Clerks of Passage

Stereotypical Salon Scenes, Belt Buckles, The Whim of Photons,Circumstances under which Everyone Looks Like the Queen of England, Men of Normal Foreheads, The U.S. as the Center of Bolshevik Propaganda, The British Paleoanthropologists and the Famous Elephant Dung Fight, Goat’s-Bladder Bags, The Underappreciation of Unphotographable Movement, Ancient Sumerian City-States, Prehistoric Cubicles, Where the Universe Is Going

Clerks of Passage

Abou Farman
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Wife as Watering Pot

There is no photograph commemorating the birth of photography. There is, however, a painting. Titled Le Salon de M. Irisson (10, Rue d’Antin) le 19 Aout 1839 au soir, le jour de l’annonce du daguerrotype par Arago, it was painted by M. Prosper Lafaye and is currently housed in the ­Musée Carnavalet in Paris. It depicts a stereotypical ­salon scene—ladies with glowing skin and flowing gowns, gentlemen appearing reflective and holding good posture in tight pants—which transpired on the evening following the announcement to the French  Chamber of Deputies of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s invention. The painting is an insignificant contribution to the history of art. Its force lies merely in a historical irony: photography, the ultimate witness, was unable to witness its own birth.

I have not been to the Musée Carnavalet, so I have not seen the painting itself. But I have seen a photograph of it.

As a matter of fact, a photograph was taken on the day that photography was born (or at least baptized). But it is not of the Chamber of Deputies itself. It is not of the moment when the patent, presented by Deputy François Arago, head of the observatory and himself an avid observer of light and movement, was awarded to Daguerre. To commemorate the moment, Daguerre turned his camera­ outward and took a now-famous shot of the scene outside: the bridge, the Tuileries, a tiny and blurry policeman in the distance, with a shine on his buckle.

The kind of commemorative picture that became the norm later on—the family portrait, the class picture, the dignitaries at the UN or in parliament, the team photo—was impossible back then. It would’ve been ridiculous for Daguerre to attempt a photograph of the deputies in the way that M. Prosper Lafaye painted the salon participants later that night. When it came to portraying humans, painting was still a more accurate medium. If I were to meet Lafaye’s salon participants today I’d probably recognize them. But the long exposure time of those early cameras made it impossible to take pictures of human beings that resembled human beings. They came out all blurry or almost invisible. People did not remain still long enough to be captured by Daguerre’s camera. Sitting for a painted portrait was surely a long and gruel­ing process, but when a painter asked a subject to sit still, it meant something else altogether. A painter assembles different details of a person’s face over time into one portrait in his head. The camera does not assemble; it indifferently records the vectors of movement over time, without any concern for what is an eyelid and what a cornea, or what is a face and what an elbow.

In notes made by the very first practitioners of photography, one picks up on a certain amount of anxiety regarding this problem of portraiture. The celebrated historian of photography Beaumont New­hall reports that Daguerre himself despaired of this and Samuel F. B. Morse, one of the first American daguerrotypists, wrote in frustration of trying to sit his family down for twenty minutes with their eyes closed. A French news­paper satirized early attempts at portraiture by saying that it made “your wife” look instead like her “watering pot” or “her parrot.” The eyes and the face were the main problems. People blink and their heads bobble, even though they think they are sitting still, prompting one French photographer of 1840 to write, “I know that up to now no portrait has been produced with the eyes open and the attitude and the face natural.”

Through the decade, ex­posure times were reduced thanks to chemi­cal and technical advances, and eventually portraiture became possible. Even so, this human inability to remain still posed a problem for at least another decade. People were given neck braces to support their heads and pedestals to lean on to keep their bodies from swaying. That’s why people in early portraits appear so stiff. But as exposure times were reduced, portraiture became the main business of photography. By the 1860s, photography studios were popping up everywhere—the three London studios of 1841 had mushroomed to two hundred by 1861—and of the millions of pictures suddenly being taken every year, by far the majority were portraits, now clear and recognizable images of unique faces with their noses in place and their eyes wide open, looking just like your wife and not her watering pot.

The French thinker Roland Barthes called photography a kind of resurrection. It’s a resurrection born out of stillness.

We say that photography freezes time or captures the moment, as though such a thing were possible. Time that is frozen is no time at all. Photography is actually based on a passage of time, a chunk excised from linear time according to the whim of photons. It has a beginning and an ending and therefore is an event, or a duration, be it twelve minutes or one one-thousandth of a second. At the same time, a photograph is the record not simply of duration but of a duration made to resemble a “moment,” a time outside of time, time turned in on itself, because the beginning and end of its duration are collapsed into an object, the photograph. The final image seems still and is made in that way to re­semble eternity.

