Saturday, April 08, 2006

Rose-coloured glasses.

In the painting one of my blogfriends loves best, Marc Chagall's "The Eiffel Tower" (1934), the sun always shines, and an angel always hangs and watches it.

A lot of today felt like being this angel, borne on by some clarity of heat and vision. I did look for grit, you my urban friends, but I don't think I have the eye for it. Instead, I kept finding urban flowers:

But then I also saw a ghost.

Now here's the punchline: One of the things I forgot to tell you about the National Gallery when I wrote about it the other day is that one of its paintings looks like a ghost. It's Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Colonel Charles Churchill, from about 1755. Churchill's face is chalky white because when he executed the portrait, Reynolds was experimenting with the fugitive color carmine. Apparently, Churchill wasn't the only of Reynolds's sitters who saw his painted face losing its color; the museum's wall plaque reports that when clients worried or complained, they were assured (by whom, the plaque doesn't say) that any painting by Reynolds--even a faded one--would be the best thing they could have. He was 32 when he painted Churchill's portrait.

The concept of the fugitive image has long been a favorite of mine. In the decade before Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot (in France and England, respectively) figured out the correct fixative treatments, they were able to take photographs but couldn't keep them. These images are known as fugitives; they flee in the light. When you come across an early photograph in a museum exhibition and it's covered by a heavy dark cloth, it's a semi-fugitive image, one that, with too much more exposure, would simply disappear.

Those early images also had incredibly long exposure times; the first image historically recognized as a photograph, taken from Joseph Nicephore-NiƩpce's studio window, took eight hours to produce. My favorite photographic image of all time, Daguerre's 1839 picture of a Paris boulevard, didn't take eight hours, but it did take long enough to vacate a city street.

The only people who survived the passing of time here, thereby making it into the historical record, are the ones who were not themselves passing on to somewhere else while Daguerre let the sun do its work: a man having his boots cleaned and the man doing the cleaning, there on the corner. When an exposure time is this long, those who move swiftly enough simply disappear, become fugitive. Traversing a city alone feels like that for me: I start to seem insubstantial, to become an embodiment of the act of looking itself.

There's more to say; that could be my life's motto. More about Norval Morrisseau, for instance. And more about the experience of walking alone by a river just at the point where late afternoon becomes early evening--and especially about that experience for one who is still and always missing her beloved lake. But now it is time to sleep. Not having my hot milk here is one of many things that have thrown me off during this trip.


Blogger ttractor said...

Pic #2 actually made me go "oooooh" and the ghost made me laugh. I was sorta teasing you about grit. You were so excited about going to a! real! City! and somehow (call me a snob)Canadia just doesn't seem to have anything that measures up to my Gritometer. I think because beauty here is hard-won, unexpected, comes at the intersection of joy and dispair, and that makes is a more precious and specific kind of surprise. However, I do very much enjoy your photos of the life I am not having, of slow, gentle, fearless.


11:13 AM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger four inches of ego said...

I think it is about time the Pac-Man ghosts made a cultural resurgence. I have always been fascinated by them -- the way they exist between fear and ephemerality in the game relative to those power pellets. They are also so elegantly draws, so simple but so very cool. I think the ghost need to be elevated to the level of Obey Giant.

1:19 PM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Oh, I know, about the teasing, Ttractor. But what's funny is that as I've been walking around, I've been trying to see things the way you do, and it's helped me realize that I have a very different eye from yours. This was brought home to me by my encounter with some gas or electric meter pipes yesterday: I found myself thinking, She'd know what to do with this pile of machinery, and somehow it would become a lovely commentary on urban life. Whereas for me, they're great to the eye but I couldn't quite get them on camera.

And to both of you: I saw the pacman ghost as I was walking back to my hotel from the art museum, laden with all my purchases (new posters and catalogues to muse over when I'm back home). I was so laden that I couldn't get the camera out to take a picture, so I went back a few minutes later to get the image. And just as I took it, someone crossed behind me and threw her shadow under the ghost. I swore under my breath and took another one, without the shadow, but when I looked at them at home, I realized how much I liked the one with the utterly ephemeral stranger included.

I am soaking in my last few hours of being here, before being pulled back into the slow-fast rounds of my daily life.


1:39 PM, April 09, 2006  
Anonymous dagger aleph said...

See now, that pink isn't bright, it's warm.

8:59 PM, April 09, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

And that's not even the pink--that's still the deep orangey pink outer circle of the sun! The picture I took that had the pink came out too blurry; I didn't want to use my flash, even though I (apparently) was allowed to.

1:41 AM, April 10, 2006  

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