m e m o i r   

s u s a n  g a r r e t t 

     photo Alice Benedict Jackson


Growing up, I was never afraid of the dark. The absence of light in my mother’s darkroom made magic possible. During World War Two there were air raid drills in the evenings, and my mother and I went up in the elevator to a neighbor’s apartment to sit in the dark. We drank apple cider and listened to the sirens, knowing that it wasn’t a real air raid, it was only a practice. Darkness meant a gathering of voices, even laughter. Back in our silent studio my mother turned on the lights in the main room but left the kitchen dark except for a dim red light mounted near the corner of the ceiling. The kitchen was where she made pictures with water, paper, and chemicals. The only sounds there were the gentle squeak of the enlarger as she moved it up and down to fix the right size for the image, and the sound of the developing liquid’s soft stir, then water washing.

Before the War, and before the boarding school, I lived across the street in my grandmother’s apartment, in Bryn Mawr, on the Philadelphia Main Line — the name given to a string of wealthy suburbs along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, going west from the city. From the window I could see the tops of trains as they passed and thought it would be fun to ride a train to the West. At a quarter to six in the evening my grandmother got up from her piano and let me come into the living room to turn on the radio for fifteen minutes to listen to a cowboy story on the Tom Mix program while she went to the dining room sideboard and poured whiskey from a glass decanter. Usually my mother came in before supper to hear the radio news about Hitler and war in Europe. She lived in her photography studio on the first floor of another six-story brick apartment building across Montgomery Avenue. On some afternoons I stood next to her in the darkroom and watched her attach a clothespin to each end of a long strip of film, hold it up with a hand at either end so that the strip relaxed its center into a U-shaped curve, then move it through a flat pan of liquid with a back-and-forth motion, evenly, so that every square negative on the film had an equal chance to bathe. There were three rectangular pans of liquid on the table — one with developer, the middle one with water, and a third with the fixing fluid. Back and forth, up and down, she moved the film with a gentle motion, then rinsed it in the middle pan and hung it straight down from a hook on the ceiling above the sink. The clothespin attached to the bottom of the film kept it from curling. But the best part came when she printed large soft black-and-white photographs. In the dark she cut a small negative from the strip of film and put it in her enlarger — a tall awkward machine whose light near the top shone down through the negative onto a white sheet of paper at the bottom. She turned the handle of the enlarger to make the picture large or small, to make it whole or to cut out parts of it. When she turned off the light in the enlarger the image disappeared, but right away she slid the paper into a pan of developing fluid and by magic the image reappeared, creating itself out of whiteness in its watery birthplace, this time to stay. There were pictures of children who lived in houses with big lawns on the Main Line, and of older girls who would soon graduate from Shipley School, whose pictures would be placed in rows in the school yearbook.

This is how my mother earned her living. She was not married, which I understood to be a serious sadness. She had divorced my father and she took care of my grandmother who was angry a lot of the time. At supper they spoke French. Speaking French showed that you were of the best people, but I did not understand what they were saying. Our maid Nelda served us and I wanted to eat in the kitchen with Nelda instead of in the dining room where I had to be silent. After supper I told her about what happened to Tom Mix while I helped her dry the dishes. She was black and warm and she knew that I loved the West. I dried the dinner plates too slowly and she told me to hurry up because she wanted to finish and go home. She would take the last plate from my hand and dry it herself, laughing and saying that I had better work faster if I wanted to live on a prairie because out there it was hard, it wasn’t all just singing, there was a lot of work to do.

Soon after my grandmother began to climb out of the bathtub and stomp around the apartment with no clothes on, shouting and dripping water, my mother drove me to Delaware to a boarding school with apple orchards on its grounds. It had an outdoor atmosphere, she said. I unpacked my suitcase in a room where there were already three other girls, and one of them showed me where I would sleep, on a cot on the sleeping porch where there were 28 cots, in two rows — half where you could sleep with your head near the wall of the building and the other half along the outside wall of window screens, where, if your head was near the screen part, you could wake up feeling rain, or snow in winter, unless you made your bed so that your head was next to the aisle, away from the screen. The sleeping porch on the floor below us had the same number of beds. The boys lived in a different building.

I learned the routine. A bugle call at 6:00 in the morning woke us up. We made our beds and did jobs before breakfast. My job was to mop the dust under the beds on the sleeping porch. The mop had a long handle and a rectangle of soft black string loops that picked up dust under a bed if I pushed it forward, but getting dust from around the two metal bed feet against the wall was tricky, you had to swipe the dust with your finger and then steer the mop just right to pick it up. The main thing was to learn exactly the right way to do something so that you could work fast and not be late for breakfast. We lined up for meals, ate without lingering, ran back and sat in our rooms for twenty minutes to think quietly about God, then went to classes and lunch and classes again, then to field hockey. The hockey stick was curved at the bottom and not very wide, and it was tricky to stop the hard little ball with it and then hit it far enough so that the teacher — the same woman who blew the bugle in the morning — didn’t have to yell. When I was lucky I stopped the ball, not often but more times than the girl who slept next to me on the sleeping porch. Her name was Silvana and she told me that she came from Spain through France with her mother on a train at night and what she remembers is the dark. She was a refugee and this was a school for refugee children, she said. Am I a refugee? I wondered. If I were not, why would I be here? But how could I be a refugee? The war had not come to America.

After supper we dried dishes in the kitchen. At night we did our homework. When we weren’t in class or playing hockey or doing homework, we raked leaves and pulled grass from between the bricks in the path from our building to the dining hall, and on Saturdays in the fall we picked apples, all day, climbing the trees and stretching our arms. The trick was to hold as many apples as we could with one hand against our chest and at the same time climb down the tree. I learned that if you worked hard without being a gold-brick, the teachers thought you were good and praised you. Silvana asked if we could all stand around the tree and shake it, as she had seen people in Spain do with olive trees. We would be hit on the head by apples falling to the ground but it would be fun, she said. The other children made fun of Silvana and one of them threw an apple and hit her on the forehead. She did not seem to mind. She said she couldn’t wait until the apples were turned into apple cider, which happened during October in a big vat outside the back door to the dining hall. A teacher who ate breakfast with us explained how cider is made: from fresh apples that have good color (if they had fallen from the trees, they were gathered up promptly), washed well by hand in a large tub with water running through it, then put through a grater (a cylinder, surrounded by metal teeth, that revolves fast and crushes the apples to pulp), the pulp wrapped in cloth as if it were cheese and placed in layers on a mechanical press with a board on top, the screw tightened to bring the top of the press down on the pulp and press out the juice, through a strainer. The juice flowed into a storage tank and stayed there for two days (in cold weather) to let the sediment settle to the bottom, then ran through a small faucet on the side of the tank into glass bottles which were placed in the refrigerator. There was no need to pasteurize it because we all drank it so fast.

On Sundays we went for walks. In winter I wore a snowsuit that was made of rough wool and rubbed against my legs, and I was often slow getting ready. One Sunday afternoon in December, I was the last one ready and hoped that the others would go without me. The radio in the hall had been left on and I heard that Japan had attacked America at Pearl Harbor and we were at war. I ran down the stairs and called to the hockey teacher, and she and the others came back to listen. Everyone was quiet, listening. Silvana shook her head back and forth. No one spoke, even after we turned off the radio and started walking. The more we walked that day the more my legs hurt, and there was nothing I could do because we were on a dirt road between fields and woods, a new walk that we had not taken before, and I could not run back to my room to put on a pair of long stockings. I sat down in the woods to rest and wrapped my scarf around one leg, then held my cold glove against the skin of the other leg. What does it mean, to be at war? I did not know, but my mother would know, she talked a lot about the war in Europe. When Christmas vacation came I would ask her about war.

I zipped up my snowsuit and looked around. The others were gone. The dirt road ended where I sat, and they could have turned left or right along the fence, I did not know which. Behind me were woods and the edge of the roof of a house. I walked to the house to ask someone the way to the school. No one answered the front door when I knocked, so I sat down near one of the apple trees in the yard. Someone might come along. No one in the whole world knows where I am right now, I thought. So quiet here, not even birds calling to each other. Nothing to be afraid of. Some plates were lying on the ground near a shed, under a clothesline, and there were seeds on them, for birds maybe.

A man came around the side of the shed. He was short and he smiled at me, and his eyes squinted as if to help him see my face. He asked me who I was, and I said I was from the school, and he said oh yes, over there and pointed to the left side of the field, so now I knew which way I was supposed to go. I began to cry and he asked me if I was lost, and I said no, not any more. You had to have a reason to cry, and I thought of one. I said I didn’t want to go to supper at the school tonight because after supper we took turns drying plates and I was always slow at it. A girl named Janene dried plates fast, I said.

“She dries one plate, then the next?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then I show you a trick.” With one hand he picked up three of the plates that were on the ground and let the seeds fall from them. With a rag in his other hand he wiped the top of the first plate and the bottom of the third, then placed the top plate on the bottom, wiped the top of the second plate and the bottom of the first, and finally placed the second plate on the bottom and wiped the top of the third plate and the bottom of the second.

“Try it,” he said, and handed me the plates.

I took them and tried to hold all three in one hand.

“I might drop them, my hand is too small.”

“Stretch your hand. Feel your strong fingers underneath.”

I wiped the plates as he had done, and I did not drop them.

“Now again. You must practice.”

I was ten years old, and I loved this trick. I stood in the cold December sunshine wiping plates, again and again, with a kind man who spoke with a funny accent. Maybe my mother could come and take a picture of us. She could stand over there with the sun behind her and snap our picture, then later with the enlarger she could cut out of the picture whatever she wanted to.

“These apple trees look different from the ones at the school,” I said.

“They are Japanese. Very hard and sweet.”

That night after supper, in the big kitchen with the hockey teacher who was washing dishes in a sink, I tried the new way of drying. The school’s plates were thinner than those the man had. I could hold all three at once without being afraid of dropping them. The hockey teacher noticed what I was doing and smiled, directly at me.

