I remember when my father placed the candle onto Incan stone. No larger than a magnolia bud. Alabaster colored. The texture of an eyelid. A wick broken in a jacket pocket. It lit on the third match. We sheltered the candle in a mossy terrace corner and watched the flame survive together. The wind smelled like melting snow. I felt loved and patently sacrilegious; candles are involved in both blessings and curses. My father whispered, “Happy Birthday.” April 11, 2013: the morning I turned twenty-two beneath Hyuna Picchu.
A faceless American admonished our ceremony. Neon windbreaker. Scrupulous shoelaces. Trail-mix breath. We’ve all been him. He had a point, of course: one shouldn’t light fires at UNESCO sites. Perhaps it was disrespectful, even dangerous, but we had a point too. What was it? To celebrate. To honor transition. Maybe to remember, and I have – some of it.
I recall the outline of our itinerary. I joined my father and step-mother on a journey to Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu(1). Our trip transpired during a prosperous period in my life. Three months prior I had been on safari through Tanzania’s Serengeti, and in three months, following our peregrination through the Sacred Valley, I would fly to Uganda to complete a research grant. It was a year of collegiate success alongside personal accomplishment. I grew, as one might say when they’ve matured, metamorphosed in visceral but inscrutable ways. If only to understand the novel moth! Do his wooly wings remember un-crinkling within the chrysalis the way our palms remember with lifelines our first grasps?
If it was the busy year or my personal transformation I cannot say, but I have forgotten much of our journey through Peru. I try to remember, but it is like looking for something precious, diaphanous, in a lightless attic with only a low-juice flashlight – perhaps a kid’s toy plucked from the dusty box labeled in black permanent marker: KIDS STUFF: DO NOT THROW AWAY – to illuminate the stored heaps of noteworthy but neglected things. My visual memories are dim and insubstantial before they invariably fade. Like a somber magic lantern before the waned flame is expended and engulfed by dark smoke, images from my past project upon my imagination, deep within it, so deep as to be distant and therefore painful, like an intangible, kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria willed into vague perceptibility by focused longing.
What else do we find neglected in the attic? Photographs. Boxes of them, and I have found mine. Negatives captured in Peru, found near the bottom of another labeled box – NEGATIVES – a little dusty too, developed, cut and prepared to become positives. A trove of immutable chemical memories on plastic in need of light – like a child’s flashlight, a lantern’s pastel projection, the controversial candle that marked my 22nd year – to create meaning. So I expose them again.
(1) Machu Picchu (translated “Old Peak”) was commissioned by the emperor Pachacuti in the mid 15th century, at the height of pre-Colombian Incan dominion. The citadel sits at 8,000ft above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, and is assembled by over 200 structures, believed to be homes, temples, altars, agricultural terraces, fountains and canals. Some theorize Machu Picchu served as a royal court, others think it was utilized for religious worship and ritual. No matter one’s supposition, it is an awe inspiring place.
Other than a few tickets, receipts, and dim memories, these photographs are my only record of Peru. I kept no written account. Only this, penned March 23, 2013, in Lima, before our flight to Cuzco:
Thinking of the prophesy to come. The pan flute on/in the wind. The murmur of some ancient spirit of [unintelligible] coming down the wind.
Andean Condor on brick – a sign. The Dove, a sign? A prophesy to come?
The Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, kept no written record of his virulent conquest of the Incas. I’m undecided as to whether I find this anecdotal parallel fascinating or troubling. Our respective intents were antithetical – his to destroy, mine to create – but was there something else to it? The murmur of some ancient spirit, perhaps? A more plausible explanation (I speak only for myself) is that I contracted a terrible head-cold and didn’t feel up to journaling. Regardless, the scarcity of my writings make these lines more poignant. Why was I sure to transcribe such cryptic thoughts? What was the prophesy? I cannot remember. It is shrouded in mystery like Andean ruins.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas, or Willka Qhichwa in native Quechua, begins at Pisac, and continues West along the Urabamba River through Ollantaytambo, until both river and valley wind into the Andean hillsides below Machu Picchu. From Cuzco, one must travel through the Sacred Valley to reach the enigmatic citadel. I have few memories of the passage. I remember:
Red quinoa fields bending under grain,
Anachronistic faces weaving llama wool,
Torrent ducks diving through Urubamba rapids,
Manicured terraces but wild flowers,
My father standing beyond a stone doorway.
I remember more, but those remembrances are mine to keep. One memory leads to another, but sometimes not.
