Monday, October 03, 2011

`The Pathos of This Moment'

The most interesting web site I’ve discovered of late is Shorpy, an archive of high-resolution photographs dating from roughly 1850 to 1950, the art form’s first century. I learned of the site from my friend Melissa Kean, Rice University’s campus historian and an enthusiastic collector and appreciator of old photographs.

About a month ago she stopped by my office with a box of snapshots, most of them taken by an anonymous American Marine during and after the Battle of Guadalcanal (1942-43). We spent half an hour studying the pictures, some of them quite grisly, and speculating about the identity of the photographer, an Iowa native judging from the inscriptions on the backs of the photos.
Photography is unique among the arts in its ability to render the fleeting moment. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible to take the same picture twice. Think of it as visual haiku. For this reason, even photos of and by strangers elicit strong emotions, a wistful sense of time passing. In the essay “Photography in My Life” (Photographs and Words, 1991), Wright Morris, the novelist and photographer who pioneered “photo-texts,” writes:
“…I was prepared to appreciate home-grown American ruins and to attempt to salvage what was vanishing. Nothing will compare with the photograph to register what is going, going, but not yet gone. The pathos of this moment, the reluctance of parting, we feel intensely.”

No comments: