October 24

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Photographs and Memories


An image of a man and his things – his precious, precious things – an image viewable only at a great distance, from some vast outer space of feeling, from the vacuum of gain and loss, from the breathtaking cosmos of memory with all its twinkling stars of ephemera.

In the photograph I’m caught mid-curation in the overcast afternoon light. It’s dark enough that table lamps are on and modestly haloing out in the exposure. Rubber-banded stacks of photos, albums, broken topped shoeboxes, steel boxes for slides, yellow one-hour photo sleeves holding 35mm negatives and framed memorabilia cover every available surface of my bedroom – the nightstand, the carpeted floor, the quilted bedding, the wooden strips of window sills. Golden speaker wire is draped over my bed. An extension cord winds out of the room and into the hallway past the orange toaster-wire glow of the rusty space heater and the plastic-dome record changer.

You can see the crap, overcast, rainy weather through the window behind me. I’ve got one hand on a hip, the other is scratching the back my head in the posture of near cartoon puzzlement, maybe overwhelm from the staggering quantity of scenes and faces, relatives, and friends arrayed and stacked in front of me on every available surface. I’m not sure it’s really all that great a picture compositionally and all the rest, but it’s a keeper because truthfully they’re all keepers. In my family we are inveterate collectors of images and in a consistent but patternless way have accumulated a staggering amphitheater of faces – faces that I don’t even always remember or recognize, faces in postcards, paper-clipped faces scissored from National Geographic, faces of family friends whose names elude me, faces ordered in Rexall discount sets of ten, faces from journeys to China, to Cairo, to the Statue of Liberty, from somebody or other’s dad at a school picnic.

Other than Time there are no natural predators in the Maine house for life captured in photography and the wardens will tell you point blank that no picture has ever been discarded here, a policy that has led to this staggering abundance of photographic wildlife. We are graspers and hoarders of the first order; we are not pruners. Every picture must be saved, every visual artifact a treasure for some possible future. The tree that spawned these moments may have withered away long ago, but its petals remain fixed on the ground, frozen in the Spring that gave birth to them, scentless, perfectly distributed, Gaussian, Zen-like.

The crush of detail in the picture of me sorting invites closer inspection: there’s a record arm caught in flight, mid-song, an album cover with a watercolor flower against a lamp. There’s a chunk of missing plaster on the wall by the queen size bed where crusty wall lathing is visible. There’s a glass of wine, a brick of convenience store cheese, a blue and red box of Stoned Wheat Thins, a Burgundy shaped bottle of red wine on the night table and a cork and a corkscrew beside it. You can see the cork is still in the corkscrew. You can make out a cluster of wood knots in the window frame, the slight bluing of veins on my visible hand, the shadows of my hand’s tendons, and the features of total strangers in the photos on the floor. A sea of impersonal detail.

The whole scene, the crowded world of its composition, the near and far of it, all of it is perfectly focused, the even-handed neutrality of the wide-angle lens. I look at it now and imagine the oily, blue-green optics of the lens that took it, that orbited coolly, that glistened in the dark for just a flash, its polished lens glass curved as smoothly as the arc of a planet, that rendered details upon details on every hair of light, that painted worlds upon worlds, stories and feelings appearing wherever attention is cast, visions flowering out from the tiniest of pinpricks like the nested dreams of Indian deities.

And far below the camera’s eye, eclipsed, a neighboring world-in-miniature creates the photograph’s illusion of life, a vast soulless desert where the light-swept sands of silver salts shift and flicker in the bitstream, indifferently rendering an image of a man and his things – his precious, precious things – an image viewable only at a great distance, from some vast outer space of feeling, from the vacuum of gain and loss, from the breathtaking cosmos of memory with all its twinkling stars of ephemera.

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