Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lewis Payne

I've been reading The Emancipated Spectator by Jacques Rancière, as translated by Gregory Elliott (London : Verso, 2009). On page 114 is reproduced the photo above. Below is a part of Rancière's discussion of this photo, riffing off an earlier discussion of the same photo by that other (now dead and much-missed) French philosopher of aesthetics, Roland Barthes.

"Barthes tells us this: 'The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: He is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been ...' Yet nothing in the photo tells us that the young man is going to die. To be affected by his death, we need to know that the photograph represents Lewis Payne, condemned to death in 1865 for trying to assassinate the US secretary of state. And we also need to know that it was the first time a photographer – Alexander Gardner – had been allowed in to photograph an execution. To make the effect of the photo and the affect of the death coincide, Barthes has had to create a short-circuit between historical knowledge of the subject represented and the material texture of the photograph. ... Yet this short-circuit erases the characteristic features of the photograph he presents to us, which are features of indeterminacy. The photograph of Lewis Payne in fact derives its singularity from three forms of indeterminacy. The first involves its visual composition: the young man is seated in accordance with a highly pictorial arrangement, leaning slightly, on the border between a zone of light and a zone of shade. But we cannot know whether the positioning has been chosen by the photographer, or – if that is the case – whether he chose it out of a concern for visibility or an aesthetic reflex. Nor do we know whether he has simply recorded the wedges and marks that appear on the walls, or whether he has deliberately highlighted them. The second indeterminacy concerns the work of time. The texture of the photograph bears the stamp of times past. By contrast, the body of the young man, his clothing, his posture and the intensity of his gaze are at home in our present, negating the temporal distance. The third indeterminacy concerns the attitude of the character. Even if we know that he is going to die and why, it is impossible for us to read the reasons for his assassination attempt, or his feelings about his imminent death, in his gaze. The photograph's pensiveness might then be defined as this tangle between several forms of indeterminacy. It might be characterized as an effect of the circulation, between the subject, the photographer and us, of the intentional and the unintentional, the known and the unknown, the expressed and unexpressed, the present and the past. Contrary to what Barthes tells us, this pensiveness stems from the impossibility of making two images coincide – the socially determined image of the condemned man and the image of a young man characterized by a rather nonchalant curiosity, focusing on a point we cannot see."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reclining Baby

This afternoon I visited Mabel Watson Payne who was taking a great interest in her surroundings. For a privileged interval I even took care of her by myself, while her mother went swimming. Mabel Watson Payne is absolutely present in the moment and blithely unconcerned with past and future.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bohemian Succession

Frederick the Great of Prussia was very fond of war. Throughout the course of a long reign he found numerous little wars to fight, in order to keep himself amused during the periods when he was not staying home at the Palace of Sans Souci playing the flute and seducing hussars.

At the San Francisco library where I work it was my job today to catalog a book written in 1789 (a few years after Frederick's death) by Graf von Schmettau, one of his officers during the War of the Bohemian Succession which Frederick and von Schmettau and many other Prussians had enjoyed very much during the fighting season of 1778-79.

The text of von Schmettau's book is in French, but the beautiful fold-out, hand-colored maps are gracefully engraved in German. Their delicate prettiness belies the fact that their subject is conquest and pillage.

It was all a game to Frederick. Less so for the trampled Bohemians.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Robert Harington, 1558

Get you, with your almain rivetts (lastest
fad from Germany), and your corselet,
and your two coats of plate! How much harness

does a man need? None, when he's in his grave.
Your sons may have it, together with your
damask and satin gowns to show off in;

while you go to lie down in Witham church,
and the most armour I've seen in a will
rusts or turns ridiculous in this world.

by Fleur Adcock (from the Times Lit Supp)

Confession: The portrait is not Robert Harington. The portrait is a Spaniard of the same century (with extravagant armour of his own) who seemed to me to look right for the poem.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Autumn Garden

Hot weather this weekend. Often there are spells of hot weather like this along the Northern California coast in late September and early October -- when the flowers in the gardens are already beginning to subside and the plants are making ready for the relatively mild winters here.

Back in January we dug up all the calla lilies, spread them out, and replanted. Then all summer they languished, resenting the rough treatment they had received. Another upside-down sign of fall in this climate – they have at last forgiven us nine months later and are beginning to put out vigorous new growth.

Yes, the grass is very green at this time. This is mostly because a neighbor up the hill inadvertently left a hose running for 24 hours and flooded the entire lawn -- an experience it apparently enjoyed tremendously.

What little there is (in the way of flowers) to bring inside the house looks delicate and faded.

The large hydrangea bush never bloomed this year at all. Many theories have been floated as to why this old reliable plant did not do its duty, but no explanation seems conclusive.

Big spiders appear in the garden in the autumn. This one built a huge web a couple of weeks ago anchored to a climbing rose on the one side and a large jade plant on the other. A smaller spider was dancing around it in the afternoon – perhaps a male of the same species – and then they both disappeared. When the big spider later emerged from the foliage at stage left, she emerged alone.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday Morning

In all the ones above I am walking west on 16th Street between the Mission and the Castro in San Francisco as the sun rises and the moon fades. Below, I look back toward the east and see Mission Dolores silhouetted against the sunrise.

Then continue west toward my bank and the all-night grocery store in the Castro because it will be a busy and very warm day and I need to get some errands run ahead of time.

Last glimpse of the morning moon, just past full.