OF TREASURES AND TORTURES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EDWIN M. STANTON, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, is, regarding photography, in the unique position of having acted both wisely and foolishly following the death of his Commander-in-Chief. Foolishly, because, at the request of the president’s bereaved widow, he reportedly ordered the destruction of the only glass plate negative showing the fallen president lying in state…..and wisely, because he apparently kept a personal print of the image amongst his personal papers, lost to history until a teenage Lincoln afficionado accidentally stumbled upon it in 1952. Stanton’s actions, along with those of the First Lady, betray a very human ambivalence to the camera’s ability to either annihilate or preserve memory, based on one’s viewpoint.
With its power to extract discrete slices of time, the photograph does provide a permanent record for the mournful….but is that comforting, or rather a clinical way of obviating the more personal, if less precise preservation afforded by memory? Did the camera enable us to re-conjure our loved ones at will, or did it deny us the right to keep them in the very private part of our hearts that exists beyond vision?
Essayist and librarian Jean-Noel Jeanneney, writing of the first days of photography, remarked that “the people who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth are the first in the long history of humanity to be able to see accurate and faithful portraits of their predecessors…..their ancestors are no longer the imagines carried at funeral ceremonies, no longer the painted mementoes devised as aides–memories. Instead, they appear to us as all too horribly true to life: perhaps that is why, today, a greater pathos is attached to our relationship to the departed…..”
The photographer is never merely a chronicler, and so images of the most important people of our experience can never really be mere snapshots. We frame faces in the shadow of our own influence, and time itself re-touches the images years after they are captured. Hence portraiture is never a purely casual act. Mr. Stanton and Mrs. Lincoln were both right, in their own ways. One could not bear the lingering memory of her husband. The other could not endure the idea of a world without his President.
Our last memory of a person may not literally be a shot of them in the coffin, but the impact, many ages on, of even their smallest interactions with this life makes images of them among the most remarkable of human documents. That confers a unique honor, as well as a profound responsibility, upon the photographer.