Last night, as I sometimes do, I woke around 5:30 AM and got out of bed, I returned after a trip to the bathroom. Trying hard to not wake the angel sleeping nearby, I slid back into my safe cocoon. I then had an experience so universal, so comforting, and so ordinary as to almost escape notice. Leaving the chilly darkness for the return to the comfort of my pillows, my memory foam, cotton sheets, and quilts, I felt the responding soul sigh of that re-embrace. I sank back into the warmth still present there, residual from my body, my life force, which we all know, crave, and depend upon. The entire function of bedding is to hold warmth as a place of rest. The bed seems to remember, noting the impression of my bones, a residual smell of this man, and his radiant temperature, slowly dissipating, always (entropy will win out in the end; one day the bed and I will grow cold and never warm back up again.) I lay there pondering the ease of return to what, for lack of better words, felt like a return to myself. I’m sure it’s illusory, but in that moment something about that cocoon felt elemental, purely of me, of my heat, still present, touching all the familiar contours whence it was absorbed to begin with. That imprint felt somehow unique, like a fingerprint. I’m sure I take such wee hour musings too seriously, but then, someone has to.
I begin with that dubious ramble, because it rekindled a growing conversation I’ve been holding in my head about energy and imprint, the natures of self and what we might see and feel about ourselves and others. Those who know me may guess that, as usual, it has something to do with photographs. Not to be maudlin, but I enter an age now, where questions of what we leave behind, both large and small, enter my thoughts more often. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of insignificance. I choose that word carefully. In the postmodern study called semiotics, significance is all. Signifiers are the visual content engines by which any detail in a work of art or design, imparts cultural meaning. Signifiers are slippery things because one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. But still, in photographs, long before I’d ever heard of semiotics, I knew, from a heart/gut level that images moved me. They have the power to grab, to punch, to arouse, to thrill and sober me. They can stop me and hold my attention, some for years. Our culture elevates imagery, especially of famous people, but history shows many enduring images of the world’s nobodies. Many important images have no people at all in them, though for me pictures of people speak the loudest. By my reckoning, the baseline remains, pictures have power. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand how and why.
Perhaps less transitory than my body heat in the covers, photographs are nothing but imprint. I say less transitory for only one reason. Unlike my lovely bed, the camera can capture and hold, permanently, the most fleeting of impressions. I’m not alone in believing that the surreal power of photographs lies in that power to capture that which, in almost every other human circumstance remains transitory. The camera is a device as precise and elegant as a gun, made to expose an emulsion or a sensor to miniscule instants of focused light. That light signifies, only because of what matter reflected it, and how the tiny instant was focused and captured. Postmodern art theory asserts that the idealized capture, rife with a concept, commands the whole issue in artistry, and the substance in the viewfinder becomes far less important. Typically, I usually beg to differ.
This whole inner contemplation has swirled over several years, for me, asking repeatedly questions about the value of any image. I don’t mean value in a monetary sense, though one can go there. I have two particular framed images, one of them actually a mounted triptych of three. The little boy in this composed set is my maternal grandfather. In the pictures he is about four years old, so his portrait must have been made around 1910. The set was obviously commissioned at a professional studio, probably in Detroit, and was beautifully printed in a deep sepia tones, mounted and framed in a clean, elegant pictorialist manner. This was the work of a person clearly seeking to achieve both a commercial and artistic product. He framed the child full length, interacting with a book and a chair, standing and sitting. The photographer must have used a tripod, because each of the three images has an exact common horizon line established by the floor meeting the wall behind the primary subject. My grandfather is sweetly stylish, with a rather long dutchboy haircut, quite girlish by today’s style standards. If my mother had never told me this was Grandaddy Buck, I might never have known. I knew him in his fifties and sixties, when he had almost no hair. He died rather young, in 1974 of throat cancer, after too many years of Pall Malls and bourbon. The photograph hung at my grandparent’s home until they passed, and then later in my mother’s home, and now with my parents gone, it hangs in my home.
The second image I mentioned is one I decided to buy, from an antique dealer near my home in Maine. It’s a photograph of a baby, a much younger baby, even, than the one of my grandfather. This one is a tintype, a close descendant of the earliest commercial methods for making photographs which became wildly popular and affordable in the 1860s. That’s about the time I assume it was made, though it could be as late as 1900. The Daguerreotype and Tintype were beautifully detailed processes, both painfully slow. My photo is of a baby, perhaps only a year old, blonde and pensive. He/She is in front of a dark background and I expect the picture was almost certainly exposed using phosphorus flash powder. Such a fluid and honest expression would have otherwise passed, too fleeting for a minutes long exposure in bright daylight. The image is small, not more than 2.5 inches on the long edge in an embossed leather clad wooden case, typical for commercial sale of Daguerreotypes and, I suppose, their cheaper sturdier cousins the tintype. I bought it because it made me ponder things I’m only now starting to deconstruct. So why these two images then? What on earth could it possibly have to do with crawling back into a warm bed? Both of the pictures arrest me, because they depict a cliche so basic and universal. Except for the most jaded among us, babies fill us with joy, and longing. They remind us of important moments in our young adulthoods. They remind us of innocence, and rare, palpable bonds of effortless love and connection.
Both these images stop me cold. The vibrant angelic faces shining out their souls depict people who are both dead. Dead, dead, dead. One child was an enigmatic figure in my life, hard of hearing and somewhat disconnected by that from most family society, the other an even more remote, absolute stranger. The tintype baby could be anyone. He’s too blonde to be Hitler I guess, but perhaps she could be Evelyn Nesbit. I’m guilty of that stupid deceit which casual enthusiasts of reincarnation commit; they always believe they were someone famous in a previous life. My anonymous baby was probably nobody, a homemaker, or a bus driver, asthmatic perhaps. Maybe he became really good at whistling. I only have one tiny bit of evidence this person ever existed at all, or ever became a person. The sum total of that life, from my perspective lies in the proof before me that in one white hot flash a tiny exposure produced this single lasting imprint of the image. The triptych has more personal dimension, in as much as I know that the little boy grew into a man who begat my mother, loved baseball and steamed clams, and would have happily spent every morning of his life, if he could have, smoking Gauloises, and sipping cafe au lait on the Champs Elysee. He was a scholar, fascinated by Flaubert.
They are both gone, dust, these two souls. Maybe they still exist somewhere, but I will have to pass that test to know, or not know the answer to that burning question. When I and my generation of siblings and cousins have passed, the triptych will be just as anonymous as the tintype I suspect. Thus, I’m faced with the plain quandary. Do these images have any inherent value. Why? To whom? And, just like Alfred Stieglitz I suppose (again with the famous people!) I know those answers. Why? My mother’s fallback position: Because I say so. To whom? To me. They matter to me. I want the pictures I make to matter; to matter to others. In my fantasy life they matter to thousands of people. They matter enough that I can pay the rent and have a nice car. At the end of the day all I can control is what matters to me. Those children reached out through the vapor, to remind me of vitality, mortality, the familial, and the vastness and fragility of life itself. They remind me that crawling back into a warm bed filled with love may be more than I ever deserved.