When it was time to go home for Christmas I rode the train from Wilmington to Philadelphia and stood on the platform between rail cars because the train was crowded with soldiers. Soldiers had all the seats. Some stood in the aisles and between cars on the metal floor that shifted under our feet and left a space through which I could look down and see the wooden ties of the tracks as the train raced over them, and hear the sound of metal wheels on metal. I got off the train at 30th Street Station and ran to my mother. We rode the Paoli Local to Bryn Mawr, and I told her about getting lost one day and how a man with an accent who lived in a house over the field from the school grew Japanese apples and showed me a trick about drying plates and how I couldn’t wait to show Nelda.

“Is he a Japanese man?” my mother asked me.

“I guess so.”

My grandmother lay on her bed. She was sick and would have to go again to the hospital. When it was time to go back to school, I asked my mother if she could drive me and stop first at the house of my new friend to meet him and take his picture.

She was quiet for a long time. She let her head drop forward and I stared at her lovely soft brown hair that curled under, inward, in a slight puff at the ends. Then she mumbled, “What have I done?” and then, over and over, “I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to do.” It made me sad because I did not know what to do either.

Then she said, “You see, we are at war now. We have to do things we would not do otherwise. I called the F.B.I. and told them about the Japanese man, because we have to be sure he is not a spy. We have to do everything we can for the war.”

Our Sunday walks at school that winter took us in different directions but not near the house of my friend. I wanted to find the house but I worried about getting lost. Finally on a walk in early spring I saw the house in near distance and ran to knock on the door. The teacher called me to come back but right away two older people, a man and a woman, opened the door and I asked them about the Japanese man.

“You mean our gardener? He left last week. He went on a train to the West. Are you with that group of children?”

“Yes,” I said.

I am not a photographer. But now, years later, I look at photographs and read books about photography for reasons that are piled up unsorted in my mind.

I tell myself not to expect much information from a photograph, even though it represents a moment in real time, but then I ignore my own warning and stare at details one after the other, in stone carvings on tall cathedrals, the shapes of leaves, shadows on water and expressions on the faces of children.

By chance I have found in the library a book called MANZANAR, a documentary account in words and photographs of one of the internment camps in California where Japanese Americans were incarcerated “on racial grounds alone, on false evidence of military necessity” after the attack on Pearl Harbor. John Hersey wrote the text and Ansel Adams made the photographs. I look at Adams’ photographs with a longing for information beyond what they can give, thinking of the kind man who in 1941 showed me a way to dry dinner plates and then watched me go in the right direction toward the boarding school. If he was interned, then I was to blame. Was my friend sent to Manzanar? Would a Japanese American living in central Delaware have been transported such a distance? I look hard at the faces in the photographs but do not recognize him. Our encounter took place a long time ago. One photograph, called “Mess Line: Noon at Manzanar,” shows adults and children waiting in line to enter a plyboard tarpaper-covered building, one of a group of barracks-like structures built on a piece of flat land near mountain ranges. The distant mountains are high, snow-covered, and touched by a feathery sweep of clouds. The people on the ground are small in the picture. Some of them notice the photographer up on the roof; others pay no attention. Some fold their arms around themselves as if they were cold. One of the narrow chimney pipes on the roof has smoke rising from it, so perhaps it is warm inside the building. The people are not the central feature of the photograph and they seem to know this. They are secondary to the landscape in a picture that may be saying (if photographs convey more than beauty and form, if they also give us messages) that the place is more important than any particular moment in an individual’s day.

Ansel Adams loved heights. Standing on the platform he built on top of his station wagon in 1943, he aimed his camera at stretches of California desert rising to high mountain peaks in the distance. From his car roof he could see at a better angle, and let his camera lens gather in more of a reflecting lake or the rock-strewn ground of a valley below the mountains. At Manzanar he climbed up on roofs and guard towers, and from his work we know what is all around the people and conditions at Manzanar. Perhaps Adams was shy, hesitant, unwilling to let his camera intrude on contained privacy. The Japanese Americans are already prisoners, why assault them further by photographing them? He kept his distance. Were there too many restrictions placed on him (he was not permitted to photograph guard towers, barbed wire, or the guards themselves)? He backed away from rude injustice, climbed onto a roof and avoided intimacy. The assignment came early in his career. This was his first and only attempt at documentary photography, and he brought to the work his own love of sky and mountains, clouds, the California sunlight. The beauty of the land the Japanese Americans could see from where they stood would mitigate the injustice and discomfort of their immediate lives. Did Adams believe that? Or am I reading into the picture, looking for my friend? Other pictures in the book are of the people of Manzanar dutifully photographed close up, most of them smiling, posed, in sun-lit head portraits, some married couples in their tidy small quarters, a few groups such as a choir practicing and a school class. All know they are being photographed. There are pictures of a Catholic church and a Buddhist church, a baseball game, girls playing volleyball, a couple sitting together in front of a YMCA building, a beaming young man holding a cabbage in each arm, farm pictures of crops, of chickens and hogs in their pens. There was work to do at Manzanar.

I turn to John Hersey’s text in MANZANAR, written in 1942, two years before Adams took his photographs, and read a story altogether different — a harsh life for people forced from their homes and stripped of their possessions, a life in barracks surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire where men and women separately lined up for communal toilets and bathed in horse showers, ate meals in mess halls on tin plates, slept on metal cots with eight or more others in the room. Only families had a small private place, twenty by twenty-five feet. But in the photographs, families appear relaxed, comfortable. Adams reveals little of what Hersey describes. Photographs and text do not complement one another in this book; in fact, they disagree and contradict. Adams chose not to photograph misery. Perhaps he did not see it. Or did not want to invade the privacy of people who were living with what they had. Should he have waited inconspicuously in the shadows until he saw misery and quickly snapped it? A photographer’s work can tell us as much about the photographer as about the subject. If another documentary artist — Dorothea Lange, for instance — had been given the Manzanar assignment, would she or he have featured individuals but missed the surrounding land? Does each photographer show a different particle of the truth? Lange photographed migrant workers in California during the 1930s Depression and was able to come close enough to a migrant mother and her two children — who lean on her, one on each side, with their heads turned away from the camera — to photograph the despair and strength in her prematurely age-lined face and the clear fact that in spite of her poverty (Lange’s field notes read: “Camped on the edge of a pea field where the crop had failed in a freeze. The tires had just been sold from the car to buy food. She was 32 years old with seven children.”) she has clothed herself and her children and cut their hair in a neat and skillful way, the quintessential survivor. Did Dorothea Lange assume suffering on the part of all migrants so that she sought it out, waited, guided her camera to it? In her photographs she caught more courage than despair. That may have been her intent all along. Or the intent of the individuals whose own personalities were magically charged by the presence of the camera.

John Hersey wrote his description of Manzanar early in the relocation, and by the time Ansel Adams arrived in 1944, the people appear to have settled and created for themselves an inner-peaceful life. Adams is quoted in the text: “I believe that the arid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar.” Adams loved the California landscape so much that he assumed its beneficial effect on all who lived in it, even prisoners of injustice. Is the photographer imposing his own view on others?

I think Adams may have captured a truth behind the obvious “mistake of terrifically horrible proportions” of gathering and incarcerating loyal Americans only because of their race — that life at Manzanar was full of work, of finding out how to do certain things (as in a magnificent indoor picture, “Hands of Lathe Worker” on page 26), of school and prayer and sports and farm tasks. Manzanar means “apple orchard” in Spanish. Were there apples there, as in Delaware? It appears to be a dry valley with few trees, but the prisoners are growing rows and rows of vegetables. Adams’ photographs may be telling us that the landscape itself surrounded these dignified people with the strongest kind of beauty — implying that in such a place some joy would enter.

I do not know. It is unlikely that my friend was at Manzanar. Japanese-Americans from the East were sent to Arkansas, I learned later. He could have been at any of the other camps, or not interned at all. He could have gone west of his own accord.

On the inside wall of her studio, opposite the window, my mother mounted three long parallel strips of copper-covered wood spaced so that between them she could place her photographic prints, each mounted on white paper and covered by glass. The prints between the top and second copper strips were placed diagonally above those between the second and third copper strips to make a shining, two-tiered checkerboard of photographs. It was a modern design, she told me. She loved modern art — the small cube-filled paintings in the old townhouse of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, some paintings by Arthur Dove in another museum. From the way she pronounced his name — Duuuhv — drawn out and loving with a dreamy admiration in her voice, I knew he must be a very good painter.

The copper strips reflected light from the window and from the tall studio lamps, even though the copper itself was slightly wrinkled and uneven on the surface. Our history teacher at school said that the first known mirror was found in Egypt in about 2800 B.C. and was made of copper. An ancient metal can make a modern design — long lines of copper framing the two rows of glass-covered photographs only at the top and bottom, not at the sides. To be modern, she said, means to subtract decoration, to let lines themselves be the center of attention.

In some of her photographs, everything was still, no one and nothing in motion. One was a portrait of my mother’s sister, Aunt Mildred. She wears a straw hat through which light shines from behind, making a halo of straw on her head as she looks down with dignity and sadness. I knew that you could not take a picture facing toward the light because the light will shine into the lens and ruin the picture, but my mother had gotten around this rule and placed an indoor studio lamp directly behind her sister, facing the camera. She used clothespins to clip tissue paper onto the metal shutters of the lamp to soften the light, and then she rolled up a piece of black paper into a long cone-shaped protector and held one end of it over the camera lens. The light did what she wished it to do. I stared at my aunt’s hat and wondered how something as ordinary as straw could be so beautiful without looking like something else. Another picture showed a roof of shingles, photographed up close, with snow that had formed itself into long pointed icicle-like strips. Just that patch of roof with ice-like snow, nothing to show whether it is the roof of a house or a shed, or where it is. Just itself, unbordered. For a second, on first glance, it looks like surf on sand, but then it asks for another look and we know it is a roof. Should a photograph play a game, asking us to wonder for a few seconds what we are seeing? The spikes of snow are beginning to melt, reassuringly, on warm shingles in the sun.

Some of these photographs were surprises, I thought — unexpected views suddenly caught by an artist’s eye in league with a mechanical invention. A picture of a pattern of sunlight and shadows against a stone corner of the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Another of the shadows made by round outdoor metal tables — an ordinary sight but an amazing pattern. “Let your eyes roam around the picture. Look for lines, first. Then curves. Follow them with your eyes, see how they move and match and combine, and contradict one another,” she said to me one time on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where she loved to go. “Your eyes can wander around and enjoy themselves. Then notice how the picture is composed, the space divided and balanced. After that, ask what it features, what it wants you to notice.” I learned that photographs are compositions, like paintings but with a difference. The photographer decides where to stand, what to include, what to feature, but fact and light always dominate.

