a work of art.

—James Joyce, Paris Notebook, 28 March, 1903

AS I WRITE THIS TEXT, I am, if you will, carving in that pathless matrix of all tropes, language . . . somewhat as a photographer, against or along the grain, follows the edge of his vision, in whatever mood he must, through the penetrable body of a world that is, or has just seemed to be, alive to every inquisition. Pretending, then, that what I now make is a fiction, I shall dissect from the dictionary the word ‘window’ and write a window into my scholar’s study, and escape through it into the sunshine of an abrupt summary.

That other art that uses the camera, the cinema, of which we may not, for the moment, speak, has discerned and enunciated for itself a task, namely, the founding of an art that is to be fully and radically isomorphic with the kineses and stases—in short, with the dynamic ‘structure’ (if one may still dare to use that word)—of consciousness itself. Film art has, perhaps, been able to predicate for itself an ambition so appalling precisely because it is ‘about’ consciousness.

On the other hand, if still photography has seemed, since its beginnings, vastly pregnant with the imminence of a revelation that never quite transpires, and if it has never coherently defined a task for itself, we might make free to infer that it mimes, as does cinema, its own condition: we might imagine, in a word, that photography is ‘about’ precisely those recognitions, formations, percipiences, suspensions, persistences, hesitations within the mind that precede, if they do not utterly foreshadow, that discovery, and peripeteia, and springing-into-motion, and inspiration that is articulate consciousness.

Now since I have professed that photography, from its first moment, never quite consciously addressed itself to that intuition we once called ‘time,’ I shall offer a brief inventory of the ways in which I think that happened.

First of all: photographers attempted a direct, frontal assault on narrative time. Photographs were jammed into sequences that told stories. Henry Peach Robinson’s Little Red Riding Hood, in four installments, tells us as much more than we want to know as any of them. The poor dog, clothes-lined, sandbagged and trussed into the role of Grandma, speaks as well, for the plight of the image under the lash of the word, as any dog I know.

Secondly: with an improvement of means, and because the notion that had begun to struggle into the world in Talbot’s initiating vision continued to press for admission, still photographers sought for that memorialization of the emergence of a figure from its ground that we still celebrate. The grand protagonist of this impulse was, and remains, Edward Weston.

Weston began, alongside his only contemporaries, Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, with an interest in that mysterious antique thing, composition. Decades passing, as Strand repudiated the erotic possibilities of photography for its indexical functions, and Stieglitz came to posit the whole field of the photograph as energetic equivalent for emergent steady states of consciousness whose only names were his own images, Weston simply, and more and again more, oftenest simply centered his figure, outside time and within the nominal spatial ground of the photographic artifact, celebrating, with unexcelled carnality, the differentiation of the moment of perception from all those moments of impercipience during which the resting brain processes only two million binary bits of information per second.

Thirdly: a doctrine arose, purporting to exonerate photography as an art, that raised the specter of what I might call the Quintessential Sample. Henri Cartier-Bresson speaks of decisive moments, in tones that seem to suggest that the making of art is a process of tasteful selection. I have been privileged to see one of Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets: 36 images of a dying horse were as alike as intelligence could make them, and I am constrained to believe that the ‘decisive moment,’ if such a thing occurred, happened when the photographer decided which of the three dozen pictures he would print and publish.

Finally: the strategy of mapping time back upon space led a legion of explorers to astonishments hiding in the reaches of historic temporality. Eakins, Muybridge, Coburn, Marey, Morgan, Edgerton . . . a restless crew of refugees from painting, physiology and physics . . . have found lurking, in the compressed or expanded reaches of clock-time, entities of superlative beauty and terror: along with much that is pedestrian or equestrian, Edgerton’s Swirls and Eddies of a Tennis Stroke, for instance, offers photographic proof that William Blake wasn’t as crazy as he thought he was, and instructs us with its suggestion that artists may be least inventive where they are most visionary. These photographers, voyageurs in the continent of time, bring back records that recall the precisions of the diarist Scott, dying in Antarctica, or W. H. Hudson’s curious Argentine dissolution of the membrane that had separated himself from his pretexts.


