Intertwined Time

A man and woman pose in Dagestan, ca. 1910

Following a link supplied by a friend, I found this series of photographs taken a century ago in southeastern Russia. The magic of these pictures comes in large part from their being in color. This was done with three b&w exposures using color filters, then projecting the images in red, yellow, and green in perfect register. The result creates an image reminiscent of a color photograph, but in many ways more like a projection. Not simply the projection used in its viewing, or today in creating a digital print, but a projection out of the past and into the present.

Photography has always held that power, most strongly felt in the earliest photographs, in heliographs, or Fox Talbot’s Collodian images. This early color image shares with them a dreamlike quality. One might expect the color to enhance our sense of their contemporaneity, actually it puts the imaged people and places them into an alternate reality. Imaged leaning closer to imagined in this case than simply captured by mechanical means.

Having grown up in the “days of Technicolor” and having been young enough to try to imagine what it had been like in the “era of B&W,” such an image as this has a strong effect on me. Beyond that, at the time this photo was taken my father was already nine years old, and my mother was born only six years later. While those days of 1910 have the weight of a hundred years upon them, I feel only a generation removed; one of the gifts of having had an older father, already 51 when I was born.

I also have had personal experience of village life, though only as a visitor; having at most spent a month under my mother’s cousin‘s roof in Alvendre, living in an annex above the animals’ manger within the stone courtyard walls of his ancient farmhouse. While this was Portugal, as far from where this photo was taken as you can be and still be in Europe; I feel as if I know these people.

It’s out of the juxtaposition of two impressions that I’m writing this, I was bemused by the startling resemblance this young man has to Justin Timberlake of pop renown. – He also looks like my mother’s long dead older brother, who grew up much as this man, a darling of whom much was expected and much forgiven by his adoring family. This uncle, had the good fortune, so admired by the ancient Greeks, to have died young; forever insuring that the renown of his promise remained unsullied by inevitable accommodations to reality.

For all we know this young man died young too. He seems enamored of his weapons, ready to strike.

While he brought a quick smile of multiple recognition, she is the real reason why I’m writing this. I have known her too. She appears an aged crone. She’s probably the young man’s mother, pride of place in this unusual circumstance, taking a “portrait” – even if all they truly realized was that they sat in front of a privileged outsider, a gentleman from a far away capital fidgeting with an incomprehensible contraption.

If we “do the math,” she’s probably around forty. She could be a few years shy of that! While he is immediately recognizable, a pretty boy we might meet on the street, even if outlandishly dressed by our standards; she is foreign. It’s not just the shielded, if not veiled, modesty; or the mourning black that probably gives us the reason she, and not her husband, was graced to be in this picture. We don’t live in that world, although surrounded by it and feeling the squeeze, as such a world gathers around us and threatens to engulf us once again.

What is most familiar about her, what causes a groan of recognition on a closer look at her face and into her eyes, is the stain of the victim in her. Everything that buoys him up has done so on her back, and the backs of all the women in his life. She could be mistaken for his servant, although the distinction in such patriarchal circumstances would be lost on him.

It’s not just a low status, a servility, that shows in her look and in her posture, in the very lineaments of her face. It’s pain, and the expectation of more pain to come, pain that has filled a life characterized by mental and physical abuse.

Look at the way the two figures lean away from each other. She is cringing and he is reaching for his dagger. Neither is an explicit gesture, neither is pantomiming an action they are about to take in reality; but still, the result is emotionally true and indisputable.

Their symmetry also points out how these are roles they were born into, with little or no choice in the matter. She is innocent of a crafty, sneaky, underhanded defensiveness she probably deploys as self-protection, working on his guilt to get him to bend to her will. He isn’t to be credited for the bravado and bluster with which he turns to the outer world, dagger in hand and loaded cartridges knit into his chemise. Neither knows anything else. She is following an ancient path. He is being prepared as a sacrifice, as yet innocent of what his chosen path has in store for him. They are both trapped in a way of dealing with the world that is enmeshed in anger and vengeance, in guarding and lashing out.

There has been tremendous stability in this way of being on this earth. While our specifics seem worlds away from theirs, the same underlying principles guide most of what is done in our name today. Even the efforts from all sides to find reasons to see the remnants of this kind of society as enemies, scapegoats, boogeymen to maintain our allegiance to our own lords; are part of that same way of being. Take easy energy out of the equation and we are soon back justifying, not only that sons be groomed to go off to kill and to die – that’s never left us! – but that mothers, and anyone low caste, people of color, anyone outside the walls of privilege, can be openly held in bondage, returning to the good old days when this was done without the need to hide behind platitudes.

What this projection allows us to see one hundred years later, is it a warning? A warning of how little things have changed? Or a message that since we don’t share their innocence, we have a greater responsibility to see that this fearful symmetry comes to an end?

It’s all here in this image, a projection. Presented today as a minor entry in the ongoing spectacle, but carrying a weight that can stop us in our tracks.

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