Sunday, March 7, 2010

How small a part of time they share

Palm Beach, Florida, about 1905:

Click to enlarge.

The caption is by Henry James.

The velvet air, the colour of the sea, the "royal" palms, clustered here and there, and, in their nobleness of beauty, their single sublime distinction, putting every other mark and sign to the blush, these are the principal figures of the sum -- these, with the custom of the short dip into the jungle, at two or three points of which, approached by charming, winding wood-ways, the small but genial fruit-farm offers hospitality -- offers it in all the succulence of the admirable pale-skinned orange and the huge sun-warmed grape-fruit, plucked from the low bough, where it fairly bumps your cheek for solicitation, and partaken of, on the spot, as the immortal ladies of Cranford partook of dessert -- with a few steps aside, the back turned and a betrayed ingurgitation. It is by means of a light perambulator, of "adult size," but constructed of wicker-work, and pendent from a bicycle propelled by a robust negro, that the jungle is thus visited; the bicycle follows the serpentine track, the secluded ranch is swiftly reached, the peaceful retirement of the cultivators multitudinously admired, the perambulator promptly re-entered, the darkey restored to the saddle and his charge again to the hotel.
 -- The American Scene, chapter 14, section 4

The part of speech in this caption which changes Palm Beach from a location in space to an experience in time is one of the adverbs: "promptly." "Promptly" helps us to understand the tourist attraction as an experience defined in the imperative mood, passive voice, and past progressive tense, as a thing to have been seen. It tells us that the tourist attraction is experienced across time as an anticipation of its own memory. Even as it takes us in, the attraction forcibly defers our sense of what it is in the present. That pleasure won't come until the vacation is over. Then, in the future, the experience can be completed by a willed nostalgia for what is now forever in the past. Hence the term souvenir, which in its French original is both a noun and a reflexive verb.

Some forty years before this picture was taken, another part of speech related to memory became briefly important for photographers: the adjective "instantaneous," as opposed to the newly adjectival noun "time." That grammar hadn't been a feature of the earliest photographs, because all of those were what we now call time exposures. In 1840, for example, John W. Draper was able to make the world's first photographic portrait by managing to reduce exposure time to 65 seconds: an interval short enough for the sitter to remain still, allowing only for animal necessity. The marmoreal significance of the resulting image, as Draper wrote, is that "the indistinctness which may be detected in some parts arises mainly from the inevitable motions of the respiratory muscles -- a slight play of the features, and the tedium of a forced attitude" (Taft 30). 


But if there was tedium during the fraction of a second in 1905 when a shutter opened in the light of Palm Beach, it was only the momentary trace of a mood. In 1888, Gerard Manley Hopkins had referred to a photograph of himself as "taken instantaneous" -- that is, in instantaneous mode, at a time when photographs were associated equally with both modes -- and by 1905, instantaneous images were so much the norm that the term "instantaneous" itself had almost dropped out of use. 

That is, by 1905 most photographs had ceased to incorporate past time. They had become only serial instances of present times. When Henry James came to Palm Beach in 1905 to see, he probably saw under the influence of photography; that is, as an artist who saw images moving into and through and then out of a frame. His record of the experience, The American Scene, was published in 1907, the same year as the New York Edition of his novels, with its photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Modeling for language two years earlier, Henry James, portly adult, mentally posed himself as entering his large-sized baby carriage and then promptly leaving it. The counterimage of a slender infancy may have come amusingly to mind during the ride between poses, but it wasn't recorded because neither of the two instantaneities had evoked it. The sense of elapsed time between them would emerge in memory only later, developing in Henry James's prose word by slow word.

And, word by slow word, the photograph and its illustrative words continue to drift apart in time: the words a text continuing to speak to us in a grammar measured across time, the image an instantaneity ever more untranslatable as it makes its way outward from the human beings on the beach and the time when they were alive before the camera, an instant before memory set in.

Work cited: 

Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (1938; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, 1964).