Still, I have photographs. I did not take photographs to remember. They were to be artistic, clever, and unique. I was of the boyish and impetuous mindset that sought gratification in cleverness, and not lucidity in meaning, obvious or profound. My creation was concerned with technicality not sentimentality. The intention was to convey how I understood a moment in time, not how I wished to remember it. Photography is unique in fine art – that elitist, fatuous term – because it captures a moment nearly (but certainly not always) as the eye sees it. It is defined by parameters – lens, light, composition – akin to sight and therefore, directly, visual memory; put more appropriately: the mind’s eye. Even if the photographer does not concern himself with taking images to remember - he must, for the photograph is a record of time, a composed but akin visual memory.
The photograph is an imperfect representation; a hollowed facsimile that lacks vitality. There is mechanical indifference in photographic exactness. One cannot achieve dissociative objectivity with one’s eyes. Human experience is colored by that inexplicable and intangible, but essential quality: soul. The camera does not experience. It records the skin of experience.
A blind harpist with few coins in his cap.
Wet alpaca fur scented with oak ash and honeyed tallow.
Words: another facsimile.
A story about my grandmother. Written in Paris, January 2017:
I watched my grandmother forget her world. Dementia crippled her memory; grey matter deliquesced into darkness. The immediacy of her identity was as tenuous and fragile as the chaff winnowed from the grains of her past.
My grandmother watched too, often through the viewfinder of her disposable camera. She photographed with voracity, exposing and consuming images at nearly (it seemed to me as a child) the rate at which the eye captures visuals between blinks. The eventful and uneventful (walks in the arboretum and the categorization of her spoons, for instance) were recorded with equal precedence. Prints were catalogued in binders, accompanied by handwritten notes, often abashed in doubt, describing the subject photographed.
Much later, after her passing, I realized the objective of her photography was to attempt tangible supplementation or replacement for the visual memory she was relentlessly losing hold of.
Mostly we do take photographs to remember. We record where we went, what we did, who we met, what we ate and saw because we want to remind our future selves (2). I observed this intent most strongly in my grandmother. Her snapshots became her visual memory. Film: her hippocampus. In her photographs she could see what she had seen, and remember again. Thin paper planes of past existence held by hands methodical but unsure; many of her prints show worn corners. Now we, custodians to shoeboxes full of slides, negatives, prints, and undeveloped rolls, may witness a select few of her memories, even after her brain has returned to carbon. We are necromancers to remembrances. We are time travelers through hypermnesia. The camera is a transcendent tool.
(2) One must also take into account the modern compulsion to share these snapshots with others via social media. Taking pictures – which I differentiate here from photography – soared in popularity precisely because of the need to share them. Nowadays, sharing images is as much a form of communication as talking or texting; consider the app, and the word, ‘Snapchat.’
One’s reminiscence may animate a photograph as naturally as one is overcome by nostalgia. I see monochrome terraces shimmering and wind thunders my ear nooks. I see father touch Incan masonry and the smooth stone consociates two sculptors across centuries. I am there. Hidden behind the camera but within each image. An external record but my record too. Every photo is a self-portrait to the photographer. Sometimes breath fogs viewfinders.
I’ve been thinking how memory is like a river. Thoughts rush past. Sensations flow through. Memories remain like eddies, or agitate like rapids. Others disembogue in darkness.
Photographs reverse river flows like tidal bores. Effused memories gather into impossible waves and rush upstream. Reminiscences surge back. We reflect where the wave is smooth.
How does the mountain river glimmer under moonless night? Forgotten memories return, sometimes dazzling in clarity, refracting beneath a crystal surface: water, a glossy negative. The Urubamba flows through the Sacred Valley and anamnesis flows back to me.
Trusting a photograph is risky. Memories are vulnerable. They are permeable, also malleable, and photographs are the distant calloused hands that irrevocably deform them. The photograph corrupts the original memory, or what we perceived to be the original: the previously unequivocal touchstone for remembering a moment in one’s imagination. The captured image projects onto memory and questions what one understands to be true. Though photography and memory may be similar in function, they are very different entities.
I worry that I’m forgetting.
As a child I’d trap moths with inquisitive hands against the thick glass of trawler lanterns. They were drawn to the light – sometimes red, sometimes green, for navigating sea at night – and I was drawn to them. I never understood what they needed in the light. Husks flickered against fingers. Mysterious powder painted palms; stardust, so near a moth’s moon. It was as if I held only the stamens to a bouquet of blooming lilies.
