North's impressions of Dickinson and her mother, possibly taken on the same occasion as North's miniature of the Norcross's oil portrait, are far more arresting. In these images belonging to the early period of photography's history, and thus to that brief moment, according to Walter Benjamin, "before advances in optics made instruments that put darkness entirely to flight" (248), we recognize what Benjamin called the aura, "that strange weave of time and space" (252) that makes objects appear at a distance, no matter how close they are. The absorption expressed in the faces of the Dickinson women may be the consequence of the long exposure time, the interval in which they had to remain still, staring at a spot in the distance. During this extended moment of deep concentration, their eyes were open and the various objects before them imaged on their retinas, yet they perceived nothing or almost nothing. It is the internal (mental) more than the external (optical) mode of reflection that photography makes us conscious of. Strangely whitened against the photographer's black backdrop, the faces appear to materialize and withdraw simultaneously-expressing, perhaps, the psychological ambivalence of the 19th-century subject suspended uncertainly between interiority and exteriority, and hinting at an experience of or proximity to the invisible unknown before the nineteenth century. And, like the extras of spirit photographs obtained by means of a remote photography, the subjects of these daguerreotypes appear to be moving out of focus into the past and the future at once. "The [daguerreotype] image," writes Susan Williams, ". . .does not stay fixed, but rather shifts in and out of view according to the position of the viewer. Because the image of the daguerreotype is traced on a silver-iodized plate, it hovers eerily between presence and absence: holding it one way, viewers can see the image, but holding it another, they see a reflection of themselves" (34). What startles us in these images resides in the quality of an encounter: our eyes meet the eyes of the Dickinson women in the deep focus/over-exposure of the future perfect.
The Soul's distinct
The image of Joel Norcross in North's daguerreotype bears no resemblance to the images of the Dickinson women that materialize on the photographer's sensitized plates. For the former image still belongs to the genre of portraiture and functions most clearly as a witness to the art of the painter, while the latter images refer to an uncanny, spectral world--"not amenable to analysis"?--in which the photographed rather than painted bodies "touch us with [their] own rays" (Barthes 81). Paradoxically, it is North's latter images, his chemical fixing of time in the images of his then-living subjects, and not the memento mori he made from the portrait of a dead man, that clarify--in a flash--the relationship between photography and death. Between the metallic shifting of the camera's plates--the "Click" and "Flash" of "Suddenness"--we feel the frozen rush of time. Sound of a camera shutter.
home | introduction | dickinson focus texts | texts on photography | image gallery | critical perspectives | timeline | questions | bibliography | acknowledgements