Camera obscura

A pinhole camera is a simple device: light passes through an aperture into a box, and an inverted image of the outside is projected on to the opposite wall. Build-your-own kits are sold as novelties, although they are not that novel (indeed, their charm is precisely their quaintness; they vibe old-school, authentic, real). The history of the pinhole camera, written in the margins of the histories of art, science and epistemology, stretches all the way back to the fifth century BC, when the Chinese philosopher Mi To first described one. He called it a ‘locked treasure room’. Locked, presumably, not just because it is an enclosed space, but because the images it generates – fugitive, flickering, ephemeral – are so tantalisingly ungraspable.

It was Nicéphore Niépce, in post-Revolutionary France, who first unlocked the treasure room when he invented a process for fixing the images produced by a camera obscura, capturing them on a glass plate coated with Bitumen of Judea. He called it heliography. His sometime collaborator, sometime rival, Louis Daguerre, who continued refining the process after Niépce’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage in 1833, preferred the word photography, which was already being used in English to refer to the parallel research being conducted by Henry Fox Talbot. Sun-writing, light-writing – both terms elegantly gloss the means by which a photographic image is produced: light rays bounce off an object in the world and on to a photosensitive surface, passing through an aperture to focus them. ‘Photography you are the shadow / Of the sun / Which is its beauty’, wrote Apollinaire. The (analogue) photographic image is a trace; it is, therefore, indexical, physically linked to the thing it depicts. In that respect, of course, it is quite unlike writing – at least the kind of writing you’re reading here, alphabetic writing: a word after all is merely a set of squiggles and scratches with a purely conventional connection to the thing it signifies. But like writing, photography is a means of making the impermanent permanent, and the absent present.

On my wall hangs a photograph of Bob Dylan in 1965. He’s at a press conference, sitting behind a table. (The oversized lightbulb on the table makes the scene immediately recognizable to even the casual Dylanologist; it features in the opening scenes of Don’t Look Back.) Sitting across the table is a journalist, and behind her a row of photographers. But the photographer who took this particular shot was standing behind the table, behind Dylan. He’s said something to capture his attention, because Dylan has twisted round in his seat to face him. His cigarette is between his lips and his eyebrows are raised, with a slightly quizzical air. Every time I look at the photograph there is a moment where the 50 years between then and now collapse. It’s partly because of the cans: slung round Dylan’s neck they give him a curiously contemporary look. (If the history of the headphone through much of the 20th century describes the pursuit of inconspicuousness, culminating in the invention of the earbud, fashion historians of the future will surely point to unnecessarily oversized circumaural headphones as one of the distinguishing features of early 21st-century style, doubtless identifying it as part of the same nostalgic craving for the paraphernalia of analogue culture that has resurrected the pinhole camera.) But it’s not just because of the cans. It’s the peculiar gift of photography to bring past and present, here and there, into immediate contact. The photographer, manipulating lights and mirrors, a master of optics, is a kind of magician who specialises in one trick, generating the illusion of presence.

The photographer in question was my father, who had worked on Fleet Street before founding his own photographic agency. As a child I wasn’t allowed in his darkroom, but I often imagine him there – happily absorbed in his task, pulling the photo from the stop bath and dunking it in the fixer, surrounded by bottles of developer, stabiliser and toner. ‘Fixer’, ‘stabiliser’, ‘stop bath’ – the language of the darkroom hints at the Sisyphean metaphysical struggle played out there: the struggle to arrest the flux of time. Photography is the art of stabilisation. If my father became a photographer for any reason other than the possibility of earning a good living, I think it was precisely because the photographer is an agent of stability, and his childhood in Central Europe had been characterized by a perilous instability.

Deported to the Gulag in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland, by the end of the war most of his family were dead, victims of either Stalinist terror or Nazi genocide His home town had disappeared. Not physically, you understand – the fabric of the city survived, more or less, the buildings, the statues and graves, but the Polish city of Lwów (born only a few years before my father – until 1918 it had been the Habsburg town of Lemberg) was now the Soviet municipality of Lvov (today it is Lviv, in Western Ukraine). He arrived in London as a refugee, with no direction home, and set about making a new life and a new family. Photography was a part of that process: scrupulously every family event was caught on film. Arguments raged every December about the Christmas card family photo, seen by my sister and me as the height of tackiness, a compound of triviality and pretension. In most of those photos, I am scowling, resentful – only now do I realise that the need to record, to register, to archive was born of traumatic loss.

I would like to ask my father about why he first became interested in photography, and what shibboleth made Dylan turn around (presumably he just said ‘Dylan’, loudly, but in my imaginary reconstructions of that moment something more significant is said). But I can’t ask him anything any more, because he has gone – not physically, you understand. He is not dead. But he has advanced Alzheimer’s. It came hugger-mugger into his life, into our lives, and before we recognized it had already made itself at home, rearranging the furniture and turfing us out on to unfamiliar streets. Alzheimer’s trick is the opposite of photography’s – it makes the present absent. Someone is there, but not there. It unfixes. It dissolves.

Writing in 1978, Susan Sontag remarked that in the 20th century cancer had replaced TB as the disease of reference: ‘For as long as its cause was not understood and the ministrations of doctors remained so ineffective, TB was thought to be an insidious, implacable theft of a life. Now it is cancer’s turn to be the disease that doesn’t knock before it enters, cancer that fills the role of an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion – a role that it will keep until, one day, its etiology becomes as clear and its treatment as effective as those of TB have become.’ In the almost 40 years since Sontag first published Illness as Metaphor, the mysteries of cancer have not, alas, been dissipated: decades of medical research have neither fully clarified its etiology nor led to the development of particularly effective treatments. But it has not kept its role as the epitomic illness either, its place usurped by dementia. This is not a matter of prevalence, of course, but of metaphorical potency. Dementia, of which the best-known symptom is memory loss, can easily be turned into a vehicle for thinking about specific contemporary concerns surrounding digital amnesia and the erosion of historical consciousness in the internet age. But the metaphorical resonance of an illness is not just a function of its symptoms, but is indexed more fundamentally to its mysteriousness. Cancer is still mysterious, but dementia more mysterious still. Living with cancer is living with mystery; living with dementia, a patient or sufferer, is living in mystery.

A couple of months ago I was asked to write an article about Alzheimer’s as part of a fundraising drive. I think it was supposed to be about the lived experience of watching someone you love suffer, about the weariness, the fever and the fret. About the almost (if you’re lucky) irreparable damage Alzheimer’s can do to your relationships with other family members who have different assumptions, beliefs and coping strategies. About the way in which Alzheimer’s robs not just sufferers but carers of their ability to remember, to remember that people living with advanced dementia were once young and strong and dauntless. Remembering that is difficult, but it also helps you be kind and patient, and at the moment kindness and patience are the only things anyone can offer. I think I was being asked to write about that, about emotion. I couldn’t do it. I could riff here on the way in which the Alzheimer’s cyclone transports everyone involved to a world where language is a busted flush, but that would be disingenuous. I couldn’t write that article not because it’s beyond language, but because it’s beyond me at the moment. So I substituted cultural history for emotional excavation, used intellection as an anodyne. I spent a morning at the library, I looked things up, I joined the dots. A person with Alzheimer’s is unable to do that. They can’t use knowledge to buffer immediate experience. A person with Alzheimer’s is – among other things – unable to remember newly learned information. I imagine their mind like the camera obscura, topsy-turvy images flickering across the walls, fugitive and strange. They have lost the ability to stabilise those images, catalogue them, archive them. Their minds are locked treasure rooms.