Part 8 of The Genre of Silence, an essay.
If the creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us . . . we would never doubt that we were in another world. — John Muir
No one was able to capture the moment when my father pin-wheeled and died. That instance was lost. Of course that is proper, but as a perpetual voyeur, I’m curious. I did take a photograph of him later. My father had long maintained, ironically and not ironically, that he would live to be 300 years old. His strategy for living to be 300 years old was that he wanted to live to be 300 years old. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, right?
I took the photograph of the corpse of my dead father in the hospital room with my iPhone. This image entered my photo stream and it is still there among the images of baked goods, vanities from the hardware store, selfies of me walking along the Green River, and images of my wife and daughter involved in our daily lives. That is the image which has the stadium in the genre of open casket portrait, had the punctum of his expression—an expression that was his face completely at rest. My father’s face was always in motion, always calibrated in some way, and here his face was slack. This was an image of a body that lacked the presence of a person, and this became the satori, the element that leaps out and continues to leap out of the image, although I have long ago hidden it from casual view in my timeline.
In my father’s shoeboxes are thousands of photographs. They have been taken on all sorts of cameras. Mostly they are the cheap sort of camera you could buy for less than the cost of a roll of film. The film was the expensive part. My daughter does not remember the world before digital cameras were embedded in everything. In my father’s world, the camera had moved from an obscure and expensive object to a mass consumer object by the end of the 1960s. And by the late 70s you had a little plastic box with the film and maybe a large flash about the size of an ice cube. You would press a button, and then the gears and other mechanical components inside of the camera would go to work, expose the film to the world in front of you, and then advance the film into a protective covering. When you were done pressing the film and had maybe twelve or eighteen exposures, you would remove the little canister. It contained the exposed film. You couldn’t expose it to the light or you would ruin your pictures.
And then, you took it to get developed at the drug store. They would collect the film and send it to a lab to be processed, and then return the developed film. The entire process would take a week or so and that was fast. You could also get filmed returned as quickly as twenty-four hours if you took it a special place or a drug store that offered fast processing.
If you recall, to take these images, you could only look through the tiny plastic view finder that gave you only the faintest approximation of what might hit the exposed film. In short, it was always a crap shoot.
Often, you might see a fantastic vista such as Mount Rainier from the Green River Valley and you would line it up in the view finder, click a photo, and maybe another one in case the first didn’t turn out. And then, two weeks later you would get back your images, somewhat removed from context, and then bam — the images you had intended to be of Mount Rainer would be of a blurry plant, or maybe a mostly-in-focus tree leaning at one edge of the frame and the distant, and the icy glaciers of Mount Rainer, which were the reason you had taken the image in the first palace, would be long gone. And you would go, a dud, and then the entire roll of film would have two or three images, at most, good enough to go into the photo album. The rest would get thrown away.
In this case, taking photographs was as much about curating the happenstance and random accidents of the consumer camera as it was in taking photographs.
My father, however, kept these images and seemed to have specialized in the happenstance and random image of the Central Cascades.
These are images that are all stadium and no punctum. Without punctum they lack any possibility of satori. They cannot refuse to say anything. They communicate little except the reality of their own existence.
Each image is a document that my father was alive and had the intent of capturing an image at the time he took them. So you know his camera was in the woods. You know he kept the developed the image. He kept the image, and he placed the image in a box.
A photo is not just haunted by death, as Susan Sontag has said, but a photo is haunted by life; the transitory nature of existence, the “suchness” of a moment. Even the most trivial snapshot, a dud, captures this flow as a thing. The image and film itself will fade and finish. It is a brief echo of the continual flow of things coming into and going out of being.
Death returns you to nothing, and you are as if you were never. Silence is resistance to the inevitability. We are surrounded now in the data of our lives, our own corpus of images and timelines. The boxes of photos are the accumulation of my father’s life, the byproduct of being alive and standing alone in the woods.
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