Despite the inaccuracy of the expressions, then, we continue to say that we have “captured a moment” and “frozen time.” It’s an illusion we like. A defiance of all this passing, a countermeasure to the constant currents in our minds, the neurons shooting off even in our sleep, filling our heads with images that come and go and can’t quite be brought out into the public sphere and that slip away even from inside our own heads before we get a firm enough grip on them. We want the image to come back, because we want to hold it outside of time. Perhaps this explains the uncanniness of photographic portraits: the stillness in the photograph, the way it removes us from time and stresses our increasing proximity to obsolescence.

Contradictory desires and effects all around, since we want to hold on to life, and the ­holding-on requires stillness. Yet stillness is death. We say “stillborn” for a child born dead, and we say “quick with life” for somebody who is extra lively. Canvases of inanimate objects, which in the past often included stuffed animals, are called “still life” paintings—“la natura morta” in Italian and “la nature morte in French, both meaning “dead nature,” which may be another way of saying “dead alive.” In photography, “still life” pictures have not had much success, perhaps because in a photograph everything is stilled life—the whole point is to create a kind of “dead aliveness.” From ­Barthes to Susan Sontag, no one who has thought seriously about photography can avoid devoting a good chunk of time to talking about its likeness to death.


The Indignant Mr. Bassett Digby

Stillness is also accuracy, uniqueness—another attribute of photography that we cherish, the ability to give us the uniqueness of the person portrayed. If you leave the shutter open for a long time, your portrait of the queen of England will resemble your portrait of me—blurred, indistinct. That is, the longer you allow a person to exist in time in front of the camera, the more that person will resemble any other person, or rather they will not resemble a unique and bounded person. If the exposure is really slow, if you leave the shutter open way too long and give the person way too much time, they will get up and go and leave no trace at all, and you will have taken a portrait of nothing, nobody; you will have totally dissolved that very specific person in the current of time.

For reasons both obvious and practical, once photography achieved high shutter and film speeds, it became the means of identification used in the document we have developed for the sake of both enabling and restricting movement: the passport. Despite the popularity of portrait ­photography from the 1860s onward, however, photographs were not required in passports until the 1920s. Most of what passed for a passport back then didn’t identify the bearer beyond words such as British subject or English gentleman, that is, as “status.” Representing the uniqueness of the individual, which after all seems to be the point of any passport, was dicey business when words were all you had to work with. In 1915, an indignant Mr. Bassett Digby wrote a letter of complaint to the editor of the Times:

Sir –

A little light might be shed, with advantage, upon the high-handed methods of the Passports Department at the Foreign Office. On the form provided for the purpose I described my face as ‘intelligent.’ Instead of finding this characterization entered, I have received a passport on which some official, utterly unknown to me, has taken it upon himself to call my face ‘oval.’

At the time, the British Form A required descriptions for noses, foreheads, mouths, faces, and complexions. The descriptions were left to the discretion of the applicant, who had to fill in a blank line, yet, according to historian Paul Fussell, who has gone through the archives, most people seem to have imagined themselves in very limited ways. The linguistic descriptions they provided happen to be remarkably uniform. The archives show that noses came in three variations: normal, ordinary, and large. Foreheads were normal, ordinary, and high. Mouths were normal or straight. (Huh?) And complexions were either normal or fresh. The only lesson here is that normal was a key word for all matters regarding modern identity.

The word passport itself entered English from the French in the sixteenth century and described the practice of issuing special papers to ships and shipmen pulling into port. At stake were taxes on goods. But it’s likely that some such version of passports existed as far back as the first Sumerian city-states, between six thousand and seven thousand years ago. States have to know who their subjects are. That is to say, they have to know whom to collect taxes from, who is obedient, who is inciting rebellion, who is going to help build the ruler’s big tomb. Ancient Egypt had a sophisticated registration process both for purposes of taxation and for recruiting labor for large pharaonic projects such as building the pyramids. The Achaemenids had a similar system for taxation. In addition, thanks to a sophisticated civil service and a system of governorship, they instituted some sort of scheme for safe passage through their empire, a guarantee that came with a letter from the king to the various governors on the path of the journey. The Romans, with their garrisons and provinces, developed this method further and added to it the official punishment of “exile,” being sent away from home and banned from returning, which befell Ovid for reasons lost to, or deliberately censored from, history. Regardless, the poet was sent off to an outpost in the Black Sea where he pined for Rome and its library until he died a decade later. ­Exile, like prison, confines movement. Move­ment is freedom—the motto of nomads and gypsies, two groups that have been dealt much trouble by modern states.

