Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Snapshot Image

I chanced upon the Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov when looking for the photo on the cover of Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar." You can find an archive of his photos here.

I'd forgotten the beauty of simple snapshots like this, photos without the pretense of memory. These are the ordinary people of what was once the Second World. These anonymous vintage snapshots are connections to a world I will never experience, will never see in any form other than a grainy, faded image, names forgotten or maybe even never learned by the photographer.

It is by mere accident that one of these pictures achieved fame. In an interview, Zach Condon said he first saw the cover slipped out of a book in a library in Leipzig. A very personal photo becomes universal, transformed from a memory-machine into an image in the public consciousness.

A photo, taken either for a personal collection or a now-extinct daily newspaper, is uploaded to the Internet, separated from its origins by yet another degree, and disseminated to a largely undiscerning global public.

Because holding a photograph and looking at it on a computer screen are different experiences, even though a photograph is "supposed" to be a crystalline representation of reality. The material photograph is a more direct link to another era, unmediated by a contemporary piece of technology. It's sepia-toned or washed out, and it smells of junk drawers and the dull, metallic smell of silver frames on dusty mantles.

This tells me the photograph is not merely an image, but takes on a life of its own that digital images, unless they're printed out, will never have. Think about all the ancient family photos you've doubtless seen on the shelves of tract homes and McMansions in outlying suburbs of American cities. They're most likely the only things more than 50 years old in a great many homes, a solitary fragment of past existences. We burn our cities to the ground, we build our new houses to last a single generation and yet, amid contemporary suburbia, the individual's line of memory is preserved as a photo, set in a respectable position on a matte-painted particle-board shelf in a white-carpeted den.

Despite the very American and very Protestant environment, it reminds me of those Chinese Confucians who honor their ancestors as a fount of authenticity and truth, even amid the rise and fall of dynasties and the building of 100,000-man factories in Shenzhen. The Confucian attitude seems to be that the truth of a righteous life is beyond material, beyond memory; it exists in an impossibly stable and a priori vacuum. Whatever sound and fury happens in China-- capitalism, Communism, and capitalism again-- that which Confucius called "the way" floats above, immaterial, impassive.

It's been years since I looked through any old snapshots of my own family. It's helpful to consider the photo as a universal subject when you've forgotten the snapshots that are supposed to mean the most to you. When, in some distant future date, I look again on pioneer great-grandfathers and aunts in beehive hairdos, what will I see? What will I feel? What truth will I ascertain? Will I feel a primordial connection to some ancestral imagination? Or will they simply be faded scraps of paper, chemical tracings on thin cardboard moldering in shoeboxes in a house 1500 miles away.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Enchanted Bluff

Whenever I'm wandering around the Hill and have some time to kill, I tend to stop into Elliott Bay Books, the sort of wonderful, comprehensive local-institution bookstore every city should have, for a bit of browsing.

I hadn't read Willa Cather in ages.  At some point, she appealed to me greatly, along with all the other American regionalists, but as my literary tastes expanded into the wilder, weirder worlds of French surrealism and portent-laden postmodernists and the Japanese avant-garde, she got left behind.  So I picked up her collected stories, and opened up to page 64, her 1909 story "The Enchanted Bluff."

I first read it at a tiny used bookstore back home.  Along with a handful of other businesses constantly on the edge of folding, it occupied a section of the ground floor of the Sheldon-Munn, the town's once-grand railroad hotel now converted into tiny apartments for the elderly and impoverished.

You walked in through a creaky door, and the place was covered in industrial carpeting, with piles of books on the floor, mildewed volumes of long-forgotten onetime bestsellers.  Books by Josephine Winslow Johnson and Gene Stratton Porter and James Gould Cozzens.  Stories of Christian virgins in peril that must have once belonged to the schoolteachers and small town lawyers of Story County, Iowa some 80 years earlier.

I spent frigid winter days combing through musty shelves of dog-eared, yellowed Signet Classics and Modern Library editions filled with faded pencil scrawls written in Iowa State dorm rooms a generation or more ago.  Put together a stack of two-and three-dollar paperbacks, and walk home through the snowdrifts.

Like all teenagers, I was unsure what I wanted out of life, but was quite sure what I wanted wasn't this: high school in a dreary town centered around a land-grant university and ringed by meth labs.  So I read Thomas Pynchon, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg.  In cracked and moth-eaten trade paperbacks, I could envision my world centering around a tiny apartment on a narrow street in Montparnasse, a rough-hewn cabin in the forests of Northern Wisconsin, a life of jumping trains and bumming rides.  Each dusty book represented a hazy, impressionistic dream.

Which brings me back to Cather.  "The Enchanted Bluff" is a lovely, wistful story about a group of boys hanging out for the last time on a sandbar.  The summer is ending, and the narrator is about to leave town, and he tells a story about a place in New Mexico called the Enchanted Bluff.  They all make plans to go there.  They never do.

Memory is shaped by the stories we tell each other, the symbols and phrases that run as motifs through all human interactions and relationships.  The mythic, the ideal level.  The Enchanted Bluff isn't a real place, and it doesn't need to be.  It functions as a symbol that is sustained even as the actual relationship falters.  And as we remember our relations, our images of the actual people we once felt something towards-- whether it was love, friendship, or enmity-- become blurred, impressionistic.  What remains: symbols, narratives, old photos, souvenirs in attic boxes, ghostly images floating on the edge of memory.