A moth’s wing is covered by microscopic scales that refract light and form unique patterns. The scales are fragile. They turn to dust in children’s hands.
I see my memories as scales covering lifelong wings that display my character in patterns formed by remembrances. The wings carry me to a trawler light, maybe green, or red. I trap and expose my memories against the light. Another magic lantern illuminating reminiscence.
I want the patterns to reveal some truth about who I am. I quiver within the hands of my younger self. The scales break. Can I find meaning in the stardust of shattered, irreplaceable memories? Is a photograph an unbreakable scale? Maybe, but the new pattern they form is unrecognizable.
To be young is to be concerned with the progress of growing up. One grade to the next. A sequence of climbing numbers – age, grade, responsibilities – moving impossibly forward to accommodate maturation. I was taught to understand progress as only a step forward. Never a step back. What can youth possibly retrace? I understand now: most of youth itself. I wish I had recorded more of my childhood, of growing up. Perhaps it is too late.
I worry that I’ve forgotten.
Recently I was overcome by nostalgia for my own life. I longed for the past, my youth, to exist with me in the present. A gentle wave suddenly erases footprints from sand.
I want to remember my life as I live it, but I can’t. Experience is remembered and forgotten as life unfurls. This is a dilemma of the photographer: to record experience or to experience. I have done both. It is the distance between the two that I try to reconcile.
Another wave rushes in.
I can’t trust the mood these photographs elicit. During passed time I have convinced myself of different emotions. I recall celebration. An inalterable pride and self-worth. Triumphant hope in growing up. These photographs disagree. They are solemn. Their composition is contemplative and distant; chilly, the way a limb is when the blood slows. Which do I believe? Fog quietly penetrates each frame.
Recently a good friend and I were discussing my Antarctic Verses photographs. We had traveled to the Southern Continent together. He said, “you have a knack for capturing lonely landscapes.” I was put off by his comment. Never had I considered my compositions lonely. Minimalist maybe, but never tinged with the sadness loneliness implies. So often is the conversation between creator and critic: he sensed something in the work that I could not. An advantage of insight. My friend understood why I had chosen to journey to the cold end of the earth: to process the divorce of my parents, to find my place within our disfigured family. He was right. In the photographs is the architecture of a broken heart: lonely, cold and desiring beauty.
I must honestly consider the Sacred Valley photographs, too.
What I understand in these photographs will be different from what you understand. It has to be that way. I have my life and you have yours. I was there and you were someplace else. But we will meet in the photograph. I am there, and now, as you look, so are you; transported through your imagination by my image. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but so are memories: I wish I could remember; sometimes I wish to forget; but I’ve learned wishing has little to do with it.
I think of the prophesy: the murmur of some ancient spirit of [unintelligible] coming down the wind. I don’t know what it means. It could be nothing more than puerile stab at the profound. But I don’t think so. There is importance in intention. I chose to make a mark. Something to remember. But the prophesy itself is unclear.
“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on,” Tom Stoppard writes, his actors say. How do I decipher what I have written? I will understand the prophesy differently now. Meaning, like memory, is warped by passing time. I choose to understand that I am the ancient spirit murmuring to my present self. I existed then, scribbling my thoughts in Lima to be caught and carried by time back to me. A message murmured to my future self:
“This is the prophesy: you will remember and forget. You will discover that your past – your ancient spirit – is unintelligible; unclear like the turbid river rushing downstream to the ocean where waves erase footprints, where luminescent trawlers hum in the night. It runs through you vital as blood.”
I am left with what I’ve created: photographs and words. They are the signs. Black and white like condors and doves. Andean Condor on brick – a sign. The Dove, a sign? Signs that something happened. An inexact record of moments. An indecipherable language of lost time. They’re all I have to go on. Like road signs alongside a foreign but oddly familiar road, my photographs and words lead me back to Peru.
Within this book I exist in the Sacred Valley again. I trek from photograph to photograph, memory to memory, longing to link the seemingly limitless distance between them. I do not know how. With each passing moment the distance grows. The valley widens. The mountains rise higher, unreachable.
I am envious of the condor that soars over peaks. She exists where I cannot. Wind quickens down the Andes and lifts her outstretched, lazy wings. The same wind scatters my photographs about the valley floor. It thunders in my ears. It smells like melting snow. Somewhere a father and son are sheltering a candle.
“Tupnanchis-Cama,” I murmur into wind. Until we meet again.