Camera: A Collaborative Essay

Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Frame One: Light Writing
In the beginning there was a window, and a view. Le Gras: a country estate in eastern France. A simple view: rooftops, angles of stone walls leaning toward one another. Niépce had to be a patient man, kept the shutter of his camera open for eight hours to engrave the image on a pewter plate. Or rather, to have the light engrave the image for him. Light writing, he called it.

Imagine: Light writes what it knows. Light has no words, only images. Light composes around its many obstacles.

Imagine: The camera is a room. A vault, a chamber. In the earliest cameras, men stood inside, and let light in through a pinhole. Waiting to see what might develop. Everything depends on that hole, and the light that finds its way in.

 

Frame Two: The Dickinson Daguerreotype
At present, only one authenticated image exists of the prolific American poet Emily Dickinson. How strange for a woman who wrote so much of light, who learned to dwell ever in possibility. Was it not she who had elevated waiting to an art?

The Dickinson daguerreotype, as her image is known, dates to 1847. The poet was seventeen then, as I was the first time I studied her face—earnest and impenetrable, both at once—a young woman of contradictions I recognized.

Her thin white fingers seem to clasp something—a flower perhaps, or a tangle of thread? Beside her on a table draped with embroidered cloth, the camera has captured the gold-gilt pages of a book. Who was she reading?

Dickinson’s poems cast a spell on me. They document the kind of deep and considered longing I haven’t been able to bring into the world, not yet, not into my own daily life at the Catholic girls’ school for legacy students and Protestant overachievers. No one has any idea who I am, what I’m doing here, but I spend hours crouched in chapel after class, writing by the light of tall, stained, clerestory windows.

When we sit for senior pictures against the smudged blue backdrop, its weak conjuring of sky and clouds, I part my hair in the middle. I bring a dark dress that pleats near the neckline.

“Smile! Smile!” the photographer urges. He has a flashbulb and a busy schedule. He doesn’t have all day.

I let my lips split then, expectant, but I do not smile. I’m waiting, for something or someone, I can’t be sure which: a certainty of being seen and truly known. Between my thin white fingers, I clasp these words: I see thee better in the dark. / I do not need a light.

 

Frame Three: Uncompromising Attentions
Julia Margaret Cameron in her studio: a former chicken coop that still retains traces of its utilitarian origins. Can one ever be fully rid of chickens? She hums to herself as she sets up her camera, adjusts her subject under the skylight that never lets in enough light. She shoots Darwin. Or Tennyson. Or Longfellow. No matter how prominent her subject, she makes each one sit for hours while she arranges and rearranges. She must be charming, or charmed. They “suffered her uncompromising attentions, and sometimes later compared among themselves the degree of their suffering.”

Suffering, as any good Victorian knows, is a prerequisite for beauty. The resultant photos show piercing eyes, unruly hair, fleeting expressions caught between light and dark. Tennyson clutches a book, his shoulders wrapped in a shabby cloak. Darwin gazes ruefully toward his chest, perhaps contemplating the elegant logic of evolution, knowing full well that any theory so perfect will eventually cause trouble. Emily Dickinson, years earlier, said: Life is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.

You can see it in these portraits, but more so in the allegories Julia composes: she arranges her maid, the neighbor girl, anyone who will stop by, into the classical poses of love and loss. They become Madonnas, or Pre-Raphaelite women, or maidens from Arthurian legends. In these tableaus, the focus is blurred, the figures shadowed, or just coming forth from shadow. She develops the prints herself—cultivates her style that stirred ridicule—in a darkroom she converted from coal storage.

Imagine it: the portrait developing in the dark, the smell of earth and mineral in the air. Each face captured in its tenuous frame. Each frame a room in which a subject could be seen in totality. “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” Julia writes in a letter, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”

Could Julia have imagined, a century later, the school photographer huddled under his black cloth? Child after child trooping in, to be captured in the split second of the flash. Then the class photo: students squared up in grid, smiling from their individual frames: teeth missing, bangs crooked, cowlicks out of control. The teacher, stern and beneficent, the hub of it all. The wallet-sized photos snipped apart with scissors; the 5 x 7 set into its frame, all the past selves lined up behind.