If written language is the shelter Recollection found, after her expulsion from the Garden of the mind . . . and if Charles Babbage and the computer boys have banished Calculation from the human brain and locked her up in a brass machine . . . then I suppose a trap can be sprung for Memory as well. Is Memory more than the elastic set of all photographs, or is she less?

Before Alexander Graham Bell extracted my voice from my body, I used to bump into my friends once in a while. Now I only talk with them on the telephone. How grateful should I feel, for that?

Returning, once, to a palace of my childhood, I found its rooms small and shabby, admitting a caustic sunshine through dusty panes that looked out on shimmering prospects of nothing in particular. If I had only had a photograph of that house, I should have remembered it as it really was, whatever way that is, and then I would never have needed to see it again. If I ever return, I’ll remember to bring along my camera.

I SEEM TO REMEMBER . . . it was before I took note of such things . . . the picture of a former American President on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Photojournalists had just then begun to use motorized still cameras which make serial exposures, in the manner of a semiautomatic rifle, at the rate of three per second. The Times, instead of extracting from the roll of film a single epiphany, simply reproduced all 36 consecutive images.

About two-thirds of them exhibited the President’s face as a familiar icon of benignant, immobile blandness. But the remaining dozen, more or less uniformly distributed, were pictures of a face that was not quite the same nor yet entirely different, whose expression suggested, during instants newly visible, the extremes of terror and of rage, suicidal despair, the forgetfulness of sleep, or the vacuity of utter confusion. It seemed to me, almost, that another mind grasped and manipulated the features, reaching out with a kind of berserk certitude through temporal fissures whose durations could be measured in thousandths of a second.

Ray Birdwhistell, the pioneer explorer in what has come to be known, vulgarly, as “body language,” offers us, in his remarkable essay “The Age of a Baby,” a scene from nature that suggests similar dark speculations.

Investigating the kinesics of a household that had already brought forth two schizophrenic children, Birdwhistell filmed the mother in the banal and repetitive act of diapering the third child, a baby girl, a few months old. Careful, frame-by-frame analysis of the cinema strip revealed that, during one moment in the process, the mother appeared to give the child simultaneous and contradictory signals, putting her in a confusing double-bind.

Birdwhistell states that rigorous examination of such films requires, on the average, about one hundred hours per running second of real time. He also points out that, within a family, many thousands of such brief, wordless exchanges take place every day.

If there is a monster in hiding here, it has cunningly concealed itself within time, emerging, in Birdwhistell’s film, on four frames . . . that is, for only one-sixth of a second.

If it is dragons we seek, or if it is angels, then we might reconsider our desperate searches through space, and hunt them, with our cameras, where they seem to live: in the reaches of temporality.

DURING TWO DECADES AFTER Edward Weston’s death, photographic art remained unhappily frozen in the stasis he had bequeathed it. A thaw, in the past few years, has unblocked a flow of energy in two distinct directions. On the one hand, we find a strong resurgence of the manipulated pictorialism that Stieglitz and his generation, for the polemical needs of their own work, ruthlessly purged.

And on the other hand, a number of photographers have taken to making sequences of images that seem to derive from the history of still photography at large, taking their formal bearings from the journalist’s ‘picture-story,’ and the ubiquitous illustrated instruction manual. Resembling a motionless cinema of indeterminate duration, they seem to rest upon the implicit (and extremely novel) assumption that the photographic cinema has never existed.

Two photographers have been especially persistent in finding out what revelations inhere in the sequential mode: they are Duane Michals and Leslie Krims. Both began with, and continue to make, as well, single images that implicate us in mysterious or terrific narratives. Both have proliferated iconographies that test the limits of obsession. Otherwise, they resemble one another not at all. Most recently, Michals’ sequences have tended towards a paradoxical circularity that subverts the linearity of historic time into static, eternal loops and labyrinths. Krims’ work, which appeals as often to inventory as to succession, achieves similar precarious satisfactions in that region where image and word perpetually contaminate one another, in a Mexican standoff between poisonous wit and jocular compassion.

WHEN IT COMES TO practically everything, we seem to be of two minds.

The discovery that we have, each of us, two independent hemispheric brains, may yet prove an esthetic Krakatoa, the dust of which will never settle in our lifetime. For they seem, these two, caught in the act of going their separate ways, and at once forced into a cooperation that mixes uncertain affection with expedience.

