Implied life on Mars

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Twenty-one hours ago, the space probe Phoenix landed on Mars, and NASA has already released some images. Looking at them, somewhat blearily, this morning, I felt almost frightened. This is what I would see if I were stranded on Mars, I realized, and the realization had uncanny force. Red dirt and rubble for miles and miles. I couldn’t figure out why the photos were so powerful. I’d looked at lots of pictures from the Mars Pathfinder and its sidekick, the Sojourner Rover. How come they had never hit me in the pit of my stomach?

Later in the day the answer came to me: the Phoenix photo (left) had been taken from a camera roughly as high off the ground as my eyes are. That was my subjective and retrospective impression, anyway, and double-checking just now, it seems to be the case. The Phoenix’s Surface Stereo Imager, which took this picture, sits on a mast that puts it “two meters above the ground, roughly the height of a tall person,” according to the NASA website. The mast for the Mars Pathfinder’s Imager, by contrast, only hoisted it about a meter off the ground. And the Rover snuffled along with a turtle’s-eye view. If I were a toddler, maybe the Pathfinder’s pictures would have a stronger effect on me, but as it is, the Phoenix is more likely to get under my skin.

This insight came to me on the subway, where I had idly noticed a grade-school-age girl watching an animated movie on her I-Pod while her parents, on either side of her, read a paper edition of the New York Times. Her tiny screen kept flickering, as the movie jump-cut from one viewing angle to another. I think that’s what made me realize that it was the viewing angle of the space probe that brought its picture home to me. The flickering also made me think of a 1929 movie I had tried to watch last week, a Maurice Chevalier vehicle called Love Parade, a crashing bore that I gave up on after an hour. The one thing I had liked about it was how primitive its cutting was: the camera was for the most part just planted in front of the actors, who sang and danced before it in takes that lasted minute upon leisurely minute. The implied viewer, after all, was a theatergoer, accustomed to sitting in his seat for hours. Who (I next wondered) is the implied viewer of a modern movie, with all its cuts and jumps? The viewpoint assembled from the multiple camera angles moves much faster than any of the actors—faster, in fact, than any single human being could move—so fast that the implied viewer of a contemporary movie can’t be an individual at all. It has to be a crowd, which is in more than one place at a time. You watch a modern movie as if your self were a group of people. No doubt film theorists figured this out long ago, but it was news to me, and a bit disturbing. Suddenly solitude on Mars seemed almost homey.

Notebook: “Move Closer, Please”

Belle, July 1926, 175th St., New York City

Child with French bulldog

My review of “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson,” a photo exhibit with a catalog, is in the 1 May 2008 issue of New York Review of Books (online subscription required). Since the article does have footnotes, I don’t need to annotate my sources here, so I thought instead I would post a few snapshots from my own collection, and then throw in a few motley links.

The snaps of “Belle” (left), a child with a French bulldog (right), and an Edwardian picnic (below) are anonymous. I purchased them in Brooklyn sometime in the last half dozen years. I’m afraid I don’t remember where. I find it very calming to imagine attending a picnic with fruit and thermoses anchoring the tablecloth. In white tie, of course.

Edwardian picnic

The medical student dancing with the skeleton (below) is my maternal grandfather. As you can see, a complicated man.

My grandfather and a skeleton

Bunny

And this fellow (left) grew up to be my boyfriend. Note the placid, almost beatific smile. Contrast it with the eerie human eye just barely visible, in a shadowy way, inside the fake eye of the bunny creature. Note, too, the fluffy, imprisoning hands of the bunny creature.

Now, as to links. Snapshots—or, to call them by their fancy mass-noun, vernacular photography—are very well suited to the Internet. You can lose yourself for days looking through all the virtual shoeboxes. Luc Sante’s great blog, Pinakothek, often features found photos. Another blog, Swapatorium, has photos retrieved from flea markets and junk shops. A number of collectors have put their finds online, including Nicholas Osborn at Square America and John and Teenuh Foster at Accidental Mysteries. If you decide to start collecting yourself, there are images for sale at the Found Photo and at Project B.

A number of people have sent scans of their old photos to NYU’s Collective Visions, along with prose-poetical annotations (it doesn’t look as if it’s been updated recently, though). When the Getty ran a snapshot exhibit several years ago, they hosted a similar volunteer, communal snapshot gallery on their website. Polanoid pools the Polaroids made and collected by the dying company’s aficionados, though not all the images are snapshots. And then of course there’s Flickr. Almost every historical archive with images has some vernacular photography in it, but at the risk of seeming arbitrary I’ll single out the Charles Van Schaick collection in Wisconsin Historical Society, which has such treasures as this cake, and the Charles Weever Cushman photograph collection at Indiana University, the bequest of an amateur whose snaps sometimes call to mind the great color photos of the FSA/OWI held by the Library of Congress (which aren’t snapshots, properly speaking, at all).

The problem of bookshelves

Over at Paper Cuts, Jennifer Schuessler has joined the inter-blog conversation about bookshelf etiquette by confessing that her collection is “heavily weighted toward the unread,” stockpiled for the coming era of the Kindle-toting zombies. I already spoke my piece, by blogging about all the books I’ve been throwing out, but for those whom the topic continues to fascinate, I recommend two books that I’ve been reading by the photographer Moyra Davey, Long Life Cool White, just published by Yale University Press, and The Problem of Reading, which you have to email Davey herself to buy a copy of (see the link for instructions). Both books are filled not only with Davey’s moody photos of bookshelves in various states of disarray and transition but also with her thoughts on the place of reading in a creative life, and the difficulty, in managing the habit, of striking the right balance between purpose and serendipity, and between work and pleasure. “‘What to read?’ is a recurring dilemma in my life,” she admits in The Problem of Reading, which has, among other images, a great close-up of her mother’s annotations of Swann’s Way. Long Life Cool White focuses more specifically on the problem of reading about photography (and writing about it). At one point in that book, Davey, like Schuessler in her anticipation of zombies, considers her bookshelves as a storehouse, similar in function to her refrigerator, only more so:

A well-stocked fridge always triggers a certain atavistic, metabolic anxiety, like that of the Neanderthal after the kill, faced with the task of needing to ingest or preserve a massive abundance of food before spoilage sets in. . . . I feel a little towards my books as I do towards the fridge, that I have to manage these as well, prioritize, determine which book is likely to give me the thing I need most at a given moment. But unlike with the fridge, I like to be surrounded by an excess of books, and to not even have a clear idea of what I own, to feel as though there’s a limitless store waiting to be tapped, and that I can be surprised by what I find.

Roots

Caleb in the O.C.

I had occasion to observe, over the weekend, that I was once blond. But I sensed that I was listened to with polite disbelief. Here, then, is some evidence. The photograph is from circa 1975, when I lived in Orange County, California, which was not then called by its initials, to my knowledge.