Monday, March 12, 2007


anonymous negative, c. 1950

I wouldn't have known that I was searching for him through light. But for so many years I realize I have been trying to interpret the warm haze, the luminous mass reflecting off the leaves of trees and grass--breathing, glowing light.

This is a simple story, a quest for a grandfather, a man, a photographer. The man, the grandfather, is always in shadow, mysterious and subconscious. He pulls on a granddaughter's thoughts like a black hole. He orients her. She turns to look for him, not like a sunflower toward the sun, but like Persephone toward Hades, without resistance, resigned to her fate. Because of the light—because of the shared understanding of something taken for granted, something fabulous, fragile, and vulnerable, she is looking for him every moment she apprehends perfect light. He, too, was aware of it, (he may still be), hovering in that state of light-likeness, waiting, like a breath, to dissolve, but the light-likeness is so precious, so tentative, that he dare not think. He has found a state of still apprehension where he expends no energy, consumes no energy—where he simply and quietly apprehends. She feels him, hovering there, in the ether, aware, but without motion, eternally apprehending.

When she walks the streets of her neighborhood in the late afternoon when the light is most dense, most palpable, she strains to recall the names of flowers she once knew. The names hover somewhere on the perimeter of her consciousness, flirtatious, enticing, elusive. She realizes that this is what it must have been like for her grandfather, preoccupied as he was with light, reaching for the name of a daughter or wife, hovering somewhere near, the face recognizable, but the name, the name…

Part I
Tiny Historical Accidents

New York City, Spring 1987

She is walking down a quiet Brooklyn sidewalk. Unlike other sidewalks, it is paved with flagstones beneath which, over time, the earth has shifted, so that now, as the heel of her boot strikes the surface of the stone, a clear sound rings out. She is unaware that this sound changes the tissue of the air around her--that time cringes uneasily and recoils from its standard procession. She does not yet know that hope ripples outward upon the waves of this sound, permeating the air around her and the ancient bricks of the row-houses that line the sleeping street.
It is 6 AM. She has left a man beneath a thin quilt upon a bare mattress in the middle of a room in an almost empty apartment with tall windows overlooking the seven corners of Ft. Green Avenue (what were the others?). It is beginning to snow. She exists simultaneously in his dream and as a figure slowly disappearing within the entrance of the G Train.

Prague, Winter 1942
When it stops snowing, he arranges the objects on the windowsill. The light forces its way through the grime on the glass. It appears thick, like mud. He places an empty bottle, a dead flower, a cascade of wrinkled cellophane—the light lazily moves among them. He is ready. He loads the film, presses the trigger, and the whirring of the shutter stretches time across a crevasse of anticipation. With a snap he is once again lost in the arranging, in the viscosity of light.
Since the Russians occupied the streets of Prague, he has existed quietly and anonymously within the walls of his small apartment. Yet, through the one window that overlooks the street (which?) the world mirrors itself in the lens of his imagination, opening a shaft in the dark recesses of his mind. He spends hours watching the light, how it tentatively enters through the window in the morning, how it seems to gather density and weight throughout the day, then grows crisp and cold, almost to the point of shattering like a sheath of ice.
Light, he thinks, is like a woman--breathy and sensual, but elusive. She enters his bedroom, touches his skin, the stump of flesh that was once a limb. She caresses. She bends. Just as he reaches out his hand, a cloud passes between him and the object of his desire.

September 2, 2004
What is a collection if not a physical catalog of desire?
--Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum

I wonder about the history of optics, which makes me think about Galileo and astronomy—that my exploration of my grandfather is somehow connected to astronomy intrigues me--that the desolate landscape that is the Caprock is interwoven with the stars, that there is no meaningless connection anywhere.

Seeing the world through the lens of lonely man in Prague, I am reminded of Husserl, and the birth of phenomenology. If we can never be certain of anything other then the constructs of our minds, these phenomena of perception, then what is a photograph? What is it that draws us into the world interpreted through another person's constructs of perception? Barthes writes:

The realists, of whom I am one, and of whom I was already one when I asserted that the Photograph was an image without code—even if, obviously, certain codes do inflect our reading of it—the realists do not take the photograph for a "copy" of reality, but for an emanation of past, reality: a magic, not an art.

Here is the world through a dirty pane of glass, a curtain, a fading flower. Can these be any more real, any more meaningful to Sudek, than the soft touch of Sophie's small hand?

We are raised among images. I remember my childhood through fading Polaroids in thick albums that my brother and sister and I leafed through year after year . Would we have existed otherwise?

I decide to fashion some sort of methodology. I decide to always begin with what it before me, what is concrete. So I begin with the collection. I have carried my collection to many cities. If I knew how to use the items in my collection, if I employed them in some craft, then there would be no need for a methodology, the collection itself would have no hidden meanings. As Benjamin says, "Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories." But isn't it even something beyond that—beyond memories. The memories are there or not, but it's the meaning, the framework, the architecture—the fetishization of the objects that raises the whole undertaking to a higher plane—the plane of desire, the ether where dreams are born and become real. We carry these secret desires within us, we invest our collections with them, with the almost conscious belief that the sacred objects of our collections (the "catalog of our desires") serve as intermediaries between what we hope for and what has not yet to come to pass.

