In 1904, Edward Sheriff Curtis took a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt. The photo shows him half in the light, against a dark background, pince-nez tethered to the shadows. Roosevelt stares directly into the lens—a boisterous presence more than a century later. He takes up most of the frame, crowding out the indistinguishable background. I wonder how long he held still for this simple picture, how long the chemical processes took to capture his presence.
Curtis also took many portraits of Native Americans against empty backgrounds, lonely landscapes, the void. The backgrounds make the subjects lonely, as if the last Native Americans on Earth, fighting against the inevitable, in sepia tones. Curtis’s images have been criticized for the racism of pretending Native Americans no longer exist, or cannot survive, because of the superiority of white men. He was also known to bring costumes to make the pictures more authentic to the white idea of the indigenous people, dismissing the reality. The criticism is fair and accurate. But his images also allow for enormous amounts of detail. The people he photographed pop out of the frame because nothing else exists. In that time, photographs were developed on glass plates treated with silver salts, then exposed to light. They could be either wet or dry. Curtis used dry plates. When Curtis lived, glass plates only needed a second of exposure to achieve the desired result, but there was a time when the process could take several seconds. Even a minute. Can you imagine sitting perfectly still, looking in that glass eye for a minute?
As an autistic person, I appreciate the lack of noise in Curtis’s photographs, the focus.
“People once believed taking a photograph was capturing a part of the soul.” I think white people love to say this because it makes them feel superior to those they view as “savage” or “uncivilized.”
I do believe that though. Photography captures a bit of soul one fragment of a second at a time. But why is that bad? Perhaps the soul is infinite. Perhaps photography lets us share our soul with others. That’s why I take so many photos of my son. I want to capture every bit of soul he will give me.
My grandfather died weeks before my twenty-sixth birthday. I still remember the stillness of his face. In Latin, the closest translation of soul is animus which gives us animate. His soul left him unanimated. My father and I had the job of categorizing and distributing everything he left behind. At the time, he owned around twenty cameras. These cameras ranged from a Kodak Brownie he used to take pictures of his time in the Army in occupied Germany, to his first Nikon digital camera. When my father and I sifted through the remains of his life at his house in Amarillo, I was surprised at the obvious love for photography.
My father asked, “Where do you think I got it from?” Love of photography bequeathed to me by my father, bequeathed to him by his father. My father took some of the cameras for himself then gave the rest to me.
I don’t remember the first time I saw my grandfather’s hand shaking. They called it a benign tremor. A tremor would cause trouble when taking a photograph.
Technology is part voodoo and part science. The more science you know, the less voodoo. The more voodoo you see, the less you care about the science. But always a balance; never is technology 100 percent one way or the other. A friend I worked with at a doomed computer company told me about this when I was twenty-five and new to Boulder. I still think about it. I think about how we pray to computers, how we ritualize computers, how we use computers for revenge. Computers have become shrines in our homes. If we have questions, we don’t ask a priest, we ask Google. We capture images on computer chips specially designed to take in light and create an image. Photography means “writing with light” because the light writes an image on a film with a light-sensitive chemical emulsion. Now it’s all computers. But still magic.
My hands shake when I’m overwhelmed emotionally, an inability to be still. This is my autism.
In 2009, I struggled to look people in the eye. When my grandfather was dying, I flew to Amarillo while magic I didn’t understand kept him alive in a hospital bed for as long as possible. The cancer ate almost all of him. Growing up he commanded any room he walked into. Even looking back now, he reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt. That presence: larger than life, boisterous, strong. In that hospital bed, he’d lost almost every ounce of fat and muscle. His eyes sunken and glassy, his tremor undeniable as he struggled to lift his head to look me in the eye. I tried—I really did—to stay still, to match his gaze. I could only stand a fraction of a second before I turned away. He died right after I left the room, as if he had been holding on to get one last look at me. I hated myself for being unable to look at him. But now I wonder if a fraction of a second was enough to capture a bit of his soul.