Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction

Why Emily Dickinson Would Not Smile For the Camera

by David Graham

A large part of our economic and social lives is concerned with photography. Rare is the person who does not possess a personal archive of snapshots, graduation photos, or totemic images from the popular press. Newspapers and books without photographs (if just on the covers) seem odd, scholarly, antiquated productions; and the worldwide web is, of course, a highly visual medium. Our own images stare at us from driving licenses, passports, student ID's, yearbooks, group portraits, family albums, and the refrigerators of friends. Not to mention our own web pages, where grandparents can easily update themselves on the latest digital images of their grandchildren.

For as Halla Beloff has noted, it is almost inconceivable for anyone today not to be the subject of photography: "the powerless can't refuse to be photographed, but neither can the powerful." It is widely recognized, for instance, and even legally established, that the price of fame includes being the unwilling subject of photographers, who may follow you down the street, cruise by your yacht with telephoto lenses, and even sell shots of you sunbathing in the nude (should you be so unwary) to tabloids or skin magazines.

This circumstance reminds me of the long-running TV program of my youth, Candid Camera, which was based on a joke that was, in fact, not funny. The purpose of the show was to ridicule, embarrass, confuse, and humiliate its secretly filmed victims: intruding on private experience, then claiming that such episodes somehow explained the human condition. People will do the craziest things, Candid Camera informed us; it then proceeded to engineer situations in which such craziness might be displayed.

These days, of course, we have "reality TV," which seems both more sophisticated technically than Candid Camera and at the same time unimaginably cruder, in terms of motive and effect. Because Candid Camera was the grandfather of shows like Survivor and The Apprentice, I'd like to meditate a bit on its purpose and significance.

A segment I remember laughing at heartily may freshen the memory of what Candid Camera looked like and how it felt. In this rather mild episode, the producers filled an elevator with stooges, who then waited for an unwary person to get on. At a hidden signal, the stooges all turned ninety degrees in the same direction. The victim, after some embarrassed hesitation, would of course conform. Then those who were in on the joke would pivot another ninety degrees; eventually they managed to get some subjects to turn all the way around. The point of this exercise, naturally, was to demonstrate how peer pressure operates, to maintain that people are herd animals. And, at the ritualistic shout of "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" the victim was expected to join in the laughter at his own expense. Most did, as I recall; but then, we wouldn't have been shown those victims who became tearful or abusive, would we?

But is the testimony of the camera truer than our own remembered, imagined realities? Are we in fact just sheep? Certainly we all tend to indulge in private self-glorification; the point of Candid Camera was to prick that balloon, then stand back and laugh. In a sense this is no different from what satirists have done for centuries. Yet never before, I think, did they do it to actual rather than fictionalized people—in person and as public entertainment. Photography in Candid Camera is in this regard like the symbolic language of the satirist, except that it denies its own symbolic nature, claiming instead to be simple fact. The whole show rested on the premise that its furtive photographic reality was somehow truer than its subjects' self-images and private experience.

This is a slippery assumption. First, as modern physicists have informed us, the experimenter inevitably becomes a part of the experiment. There is no such thing as objectively presenting data without in fact altering that data in the process, however minutely. Heisenberg was not thinking of Candid Camera when he formulated his Principle of Indeterminacy, but the idea has become a workable metaphor for a common-sense truth: to observe is to participate. Candid Camera, to the extent that it denied that truth, distorted reality, no matter how persuasive and entertaining its examination of the human comedy; the same is obviously true of "reality shows" today.

In the dawning days of photography, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem which bears on this problem:

Perception of an object costs
Precise the Object's loss—
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price—
The Object Absolute—is nought—
Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far—

With typical incisiveness, Dickinson anticipated the flim-flammery of a show like Candid Camera and its many reality TV descendents today, though of course her poem has wider implications as well. The equation she establishes is a rigid one: to perceive an object is to lose it absolutely. In its place, we gain, what? We gain the perception itself, a reality shaped by the imagining mind. This is a real addition, but there is a real price. Furthermore, she notes that without our perception of it, the object itself is "nought"—we think here of Berkeley's hoary argument about the tree falling in the forest—and so in a sense, there is no such thing as "The Object Absolute" without our imaginative intervention. So far so good: a clear if not startling poem. Dickinson's conclusion, though, takes us further, and has a bearing on Candid Camera's spurious sociological interest. She notes our comic tendency to assume the impossible: we want our imagined reality to do what it can never do, coincide with the unimaginable "object absolute." We define perfect beauty exactly as distantly as we want it to be (we "[set] it fair") and yet we then "[upbraid]" it for not being within our grasp.