On her wall there were pictures of children laughing and running around the lawns of large Main Line houses, rhododendron in the background. There were other quiet pictures with no motion in them — the child of a teacher at the boarding school peering from the window of his wooden playhouse, a high downward-looking view of a patterned brick drive where a small girl stands alone with a balloon, taken from the balcony of Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College. In these, I think now, was a combination of planning and accident, of waiting for a child to be comfortable in the photographer’s presence and catching a moment that is both anticipated and surprising. Another was of a young black boy taken at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, leaning on his arm which showed a safety pin, gleaming in the light, holding his cuff together at the wrist.

“You see, his mother is poor but she went to some trouble to find that safety pin and fasten his cuff,” my mother said. It could have been his mother, I thought, but perhaps it was someone else. A photograph can show what was done before the moment. There was variety to my mother’s photographs — no one theme or predictable subject matter to tell us now that these were the work of a certain artist, as one recognizes instantly a picture of mountains and light in California by Ansel Adams, or the New York City buildings taken by Alfred Stieglitz from his window. She photographed what she encountered in her limited world, what she loved looking at, what others asked of her.

All the photographs were black and white gelatin silver prints, except for two platinum prints made before platinum-coated paper was no longer on the shelves of the Kodak store at 16th and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia where my mother bought her supplies. She spent hours in the store, it seemed, talking to the sales clerks, laughing, asking them about themselves and lingering in this small world of cameras and paraphernalia where she spoke the language and discarded some of her loneliness. I stood and waited, staring at shelves lined with bottles of developer and hypo fluids, bright yellow boxes of film stacked according to size, big advertising posters from Eastman Kodak high over the shelves. On the way back to the train station, we stopped at the new Horn & Hardart Automat on Chestnut Street, where you could put five nickels in a slot and make a glass door open and release a sandwich for lunch, before we took the train, the Paoli Local, back to Bryn Mawr.

I thought I belonged at the boarding school and should stay there because of all the work that had to be done every day. But in 1943, my grandmother died, and my mother brought me back to Bryn Mawr to live with her in her studio and go on a scholarship to a private day school called Agnes Irwin. The studio’s window looked out on the back driveway of the apartment building, where delivery and furnace repair trucks could pull up. Beyond that, at the edge of a lawn, was my mother’s small garden. She had permission from the landlord to dig and plant it. But it was the inside wall of the studio that I stared at, looking up from my homework, daydreaming my eyes away from the Latin sentences I had to construct. How did a carpenter bend the copper around the wooden strips and attach the copper to the wood? There were no nails that I could see. Perhaps they were hidden on the back. What kept the copper strips attached to the wall, to support the photographs? From my three years at boarding school I learned how important it is to know how things can be held in place — how to keep a ladder from slipping off the trunk of an apple tree, how to hold a dustpan with one hand and sweep dust with a tall-handled broom in the other hand. I believed that I must learn how things work. Even on Friday evenings at the boarding school, when we were supposed to have a party in a large room and listen to records of war songs like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” the science teacher would turn off the record player to explain to us how a recording is made by a needle, called a stylus, attached to a pickup arm that cuts a spiral groove in a black plastic disk and, as it does this, is moved by sound waves to indent contours on the right side and left side of the spiral groove. When we play the record, the needle vibrates against those contours and the vibrations send electric signals through the pickup arm to an amplifier. The electric signals are analogous to the sound waves of the music and reproduce them for our ears. (I remember having to look up the word “analogous” in the dictionary to find out that it means “like,” or “similar to.”) Long after the boarding school I thought about the inner workings of daily phenomena. When the wind blows the branches of a tree, why do they bend and not break? Why do the metal wheels of a train rolling on a metal track make no sparks? I could see none when I stood between rail cars on the train to school, from Bryn Mawr to Wynnewood, and looked down at the tracks through an open space. Does metal riding on metal create friction? Only when it slides. Not when it rolls. The workings of ordinary things engaged me.

I was surly toward my mother, who was alone and not married like other Main Line mothers, and I did not tell her what I knew even then — that our small apartment was safe and that the wall of her photographs was beautiful. I think of that wall now as a long horizontal window letting the world in piece by piece. In the evenings I sat on the studio daybed and did my homework in my lap while my mother addressed envelopes for invitations at her desk. It was a job she did at night to earn money, working for the women who arranged weddings and debutante parties for rich people, and it was her graceful handwriting that got her the job. My father sent no money and I knew that her life was hard. For three years during the War she had taken the train at 4:00 in the morning to Philadelphia to work in a defense factory testing resistors for the electric circuits in American airplanes, and she told stories about the marvelous women she worked with in the factory who teased her about her speech and said she didn’t talk like people from inside the city. I learned later that the sound of the way she and her friends spoke is called a “broad A” accent. One woman at the factory asked her why she spoke that way, and she couldn’t think of an answer but finally said that her own mother came from the South, meaning Alabama, and the woman thought she meant South Philadelphia and laughed and said that was it, shouting to the others that “Alice is from South. . .” I did not know, then, what South Philadelphia was like. Did we belong to some fringe corner of the upper class, I wondered, and how is that possible with no money? My mother had grown up with some money and was pushed hard by my grandmother to make friends among the best families of Philadelphia society.

My grandmother’s home in Huntsville, Alabama (“there was nothing, nothing after the War,” she used to say), must have seemed a blank space surrounded by sorrow. So many men had died in the Civil War, and those who returned were wounded or changed — no longer young, not thinking about work or learning or marriage, only the moment. Her two older brothers went North, where there was a possibility of something, through the kindness of some wealthy friends of cousins in New York who could open a door or two, perhaps for a job or an invitation to a ball. Their sister joined them. She married a quiet northerner who made a respectable living in an insurance firm in Philadelphia, who had longed to be an actor. In the evenings he retreated to his attic study to write a book about Hamlet, while my grandmother forged a path into Philadelphia society — that group of established families, rich and correctly mannered, whose daughters were introduced at debutante balls to young men of the same circle who asked them to dance and looked them over for marriage. She arranged to have my mother introduced to society at a grand ball for debutantes, and she watched from a small balcony above the ballroom to see which young men danced with her daughter. She brought a pencil with her and wrote down the names of those who went up to her daughter right away when the music began, without having to be urged by a hostess to go and dance with one of the girls who had been left standing. If she did not know a particular name she walked down to the edge of the ballroom floor and whispered her question to one of the other hostesses while pointing at the young man in question. She noted the times her daughter had been left standing, without a partner, and noted which young man had been pushed towards her, and how long he had lingered to converse after the dance ended. “Well, now you have met everyone there is to meet,” she said to my mother at the end of the debutante season. Ten years later she called on my father’s mother and arranged the marriage. “He will do,” she told my mother. A wedding, and three months later my mother returned to my grandmother’s house. Then her pregnancy, my grandmother’s dismay, and the ending of all ties with my father — no money for child support, no visits.

Would it be better for children, easier for them later to carry memory with grace, if they could understand at the time the painful lives of their parents and grandparents? I wish I had known at the time how my grandmother felt. When I was with her I sensed a heavy block of sadness but did not know how to separate the pieces. Her husband dead, son dead, oldest daughter divorced, money lost in the 1929 stock market crash, an annoying granddaughter underfoot in a small apartment where no one came to call, no one except the pianists Robert and Gaby Casadesus who were her teachers at Fontainebleau one summer, who came once for tea, sat politely in the living room, and left. Only her youngest daughter, my Aunt Mildred, was properly married to a well-to-do young man who joined the Army as an officer. It was too much disappointment, too much loneliness for a woman who had left the South because there was “nothing” there after the Civil War. In my childish view, there was nothing now in her life except her piano, her whiskey, and the photograph on her bureau of Mont St.-Michel in France, that I could see at a distance from the edge of her bedroom doorway. Music filled her day, and even though the piano sound was a hard, pounding one most of the time, she played one beautiful short piece with a melody so lovely and an ending so contented that I asked her to play it for me every night before I went to sleep. “Wait until I get in bed,” I said, and then ran to climb in and call to her, “All right,” and then she would play the piece I loved, that I have not been able to find since. Was it Schubert? Scarlatti? Chopin? The tonal resolution at the end, a quiet progression from dominant to tonic (home) that eased me down into sleep, let me love tonal music so deeply that I have difficulty turning from it long enough to follow the lines and edges of modern atonality.

Some of my mother’s friends hired her to photograph their children and she earned money that way. She had a funny way with children. She would sit down on the ground and giggle and then they forgot about having their pictures taken and played as if there were no camera there, just a silly lady who liked them. And she was quick, quick to snap the picture. The small exposure meter she held up to measure the strength of the light didn’t click or make a noise so the younger ones paid no attention to it, or to the camera either, but I know the older ones closer to my age of 12 must have noticed the camera. It was a new Rolleiflex, an intriguing black box with a single curved lens on the front that moved forward to focus the picture, and a top whose lid opened so that she could look down into it. There was a silver crank handle for turning the film after she had snapped the picture. I wanted to see how the subject looked in the black box, and I wondered why others my age would ignore the camera and just let themselves be photographed. Were they pleased, flattered, imagining themselves in a picture, posing, thinking how they looked, or trying not to pose, trying to be natural? How could they be sure they were natural?

She spent hours in her darkroom. Sometimes I stood in the dark with her. Amazement, fascination, pure stunning wonder at what happened there — all did away with some of my sullen anger at not having a real kitchen with a servant in it, as my friends had in their houses. There was a dim red light in one corner of the ceiling. The tall enlarger stood on a side table. She no longer developed her film in three flat pans of liquid. Now she had a small black tank that held the film strip on a roller. Into it she poured liquids, first water, then developer, again water, then the fixing bath, and more water. When the film was safely inside the tank, in its own darkness, she could turn on the light in the darkroom. The enamel pans on the table were for printing, and the sink was ready for rinsing the photographs before she took them to the bathroom tub for a long washing. “You have to wash photographs a long time, or years from now they will turn brown,” she told me.