Occasionally, and often as a result of revolutions and up­heavals, restrictions on movement were lifted. The Magna Carta, forced on the king by traders, barons, and VIP citizens, granted merchants in particular and any others “for the time to come” free and safe passage through the kingdom. These clauses were inserted in reaction to previous decrees that stated that “no person of any rank whatever is to be permitted to leave the realm without the royal licence.” Eventually, other restrictions crept in, at first in ­order to prevent foreigners from migrating to England to work, thereby pacifying the resident population, which was in an uproar because migrant workers were willing to work for less pay (sound familiar?), and later in order to regulate the lucrative and busy trade with the colonies, as a result of which the Brits introduced into their bureaucracy a very poetic department: Clerks of the Passage.

France went through similar cycles. Prior to the revolution, the monarchy had institutionalized a rather strict passport regime dating back to decrees issued in the seventeenth century under Louis XIV. The point of those passports was to prevent people from leaving the kingdom as well as to regulate movement within it, making sure that peasants stayed in the fields rather than pouring into cities and preventing skilled workers and big capital from fleeing the land. Prior to the nineteenth century, most passports were of this sort, for internal restrictions rather than international travel. Following the revolution, the French Re­public abolished passports in the name of liberty. Movement was a right and could not be restricted. But soon, as all the unregulated movement of capital and labor and crime became cause for concern to those who now held power and wanted steadiness, the more movement-limiting passport was reintroduced, in the name, again, of liberty.

An early passport, issued to a farmhand by the name of Robert Planchon, on a single sheet of stamped and signed paper by the French Republic after the revolution, describes him as “aged forty years height four feet eleven inches brown hair and eyebrows brown eyes flat nose large mouth wide chin round forehead round face with a small spot on the right cheek and going a bit grey.”  M. Robert Planchon’s passport begins not in the monarchical fashion, “By the Authority of the King,” but with five modern concepts running across the top:

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Unity, Humanity.”

In the Europe of those days, passports were issued by governments not merely to their own subjects but to a qualifying person from any place. France might issue a passport to an American, England to an Italian. Passports did not confer or represent citizenship, they merely permitted travel, like today’s visas. It was only as concepts like citizenship and nation developed and became wedded to the state that passports became passports, that is, they were issued by governments to their own citizens only, and visas became visas, that is, they replaced what was once called a passport, a permission to travel. These new versions of the document still carry vestiges of the older legal and political under­pinnings. For example, the modern passport is still a request by the issuing government to other authorities to allow the bearer safe passage, though no passage is actually guaranteed.

Despite the increasing use of passports, there was no international system in place in the early twentieth century nor was a passport a strict necessity. You could, with some courage, a few schillings to spare as handouts, or good knowledge of the land, travel across most borders without serious ­trouble. The First World War and the League of Nations changed all that. From 1920, when the first “International Conference on Passports, Custom Formalities and Through Tickets” convened, there was a serious Euro­pean push to put into place an international passport regime, with standardized documents and border posts. This eventually came to pass on May 10,1926, the year zero of passports, when the International Conference on Passports met under the auspices of the League of Nations,­ in Geneva.

There had existed up to then a not-negligible antipassport lobby. Thus in April of 1926, the minister of external affairs of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann), annoyed by British stringency on regulatory matters, instructed his representative at the League of Nations to “support all recommendations tending towards an eventual abolition of passports.” Imagine raising your hand at the UN today with a call for “the abolition of passports.”

The Brits were drawing the ire of others, too. Early on, the United States resisted the passport system mainly due to a reaction against the British, who were requiring visas from all U.S. citizens landing on their shores. The reason, according to the British government: “The recent labour unrest in Canada seems to prove that the U.S. cannot be disregarded as a centre of Bolshevik propaganda.…” Aside from all obvious historical irony, those who visited the U.S. in the Cold War era will now recall the customs forms on which the first question, and condition of entry, was: have you ever worked for or been linked to a communist group?


Citizens From a Probably Nameless Land

There may have been a time before passports, but never a time before migration.

The year is 1976, fifty years after the Conference on Passports. The British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey is still fossil-­hunting in Africa, almost three decades ­after she first set foot on the continent. Mary is Louis Leakey’s ­second wife. It’s been four years already since Louis died. Louis, white and British, was born in what is today called Kenya, the son of English missionaries, spreading the word of Christianity and empire to the Kikuyu tribe. He grew up with the Kikuyu, learned Kikuyu, and was in fact initiated into the tribe as a member. No white man had gone quite so native. In the neighborhood where he grew up, Louis frequently ­stumbled upon fossils and bones. They fascinated him to no end. He eventually went to England, studied, transformed himself into an anthropologist, and made the claim—outlandish and treasonous at the time—that the first human beings were from Africa. Euro­peans were shocked. No one believed him at first. Following various accidents, mishaps, adventures, and a first marriage, he wed Mary and returned with her to Africa in quest of the oldest human being. The two worked closely, discovering some of the oldest human fossils ever found, confirming Leakey’s view about human origins, which is now pretty much an orthodox one, though not an entirely unchallenged one. When Louis died, Mary continued the work along with their son Richard, who as a legal Kenyan citizen took the gutsy step of getting involved in politics. He ran for president and lost.

