[Originally published in CTheory, September 1998.]
Rumor has it that Abraham Lincoln was the first photographic president. His political journey from spindly lawyer with hollow eyes and deteriorating face to the earnest speechmaker and oratorical scholar/statesman, to the bearded Jehovah/Jesus of the White House, and whose legendary place in history, which is equivalent to the freedom of Man and Woman from nationally sanctioned servitude, were all tied together by the ribbon of the camera. The cult of the face began here, in these Illinois barebones, in this wife-battered saint, in the locus of crossover appeal which broke boundaries increasingly reinscribed by selfish economic factions hell-bent on the flogging of the flesh.
But, at some point, time broke and the eligibility requirements for photoelectric transcendence were loosened. Even after the man who photography made President fell to the camera’s cousin, the bullet (a similar airborne concretization of time and flesh), Joe- from-the-corner could go and get his picture taken so that, hundreds of years down the road when his progeny looked naively into their past, hungry for connection and history, there they could find him: garish mustache hanging like the fabled Bantam tree, white-aproned, standing proudly, massive fish slapped over his shoulder, before the sign, “Joe the Butcher: Cheap Meats.” The unknown could pay to escape class and time itself through the Daguerrotypical guerre. Method: dress in your best, erect your spine, do not smile, sit in a dignified manner, protest your relevance to the living eyes of the Future, do not close your eyes during the flash, then pay. Perhaps put your hand within your coat like Napoleon and Ulysses Grant. But Great Great Uncle Joe the Butcher, Eke thought to himself, was the Blue Collar hero who could only be photographed within the context of his labor, with his dead quarry slung over his scapula. Forget the moral looseness of the Gilded Age and beyond. Here was American Work in its unbridled brilliance.
He looked back down to his computer (clock 5:58 pm: had he been staring at the picture for twenty minutes? really?) and began to tap out the following string of words:
Guerre ——> War ——> Civil ——> Civilization
If I could only think onto paper, I could break past this block. Writer’s block.
Around the turn of the century’s stomach, as the desire for photographic immortality became commonplace and as visible as the symptoms of a disastrous plague, portability became the key component of technology. If it could be carried, anyone could carry it. If anyone could carry life-in-death within the sweaty linings of their pockets, there could be, as hard as it was to profess, no Death. Joe the Butcher used to take his camera everywhere he went. He routinely took pictures of each of his usual customers, not the cheap ones who came in buying the degraded pork, but the prime rib purchasers; the bright red meat-of-distinction would lay within the blooming flower of brilliant white butcher paper, as Joe and his choice customers stood arms over shoulders grinning into the lens. Each picture, a frame of time, then went into another frame and was hung in perfect symmetry on the butcher shop walls, under the hand-painted wooden sign, proclaiming: “Joe’s Choice Cuts!”
But Joe did not know that the first portables were called “detective cameras,” and yet there he was, out on the streets, at the parks, by the lakes, in the alleys, detecting life, sealing time. His son, Joe II, was also addicted to the snapshot, at one time holding vast libraries of photos of his small town within the narrow confines of his five-room flat. Mug shots of neighbors. Suspect books of city streets, Identikits of family members, taxonomies of relations coded and colored specifically for noiseless integration into the neural network of its viewer. Joe II did not sleep without a photo of his loved ones nearby, just as Allan Pinkerton’s sleepless eye of the Secret Service could not find inner peace without the photographic services of technological certitude.
“Uncle Joe, the Click-Happy Bastard,” Eke sings to himself as he rises to greet the kettle’s shrill whistle. A scratch for the stomach, a cup of Oolong, and he is back to his chair, in his library, beneath a wall filled with photos, postcards, clippings, and comic book covers, to write a story of the Period.
How the Dead Eye and the Detective were bound up with each other like the Worm and its Tail. The anti-terrorist antihero, the outsider, the fringe element which somehow maintained a healthy sense of justice through insatiable desires for violent suggestion. Joe II was a Rent-a-Cop, who policed the Port Economicus Country Club, a rolling hill of white, neurotically-manicured estates, whose streets were paved with the gaseous exhalations of golfcarts. His portable camera and his gun were surrogates for his right and left hands, as much a part of who he was as the two live blue eyes in his head. He had the Dead Eyes disguised in all sorts of mechanisms: watches, binoculars, pens, pockets, you name it, surreptitiously recording the spinning world around him, freezing time on its axis. He became a Spy of Ordinary Life.