On the Main Line small local trains stopped at each town’s station — Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, and so on, all the way to Paoli from Philadelphia and back — all day and part of the night. We could hear the trains from our apartment building but could not see them. To go to school in the morning I walked on a shortcut path along the tracks to Bryn Mawr station and could see the big trains going west, slowly, with soldiers leaning through the windows and looking, it seemed, at every bridge and building and person on their way. Some of them waved at me, and I waved back.

I knew a lot about the war from photographs in the newspaper The Evening Bulletin, and from our history teacher at school, who, after she had talked about ancient history in Egypt and asked questions to see if we had read the chapter in our textbook, told us about the war going on now, and, especially, the Italian Campaign. She brought a newspaper photograph of Monte Cassino, the fifth-century monastery in Italy that was bombed by our bombers — not by the enemy but by us, the Allies. A photographer had taken the picture from a distance just at the moment when a bomb was exploding on the roof of the monastery, a terrible moment, far from here. Our teacher wanted the class to see this picture. Something in early history was being destroyed and we must learn to care about very old buildings and monuments of the past.

What could we do, now, about destruction? Children were powerless to help in the war. All I could do was buy war stamps to paste in a book and collect enough stamp books to turn in for a war bond. I wondered where the photographer stood to take the picture of Monte Cassino, whether he was out looking for something to photograph that day and suddenly heard the bombing, and focused his camera in a split second. Did he consider himself lucky? Was it his good fortune that he was there, ready, when this terrible thing happened? How often does photography depend on luck — bad for the people who are in the way of the disastrous event and good for the photographer? A contradiction so enormous, a small picture cannot contain it. When I asked my mother about the newspaper photograph, she said that the man who took it was brave to be there and was helping in the war by showing us its horrors so that we will never, ever go to war again. Newspaper photographs have a purpose, to let us see the real world and let the real world change us even when we cannot travel into it ourselves. We stay home in safety and use our minds to imagine the suffering of others. But the photograph of Monte Cassino showed only the building, not the people inside. It would have been dangerous for the photographer to go too close. Later, after the bombers had gone, then would he have run down the wooded hill and somehow crossed the river and gone up the mountain itself to enter the monastery ruins and take pictures of terrified people and old stones crumbled? If he wanted to help the people, he would have had to put down his camera and risk losing it in the confusion of slaughter and smoke. A photographer cannot take that risk. Once on the beach at Cape May, New Jersey, my mother put her camera down to help an older woman who had fallen, and after she had lifted the woman and eased her along to the lifeguard station, she came back and couldn’t find her camera, for several minutes, because I had covered it with a towel to protect it from sand. Her panic was too great to hide with proper calm behavior. I could see that she thought she had lost everything. When I pulled away the towel she picked up the camera and carefully wiped from it a few grains of sand, then held up a copy of Life magazine that the camera had rested on. On the cover was a photograph of tall gray tower-like structures with lines both straight and diagonal, small holes in the walls and a curved edge on the top of each with sunlight shining on the curves. It was a modern design. Two men at the bottom of the picture are bending over a wire, or a water hose, and they are so small they are almost lost compared to the massive grandeur of the towers. My mother said that a man named Ralph Ingersoll, one of the men who started Life magazine, had called her to ask if she had a photograph he could use for the cover of the first issue, and she had to tell him she didn’t have anything at the moment, and then he had called someone named Margaret Bourke-White, who was a year younger than she was. Margaret Bourke-White could say yes, because she had the nerve to take off for the West to photograph a big Roosevelt project putting people to work building a damn on the Missouri River. She had the courage to stay in a strange town in Montana by herself and photograph the workers’ shanty towns and even the bars where they go at the end of the day. Margaret Bourke-White had an education, she had gone to college, more than one college, and had no fear, no inhibitions, could go into the office of a prominent man to take his picture and get down on the floor and photograph him from the ground up as if he were a towering menace. Not even her divorce held her back, she was brave, she put herself out on a limb, took chances. Imagine going to the West, alone, anytime you want!

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

She hugged me and said she had forgotten to put oil on her shoulders and the sun had burned her. It was time to go.

I want to go back and change her life for her. If I could travel to time past — as photographers so blatantly let us believe we can — and carry with me what I have learned from reading histories of photography, then we would start together at the beginning. She loved knowing things.

“I had no education,” she would say, apropos of nothing I understood. “You see, my mother made sacrifices to send me to the best violin teacher, Leopold Auer, and insisted that I practice the violin, all the time, and let me go to school only two days a week, so I was always behind in school work, I never caught up with the others. Mr. Auer knew I wasn’t a talented musician, I could see it in his face, but my mother was sacrificing so much! She said that when I played for society gatherings, the young men, maybe one of the Ingersolls, would see my beautiful arm moving across the violin and want to marry me. . . .” An intelligent woman, with an inquiring mind — I knew she was that. She might have studied science and history on her own, and she would have liked some small sections of chemistry books that describe what happened in her darkroom when she eased the exposed paper into the developer.

“I never got the reading habit,” she said.

I will go back and read with her.

She kept the shade of the window in her studio room raised, to let in as much sunlight as possible, in contrast to her darkroom where she turned on the electric light only when we ate supper on the table cleared of pans of developer and hypo. The studio was a box and the window a small hole. If I had known of such a thing at the time, I would have imagined us living inside a “show boxand celebrating photography’s origins. Accounts of its history differ according to whether art historians or scientists are writing them. Most art historians choose a late beginning, in the early nineteenth century with the miraculous birth of the “fixed” image. Most science writers begin with the sun. As a child I did not know how to connect what I knew about the sun — that it is too bright to look at straight, that it can burn the skin — with the magic I saw in the darkroom. One morning at school we went outside to see a partial eclipse of the sun. We held up a piece of cardboard with a small hole in it and on a second piece of cardboard we saw a bright circle cut with a curved shadow. The sun made a picture of itself. Aristotle had noticed this in the fourth century B.C. — that the sun, even when it shines through a square hole, makes a round spot of light on the ground. What Aristotle saw was an image, not of the hole but of the sun. The sun was in charge. Man’s desire, since caveman days, to create pictures of himself and his world, was a direct copy of what the sun itself wanted to do.

Photography began with observations — all separated by distance and centuries — of the image made by reflected rays of light when they enter a pinhole made in a box, or a hole in the wall of a darkened room. My mother and I could have imagined light rays crossing one another as they shone through our small window, as the Chinese scientist Shen K’uo described them in the eleventh century A.D. He compared the crossing rays of light at a pinhole to oars in oarlocks “when the oar handle is down, the blade is up.” (Now, the sight of oars in a rowboat on a lake, with the crossed wrists of the rower holding the handles low, lets me think of light rays.) We could pretend that our studio window was a hole in a screen made by another eleventh century scientist, the Arabian physicist Alhazen, who observed the difference made by the size of the hole. He arranged three candles in a row in front of the screen’s hole. The candle to the right of the hole made an image on the left part of the wall behind the screen. The image of the candle to the left appeared on the right. When he made the hole larger, the images faded into soft patches. A small hole focuses light, but a small hole does not allow in enough light to copy the brilliance of the candle. How could a larger hole be altered to let in more light and, at the same time, hold the rays of light together to form a clear image? Something like a lens had been found in the ruins at Nineveh, capital of ancient Assyria from 2300 to 605 B.C., a “curved ornament of rock crystal,” flat on one side, rounded on the other, and probably used to magnify the objects seen through it. My mother talked a lot with the sales people at the Kodak store about the “good” lens they had sold her, and often in the evenings, after she had finished addressing envelopes, she would hold a lens in her hand, gaze at it and hold it up to the light on her desk, rub her fingers over it, then wipe it with a handkerchief. Would she have liked knowing about Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English scientist who wrote about the use of a magnifying glass to change the direction of light rays when they enter the glass, to refract, or focus, the rays to center them on the task of making a clear image? It was Bacon who suggested putting an inclined mirror in front of the hole to reflect the image onto a viewing window in the top of the box. The Rolleiflex camera my mother carried down the rich people’s tree-lined driveways had a viewing window. She looked down into it to see an image reflected by a mirror. Perhaps her absorption in her work was enough for her. An enormous task — first, find the entrance gates of the long driveway to the house, without wasting gasoline in wartime. Greet the children with a comfortable smile and then sit around, in no hurry, to give them time to take her for granted. Then take, develop, print, and present her photographs to the children’s parents. Would she have had time and energy left over to delight in the history of photography?

She and I did not laugh together very much, and that was a loss, because with others my mother overflowed with regard for every word they spoke, every snapshot they showed her of their relatives and travels. When someone told her a joke she laughed with abandon. Her laughter was guileless, completely trusting. Roland Barthes, in his CAMERA LUCIDA (the best of books on photography and memory), searches for his mother and finds her at last, in one place only, in a photograph of her as a small child. I do not search for my mother, as Barthes did, because I find her in her own photographs and those of others, in the laughter of children and her own unexpected bursts of joy. She is there next to an antique mahogany table with a carved pineapple at its base that she would feel with her fingers while telling me how fine and valuable it is. The word to describe her spirit is enthusiasm — a wonderful word that comes from entheos, “the God within.”

If she and I could have celebrated photography’s beginnings in our studio by make-believe, we might have played a game of imagining ourselves living inside a camera obscura. We might have giggled about standing on our heads in order to appear right side up in the camera, or cut a hole of an exact size in the window shade to make an image both sharp and full of light. (She and I did have one hilarious time, when we opened the door of the studio a crack and peered out into the apartment house hall at a drunken couple having an argument that made no sense. We held our hands over our mouths to muffle our laughter.) In the studio she was quiet, often sad, and when she spoke it was usually about not being married. How could I find her a husband? Where would I look for one? One morning I woke up to hear her sobbing in bed. I did not know what to say or do, so I closed the studio window, went in the kitchen and squeezed an orange for juice and ate a piece of toast, got dressed in my school uniform, and went quietly out the door to Montgomery Avenue. I followed my usual path along the grass bank by the railroad tracks to Bryn Mawr station, walking slowly because I had enough time to catch the train to Wynnewood and not be late for school. When I think about that morning I do not turn to photographs but to the first four lines of a poem by W. H. Auden about a painting by Pieter Brueghel, of Icarus falling into the sea while others went about their business:


About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along… .


