Today we return to our third issue for a sequence by Sarah O’Brien from her National Poetry Series award-winning book Catch Light, published in 2009 by Coffee House Press. Sarah’s sonic sense and aesthetic geared toward pure doses of beauty have always impressed us — as has her baking, and not just us: visit her bakery, The Little Tart, next time you’re in Atlanta, and see for yourself. — AS
A Manual of Photography
Chapter 1: An Overview
The window was more obvious than the camera. Vocal ghosts made explicit in lens and call. Although this goes without saying, images must be fixed, before they come to light. Whole histories of keep. Emulsion, albumen, and water. There will be paper, and shadows, and a heart traced where the body would lie. There will break open. What is not here, haunt, if I remember, you are a saint in the sun my windowpane.
Chapter 2: The Camera Body
A certain amount of light passes through the camera body. It touches the whole face at once. And the eye, the lens, everything else. Picture a ghost in a white room, that potential. Held us to the wall, stay we say but the going. Bodies between hands and stilled, sill. The photograph allowed us to imagine our insides better, such a flimsy skin now not of paint or flesh. A heart beating there, or it did.
Chapter 3: The Camera Lens
Always this is happening in a field, it is dusk, open mouth to an invasive sky. A photograph is afterlife. Images do not stick to windows. Light must be bent, to return, come back. We think burn, etch, ingrain. Imagine a sear and a sound imperceptible but still. The sound it takes to stay. First there is the equivalence of light to time, and light to brands on your arm an image. Fractions of seconds for shadow, more for detail in the lights, one for sun blown out. Here gone equals one, a photograph emerging of pure white.
Chapter 4: The Shutter
The tense of a muscle or the first time a running horse is frozen, all the legs lifted. The lid of an eye is timed, leaves opening, a levee and a window, curtains thrown back, the water comes in, it is hard to leave a window so bare, so wide, things still make it in past the glass and settle in here, shift and shadow and stay. The shutter blinds the eye behind it, glare, lens flaring. Close the curtains, you say, as the parade passes by.
Chapter 5: Film Exposure
If you can imagine a system based on the subtlest of difference. A test, the surface of a shell. Where the light pools, or pulling the dark. If you had found an hour and watched it. Which bears repeating: the exact moment of a photograph is never exactly again. Dead like a second, build-up and brink. Sun-sought in a sea, in a turning cheek. Consider: in the face of sky-glare, heavy snow and sand, given more light, they white, and the dark mane, holding back it blacks in.
Chapter 6: The Negative
A sky as opposed to its cloud, eye to its iris, inverse ghost. On a thin strip emulates, the fruit of that tree showed up all white. But it wasn’t. In some cultures, photographs are terrifying things.
Chapter 7: The Print
A room without windows is essential. And a radio for sound other than light coming out, imagine it, how you can’t help but hear now that the room is so still given to whisper. And you turn the music down every now and then to confirm it. The photograph coming up from the chemical, a face, a fiction, all of us now still in our skin. Hello, I’ve been looking for you. Most photographers will tell you, emerging with a newly fixed photograph – I am now unaccustomed to the light.
Chapter 8: The Light Meter
One photographer always read his wrong, believed the world to be darker and so underexposed it that way. The people became dark imprints of a human looking form, looking lost on the land, which therefore, though dark, is imprinted with spots of brightest white, blown out, nothing there except the door.
Chapter 9: Presentation
The spot on the photograph where the eye lingers. Must have caught a glare, a glass, a new ring. A curiously blind sun in the face. The photograph is the past so dearly. Even now in your hands. I think it does hurt, a little, to be photographed. I think it does sting a bit in the sun. It must. Hold it, hold still, says the photographer. You could place your hands on it, but never around.
Appendix A: Beginnings or the History of Photography
The eyes are the last to go. In the photograph the dead mingle among dripping trees and incandescent weather. There is no hint of what’s to come. A photograph cannot, in itself, divine. In some cultures any power so great without a voice is suspect. So the photographer was split, his camera handled as a curse. Too great to be destroyed, so buried in the field. When we go there now and hear nothing at all. We handle the old photos by their edges. We whistle softly at the ghosts.