Unreal Nature

November 4, 2015

All the Birthdays with All Their Best Wishes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… he … presided over archetypal images that were originally created at the secret heart of this culture as silently and thoughtlessly as the blink of an eye.

This is from Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy (1973):

… The people who looked at the pictures once they were taken weren’t surprised, and the people who read about the events after they were printed weren’t shocked. They preserved the pictures and the newspapers for the same reason that some people remember their birthdays, and others fail to notice each breath.

All the inhalations and all the exhalations were crystallized in silver emulsion on 30,000 glass plate negatives, and all the birthdays with all their best wishes were transferred to the fibers and inks of good rag paper. The glass plates were left to sit by themselves for thirty years after Van Schaick died. Occasionally, a lower lip or the whole side of a face would crack off and break away like the side of a glacier.

Wisconsin_Death_Trip_book_cover

… No matter how prosaic a photographer Van Schaick was, he still practiced an art based upon compressions and elisions; he still presided over archetypal images that were originally created at the secret heart of this culture as silently and thoughtlessly as the blink of an eye. For these reasons, I thought his pictures were less like pieces of wood that could be nailed to a prose framework than like colors that had to be poured, and that once poured, once combined, formed their own container and filled it with shades of meaning and emotion.

… these [newspaper] writings transformed what were private acts into public events. In a time that was disjointed by a depression as epidemically fatal and grotesque as the most contagious disease, these articles created temporary but intimate bonds between creatures who had been separated and divided by a selfish culture of secular Calvinism.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] These accounts permitted people to share their misery by turning strangers into relatives. They attributed and articulated the motives of the most secret and private of undertakings, the act of suicide, and so permitted desperate people to be solaced by others’ despair. These accounts turned grief inside out; they turned murderous sorrow outward toward the eyes of a crowd that could not only comfort it, but, by participating in it, could be immunized against it.

[line break added] Such weekly articles and notices served purposes similar to those of commercial photography: they were symbolic ways of dealing with an inhuman fate that made some men helpless by making them suddenly and inexplicably poor, and that drove some women mad with grief and remorse by quickly killing their children.

This book is an exercise in historical actuality, but it has only as much to do with history as the heat and spectrum of the light that makes it visible, or the retina and optical nerve of your eye. It is as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy.

[line break added] Its primary intention is to make you experience the pages now before you as a flexible mirror that if turned one way can reflect the odor of the air that surrounded me as I wrote this; if turned another, can project your anticipations of next Monday; if turned again, can transmit the sound of breathing in the deep winter air of a room of eighty years ago, and if turned once again, this time backward on itself, can fuse all three images, and so can focus who I once was, what you might yet be, and what may have happened, all upon a single point of your imagination, and transform them like light focused by a lens on paper, from a lower form of energy to a higher.

-Julie

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