Tag Archives: early photography

The Echo

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I was sitting at my desk yesterday with no work to do, so I did what I always do— picked up a book. The sort of job I have is the sort of job where a book such as Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry is laying at arms reach. It’s quite wonderful.

It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous” woman, who had “a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded and an equal determination to be loved”  (4).

Woolf’s introduction is a short biography of the fascinating character of Cameron. Born in India to “the biggest liar in India” as her father was called, and who eventually, spectacularly drank himself to death, and to a French mother who was the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, Julia Margaret Cameron was a famously eccentric and lovable woman. Woolf tells a wonderful story of the perils of rejecting Cameron’s generosity: she was fond of giving shawls as gifts and if they were not wanted she would threaten to throw them in the fire, but if they were returned, she would sell them and use the money to purchase a an expensive invalid bed for the local hospital—donated in the name of the person who had rejected the shawl, naturally! much to the surprise of the bemused shawl-rejector cum donor. Better to “submit to the shawl,” as Woolf delightfully relates the tale.

She wrote letters till the postman left, and then began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy. Sitting at Wandsworth Station she wrote page after page to Alfred Tennyson until “as I was folding your letter came the screams of the train, and then the yells of the porters with the threat that the train would not wait for me,” so that she had to thrust the document into strange hands and run down the steps (4).

I’m sure I would have loved her as well. She didn’t begin to take photographs until her son gave her a camera when she was fifty years old—that is the sort of detail that always encourages me. And what beautiful photographs they were.

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

But it was “The Echo,” plate 21, that caught my heart in my throat. To think of Echo—who bore the brunt of Hera’s jealousy and was thereby helpless to do anything other than repeat the last words spoken to her causing her to tragically lose her love, Narcissus—and to see how Cameron’s photograph perfectly captures that muted love, is heartbreaking on a gray day such as this one.

As for Cameron, she seems to have had a happy life. Her marriage to the philosopher and jurist Charles Hay Cameron was of seeming felicity. I love everything about Woolf’s version of events and hope it was all true. Woolf ends the essay in such a way that I can hardly be in doubt:

The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died” (5).

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)

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Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”