Landscape with wires and boat

Sunset, Kamiloiki Valley, Honolulu, April 17, 2011
Click to enlarge.

This landscape is a complex of the human and the inhuman, changing as the inhuman light changes around it. Because it’s a complex, it’s available to interpretation and judgment and the partialities of art. But photography’s way of recording the changing sky over a changed ground seems different from anything else available to a human artist. Consider, by way of contrast, this written recording.

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am.

The landscape through which Henry David Thoreau travels here is a constructed one with people in it, and Thoreau observes it and the people with all his senses. This passage from Walden begins in the kinesthetics of a solitary walk and expands into the stylized dance of the social. But then, magically, its grammar changes and it makes an escape from anything that might merely be seen, as it might be in a photograph.

Photography, after all, is the art of the indicative mood. It originates in the idea of a fully automatic, fully self-generating art, one in which the human artist is reduced to the subordinate function of middleman between the camera and its subject. Of course that automatism never completes itself by becoming fully inhuman; it’s always interrupted by the moment when a human being decides whether or not to allow the shutter to open. But a human being holding a camera is more anchored to the indicative and its limitations than a human being holding, say, a paintbrush. The indicative will impose its agenda.

The photographer Arthur Fellig, for instance, worked under the byline of Weegee, as in “Ouija board,” because (he said) his agenda gave him psychic powers. The moment a photogenic crime occurred, Weegee said, his elbow would start itching, and that was the agenda’s order to get in his car with its developing tank and contact printer in the trunk, turn on the police radio, and head for the scene. Once he was there, the equipment could take over and carry the agenda to completion. Look, Weegee’s Speed Graphic and flashbulb and high-contrast paper would say then: blood on the sidewalk. But – perhaps because Thoreau’s walk to town along the railroad track is described in the chapter of Walden called “Sounds” – it ends in a soaring upward from the completely seen, in the indicative mood, to the not yet seen, in the optative.

I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

And with the recording of that sentence, photography has been left behind. Photography, it turns out, is an art form incapable of communicating a future tense. In the moments when it communicates wide-eyed with us, what it communicates is only the Little did they know sense of the present learning the truth that the past has been trying to say. Thoreau’s art is an art looking upward from the lighted earth to a not yet illuminated future; photography is an art caught forever on the boundary of blinding light between what we see in the present and what we are about to cease forever to see.

For recording his subjects’ instants on that boundary, Weegee preset the Speed Graphic to f16 and always used flash.


About Weegee:

To chasten and subdue

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.



William Wordsworth didn’t walk down the Wye River valley in 1793; he ran, “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads than one / Who sought the thing he loved.” Revisiting the valley in 1798, he discovered that the unrepeatability of that primal experience had slowed him to a walk. By 1908, when so much more had vanished into the immer schon, even the idea of seeking the thing one loves had changed. Now – thanks to the new geometry imposed on the planet by the railroads and canals of the nineteenth century – it was possible for a view from above to become a mental exercise: a laying down of parallel lines.

“Maumee River waterfront”
Toledo, Ohio, ca. 1908 Click to enlarge.


Only the tufts of smoke coming from the blocky building in the right background and the tugboat getting up steam in the river are non-linear. The river has no ripples left to show; they and their unpredictable little excursions into the air have been erased by the slow shutter speed of the 1908 camera. The camera itself would have been a large wooden box mounted on a tripod. An exercise for the class would be to reconstruct the lines of perspective radiating from the still glass point at the box’s front center.




In 1906 someone sat down with needle and thread and fashioned a change for a cat, turning her into a man smiling in stripes and a tie and fuzzy shoes. Shot from below, the image makes us look up toward the face. That angle imposes words on us, along the lines of, “He looks so proud.” Under the words’ control, we’ll smile too – and not like the cat with her muzzle fixed by anatomy in a curve, but consciously, muscles extending themselves to exert power over the micro-environment of our face and the thoughts it expresses.


Think of the ore carrier Jay C. Morse (no relation) as one more muscle, extending the smile indefinitely along what was once a river valley. Patiently waiting before its image for it to begin moving again, we seek the thing we love. And at the top of our line of sight in the meantime is the cat from 105 years ago: an earnest of our hope to live on if our curvy smile can charm the line of time.



In transit

I started saying it last year: Blogger, the Google program that was hosting The Art Part, seems unstable. Last year it decided to delete all the spaces between paragraphs in my archived posts, and a few days ago it did the same thing to another Blogger blogger, Jerome Rothenberg.

So for now I’m switching to WordPress. Transferring my image files here from Blogger turns out to be a complicated, expensive job, so (again, for now) I’ll just keep the old pages where they are, reachable by link from the bloglist on the right.

And now for a test picture:


This is an anaglyph (the kind you need to view through red-and-blue glasses) of a 1902 stereograph of Honolulu. If it works I’ll say more about it in another post, but now I’m about to click “Publish” and see what happens.

Does the full-screen toggle work? Does the picture enlarge when it’s clicked?