Can we ever be truly seen, deeply known? We want uncompromising attention: someone to gaze and see easily beyond flesh and blood and bone. None of these school pictures could do it: all surface, industrial, assembly line. In my sixth-grade class photo, I poked out all the eyes with a push pin, so we all stared blindly into the future. This was the truth. My own face: a blur of holes, stabbed again and again. Not even a smile left behind.

 

Frame Four: Kodak Moments
Most children of the later twentieth century developed a Pavlovian response to the phrase, “Say cheese!” I was no exception. We learned to freeze mid-bite of cake, mid-rip of wrapping paper, and mug for our mothers’ cameras. At first, they were long rectangles with a handle that dropped down, a cord that wrapped around the wrist, and a blinding flash. We saw double for a moment after. The 110 film curved on each side like a Victorian kissing chair I saw in a museum once—then I couldn’t stop blushing.

By the early 1990s, my mother had a Canon Sure Shot she could point and click. It was easy to zoom in and zoom out with the micro-lens, which made a pleasant, buzzing sound, then winked like a flirty eye. The shelf in our refrigerator was always lined with film, tiny black canisters with soft gray lids; inside them, 35mm the size of a spool of thread.

At school, our librarian had a fancy kind of camera called a Polaroid, which printed pictures on the spot. Every year I begged Santa Claus for one of those, but the film, my parents warned, was too expensive for a girl who earned merely a dollar a week for her chores.

We all knew what we looked like, of course, so what was the strange allure of crowding together around the table in the check-out room, watching our collective image emerge against the black box, lightening and lightening until we could make out someone’s blond hair, green eyes, freckles, and a flicker of braces? Each Polaroid picture came with its own frame, a white square margin where Mrs. Olsen wrote “Spelling bee” or “Field day” with a fine-tipped pen before pinning it to the bulletin board in the hall.

At first, there was such delight in finding a face you recognized, especially when that face was your own. We scoured yearbooks for the likeness of ourselves and our friends. We tore open the envelope of 3 x 5 prints, which our parents purchased at a separate counter for photo processing at Bartell’s. When did the feeling shift to something worrisome, the reflex to shielding your face from the flash? What if someone caught you in a bad light and there you were, preserved like that, forever? Was your acne showing up, red and shiny as a rash? Was your lazy eye trailing off again to the side? And what about the little knob at the end of your nose, your resolution never to be caught in profile?

Once, a girl in junior high told you “the camera adds ten pounds” like it was nothing, a common fact, and a necklace of sweat soon beaded your collarbones. Surely George Eastman never anticipated your adolescent anxiety, vulnerability, and yes, even your vanity, when a hundred years before, he began to market the home camera, the first twenty-four shot rolls of commercial film. You began to read into the phrase “Strike a pose!,” to leave your albums stark and unfinished under the bed, to wonder if every moment of your life was really staged.

 

Frame Five: Instamatic
In 1963, Kodak came out with the “Instamatic” line: cameras so easy to use, anyone could do it. You just had to load the film onto the sprockets (make sure the holes lines up exactly, or you might not really be advancing the film, leading to a series of lost moments), close the back cover, and begin to shoot. This meant everyone could now own and operate a camera, and they did, yes they did.

Did you remember the camera? Let’s get a picture! Wait, one more.

My father carried the camera around his neck, or later, at this side, clipped to his belt like a holster. My mother would be plotting pictures before we’d even stepped out of the car. My brothers and I: constantly herded together in front of roadside attractions, restaurant signs, or inserted among distant relatives. Say cheese! and sometimes I did. The word “cheese” stretching your lips, lifting your cheeks, into an involuntary smile. Sometimes I said nothing, my mouth clamped shut and full of secrets. Outings became more about documenting the event than experiencing it in the first place.

The trademark “Instamatic” melds together two words: “instant” and “automatic.” The “insta” part of the word referred to how quickly you could make exposures: shoot, crank, shoot again. The camera knew what to do, automatically. You still had to wait days for the prints to be developed; there was nothing instant about that part of the process. You had to wait a long enough time—a few days at the shortest, a few weeks if no one remembered—for you to forget enough of the details so the photos became the official narrative.

It always felt like a surprise: those packets of prints, and the sleeves of cut negatives (that always fell out first, in danger of being lost.) Often we looked at the prints right there in the drugstore, under the fluorescent lights, shuffling them like cards to find “a good one.” For even with the “automatic” part of the process, there was still great room for human error: a thumb in the way, blinding sunlight, accidental double exposures, some prints mysteriously all black. Often the error lay with the subjects: eyes closed, or pulling a funny face, or flashing devil’s horns over an angelic sibling. We had no guarantees, yet always we made doubles.