There is comfort in the words of a poet who looked at a painting and saw (read) a story of unnoticed pain in a world of people moving as if nothing were amiss. A painter is free to include a whole collection of characters and props at will, to cajole our imaginative minds into building a story, but a photographer has to rely on what is there — facial expressions, bodily stances, a man-made or natural background, and, most of all, the subject’s awareness of the photographer. A painting can tell a story. In a photograph, the captured moment contains too small a piece of the narrative.

My mother might have enjoyed our reading of history even more as we arrived at the Italian Renaissance, where, as the scholar Erasmus said in 1517, “splendid talents are stirring.” Splendid talents gathered in Italy (where light shines at its best) at a time when rational thought and imagination joined freely with one another, when nature and the miraculous were one. The Italian painter and architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) made a box with a hole in one side and a screen opposite. Alberti’s may have been a perspective box, or one containing a mirror reflecting a painting, or a box with a sheet of glass between the peephole and the object. And here is Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) drawing light rays as they enter the pinhole of a box. If objects reflect rays of light in all directions, then images can be formed “at any place” by the passage of reflected light rays through a small hole onto a screen, forming “on the opposite wall an inverted image of whatever lies outside.”

(Later, the German astronomer Kepler (1571-1630) gave the showbox a name, a camera obscura, which could be either a box or a darkened room in a house or shed with a small hole in one wall to allow light to form an image on the opposite wall.)

Then Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), physician, mathematician and natural philosopher, refers to use of a lens (either a lens or a concave mirror, we are not sure). By then, those who were able to read could use spectacles to improve their failing eyesight. Danielo Barbaro, (1514-1570), architect of Venice, suggests using a convex lens in a show box. A lens with a smaller aperture can make a sharp, clear image. And Giovanni Battista Benedetti (1530-1590), also Venetian, writes about the use of a mirror placed at an angle of 45 degrees to reflect the image onto a surface and let it be upright.

These were “splendid talents” writing about light and images, but the most captivating of all was a lively young Neapolitan named Giovanni Battista della Porta, born in 1535, who wrote in Latin a book called MAGIAE NATURALIS, or NATURAL MAGIC, published when he was twenty-three. His enthusiasm leaps from the pages like light striking a mirror. Drama, natural philosophy, music, alchemy, mathematics, botany, optics — all engaged him. Usually when I read books of history and science I concentrate on facts, and then, briefly, imagine the lives of the people whose work added pieces to our present. But from a blurred printout of a library microfilm I am reading NATURAL MAGIC and am immersed in the joyous language of this young scientist and playwright who traveled through France and Spain recording scientific and natural history phenomena. Again, if I could travel back in time (and why not take some liberties with time, as photographers do when they hold a moment in place for the eyes of people not even born?) and to Europe, I would take Giovanni Battista della Porta’s arm and lead him to Philadelphia to show him the delights of the city, where the windows of tall skyscrapers reflect images of the skyscraper next to them, and the sun, as the earth moves under it, shines on all, and then suggest quietly that he might like to marry my mother. His enthusiasm would have pleased her:

The Seventeeth Book of Natural Magick: Wherein are propounded Burning-glasses, and the wonderful sights to be seen by them. . . whence great secrets of Nature may appear unto us.

To see all things in the dark, that are outwardly done in the Sun. . . .

You must shut all the Chamber windows. . . lest any light breaking in should spoil all. Onely make one hole, that shall be a hands breadth and length; above this fit a little leaden or brass Table, and glew it, so thick as a paper; open a round hole in the middle of it, as great as your little finger: over against this, let there be white walls of paper. . . and what is right will be the left, and all things changed; and the farther they are off from the hole, the greater they will appear. If you bring your paper. . .nearer, they will show less and clearer. . . .

If you put a small centricular Crystal glass to the hole. . .you shall presently see all things clearer. . . with so much pleasure, that those that see it can never enough admire it. But if you will

See all things greater and clearer,

Over against it set the Glass, not that which dissipates by dispersing, but which congregates by uniting. . .till you know the true quantity of the Image. . .you shall see as it were an Epitomy of the whole world, and you will much rejoyce to see it. . . .nothing can be more pleasant for great men, and Scholars, and ingenious persons to behold; That in a dark Chamber by white sheets objected, one may see as clearly. . . as if they were before his eyes, Huntings, Banquets, Armies of Enemies, Plays, and all things else that one desireth. . . And no small Arts may be found out.

On that white sheet in the dark Chamber, della Porta imagined a play, in projected images. Pictures in motion.

My wonder now is even greater than it was years ago when I stood in the darkroom hiding my excitement. I study photographs and the partial information they give me, and I read books on photography by a variety of writers. Historian Beaumont Newhall defines photography as “the revelation, interpretation and discovery of the world of man and nature.” As a beginning, this definition guides my search for the work of those who love their subjects and want to photograph the truth with an eye for a beautiful picture. But what is the truth, or partial truth, of a moment captured and held in defiance of time? What clues are there, for instance, in the 1933 photograph “Seville, Spain,” by Henri Cartier-Bresson, with a boy on crutches in the foreground of a whole crowd of young boys playing in the ruins of a white stucco building? He may be laughing with the other boys or he may be sobbing and fleeing them, I cannot tell which, because his face is in shadow. The boy behind him appears to be trying to hit him and another boy in middle background could have just thrown a rock at him. But it could be a game in which the boy on crutches participates. Laughter, play, or children’s cruelty, are framed in a jagged archway formed by a wall from which a whole section has been ripped. Sharp pieces of stone and plaster are all over the ground. On this ruin the children’s energy applauds life. I wonder whether the choice of a moment depends on what the photographer has imagined in advance, or on a surprise moment, revealing some expression or effect the photographer doesn’t expect, and whether the photographer was willing to be surprised. Did Cartier-Bresson click his camera over and over in the course of a few minutes to capture this moment by luck? How many pictures does a photographer have to shoot to have one that is worthy of the scene? But Beaumont Newhall writes that Cartier-Bresson‘s photographs were not accidental. They were records of “previsioned images.” Those who called them “accidental” pictures were in error. Newhall writes that Cartier-Bresson “was able to seize the split second when the subject stood revealed in its most significant aspect and most evocative form.”

When my mother photographed children she made many shots and clicked often, but that does not mean she was unsure, or seeking pure luck: she had formed a picture in her mind of what she wanted, and she was open to change according to what came before her eyes, so that the latent image she held in her mind was varied by what happened in the play of children in front of her. Perhaps it was the same with Cartier-Bresson in Seville. He knew what he wanted, he watched the children playing inside the arc of ruins and seized “the decisive moment” — perhaps several different moments, knowing in his own mind that after all, luck plays a part.

No one could see in through our studio window because it looked out on the back delivery door of the apartment building. Now and then a truck driver who sat high enough in his cab could see in, but what he saw was not me or my mother but copper strips and rows of photographs mounted on the wall. If the window had been the lens of a camera obscura it would have thrown on our wall an image of a corner of the apartment building’s brick garage, the asphalt driveway disappearing in a curve around the garage, two trees in the distance. A spare, modern image. We lived in a box with a window-hole. I would like to grab hold of the contemporary photographers Abelardo Morell and Adam Fuss by their collars and take them with me back in time and to the Philadelphia suburbs, asking them politely when we arrive to create more of their gorgeous pictures using my mother’s studio as a camera obscura with the window as an aperture for light. The magnificent work of these two artists celebrates photography’s original magic. If only our wall could be a subject for an Adam Fuss pinhole photograph, like those he made of classical sculpture in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. A circle of light — from a flashlight held in his hand? — gives sudden life and motion to ancient statues waiting quietly in the museum night after night. Fuss could cover our window and cut a pinhole in the cover, then turn his flashlight toward the copper-stripped wall and prepare it to fly on its own through the world of photography, recalling the genius of the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti who in the fifth century B.C. described the pinhole as the “collecting place” for the sun’s rays. Then Abelardo Morell could bring the world inside the studio by using our window as the opening in a camera obscura. An image of the out-of-doors — the garage corner, the trees and driveway — would appear superimposed on the rows of my mother’s photographs, not to disturb them but to insist on contact, on connection to the outside world. The image would land on our wall upside down but I would be pleased by that. Light rays reflected from the objects of the world strike the retina of the eye in the same way. Our eyes receive images upside down and in far less than a split second the brain’s power of perception reverses them.

Abelardo Morell and Adam Fuss recall the excitement of the early observers of light and include it with an elegant naturalness into their contemporary photographs. I would ask Mr. Morell how to place a mirror in the studio, not just to reverse the outdoor image, but to find a way — could he? — to send an image of our inside wall out to the world, to project it through the window to something, perhaps a huge outdoor screen like those at the drive-in movie theaters we used to go to. Or perhaps to an empty brick wall somewhere nearby, to add to the Wall Art, the enormous outdoor paintings we see now all over the city of Philadelphia, at the Locust and 13th Street parking lot where you can leave your car and stand for a few minutes to admire the powerful figures of artists and workers of all races, another at Broad and Lambert Streets, of ballet dancers with lighted city windows behind them, and still another at Walnut and 57th Street, of neighbors savoring flowers, deer, lakes and mountains.

Could you, Mr. Morell, find a way to project my mother’s photographs through the pinhole and out into the world? They are beautiful to the eye.

In 1839, in the quiet of his home in England, William Henry Fox Talbot combined science and art in celebration of the everyday world around him.

If my mother had looked at his early photographs she would have relaxed. Beauty in the ordinary, in what is there. A broom leaning against a doorway. But a doorway that is part of a country gentleman’s house. She could have explained to my grandmother that, after all, photography was an acceptable choice of endeavor because it had its origins not only in the aristocratic surroundings of a wealthy British family, but also in Paris, the glittering center of true culture.