Eke types out the title of his new book. The Spy of Ordinary Life. He chews the inside of his mouth, devouring himself until he tastes blood. It used to be the nails, but a hard basketball injury to the mouth, which loosened the bottom row of his front teeth, took care of that nervous habit. Now it had to be the soft, pink inside of the body’s most vocal absence.
Truth be told, most Everyday Life spy cases involved the voyeuristic capture of illicit sex and transgressive activity: women giving head to men who are not their husbands, men banging women who are not their wives in shrub-thick parks, men giving head to other, previously professed heterosexual men, and so on. The spies of ordinary life like to watch, that desire had been there all along: to escape boundaries, to control behavior, its packaging. They wanted to get off, but behind the curtain where Dorothy couldn’t see them. But they could see Dorothy, and, even when home, cameras asleep in the crook of their arms, they still, erections stiff and moist, built fantasies around the frozen glimpses of their busy days. Their dreams were full of copulating 3x3x6 inch Kodaks, bought from George Eastman, shooting off their cartridges at climax, moaning, “The principle of the Kodak system is the separation of the work that any person whomsoever can do in making a photograph, from the work that only an expert can do.”
You push the button, we do the rest.
Anyone can use it.
As easy to use as a pencil.
Now you could load your member and shoot your load in daylight, snap quick and discreet shots of naked women, across tenement courtyards, shower curtains half-drawn, innocently unaware of the slow but methodical creep of the Dead Eye. The gelatin had been abandoned finally for the roll, and onward the project rolled on the frame assembly line, sequenced and spaced for the minute, delicate testimony of witness, wheel to wheel. Then, the inside mysteries of mechanisms did not matter. Even dollar Brownies were ripped from shelves, basking in the aura of childlike imagination, as meaningless as the child’s first goo. The first black box, the decoder, the encrypter, the vehicle of magical metamorphosis.
Are you listening? Eke looks up at one of his postcards. Alfred Hitchcock, wide-eyed and Gothic, is stalking a Harper’s model, gaunt and sallow, across the overgrown front lawn of the Bates Hotel. His second chin hangs like a waistpack of hidden information. His victim’s hair is sprayed five inches above her forehead, the prototype for the talking heads of evening hour newscasts.
Photographer/Private Eye. A nation of Magellans exploring and exploiting zones of publicity and privacy. It all must begin with the eye behind the eye. Record the history, and it will always be there, a coat of arms, for you: when you fall into eschatological madness, an escape hatch, the Dead Eye, will be made manifest.
Or kids. Capture your children, the dominant subjects of the Future, the Future in the making, time frozen before it unravels embarrassingly, they have been the subject and telos of the lens.
Easy enough for a child to learn.
Is it a coincidence that once snapshots of petulant youngsters began popping up on the mantles and desks of the world that the infant mortality rate began to creep slowly downward, crawling back to the point of its origin? Did it not bring you close to your own wasted youth, and did it not immobilize the progress of maturity, so that even when they are older and richer and hungrier for success, you still, after the phone is hung up or during the quiet moments of confusing barbecues, take a wistful tour around your own dens, living rooms, arms folded across your chest, lower lip peeking slightly outward, and peruse the postcards of your past?
Do you need to look into, possibly through the photograph, like the mirror, to remember who you are, to stave off the desire to become another, to kill or transgress, to break through to the darker side of unknown urges, or does it work the other way around? Linearity, in this light, becomes liminal. Now your children never die, now the environments in which they grow become significant, now the actors and actresses are too young to grow goatees, explore sexual primes, believe. Each frame contains a clumsy voice waiting to crack, and a career to suffer destruction. The model of the Average Joe, the spy of Everyday Loathe, detecting changes in the same, shackling change and sweating in his crotch, eyeing the ladies. Average Joe. Uncle Joe the Butcher, the Spy of Ordinary Life. The Blushing Amateur, steps away from the auteur that every soul believes exists in the mirror’s reflection. The clear, pure object in the adoring gaze, staring back at the kneeling observer/lover, the Viewfinder. Detective of perspective. How poetic that the grinding fine of time was left to the Germans and the Swiss, leaders in the manufacture of the universal appliance. How fitting that the impatient space of individuality resided in the fist-sized concept of the snapshot, Eke doesn’t think, but writes this:
Guerre –> War –> Gun –> Shot –> Flesh –> Bone –> Snap –> Shot
You push the button, we do the rest. You push, we rest.