In 1976 Mary Leakey decided to set up camp in Tanzania, at a site called Laetoli. Her team consisted of experts from some of the top universities in the world. On break one day, two such highly trained paleontologists began flinging elephant dung at each other. As the game escalated, and the flinging became more competitive, one of them, by the name of Andrew Hill, found himself having to dive and roll like a stuntman in a cowboy movie in order to avoid an incoming pile. In doing so, not only did he dodge the indignity of getting covered in elephant poo, but he fell upon one of the greatest archeological finds ever: a set of footprints that were distinctly human and incredibly well preserved.

A volcano erupted 3.6 million years ago in a place that likely had no name at the time. The landscape was blanketed with volcanic ash. As often happens, bad weather followed the eruption. It rained and the wet ash turned gooey, like wet plaster. A whole bunch of creatures scampered across the landscape, leaving footprints that solidified as the wet ash dried and hardened. Among the creatures that walked across that nameless land were two hominids, specifically Australopithecus afarensis, one of our earliest ancestors. Their footprints, the ones discovered by Andrew Hill, are the earliest evidence we have of “bipedal” hominids, ancestors who stood upright and walked on two feet.

A set of footprints, then: the footprints of a man and a woman with a child on her hip preserved in the vol­canic ashes of Tanzania. Their footprints are proof of their existence, though we know nothing of their identities or what they might have looked like. Photo­graphy would have been of no help. No photograph will survive 3.6 million years. As it is, we have evidence at least of movement rather than of stillness; of three ­people almost 4 million years ago going somewhere, walking on an earth that had no lines drawn upon it yet.

Much later, from those very plains and perhaps one or two other points of departure, human beings moved across the globe. And we’ve been on the move ever since: today, like yesterday or any other day of the week, there are 70 million migrants on the move, trying to get from point A to point B.

I think movement, just simple­ unphotographable movement, is un­derappreciated as a world-­historical factor. It is undertheorized, as they say. It could answer a lot of questions, such as why we left Africa or how we ended up in America. Migration patterns have always been attached to politics, scarcity, or trade, for example. Movement is considered a by-product of economics. There is no room in social theory for the kid who takes his bow and slips out at night because he had a fight with his dad or the guy who tells his kids to pack their hand axes and goat’s-bladder bags ’cause we’re headin’ on out of here. No one says that trade followed movement, and yet Columbus—like Marco Polo, like Magellan, like Ibn Khaldun—wanted, more than anything, to move, to see what was yonder, to expand his ­horizon. Trade was the consequence, and sometimes the excuse. In her essay on the “voyages of discovery,” Hannah Arendt makes the wonderful observation that the world shrank because of people who set out to expand it.

I like to imagine that’s how it was quite a bit throughout history. We didn’t move out of Africa because the savannah grass was too dry, and we didn’t discover America because Siberia was getting too frozen. We did those things because some of us just can’t sit still.

What else was there to do back then, anyway? The industrious ones sat and knapped flint all day, which was extremely useful, and eventually, a few generations and eighty thousand years later, led to better spearheads, domesticated animals, agriculture, ­urban centers, armies, and so on, but there were surely those who just couldn’t take another minute of being crouched over a pile of limestone, chipping away and chipping away in prehistoric cubicles until their brains rotted. There must have been a few who thought, Why the hell am I doing this? What’s over there, beyond the horizon? How far does all this go?

Pascal said the modern problem was that we could no longer sit still in a room. That was his monkish ideal, of course, to sit still and move about in his head. But why is not sitting still a problem? And why would anyone think it’s new or modern, rather than essential and prehistoric? Our movements are minute and enormous, they are at the level of cells as well as of populations. Eyelids flutter, nations migrate. The earth is in constant motion around the sun. The sun moves with the Milky Way, which is falling toward a cluster of other galaxies. And then there’s the universe. Measuring light a few decades after Daguerre’s invention of photography, Edwin Hubble showed that the universe itself is expanding constantly. The universe is moving. Where is it going? Why is anything moving at all? “The Heavens rejoice in motion,” wrote John Donne in his eighteenth ­elegy. One might think of the origin of the universe as a change from stillness to movement, the big bang being essentially a highly concentrated form of movement. Movement is the essence of the universe, not just because objects are in motion but because without movement there is no change, no evolution, no universe, no life. Atoms vibrate and galaxies expand. From this point of view, our trek through time and distance is not a question of going anywhere. To rephrase A.R. Ammons, the poet of movement who himself almost never left Ithaca once he got settled there, it is not about being in movement but about the movement in being. 

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