England or France? In which country should she spend the most time and effort, grooming her divorced daughter for a new marriage? My grandmother could not decide. When I was very small, and she still had some money, she took my mother, myself, and a nanny to England, then to Paris, and back to England, to call on people connected to acquaintances in Philadelphia and introduce my mother to families who might have an unmarried son with a title. My mother took a liking to one young man in London but my grandmother said no and shooed him away. Later he was appointed a member of Winston Churchill’s cabinet. In Paris they spoke French well enough to call on friends of friends. They were introduced in a few society gatherings, but no likely suitor appeared for my mother. Perhaps it had to do with the presence of her child.

In England, Fox Talbot invented the fundamental process of photography — that of making a “negative” first, and from the negative, one or more “positive” prints, an idea, as Talbot’s friend Sir John Herschel wrote, of “that sublime simplicity on which the mind rests.” Perhaps it came to Talbot’s mind easily, in company with other ideas, as one person can move unremarkably in a crowd flowing through a city gate. Once inside, the idea — of letting light shine through a negative onto paper to restore light and shadow to their rightful places — stood on the sidelines of nineteenth century industrial ferment and waited for the time when it would become the ground base of photography.

If I had looked at Fox Talbot’s photograph “The Open Door” out of context, without having read histories of photography and before borrowing a copy of Talbot’s THE PENCIL OF NATURE from photographer Holly Wright, I would have noticed, first and briefly, the broom’s harsh, uneven bristles that would make sweeping difficult. As a brooding teenager lifting my eyes occasionally to glance at the world, I would have dutifully looked for lines, how they invite one’s eyes to follow them, and curves — some of them whole circles that take you back to where you began. I might even have abandoned my scorn for a few minutes and noticed tones of black, white, and gray, contrasts of light and dark, what the absence of color in a photograph allows you to see, and finally, what is featured. Here is a broom leaning against an open door in perfect line with a slanting shadow. On a second look, the harsh bristles appear almost weightless compared to the heavy wood and rough stone surrounding them. Vines cling to the stone exterior. A bridle hanging in the entrance suggests that this is a stable; a lantern is there, ready for anyone wishing to enter. At the back of the dark room is a faint window light, so we know that the interior darkness is not total. In THE PENCIL OF NATURE, the book of photographs and text he published in 1844 to present a record of his achievement, Talbot wrote under this picture: “A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable.”

In the days when I knew nothing about Talbot, I would have looked at another of his photographs, “The Haystack,” within the limits of self-comforting memory, thinking of piling up hay at the Putney School summer work camp in Vermont when I was fifteen, feeling again the lightness of lifting hay with both arms in a smooth muscular motion all the way from the ground to the top of the stack, keeping up with the others. That summer I was stunned by the joy I felt, as if I had been freed from something constraining or allowed to jump out of a confinement. How did my mother find out about Putney? None of the girls at school knew anything about it. I told her I would stay home in our studio and find a summer job, but she shook her head about that. She must have asked a friend where a fifteen-year old could go for the summer, but which friend? Who in her world of strait-laced Philadelphians could possibly have known about a camp in Vermont with a huge mural covering one whole wall of the dining room — a 1930s painting of workers banded together, arms raised for glorious cause, singing, marching forward? Perhaps the camp did not cost very much because of all the work we did. We worked every morning. We cleaned the chicken house, weeded rows of vegetables, picked wax beans and green beans, strawberries and blackberries, painted the walls of the school classrooms. A man named Ed Gray taught us how. “Use plenty of paint,” he told us, “and stroke it on evenly, straight across or up and down. Don’t skimp on the paint.” We built a table for the library out of some hard oak. “Let the hammer do the work. Don’t push it, feel the weight of it and let the weight fall straight down on the nail.” The other campers were from worlds different than mine. There were children of artists and writers, some who lived in New York City or Connecticut. Archibald MacLeish’s son came hiking through one day to visit his friends and I stared at him, the son of the poet whose line “A poem should not mean/ But be” our English teacher at school had read to us. She told us we should savor poems and paintings and pieces of music for themselves, as they are. We do not have to find meaning in works of art. One girl at Putney played the guitar and it was then that I heard for the first time the live sound of a guitar string and was captured for life, wanting nothing more than to sit on the side of a Vermont hill and sing (shout) songs by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Some afternoons we bicycled on roads along small rivers where water raced in a shallow rush through rocks and fallen tree limbs, and we parked our bicycles and took turns leaping from rock to rock to cross the river. Once we went to Lake George and canoed over the whole lake, camping for three nights on different parts of the shore. We climbed the trail going up Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks and reached the top one glorious afternoon in a haze of fatigue and sunlight. I had no camera with me, to capture the moment. My mother often said that she had not really seen something unless she had taken a picture of it, but I can see in my mind the trail lined with the roots of trees, can hear the voices of the other campers and feel the climbing weight of my pack and my longing to reach the top, which when it happened was a freedom and arrival like no other. I knew then why people climb mountains.

Fox Talbot’s photograph “The Haystack” still has for me the power to call up memory, but now I approach it studiously. The ladder does not appear solidly balanced, and if you were to climb it you could easily fall. Did Talbot deliberately place it against the haystack to create an artistic composition? I try to imagine the world of a landed gentleman scholar of 19th century England, an educated man whose wide-ranging interests included botany, optics, the art of painting and sculpture, who loved words and images, details and theory, sought knowledge in facts and in possibilities, and saw no conflict among his varied subjects of study. He traced the meanings of words back to Latin and Greek, to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform writing of ancient Assyria and Babylon. In a niche in Lacock Abbey, his home and now a museum, he placed a small statue of Diogenes with a lantern. Historian Mike Weaver calls Talbot “Diogenes with a camera,” a seeker of truth of all kinds. For Weaver, Talbot’s work is full of metaphor: “‘The Open Door’ is open to all who seek knowledge; the lantern can light the way; the bridle of Stoicism checks the passions that threaten pure reason, and the broom sweeps the threshold of the dark chamber clean.”

I am inclined to back away from meaning. Let the photograph “be,” I think to myself. Look at its subject, patterns, details. It is a gift from a photographer who has made an arrangement with light to send the picture to our eyes. We are free to accept it, and if we want to find in it symbols and meaning, are we free to do that also? Only, I think, if the photographer intended to include symbols and meaning, and it is our task to determine whether or not the photographer had such an intention. One can read too much into a photograph. But with Talbot’s photogenic drawings, it is tempting to find meaning. Talbot’s many and varied interests occupied his mind in company, so it is likely that design, shadow, light, composition, and analogies to a search for truth, are all there together in the picture. He allowed the “truth” in his new medium to blend with the requirements of art and at the same time let symbolism roam freely through his photographs, present if observers want to find it.

Talbot had longed to draw on paper the beautiful details of the natural world. But he lacked skill in drawing. He wrote in THE PENCIL OF NATURE:

“One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature.” (Plate X)

The minute details which add to truth and reality. Some artists do not treasure them, but instead sacrifice detail to gain an effect. Other artists use detail pointedly and lovingly, to punctuate, or to gently wound the observer. I am thinking of Rembrandt Peale’s painting of his brother, “Rubens Peale With a Geranium,” of the geranium leaves resembling veined umbrellas beginning to turn yellow at the edges, one leaf leaning on the flower pot and another fallen to the table. The strongest detail is in the young man’s right hand. It rests on the flower pot, one finger on its decorative ridge and two fingers inside the top, the fingers of a true botanist who cannot keep his hand from the soil. We look and we feel with our own hands. Geraniums love water and these are on the edge of thirst.

But that is a human detail. Talbot, as scientist and artist, wanted to capture the details of nature. At Lake Como in Italy, a place so beautiful one longs to hold onto a moment of being there, he used a camera lucida — an ingenious instrument invented by William Wollaston that consists of a prism suspended on a brass rod. An artist moves the prism to a magical position where the eye can see an image of the scene in front reflected in the prism and, at the same time, on the drawing paper underneath. The artist’s eye fuses the two images. With a pencil he or she can trace the scene on the paper, as long as artist and hand and brass rod hold themselves steady. Talbot lamented his inability to draw. “How charming it would be,” he wrote, if he could find a way to fix and hold the images made by the sun through the camera lucida.

When Talbot returned home he began to experiment. He bathed a piece of paper in a solution of sodium chloride — common salt and water. He let the paper dry, then dipped it in a solution of silver nitrate.

The chemicals separated into elements of sodium, chloride, silver, and nitrate.

The molecules of chemical elements are constructed of atoms.

When molecules of these elements combine with one another, they do so in simple multiples of definite proportion, according to atomic weight. (This is the atomic theory put forward by John Dalton in 1803, the product of a moment of genius by another self-taught man, working alone, that set the direction of chemistry for the next hundred years.)

The elements inside the solution on the paper combined again to form new compounds: sodium nitrate and silver chloride.

Talbot placed the paper inside a camera obscura and took it outside where the sun’s rays reflected from buildings, haystacks, workmen with ladders, through the glass to the paper at the back of the box. Light rays struck the crystals of silver chloride on the paper and freed the silver from the chlorine. The light-struck crystals let their silver atoms jump free and darken in the light. Those parts of the paper exposed to the brightest light turned darkest.

Then, in a moment of genius, Talbot took the paper out of the camera obscura, oiled it, and used it as a stencil, repeating the process but this time letting light shine through the first image, in which light and dark were reversed, to make on paper a second print that restored light and shadow to their own places.

He kept his invention to himself until early in the year 1839, when he learned to his surprise that in Paris a naturalist painter and stage designer named Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had announced his own miracle. Talbot knew nothing of Daguerre’s work, and nothing of the earlier work of the French printer Nicéphore Niépce, who in 1822 inserted the lens from his microscope into one side of a small camera obscura, and inside, opposite the lens, a sheet of glass coated with a particular kind of bitumen, or asphalt. Light reflected through the lens from the bright parts of the image bleached the bitumen instead of darkening it, and the light did more: it hardened the bitumen under the bright areas to the point where it was insoluble in a mixture of lavender oil and oil of petroleum — in which it would have dissolved had the light not struck it. Niépce had made the first permanent photograph.

In 1829 in Paris, Daguerre and Niépce formed a partnership for the making of pictures “drawn by light.”

