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Dillard: Like a Photographer’s Negative

March 16, 2009

Dillard mobilizes lots of figures (metaphors, metonyms, similes) in meditating on what she calls “seeing.” One of the figures that reappears and caught my eye is one that I have tracked in Thoreau and Emerson: photography. Its first appearance suggests to me a complication of vision that is of interest to this writer; a more complicated way of thinking about vision, and thus, a more complicated picture of environmental representation. Here she is in the first chapter, just before she tells us that she went to Tinker Creek “to see what I could see,” to “explore the neighborhood.”

The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape.

An illuminating description. She turns to the image of photographic negative–something, I suspect, you can still recall (though I imagine it is becoming less familiar; do you know what a negative is?): the reversal of positive and negative space, and light and dark. But this to me is also the beginnings (and negatives are a sort of strange beginning of an image, still to come) of a conception of seeing. The photographic negative resists a more conventional way of thinking about vision and landscape and representation: as give, whole, fully present, perfect, entire. The negative, in fact, reminds us that even photographic vision (which we conventionally think of as perfect, accurate, complete, entirely present) is more of a dialectical process: it comes in stages, in proceeds through time, through reversals, through the paradox of seeing what is also not seen.

I think this aspect of photography, something more familiar to 19th century photography, before Kodak and before iPhoto removes the negative from our view, interested Thoreau and Emerson very much. In Thoreau (you might recall), there are traces of this kind of photographic vision in the strange passage in “Walking” when he suggests that even the landscape of his neighborhood so familiar to him will not remain, can’t be fully seen, can only be traced. He turns to an element of photographic chemistry to suggest that. [For those who are interested in following this up, you can see my essay on Thoreau and photography, “Pencil of Nature: Thoreau’s Photographic Register.”

This complication of photographic vision–complication suggests a layering of vision, a vision that comes as a dynamic between seeing and something else that is part of the seeing, but not necessarily the same–shows up elsewhere in Dillard’s photography. It is there, for example, in the chapter “Seeing” when photography returns to evoke two kinds of seeing, at odds or in tension with each other.

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

It is the difference between the camera and the negative. By the way, one of the lessons from early photography: a camera is not required to make a photograph. So, in approaching Dillard’s vision and way of seeing, it would make sense to think about her writing in familiar terms of its descriptiveness, its camera-like recording (think of the relation to her ‘stalking’ of muskrats, like papparazzi?). And it makes sense to think of her vision in terms of something that resists that very notion of a camera–of a kind of seeing that is photographic in the manner of what can’t yet be seen: a negative, after all, is what remains to be developed.

In my reading of Pilgrim, this two-sided (dialectical, bi-stable) picture of vision informs her meditation on the two-sided nature she wants to understand: exuberance, but also fecundity; unimaginable life, but also the constant chomping of death, beauty and ugliness. The positive developed from the negative?

Matt linked a video clip of starlings in his last blog, in relation to Dillard’s focus on this bird. There is something in the image that makes me think of the two-sided photographic image: positive and negative. The way the pattern can turn light and dark, beautiful and menacing, heaven-bound and Hitchcockian swarm, in a manner of micro-seconds. See what you think. Are there other images in Pilgrim that link up with this? For the Dillard writing project on her vision, her way of seeing, using media (digital still or video link) is something to consider, might be effective. But of course, depending on how you read Dillard, it might also be ineffecitve–since she also aims for a level of seeing that is without a camera or other kinds of mediation.

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