Vital Signs

Like Talking to a Wall: Some Further Thoughts on Photography

One may recall one’s family album, and the endless quarrels with the love of one’s life over which photographs would best fill its pages.  The very substantiality of that omnibus of photism, with its impositions of ormolu, its house-proud monograms, its smug little pasteboard corners to hold the pictures in place, and all its forbidding, leather-clad immanence, was, one recalls, a socially acceptable ruse, a prescription opiate that commonly passes as an aide-mémoire among people without feelings.

Memory, which thrills at misconstruction and will not rest until it has committed every kind of white-collar crime worth dreaming up in what amounts to a lifetime of counterfeiting, is bad enough; but were one to imagine that technological advance has provided that criminal mastermind with accomplices, doubtless first among them would be Daguerre; truly an âme damnée, who has copied Mnemosyne’s way of doing things by manipulating light, thus managing to introduce golden moments into the colloidal alkahest where, in God’s reality, a naturally infinite variety of grays, flecked, like robin’s eggs, with blood, spittle, and semen, vie for dominance over the experience of existence.

“The camera,” wrote R.H. Wilenski in The Modern Movement in Art, “was an element in the industrial revolution.  It was a labour-saving device which,...

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