Eventually my mother glued the photos into scrapbooks, or assembled them into collages hung on the wall. So many smiling faces, waves and waves of them. No one really cared about the negatives, so I squirreled them away, holding up the strips to the light. Glowing back at me: faces with stark eyes, round and white as thumbtacks. Cheshire smiles, floating. All our bodies reversed.

 

Frame Six: Röntgen rays
What of the light that makes its way from inside out, rendering the unseen seen, the invisible visible?

The first X-rays were called Röntgen rays, named for the German physicist who discovered them in 1895. It was the fin de siècle, but everything gleamed new and fresh and possible, hardly an end at all. The X-ray—comprised of electromagnetic wavelengths 1,000 times shorter than light—could penetrate soft tissue but not high-density substances, thus allowing bone to be photographed for the first time.

In the dentist’s chair, I bite down hard on cardboard, the choking impulse alive in my throat, my breath tucked like a pocket handkerchief. “Just a little longer,” he promises, moving around to the other side, pressing the cold metal camera close to my cheek.

When I am older, I ask to see them—the X-rays of my teeth, the pictures he uses to determine the health of my mouth. What was I expecting? It is hard to say, but I flinch as he places the black-and-white print on the silver tray, regard it through the slats of my fingers.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” the dentist chuckles.

Not a ghost, but a ghoul, a frightening arrangement of roots and spears, the mandible protruding to a menacing sneer. These words slip through my lips before I can strain them: “I’m a monster.”

“Well, if you are, we all are,” he says, and chuckles again.

Years later I will break my leg in a home accident, what is benignly called a “slip and fall.” Most astonishing is the absence of pain, the way my foot merely crooks to the side, limp, and I have no ability to lift it. The break is called “sharp.” The break is called “clean.” The break is a drawbridge raised—above the ankle and below it—flesh and bone stranded on each side.

In the other room, my beloved hears a sound like shattered glass. “Did you drop a wine bottle?” she asks.

The paramedics say it must be shock. Everyone agrees there should be pain. I wait for it, expectant, clenching my teeth, but the pain doesn’t arrive. Instead, a gentle man in green scrubs comes for me. “We need to get your X-rays,” he says. In the next room, a lone light flickers, color of a legal pad.

The nurse covers me with the familiar apron made of lead. I turn to my side, support my body weight, make a quip about all the yoga planks I’ve done and how they’ll finally come in handy.  I lift and turn, lift and turn, listening for the monotone, the waves shooting through my skin.

“There’s no pain,” I reassure him—until the ankle bone drops out, dragging the skin with it, lands on the table with a thud.

No pain—and then all the pain at once. Sword after sword of impossible light. I am the woman in the magician’s trick. The whole room floods white.

 

Frame Seven: Ultrasound
Sometimes light is not enough.

Imagine: the gloaming. That edge between day and night. Dusky, dim, but strangely electric. You wait for something to happen. One bat, then another, appearing, disappearing, erratic. You see them, and then you don’t. You glimpse them out the corner of your eye. They navigate, you know, by echolocation, but strain as you might, you hear nothing but voices on a neighbor’s radio, distant traffic like the whooshing of waves. You want to hear beneath it all: the reverberant sound that can lead a creature to its prey in the dark. Sound that can outline any hidden obstacles.

Imagine: You’re nineteen years old and lying on a narrow table in a dark room. Everything is cold: the hospital gown, your bare feet, the vinyl of the table, the ultrasound gel smeared on your abdomen, the round knob of the ultrasound wand insistently pressing on your full bladder. They insisted you drink a full gallon of water before the procedure, as ultrasonic waves travel best through liquid. It’s 1978, and only a few decades since they’ve refined the science of echolocation to locate flaws and disturbances in the human body.

Press and click. Out the corner of your eye you see the images fluttering across the screen, but the technician turns the monitor away. In so many films and television shows, there’s an obligatory scene of a couple holding hands, watching the first images of their baby appear on the ultrasound. Usually the technician needs to point it out—there’s the head, there’s a foot, and oh look! Do you want to know the sex? Fetuses look otherworldly in these, their first baby photos—monstrous or alien, tucked into a cave of flesh—yet this image brings the warring couple together, all disagreement dissolved. They smile tenderly at one another. That, and the sound of the heartbeat, whoosh, whoosh, like a wave. They take a printout home and post it on the refrigerator—like any happy family photo—to remind them what incubates, unseen.

