reviewed by Dan Magers
Horse Less Press (2007)
When we discuss photography, what we often want to talk about is memory. We may start with photography formally, attempting to make claims free of content, but as we think about its appeal, a lifetime of experiences start to seep in. Often in photographs, the experiences are secondhand: they are images of people and places we do not know. These are held together with a strand of collective memory, so we feel the pang when we look at pictures — or when we think, talk, and write about them.
Sampson Starkweather seems to understand the difficulty and limitation of separating the properties of photography from one’s experiences and memories. Photography has something “to do with mathematics,” but maybe more with the inability to “remember how black the sky was over the parking lot when you held her hand.” The line traces an experience different from the formal properties of photography into something more personal for the writer, but it certainly involves us too. This condition is the starting point of The Photograph.
A note in the back of the book says that The Photograph first appeared in Octopus Magazine as a lyric essay. The tone of the work reflects this in that the stanzas move forward as a generally neutral inquiry and reflection. The subjects are wide ranging, pulling from the chemical properties of photography and the flashes of imagery that are teased out– some personal, some collective memory.
“There is a process called burning in photography, when a person or image is burned-out of the picture to get it just right. Memory’s like that….In Canada, a girl falls of her bicycle and skins her knee….From a bridge, the lack of beauty is impossible.”
Starkweather pulls in imagery the reader has only experienced through mediated sources: “Abraham Lincoln…was shot, a spurt of shadow flowed from the hole in his head… Jackie’s face flooded in light.” And later, “A piano underwater in New Orleans. A photograph of music.”
In the beginning of Metaphysica Aristotle says: “By nature animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, though not in others….Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience.” For Aristotle, this is how science and art are created.
“The first cameras were built by biologists to mimic the human eye. To observe time, objectively. The scientific method.” What we invent to mimic or imitate human experience overtakes human perception, giving us access to knowledge we would not otherwise have—and so we have all this secondary, collective baggage, which is what makes photography so powerful.
But Starkweather also questions how photos can capture, but never replace food, dancing, etc. “It cannot compete with the pleasures of salad dressing. It is not, to my knowledge, capable of flamenco dancing.”
Though sometimes there will be a break from the neutral tone, in anger or pathos (“The ‘you’ is “boring”), this chapbook is not the venue for the urgency found in Starkweather’s transcontemporations of Vallejo, which can be found in several places online. There is no “argument” per se, but images and lines build on each other, gaining momentum. The short box-like stanzas are themselves like snapshots, which are not meant to be polemic, but to suggest, like the act of rifling through a box of photos in a thrift-store. Of the one thousand words, “one word is your name.”