Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Window of the Soul

There is only one proven way to stop time, and it's not through Botox injections, plastic surgery or an intense exercise regime. The only means to really stop time—albeit for only a second—is to take a photograph.  This week tragedy struck in our community. A young man my son Noah's age passed away quite suddenly from complications of flu. Those who had seen him only a few days earlier in school and those who hadn't seen him for a long time began a desperate search to find him in old photographs. All sought documentation of how he looked last week and how he had looked as a child growing up; any documentation that he had been here… because now he was gone.

I also searched for images of this lost child within the massive photo bank I have amassed over the years. I've always been an historian, always had a fascination for looking back and seeing what was, but my own search led me to think about the importance of photography for this generation and its consequent obsession with it.  I remember learning how to wind the film into the spool of my first little Brownie camera, working in a darkroom, hanging negatives up on a line and waiting for the image to appear within a shallow pail of solution. There it was, the person or the object I had photographed, captured right there on the two –dimensional paper. No one could take it from me. The subject I had photographed was now mine.

Our desire to actually possess the objects we choose to capture within the lens, immediately, has encouraged the seemingly- lightning development of the industry. First there were Polaroid cameras; what fun it was to watch these instant records appear before our eyes seconds after clicking a button. I still laugh every time I think of Rose Teplitsky, an older woman from Miami who was part of the group my family travelled to Russia with in 1974. She would snap her Polaroid camera and out would pop the photograph, into the frozen air, hesitating one moment before flipping over and fluttering into a bank of snow. Wet and frosty, there was still a viable record of that one moment. 

Digital photography has one-upped Polaroids by providing us with virtually instant, but now high-quality, documentation. Answering our mania for immediacy we can now take a picture, download it and print it up within approximately two minutes. With virtually no need to go to the local photo shop most of those businesses have closed up. In fact, last week, on the final day of 2010, Kodachrome officially developed the very last roll of its once revolutionary color reversal film. Try to remember the last time you bought a roll of film.

Although the patience to wait for our photographs to be developed is gone, the need to record every breathing moment has been accelerated. Part of this is a direct response to our ability, not only to capture, but also to recover these records so easily. Social networks and the internet have done much to enable our search deep into our past, as well as that of others. I don't believe I'm the only one to have searched for an image of a former classmate or boyfriend.  But this interest is not a product of our generation.  In fact, for centuries kings and queens have had their portraits painted specifically to leave behind a record for posterity; to remind us that they were here. Those left to us, which fill museums around the world, attest to the endless desire both to document and to be documented.

How interesting that as the development of modern photography in the early 19th century began to offer a way to capture appearances with actual verisimilitude, artists began to create more expressive, painted versions.  My present research into the life of a Jewish School of Paris artist has led me to a body of exemplary expressive portraiture.  J.D. Kirszenbaum's (1900-1954) oeuvre is filled with nostalgic imagery of figures he knew in the shtetl who were no longer with him.  His subjects are distinguished by their eyes: exaggerated in size, delineated by endless circling lines and blacker than black. The artist's articulation of these traditional windows of the soul captures a sense of both tragedy and loss. In the end it is the viewer's gaze into the eyes of these individuals that completes the artist's mission.

There is a magnetic attraction to the imagery of those who have left us--attesting to the indelible mark they have left behind. Does anyone tire of looking at photographs of Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana? Simple snapshots can offer us a way to visually affirm that someone was here--that they are remembered--and that they will be missed; each image offering a bit of solace, along with a great deal of sadness. What don't we read into those eyes? Since there is no way to turn back the clock, and every click of the camera means that one more second has passed, we have no choice but to make every moment a Kodak moment.

1 comment:

  1. I still shoot some film for my annual calendar to assure myself that no grandparent will have already seen the image on an email.

    I love how you wove parent/person/art historian into this post. Haunting. Reassuring. All at once.