Daguerre’s images were, like Niépce’s, direct positives, with light and shadow in the right places. Daguerre spread diluted nitric acid on a sheet of copper plated with silver and exposed it to the vapor of iodine, to let the vapor form a thin coating. Then he placed it in the camera obscura, turned the lens toward the scene he wished to capture, and allowed it to remain still for ten minutes, after which he exposed the copper sheet to vapor of mercury and heated it to a temperature of 167 degrees Fahrenheit. “The drawings came forth as if by enchantment,” Beaumont Newhall writes.

Right away Daguerre put his own name on his light drawings. He was a master of showmanship and public relations. The sharp, brilliant image of the daguerreotype, the jeweled likeness and clear details of its subject, made it immediately popular all over Paris and soon in England. This was a wound to Talbot, who loved details and hoped that light and chemicals would draw them for him.

From his notebooks we know that after Daguerre’s announcement Talbot went to work experimenting with copper plates, thinking perhaps that Daguerre’s way might be the true path after all. Daguerre’s details were clear. In some of Talbot’s early work, details are lost in a hazy natural effect of nature that he had not bargained for. The negative called “Leaf with serrated edge,” (that historian Larry Schaaf includes in OUT OF THE SHADOWS) is an exception. The lines of a leaf rise in majesty as if to mirror the very tree from which the leaf has fallen, but Talbot has turned the leaf to let it make a diagonal line. I find myself returning to this picture often, looking at it not with my head turned to the side but straight on, relaxed and at home, as Talbot was, with diagonal lines. When I walk in the autumn season I notice leaves fallen to the sidewalk, leaves of every size that I can, if I choose, brush past and ignore as part of the taken-for-granted setting, or hold in view for a few seconds, or, better yet, pick up and study one at a time as a starting place for learning to see.

Talbot preferred quiet country isolation to city publicity. For years he had put off presenting, and securing a patent for, his sun-pictures. Did he decide to wait until he had achieved something close to perfection? Perhaps he was content without publicity, surrounded by family but alone in his thoughts, alone in his workroom, quietly measuring his chemical compounds. But Daguerre’s announcement, the chance that his own years of work might be rendered useless — and perhaps a rush of competitive anger fueled by the centuries-old rivalry between England and France — sent Talbot into action, to show his work to the Royal Society in London, and to visit his old friend and fellow scientist Sir John Herschel, whose contribution to photography would be enormous.

For years Talbot and Herschel had shared scientific information with one another, in letters and visits. Herschel knew chemistry. And he was a generous man. In earlier years he had observed that hyposulfite of soda had the property of dissolving silver salts. He showed his friend Talbot the results obtained when he used it to wash his modest sun pictures. This is the “hypo” that photographers use today to fix and hold their images on paper. (Daguerre, when he learned of this method, adopted it immediately for his copper plates.) Herschel offered the name photography to replace Talbot’s term “photogenic drawing.” He named Talbot’s reversed image a negative, and the second image, in which light and shadow returned home, a positive. Sir John was the son of the astronomer William Herschel, whose observation of the stars he continued — out of a sense of duty, some historians say, but Sir John loved all natural philosophy, including the observation and laws of the stars ( the “most perfect of sciences,” he called it), as much as his father did. It was the frame of his father’s forty-foot telescope that he chose to reflect in one of his first photographs. “Light is my first love,” he wrote.

Oh, those educated men, permitted by wealth and leisure to pursue knowledge in as many directions as they chose! Not tied to one discipline, but free to let an idea rest for a while in order to follow something altogether different, then return to the earlier interest. Free to combine an old idea with a new one. Herschel writes that the study of natural philosophy “. . .unfetters the mind from prejudices of every kind, and leaves it open. . . to every impression of a higher nature which it is susceptible of receiving, guarding only against enthusiasm and self-deception by a habit of strict investigation, but encouraging, rather than suppressing, every thing that can offer a prospect or a hope beyond the present obscure and unsatisfactory state.” Was it a heavy weight for Herschel and Talbot to carry, to be living in an “unsatisfactory state” of knowing much, and knowing how much more they did not know? I imagine them holding back their excitement, whose enormous force might, if let loose, carry them inadvertently into “self-deception.” Careful, strict methods of investigation kept them on the multiple paths of truth, but it was their imagination that made those paths compatible.

Both Talbot and his rival Daguerre learned, separately, that they did not have to keep the camera in front of the scene for a long period. The time of exposure to light could be shortened. A “latent image” formed quickly on Daguerre’s silver-nitrate covered copper plate, without revealing itself. Talbot changed his own method. He bathed the paper in silver nitrate, then in potassium iodide. The two chemicals combined to form silver iodide. Talbot washed the paper further in a mixture of gallic acid and silver nitrate, to make it highly sensitive to light. After a brief exposure to the image in the camera obscura, the crystals of silver iodide were prepared to let the silver atoms free themselves and wait, ready with their latent image, for another treatment. The exposed sheet of paper and copper-silver plate removed from the camera obscura were blank. The image could be developed later — by Daguerre in a vapor of mercury and heat, and by Talbot in gallo-nitrate of silver. In a developer, the latent images in Talbot’s negative and in Daguerre’s copper-silver positive would appear, each in its own reversed or straightforward glory. A shorter exposure time reduced the exasperated fatigue that could creep into the faces of those posing for a portrait and eliminated the possibility of carriages moving hazily in distortion through a London or a Paris street.

How can an image form and not reveal itself? Talbot had studied crystals of certain chemicals through his microscope but he was a hundred years too early for theories that probe deep inside an atom to describe the action of its electrons and ions.

Sir John Herschel knew that there was action taking place, and that it was beyond men’s current knowledge:

“It is not difficult, if we give the reins to imagination, to conceive how attractive and repulsive atoms, bound together by some unknown tie, may form little machines or compound particles. . .and accordingly many ingenious suppositions have been made to that effect: but in the actual state of science it is certainly safest to wave these hypotheses, without however absolutely rejecting them. . . .”

Did Herschel and his friend Talbot speculate often on the subatomic action deep inside the chemicals of the latent image, or did they sigh and place it carefully in the mental storage bin where they kept the “phenomena” of nature, to be studied later?

If only Fox Talbot’s pictures had had Daguerre’s brilliantly sharp details, and if only daguerreotypes had been made by a timeless method. . . .

My mother told me what Alfred Stieglitz once said to her and to his protÈgÈ, photographer Dorothy Norman, when the two women were showing their photographs to each other at Stieglitz’s New York City gallery, An American Place, and he was looking on. “Now, Alice, if only you had what Dorothy has, and if only Dorothy had what you have, then. . . .” When she told me what he had said, I was too young to interpret a comment that now, from a distance, sounds condescending on the part of the dean of American photography. What did Dorothy Norman “have” that my mother did not? Was he talking about their photographs? Norman’s work is a worshipful imitation of that of Stieglitz, her mentor. Or did he mean their personalities, their way of publicizing their work? Dorothy Norman was certainly better situated, being part of Stieglitz’s working life, but her pictures seem to me cold and unimaginative, except for one, “Rockefeller Center and Church, New York.” This picture has a dark strength. An outline of a church roof, powerful in its immobility, punctuated by a small round window of light telling us that this is indeed a church and that it serves as a ground base for the enormous symbol-of-greed Rockefeller Center rising above it. Or do I miss the point? The church is an old shadow, an icon of the past left behind. No, neither of these. I read meaning into the picture that is not intended. The contrast of light and dark, the pattern of the church eaves against the flat building blocks of early 20th century architecture. Yes, all of these. The photograph sets its observers free to find meaning or not, as we wish. We are at liberty to wonder to ourselves why the photographer chose this particular view. Did Dorothy Norman find Rockefeller Center beautiful or miserably ugly? The church roof outdated, foolishly designed? Or did she stand back and let possibilities enter — the old church as a rock holding us to the ground so that we do not fly off into the arrogant heights of 1920s modern design? I can look and think and misinterpret, I can err without consequence, look again and think about cities all over the world with old churches and new skyscrapers living side by side. Then after a few minutes I stop thinking about meaning and relax, enjoy the pattern, particularly the sharp pointed church steeple rising to an infinitesimal cross that is hard to see unless you look closely for it. That steeple may have been the highest point in the neighborhood until the building of Rockefeller Center.

Alfred Stieglitz was hospitable to my mother. “Here is the lady from Philadelphia,” he would say when she arrived at his gallery. She rode the train to New York whenever she could with a portfolio of photographs in hand and made her way to An American Place, to be received as one of many eager-to-be photographers and painters.

On one visit she was the only person there, and Stieglitz, she said, seemed very upset. He handed her an unopened envelope and asked her if she would open it and read the contents aloud to him, as he was unable to do so. It was a letter from Georgia O’Keefe, his wife, who left New York to live and paint in the Southwest. The letter said that she was not coming back to him. My mother read it aloud and sat with him, saying nothing, and he sat silently. Once in 1944 she took me with her to visit Stieglitz and I remember a small room near the front door, dark and crowded with chairs, where I sat close to him and stared at him sideways while he and my mother talked. I had never been that close to a man — except when the doctor looked down my throat, and on the crowded trains to and from Delaware where soldiers crammed the aisles — and I examined very closely the white hairs growing from his ears. Then we stood up and walked into the light of the gallery with its rows of paintings and photographs, and I looked at the seascapes of John Marin while Stieglitz and my mother talked about O’Keefe and the early days when she came to live with him. “She washed her stockings in a small basin, on the floor. . .” I heard him say.

Now I rejoice that my mother had a place to go, away from her studio-box to where there were people to talk to who willingly turned their eyes to her photographs. Stieglitz was generous with his attention and made An American Place a center for young artists. He looked at their work, glanced at it perhaps, trusting his own eye for recognizing talent as one could see in the work of contemporary artists he showed in his gallery — Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, painters John Marin and Arthur Dove. On some visits my mother and Dorothy Norman went out to lunch together. From the way she talked about those visits, I knew she longed for that world (Dorothy Norman grew up in Philadelphia, too, but the lives of the two women did not overlap, except at American Place), and wanted to move to New York to join vibrant artists. She had so little money, how could she afford a studio in New York City? Would she lose contact with her Philadelphia society friends who might look askance at these forays into the art world? She was shy, without confidence, not eager to take risks or able to push herself forward. But the dream of a different life gave her enough courage to go to Stieglitz and introduce herself.

