Thursday, January 27

the negative epiphany

One's first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen — in photographs or in real life — ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.

-- Susan Sontag On Photography

My childhood was partially spent in Germany, where my father was stationed in the U.S. Army base at Pirmasens. For several reasons I spent a lot of time alone in the library there. My parents were in the habit of dropping me off whenever they needed a babysitter and, being a precocious and voracious reader, I finished off the contents of the children's room and started hanging out in the periodicals, where I quickly discovered The New Yorker and its anthologized cartoons. This was my favorite place to be, dooming me to a lifetime of nerdy pursuits. I can honestly say that I have been a faithful reader of The New Yorker since I was six years old, although at first it was just for the pictures (there were no photographs at all in those days, just illustrations and cartoons and small ads).

Curiously, there was never any mention of the holocaust, either at school or at home, or in society at large, as far as was directed to me. I knew nothing about it. One day I was in the empty base library and I saw there was a commemorative photographic exhibit, all done up in basic drab, quite perfunctory in appearance, in a small room with a glass door that led off from the main room where I sat with what I had come to think of as "my" magazines (they were never touched by anyone else). I could see through the glass but the door was locked, and I kept returning to see if the room was open yet as my curiosity grew. I had never seen photographs before displayed in this way and what I could glimpse intrigued me in a way I could not define.

Finally one day I tried the doorknob and it turned. I went in and quickly walked the room, as if I had to hurry for fear I would be mysteriously locked in with the somber pictures I did not understand. My heart pounding, I left the room as quickly and as quietly as I could, hoping that no one had seen me. There was a forbidding aura around the whole thing, and the eyes of the people in the images followed me as I turned to make sure the door was latched. That night I thought of the photos and what they could mean.

The next day I was back, and went to the little glass door immediately. It was open and I stepped inside. A soldier greeted me, he was in the process of sorting and affixing labels to the walls. I had seen him before and I knew he was nice. He asked me if I wanted to help him and I said yes, without hesitating.

For the next week I went to the library every day and affixed labels to the walls and display tables, labels that the soldier or someone had hand typed, labels with corrections and some with punctuation added in blue ink. The pictures had an alphabet-number code and I matched the codes with the labels. As I tacked up or glued down each one, I read it, sometimes aloud (the little room was closed off from the library and I felt free to speak in a normal voice although probably it carried). The captions were chilling, matter of fact, and poetic. Some of them were just dates and locations, some of them had a whole story with a beginning, middle and end. A couple had emotional overtones, such as the one that explained the picture was half blurry because the subject collapsed just as it was being taken and there was not a possibility of reshooting it.

These were uncensored pictures of the liberation of death camps: snapshots taken by U.S. soldiers with personal recollections of those days. The images burned into my nascent awareness and provided an early lesson in the truth that not all eloquence comes packaged in sanitized forms of prettiness or wit or safety. The power of this exhibit came from revelations of ugliness, from candid understatement, from inklings of raw brutality. But most of all, to a little girl's mind, the power came from the unblinking human eyes that looked out from within each photograph.

RB 27 January 2005