What Candid Camera did was similarly illogical: it defined human frailty on its own limited terms, and then would have had us take those imaginative terms as real. In other words, it created artificial situations designed to weaken people's resolve, expose their fears, manipulate their vanity, and otherwise degrade their dignity, and then in effect asked us to feel superior to these ordinary people, who were situated so far from us. Yet wasn't our laughter also based on our secret feeling that these people could well have been us? No doubt it was the tension between such feelings that increased our mirth.

It was a particularly juvenile, often cruel laughter, true, but there is a further, more disturbing implication. Beyond the shenanigans that the show devised to create, entrap, and then reveal its victims' pretensions and silliness, it operated on the faulty assumption that what can be photographed or filmed has objective reality in the first place. Most writers on the aesthetics of photography have noted this paradox: while it is true in a restricted sense that photographs never "lie," i.e. that they do faithfully record certain phenomena of light reacting with chemicals, it is equally true that photographs always lie, in that they present the flux of time in arrested, discrete images. Film is no different from still photography in this regard. In still photos, context is all: thus the importance of cropping, captions, and circumstances of display. So too with film; whatever is filmed is absolutely dependent on factors which may or may not be revealed: frames can be edited out, answers can be given to questions not asked, unreal and misleading juxtapositions can be achieved, and the film-maker can, of course, choose what to film and what to ignore. (There is also the matter of outright manipulation of the image or film—in the digital age, reality can rather easily be created at whim, via programs like PhotoShop and other computerized wizardry.)

In what ways does the camera always lie? Look at any album of family snapshots: see how the camera exaggerates our double chins, suspends us in unflattering instants, puts our eyes at half mast, makes us look drowsy or dazed when in fact we feel excitedly alert, and so on. The lovely visit to Monticello, for instance, as remembered by the digital camera, may look like a dreary affair of slouching crowds of ill-dressed tourists, when we remember it as really an illuminating educational experience. And though we may have intended to capture the untouched grace of the eighteenth-century furnishings, we find our snapshots instead cluttered, upon printing, with twentieth-century references: electrical outlets, rubber floor mats, ropes strung across doorways, and, worst of all, the sight of other cameras aimed our way.

It is conventional to say that the photograph in such cases is merely exposing the less pleasant side of our reality, the one we mainly choose to ignore. And this is indeed a partial truth. What's often neglected, though, is the fact that such photographic reality is not necessarily more real than our sometimes romanticized memories. For we live in time, not in the sliced-off instants a photograph captures. Even a person with a double chin is rarely as unattractive looking as a still photo would suggest; action and shifting light, no less than an onlooker's affection, can minimize physical flaws. And though we may choose not to dwell on visual detail which is to our minds extraneous to the scene, this is no more limited or selective a view of reality than the photograph's tightly framed square of two-dimensional fact.

Most crucially, furthermore, what the photograph cannot by definition capture is what we tend to value most: the imaginative or interpretive meaning of a scene. That trip to Monticello is no less rewarding an educational experience, I would contend, merely because we choose not to dwell on the trappings of twenty-first-century tourism. As everyone knows, it is entirely possible to render a beautiful person ugly in a photograph, and vice versa; we even call some people "photogenic" when we notice that their photographs are routinely more attractive looking than our mental impressions.

So the truth of Candid Camera and its offshoots is not just partial, it is simultaneously a lie, comparable to the satiric exaggerations of Swift, Twain, and Blake, though less intelligent. Yet because of our persistent, naive belief in filmed reality (think of the partial truths we swallow on each nightly television newscast), Candid Camera perpetuated its reality with utter persuasiveness. Its version of the truth of a person's character was, I maintain, no truer than the sort of family snapshot we routinely and rightly edit out of the album. Because it was a film rather than a photograph it gave the illusion of context, but as everyone but a cynic knows, human nature is in fact far more complex, and better, than such shows would have us believe.