If only she had ambition, or at least something like Talbot’s kind of anger at being outdone by the Frenchman Daguerre, and with that, something like Daguerre’s outgoing personality, his city life and love of attention. She would have promoted her work beyond the confines of the Philadelphia Art Alliance and the Bryn Mawr Art Center. “If I moved to New York, where would we live? Where would my daughter go to school?” she wondered out loud. In New York she might find colleagues who could talk about light filters and tones of shadow. It would be fun, I thought, to live in New York.

I find her again, in Richard Whalen’s ALFRED STIEGLITZ: A BIOGRAPHY , “. . .he had an exceptionally strong need to dominate and to control everyone around him, especially women. Earlier that year he had spoken to Seligmann of an ‘unidentified woman, like many others, who had utter faith in him.’ Stieglitz continued, ‘Such innocence is ghastly. She is like a somnambulist. Anything I tell her she would do. But a fine relationship is dependent upon such utter confidence. She feels I would not ask her to do anything unless it was the thing to do.’”

He was speaking of my mother, I know this. I know it absolutely. She went to visit the master and he told her what to do, and of course she listened and obeyed. So eager for an education, her mind open and hungry, she longed to know things, to understand how to practice an art that seemed more comfortable than playing the violin under the critical ear of a European master while knowing that the sound she made was not pleasing him. She wanted to please another human being. No husband, her father and brother dead, a sister wrapped in her own family, and a mother impossible to please. She was as Stieglitz describes, trusting in those who knew more than she. No wonder he was so cordial to her, so pleased to spend an hour with us. They had a “fine relationship,” my mother and Stieglitz, because she listened and worshiped, her “ghastly innocence” turned directly toward him in adoration. And I am sure Stieglitz would have said that her photographs were beautiful because he told her how to make them and without him she would have done nothing. Henry J. Seligmann writes that Stieglitz’s “Pygmalion complex was so powerful an element of his psychological makeup that it extended to men as well as to women.” It is with a degree of incredulity and revulsion that one reads Seligmann’s summary of remarks the photographer made in the spring of 1927: “‘Neither Marin’s nor O’Keeffe’s work would have existed without Stieglitz. Marin would have been making pleasant etchings, nice little water colors. O’Keeffe’s work would not have existed at all. So the question was, was not their work also an expression of Stieglitz?’ Such appalling egotism could only lead to trouble with O’Keeffe.”

My mother’s enthusiasm lighted her face and embarrassed my brooding teenage self when she jumped up and down with the children she was photographing, or when she greeted a friend. When she smiled she covered herself with an innocence and joy that was almost childlike. At home in the studio she was quiet, talking about wanting to be married and have a home. Wasn’t the studio a home? I guess not. Home meant having a husband and a dining room where she could give dinner parties and invite Philadelphians, carefully choosing each group because, as she told me later, it was important to invite people together who lived on the same side of the Schuylkill River, either the Main Line side or the Chestnut Hill side, who would be congenial. If you gave a party and brought together people from opposite sides of the river, it didn’t always work. One of her society friends must have told her that, and she took it to heart. She believed what people told her. The words of others stayed with her, she believed them because those who spoke them were out in the world, and she was not, she thought, and therefore they must know.

“Harry Truman is just a little haberdasher!” she said one evening when we were walking to the tearoom, next to Harcum Junior College, where we ate supper once a week. Someone had told her that. I was too young to contradict, but I suspected that this statement might not be accurate. I wanted her to be part of the world and know the truth, and at the same time to have the “basic things,” as she called them, meaning a husband, a house, and social gatherings. She longed for the life of a working artist, the warmth of a proper home, people to talk with about photography, people coming to dinner, freedom to move about with her camera. Did she believe that because she had so little education she could not learn? Her year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia made her think that she could not draw, so when she saw in the front window of a studio shop in Wayne a man with a black cloth over his head leaning toward a camera balanced on a tripod, she went into the shop and without hesitation asked the man if he would teach her how to make photographs. An instant, a moment, in which she found a way to fill her bright mind. She could choose where to stand and what to let into the camera to fill the empty spaces left by a broken path through school. Photography was a way to educate oneself, to gather facts by seeing.

In her darkroom she showed her knowledge — how many minutes to leave the exposed film in its developer, how long to wash it, how long to let the light shine through the negative onto the paper, and how to count the time the exposed paper lay basking in its own developer. And she had a way with mechanical things. She seemed to know, without knowing, how things work. When she applied for the job in the war-time factory, she told the interviewers that she had no mathematics, no training in radio equipment, but that she had “an instinct and a careful way,” and they hired her and it turned out that she did. She concentrated, followed instructions exactly, knowing that a mistake might mean the failure of an airplane and the loss of the life of a brave pilot. Would she have been a better worker if she had understood the science of radio waves, or a better photographer if she had studied scientific theory on the attraction of negative and positive ions inside the atoms inside the molecules of chemical compounds? Probably not. I am imposing, years later, on her world, by thinking what fun it would have been if she had known, even joked, about the changing movement of minuscule unseen particles as we stood in the darkroom watching an image appear on paper in its watery bath.

Now I want to tell her what I am reading. And I want to tell her something else: that she belonged to an extraordinary art whose participants were men and a few women who in their own minds were leaping up and down with joyous wonder at the pictures their cameras and chemicals made possible. She was in the field with all of them, doing what they were doing. Would such words have eased her loneliness? Perhaps. That I think she lacked fun in her work because she didn’t have the information that I am acquiring now, very late, is to think that fun for her would have been knowing intricate facts and scientific theories. Again, I impose on her. She loved her work. She was an artist. But wouldn’t we have had fun, in the studio, if we could have laughed about negative electrons jumping away, freeing themselves from what held them back! Let’s us jump free, go to New York, maybe. Get ourselves ready for a different life?

No, not likely. If she had been educated she might not have done what she did. She found a way to let facts and beauty enter her mind through the camera. And she did have fun, I know that now. The work in the dark studio never lost its magic for her.

So it is for myself, not for her, that I read about the latent image, because I believed it important to know how things work.

Most science writers write for other scientists in prose that reveals their own mastery of the subject. J. Gordon Cook writes for laypersons like myself. In WE LIVE BY THE SUN, Cook explains the theory of the latent image published in 1938 by two scientists, R. W. Gurney and N. F. Mott — a theory that has been examined and questioned in the years since and remains a solid possibility. Reading about the action of light on chemicals lets me imagine in retrospect not only the surface of our darkroom time, and my tangled teenage annoyance and wonder, but also the unseen interior, the deeply magical behavior of atoms from the moment the camera allows light to strike them.

Molecules consist of one or more atoms. Within atoms, there are electrically charged particles. An electron is a particle with a negative charge.

An ion is an electrically charged atom. A positive ion has lost an electron. A negative ion has gained an electron.

A silver halide is a chemical compound of silver and a halogen, one of the non-metallic elements such as iodine, chlorine and bromine.

Inside a crystal of silver iodide, the silver atoms and the iodine atoms are in a state of chemical combination. To combine with one another, a silver atom gives up one of its electrons to a iodine atom. When a silver atom gives up an electron, it is left with a positive charge. At the same time, each iodine atom has acquired an extra negative electron. A positive atom and a negative atom join one another, in chemical combination. Together they form a neutral molecule of silver iodide.

In order to be set free from its ties to iodine in the silver iodide crystal, the positive silver ion must be provided with an electron, a negative charge. This would restore a neutral independence to the silver ion.

When light enters a camera and strikes silver iodide crystals (briefly, in short exposure time), the light frees electrons from the iodide ions. An iodide ion that loses an electron is converted back to a neutral iodine atom. The free electrons move about inside the crystal and are attracted to sensitivity specks on the crystal’s surface, where they gather and set up negatively charged centers. The positively charged silver ions, free of their attraction to iodine, move up to the centers, combine with the electrons, and form neutral atoms of silver. The silver on the crystal surfaces forms a latent image, lying in wait, ready to be brought out by the developer.

The Gurney-Mott theory of the latent image was published almost a hundred years after the time Fox Talbot worked quietly in his country studio and read the science literature of his day. On the surface Talbot seems a reclusive man — unlike Daguerre, whose brilliant images startled but whose method did not last — but his mind did not rest often, and he changed forever the way humans look at the world. From Talbot’s notebooks we learn of his tireless search for answers to how Nature creates its own image. Some say that Talbot’s approach to science was not as methodical as that of his friend Herschel, who not only invented hypo and the name “photography” but also introduced Talbot to the idea of making negatives on glass.

When Herschel showed Talbot how to spread a silver halide on a large piece of glass and have it adhere to the surface, Herschel called this method “a step of improvement,” to which Talbot answered, “The step of a giant!”


©photo and text Susan Garrett


“when the oar handle is down, the blade is up”, from John H. Hammond, THE CAMERA OBSCURA, page 2.

a “curved ornament of rock crystal,” flat on one side, rounded on the other, and probably used to magnify the objects seen through it, from J. Gordon Cook, WE LIVE BY THE SUN, p. 146.

“A painter’s eye will often be arrested. . . .”, from William Henry Fox Talbot, THE PENCIL OF NATURE, p. 33.

“The drawings came forth as if by enchantment”, from Beaumont Newhall, THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY…, p. 21.

The negative called “Leaf with serrated edge”, from Larry Schaaf, OUT OF THE SHADOWS , p. 26.



Roland Barthes, CAMERA LUCIDA: REFLECTIONS ON PHOTOGRAPHY. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981

J. Gordon Cook, WE LIVE BY THE SUN. New York: The Dial Press, 1957

Beaumont Newhall, THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY FROM 1839 TO THE PRESENT DAY. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964

Giambattista della Porta (or Giovanni Battista della Porta), MAGIAE NATURALIS. / NATURAL MAGICK. Written in 1558. London: printed to John Wright next to the sign of the Globe in Little-Britain, 1669, Book 17. Microfilm, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1990

Larry J. Schaaf, OUT OF THE SHADOWS : Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

William Henry Fox Talbot, THE PENCIL OF NATURE. A facsimile of the 1844-1846 edition. New introduction by Beaumont Newhall. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

MANZANAR. Photographs by Ansel Adams. Commentary by John Hersey. Compiled by John Armor & Peter Wright. New York: Times Books, 1988


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