My collection is small, humble. I have three German cameras manufactured before World War II, and a motion picture camera of the same vintage. There are also various highly utilitarian, yet beautiful, accoutrements -- mute icons of a world that opens up beyond the viewfinder, that would only speak audibly on paper floating in a darkened bath of solution—photography as language, as metaphor, as method of conveyance.

These objects that sit on my shelves and collect dust are unique to me because they served as interlocutors of passion for the man who marshaled over our childhood lives, more as a spectre that a human dictator.

Here are the details:

New York, 1987

The girl who had fallen in love with a sad, lost soul, someone who had given up on living, or was living his life as if it were a shell that he carried like a great burden upon his shoulders. He was a historian dredging through the ruins of a lost culture looking for some memory of himself. He manufactured himself anew each morning, bolstered by the stiff morning light, propped up by syllables, mumbling their sounds like a mantra as he shuffled toward his stuffy office in the history department on Washington Square.
She remembers an exhilaration that permeated the air of the lecture hall when we rattled in like dead leaves or dust, and as he began speaking, the words tumbled out of her mind and into the air before they fell from his lips.
This happened several classes in a row. She dreamed the words, he shuffled in, the words tumbled like water over stones in her mind, then they fell from his mouth in familiar shapes.
He said that he couldn't explain, but that evening they made love on a solitary mattress on the floor in his Ft. Green apartment (he was recently divorced), and the second story brownstone faced the seven corners over Flatbush Avenue, were bare and leaning nakedly up into the winter night as the clouds pressed n upon the borough. When they woke, there were no corners, no streets, no cars. The world slept beneath a thick, suffocating snow.

Prague, 1942

And then there is the impenetrable darkness (why do I say impenetrable?) of the world of Joseph Sudek, soldier and photographer, who (like the curtain that longs to be a flag outside) looked out his murky window onto the streets of Prague and dreamed of flying.

Kafka again. This morning I have a pointless and stupid fight with David and then have to attend a lecture by the department chair. For the most part it is uninteresting to me, except for his mention of an article by Borges, "Kafka and his Precursors." I am beginning to think that Walter Benjamin and his little hunchback have more to do with this story than I originally thought. As a matter of fact, it was in New York when I first learned of Walter Benjamin, and ever since, he has been someone I have hung on to like a life raft.

The idea is to let it sit on a superstructure—perhaps the formulation of the general theory, perhaps the frustrated attempt of Keynes to hang his economics on this structure. What are you getting at? It looks like the birth of some modern phenomenon, like existentialism—some sort of metaphysic emerging from these random events. But what IS the structure-it still eludes me?

I have to find the architecture.

Wednesday. Waiting for the cold front to come in. An alarm sounded outside for almost an hour. I was awakened by the ringing of a small bell. Where is my small bell?

Where does my grandfather belong? With the fading polaroids? His scout manual ( I need that—quotable) The photographic process—how does it relate--or should I worry?
I think about my grandfather today. I am in the parking lot mulling over the end of my marriage—there is a word bubbling beneath the memory of his alcoholism. The word is disappointment.

What happens if you let go of everything?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Palamedes invented the alphabet after watching the patterns that flocks of migrating cranes made in flight against the sky…
Susan Brind Morrow

No less than reading, writing is exilic and fugitive at its very core.
Consonantal homographs, 'speech' and 'desert' are spelled the same (MDBR) in Hebrew—as, incidentally, are 'there' and 'name' by the lexeme 'ShM'

-AZN, The Elsewhere

Then there is the relationship between language and desert, a fulcrum upon which hinges to opposite universes of positive and negative, of matter and anti-matter (again bringing us back to light). The symmetries abound—the deserted Caprock hinging on the human fulcrum which opens up within the mind of abundant association, perception, emotion. Here it is my grandfather, a still point around which turn the dual forces of stable, abiding space and chaotic, fertile time (perception) within his mind. Matter and anti-matter. What is it that destroyed him? Thought (time) no doubt.

March 10, 2005

Today an awareness of the tentative gestures on behalf of beauty—seeds flung into a garden, wildflowers erupting along a polluted and forgotten creek, a small windmill planted in the yard of my elderly neighbor who was taken in an ambulance two days ago—is she okay? Fragile, fleeting moments of beauty.

I wanted my children to see and know the flowers, the familiar trees of my childhood, to know them as I know them, like family—to stop in the midst of drifting seeds of cottonwood and search the canopy for the tree that exhaled them. To have the names on the tips of their tongues, the shapes of the words palpable in the mouth, like food—to know the silhouette leaves against an evening sky, to recognize birds. Stopping to inspect a common weed, one which goes by the most disparaging name, beggars lice, I am amazed that I have never noticed the fragile white flowers which form a circular umbel, turning reddish toward the seed that becomes the stickery pods that hijack the cat's fur and tennis shoes and especially white socks. Tiny and lovely, and beside it an empty husk of some wild grass, gold and tapering to a black tip like Japanese calligraphy. How much more I appreciate beauty that is tentative, hesitant.