Emily Dickinson would have known enough not to fall for Candid Camera—the very name would have frightened her, I suspect, for she is the least candid, most riddling of our classic American writers. Moreover, she is on record with her distrust of photographic reality. Historians have turned up only one authentic photograph of this famously elusive woman—this in the first great age of the photographic portrait, when most women of her social station were recorded often, when her contemporary Walt Whitman was gladly posing for hundreds of photographs (and using a photo-engraving in place of his name on the title page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass). The single photo of Dickinson shows her at age seventeen or so, and perhaps was taken before her mature judgment on photography's slippery epistemology. Years later, in July of 1862, when Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her sometimes befuddled literary mentor, wrote to request her photo, this was her reply:

Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?

It often alarms father. He says death might occur and he has moulds of all the rest, but has no mould of me; but I noticed the quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor. You will think no caprice of me.

Unfortunately, Higginson certainly did think her capricious, not failing to point out, after he had met her, that her face was "without a single good feature," and frequently writing of her with a stubborn if edgy condescension. Look at her splendid self-description, though: as critic David Porter has noted, she sent him an impression no photograph could equal, a self-portrait more real, because more complex, than any static image could be. Even Higginson was compelled to note, when he finally met her, the justice of her simile for her eyes: "like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves." In such figurative language, we have exactly the sort of truth that cameras cannot deliver.

Just what he thought Dickinson meant by her simile Higginson does not tell, but several possibilities strike me. Dickinson knew all too well, surely, that her face was, in conventional terms, "without a single good feature"; the one surviving likeness bolsters this judgment. So her deft simile fastens on a detail that apparently (so Higginson agreed) was in fact striking. And clearly she was canny enough to know that she possessed an intoxicating power over others (Higginson wrote as much to his wife, saying there was no one who "drained" him so much)—thus, her self-descriptive simile for her eyes served as both boast and warning. Beware, she implies: I am strong drink.

Finally, it is the sheer verbal dexterity of her word-portrait that pleases us—as she must have known it would. Her inventiveness and humor (note the mock-naive tone of "would this do just as well?") all serve notice that the writer is a woman of uncommon intelligence and spirit. And what photograph could ever demonstrate such things? Dickinson gives us, in the guise of physical description, a portrait of her agile mind at work. Moreover, Dickinson's reluctance goes beyond sharing her photo with Higginson; after all, she could have sent him a copy of the one known likeness, if she had wished. Instead she shrewdly takes exception to the prevailing assumption that photographs can in fact capture reality in any satisfactory way. Noting that the "quick" wears off such "moulds" rapidly, she is essentially saying, in her punning way, that unlike the human presence, a photograph is merely a piece of paper, and will quickly enough mold away. No doubt the word "mould" also indicates her disdain at being cast in conforming frame, at participating in the Victorian mania for photographic portraiture. Her father's alarm that she might die without a proper portrait indicates that she is consciously defying custom; and since we know how important her father was to her, the refusal was doubtless a matter of some emotional cost.

Dickinson here is agreeing with certain pre-literate peoples in their distrust of photography, their belief that the taking of a photograph actually steals some essence of the subject's spirit, diminishes one's soul. But we needn't smile at such innocence, for the bloom indeed wears off such images, and leaves the viewer with a diminished sense of one's true essence. Substituting her verbal self-portrait for a photograph is Dickinson's way of asserting ownership over her own image, and thus over herself—to not abandon it, as most of us have learned to do, to the vagaries of circumstance and interpretation. Such loss of control over one's self is indeed a bit frightening—nothing primitive about it. The late Susan Sontag's polemical book On Photography goes even further, claiming that the taking of any photograph is an aggressive act, an imperialist gesture. As she rightly notes, the language we use for photography is revealing in this regard: we take a photo; we do not normally give or even make one. We shoot a scene or portrait, as if killing it; and we capture memories, as if the family photo album or web page were some sort of prison.

Whether or not we accept such admittedly suggestive metaphors as pure realities, it seems inescapable that Dickinson has put her finger on one of the things that has made our age seem to so many people an anxious one, as if we were being judged harshly from some perspective that is always beyond our reach. In this as in other things, Dickinson anticipates the century in which she never lived.


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