But this ultrasound—you, alone, a teenager on a table in a hospital in Eureka, California—does not seek out a healthy baby. The wand wants to snuffle out a defect, the way the first ultrasounds were used to detect fatal flaws in metal structures. It wants to know why you’re in pain. Press and click. The technician stone-faced. The room so cold.

You will not be given a photo. You’ll be rushed to an operating room where they’ll excise a growing embryo from your narrow fallopian tubes. You’ll have no memory of this, no photos to document the occasion. You’ll have a scar, though, a big one, as if you were sawn in half, and sewn back together again.

 

Frame Eight: Ultraviolet
Sometimes light is too much.

As a child learning about the sun, you called it “ultraviolent.” The teacher slashed through the “n” with her red grading pen, but still you wrote it wrong, over and over. “Ultraviolent” made sense to you: the way something big and warm and nurturing could harbor a secret rage, could burn you with surprising force, could continue to sting in the quiet aftermath for days. The sun was like a mother that way, capable of all kinds of things.

Imagine: As a grown-up, you move to a state famous for its sunshine, dangerous for its sunshine, both at once. You know the risks. You apply your sunscreen every day—at least SPF 30, which refers to the sun protection factor, an acronym you have never encountered unabridged until now.

Imagine: Your neighbor tells you about the importance of annual skin checks. Skin checks or sun checks? You can’t remember what she said, but dutifully you make your appointment. As a teenager, you had such “bad skin” that the thought of visiting a dermatologist, even now, even snug in the adulthood that has exceeded your expectations, makes you feel small, ugly. The bug under the magnifying lens again.

In South Florida, it is hard to find a dermatologist who doesn’t also specialize in various cosmetic procedures. Everything is about lasers now. Don’t like it? Laser it away! Hair, moles, hair that sprouts from moles, et al. When you think of lasers, you think of light sabers at the circus, waving them in the dark as part of the fanfare, or laser tag at the Funplex, beating all the boys.

Now every pamphlet and every billboard, which is really just a pamphlet writ large, wants to remind you that you live in the shadows. Step into the light! (But don’t forget your sun protection factor.) You need Vitamin D to help fight osteoporosis—more common in women, you know, and you’re not getting any younger—but of course the sun does so much damage to the skin. Helps the bones, hurts the skin. Then you remember you’ve heard this before.

Ultraviolet light has a wavelength shorter than visible light but longer than X-rays. It can give you a tawny glow or send you running for the aloe. Incidences of melanoma are, unsurprisingly, much higher the closer to the equator you are.

The dermatologist reminds you even nailbeds are vulnerable to cancer as she studies your skin through her thick-framed glasses. Are they medical or cosmetic? you can’t tell. With practiced nonchalance, she says, “We sell a nice cream for that breakout on your back.”

“Or I could just take a shower at the gym.” You smile at her, but she can feel you bristling under her palms, all your defensive little hairs that have not yet succumbed to treatment.

 

Frame Nine: Moon Over Blue Lake
Such uncompromising attention: sometimes it feels violent, intrusive. The X-ray, the ultrasound. The snap of a shutter. The shout of a flash.

In school I studied photojournalism, and I must have shot many pictures with a heavy black camera. The hard part was always going up to the subjects afterward and asking their names, their major, getting permission. So I often made what I thought of as less intrusive compositions: vistas of the beach north of town, stands of redwood trees, resident herds of elk.

I stood on the deck of the house I shared in the town of Blue Lake, about four miles inland, and watched the moon rise over the valley. There was no lake in Blue Lake, just a long, wide valley dotted with softball diamonds. I photographed the moon, made several exposures, experimented with f-stops and shutter speeds. But it wouldn’t be until I entered the darkroom that I’d be able to see what I’d really captured.

I loved everything about the darkroom: lifting the negative into the enlarger, cropping for the best effect. Dodging and burning to enhance the highlights and shadows. I did all this carefully, intently focused on the negative. I swirled the print with my fingertips in the rinsing bath, then clothes-pinned my photo to the line to dry while I cleaned up, an exacting process. You had to leave the darkroom spotless for the next person, who might be waiting right that minute outside, the red light that said occupied keeping others at bay. Everyone respects a darkroom.