We might imagine them as a couple of seasoned, quarrelsome lovers, whose affinities for one another are never quite comprehensible even to their closest friends. They inhabit one of those untidy households where the doors are never quite precisely open, nor yet completely closed.

We might imagine her as a bustling, quiet Hungarian whose last name sounds oddly like a French pun . . . and him, as a punctilious, loquacious small shopkeeper in some commodity for which there is a steady, if unspectacular, demand. He thinks of her as an awesome pool of fecundity, a sexual abyss from whose precipice he longs to fling himself. She finds him erotically uninventive, for all his dirty-minded innuendoes, but consoles herself that her lover has the biggest cock on the block, and the finest mind of its kind. He admires himself for always knowing what day of the week it is, and for keeping his ledger ever ready for the tax collector; she has everything she needs, doesn’t look back, and feels at once amused and bored by his incorrigible filing and cataloguing.

But what he really likes best to do is talk, talk, talk. Every so often, she shyly gets a word in edgewise, deliberately contradicting or mispronouncing something he has just said, and embarrassing him in company. But most of the time, she prefers simply to sit and look out the window, expressionless.

Once, in a sentimental moment, he joined her at the window. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he boomed, and slapped her on the back. “You son of a bitch,” she hissed, so quietly that no one else could ever hear, “why do you have to murder everything by talking about it?” And then, in a fit of venomous rage, she broke a chair over his head.

Things have never been quite the same between them since.

DIANE ARBUS HAS LEFT US images that affirm, in ways as various as themselves, this doubling, and duality, and duplicity, of our every experience. She made them, as she once found words to say, “because they will have been so beautiful.”

She shows us identical twins, for instance, who might personify our twin minds, nine years old and already at war; or a brawny, tattooed circus performer, obviously a tough customer, whose paramount trait is a surface filigreed in elegance; or a standing naked man, his genitals tucked away between his thighs, “being” a woman as if the verb to be were somehow made transitive; or a lonely Victorian mansion that is nothing but a facade. Freaks, nudists, transvestites, masked imbeciles, twins and triplets, inhabit an encyclopedia of ambiguities buried so far beneath language that we feel a familiar vague terror at the very suggestion of being asked to speak of them . . . an irrational suspicion that, should we ever find and utter a name for what these images mean to us, we would so profane them that they might vanish like Eurydice, or fall to dust.

Now, in this moment, as I see, once again, the photographs of Diane Arbus, these words that I drop behind me consume themselves as if by fire, evacuating the pathway of my thought as it is drawn to what is before it: namely, the images themselves. So that the phrase, ‘in this moment’ dissolves, in an obliteration of all moments, into my accustomed unspeakable fascination by images that seem to possess the vertiginous stability of dream, of déjà vu . . . or of those artifacts of the seeing mind, glimpsed before light broke upon the eyes, that coinhabit with palpable matter the whole space of the world. And after that dissolution of a phrase, the adverb ‘once again’ is annihilated, in my seeming surprise as these images, time and again, suggest that only a vicissitude of words segments their eternity into a mensurable time, invented, once, to resemble articulate space, that now no longer seems to matter.

These images, then, which offer me everything but words, enclose or apostrophize the exquisite stasis of a tableau vivant . . . tinted, to my disturbance and satisfaction, by my own lenses . . . divided by an interminable abyss, or, better, by an impenetrable membrane that is neither quite gauze nor caul nor screen nor window nor yet mirror, within which, or through which, or upon which, two personifications fix one another in endless regard. In a posture of easy attention, image and word, eros and thanatos, eternity and time, multitudes of partnerships at once open and secret, stare each other and themselves into existence. Diane Arbus and I, more or less in focus, may even be among them: because she is gone, but never, to my pleasure, quite entirely absent . . . and I am here, but never, to my pain, quite entirely present.

Within our tableau, now, all these personages bear toward one another an archaic expression which we cannot quite comprehend. Sometimes it looks to us like a smirk of angry conceit . . . or again, as briefly, a vacuous grin of confusion. But sometimes, for an instant that will outlast us, we animate upon these ancient faces, suddenly as a veil of an aurora, a smile of triumphant happiness.

Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that bears me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.
Jorge Luis Borges, “A New Refutation of Time”

Hollis Frampton