Entry 77: The Silver Frame– Photographs. I mean, here, the older sort- printed on special paper and placed in albums or behind frames or in glossy magazines, not the digital imposters that feature grinning, gesticulating loons having such a hell of a good time all of the time that they can barely maintain continence- or so it seems to me when my daughter shows me the latest trove from her Facebook page.
Susan Sontag, in 1977, wrote that the proliferation of photographic images had created in people a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world around them; and this, mind you, thirty years before the iPhone amplified that to include an overwhelming, self-absorbed narcissism. My initial dyspeptic comments notwithstanding, I love photographs: LIFE magazine was a feature of our household along with National Geographic when I was growing up and I spent hours with these magazines, imagining the lives and places behind the images.
The Yosemite studies of Ansel Adams, Hubble telescope revelations of distant galaxies and underwater vistas of coral reefs and deep-sea creatures are balm for the soul, certainly, but the human condition is revealed more clearly in images involving people such as those from the early years of photography featuring the battlegrounds from the American Civil War and other sepia records from the 19th Century.
In the 20th Century, the two epochal collections curated by Edward Steichen at New York City’s MoMA entitled The Family of Man and The Bitter Years inspired one of my favourite poets, Carl Sandburg, to write,
People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are ironworkers, bridge men, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords, and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate — one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being. If the human face is “the masterpiece of God” it is here, then in a thousand fateful registrations. Faces in crowds, laughing and windblown leaf faces, profiles in an instant of agony, mouths in a dumb-show mockery lacking speech, faces of music in gay song or a twist of pain, a hate ready to kill, or calm and ready-for-death faces. Some of them are worth a long look now and deep contemplation later.
These collections have found a permanent home at Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg and this is one of the destinations on my bucket list. You’re so tragic, I hear the adrenaline junkies among you sneer- so be it. There are, of course, countless portraits in black and white and colour where a human moment in time is trapped for our perusal and, perhaps, deep contemplation later.
In the 21st Century, the appalling image of the planes striking the World Trade Centre has, for me, and many others, I expect, maintained premier position, so far, in the photographic history of this century. Just how sensitive the use of this iconography proved to be is exemplified by the reaction to the initial album cover of Steve Reichs’ WTC 9/11, written for the Kronos Quartet on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity.
The cover shows the twin towers just after the first plane has struck and just before the second is to strike. Phil Kline, a fellow composer, called the original “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen. “It stirred up an enormous controversy that I was absolutely amazed to see,” Reich said. Others were surprised too. “This is a kind of image we were inundated with for weeks, months, even years after the event,” Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post. “Newspapers and magazines and television screens and the covers of books were flooded with pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers with red-rimmed eyes standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers.” So why, 10 years later, is this cover any different?
A good question, and I’m not sure there is any easy answer other than to suggest that in the age of instant indignation fuelled and amplified by Twitter and other social media sites, artists have to be very careful about their choices, remain au fait with the technology and be adroit at turning on a dime to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous bloggers.
For some, a photograph is more precious than any material treasure. In bushfires, the family photo album is taken ahead of the silverware. Although, I must admit that technology enabling images to be saved to the cloud may consign future albums to the flames. This song is about a photograph that is the only artefact remaining of a loving relationship uncovered after twenty years: precious, irreplaceable, unrepeatable.