I should have felt claustrophobic in such a small space, breathless and panicked, but somehow the focus on the prints kept me sane: the prints like small windows in a windowless room. Letting in the night where I stood so quietly on the balcony, watching the moon rise in the east, watching it all in the viewfinder, already framed. Trying to get just right the bright shadows: a contradiction. How can the darkness be silver, colloidal?

Those redwoods bathed in moonlight, the dark behind them lit from within, and somewhere the owls hooting. Not a song exactly, but a message that sounds silver too, lined with precious metal. That’s what I want to capture in the darkroom: Moon Over Blue Lake, I’ll call it, after Ansel Adams and his wide-angle, black-and-white prints that somehow inscribe distance and intimacy at once. I imagine him by the side of the road in the New Mexican desert, the tripod on the roof of his station wagon: the 8 x 10 View camera balanced there, heavy, inscrutable. The light—in motion, transient—writing all of it: the rapport between sky and earth; the empathy of light for dark; the umbilicus of a window and its view.

I understand this later as I hand the finished print to my professor. I think I’ve finally got it: the balance of elements, a whisper of secrets in the gilded trees and shadows. He sighs and hands it back to me. “This isn’t photojournalism,” he says, and I get a C+ in the class. I can’t seem to simply document. No, I skulk around at night, making exposures of the most difficult kind: the moon too bright, the valley too dark. I want the photo to articulate something that bears no articulation. Ansel Adams once wrote: The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.

 

Frame Ten: Photograph
I have never set foot in a darkroom myself, but once, in college, I wrote a story about a young woman who met her lover there. I was trying to articulate something about desire, something I didn’t understand. I’m sure I used the word clandestine and also the word rendezvous. Back then I thought any signifier of the erotic required at least three syllables. Perhaps I even had the lover say, echoing Dickinson, “I see you better in the dark. I do not need a light.” But it was hard to describe what I had never experienced myself.

“Your story doesn’t feel finished to me,” the professor said, taking one final pass through the pages. “Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t believe Emily really loved him. What’s her stake in all this?”

At the library, I studied photographs Alfred Stieglitz had taken of Georgia O’Keeffe, the woman he claimed as muse and later wife. She was a subject who could not be made into an object, even naked, even with averted eyes. Her collarbones seemed to slice through the pages, even through the film itself—such a flimsy barrier between art and life. Which is to say: O’Keeffe cut me, too, when I looked at her—sword after sword of impossible light—but she didn’t make me want to look away.

Years later, I was driving down a road drenched in sunshine, the Florida sky always overexposed. A tender melody rose up from the radio, words drifting through so poignantly that I found myself humming and then mouthing along: “We keep this love in a photograph, we made these memories for ourselves, where our eyes are never closing, hearts are never broken, times forever frozen still.”

In the car, I keep two wallet-sized snapshots of my beloved and me taped to the dashboard, bleached more and more by the unrelenting light. She thinks this is silly because, after all, you see me every day—but think of all those years before I knew her, before I even knew myself. Think of my drawbridge heart, its erratic lifts and poorly timed closures. Think of the aperture I was, waiting, always waiting, to see what might develop.

In the chorus of “Photograph,” Ed Sheeran croons, “So you can keep me inside the pocket of your ripped jeans,” and when I hear these words, I am blinking back tears but also blushing, embarrassed that a pop song has moved me this much and that I can’t stop singing along. “Oh, you can fit me inside the necklace you got when you were sixteen, next to your heartbeat where I should be.”

Of course I had such a necklace when I was sixteen. Didn’t every girl? It was a gaudy gold locket on an oversized chain, and my mother promised someday I would meet a nice boy and keep a likeness of him inside. A likeness. I struggled with this word, the almost-not-quite of it, the distance and the intimacy it implied. Even when the nice boy and I ducked into the photo booth at the mall, I was still looking over my shoulder, still squirming out of the frame. All those bright flashes in succession, then the coins we slipped in, the sheet that slipped out, trimmed on each side with a row of tiny holes.

Across my face in every picture, a shadow stretched, flexed; a little swath of darkness, involuntary, instead of a smile. We said we would try again, at a different booth, but the night wore on, and we never did.

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