Today is early into my third month interning at the Boca Museum of Art under Registrar Martin Hanahan. As an English major and Linguistic minor, people look at me oddly when I tell them the internship I pursued. But through my studies in English, I learned every facet of art is intertwined seamlessly, and we must pursue each type to experience what art is. Artists paint with many colors, writers paint with two.
Our words, in perfect black and white, show how colorful life is. And artists, with their cubism and their expressive modernism, offer an abstract sense of life that playfully incites our senses. The beauty of art is that it does not tell you what to think, or even how to think. It simply is. Just like music. So, after studying the great writers, I decided to pursue a different approach to the world of expressive awareness. I am drawn to art because it is quiet, but even the quietest painting, possibly in hues of blue, still sends our senses diving into an ocean of consciousness. Art, like literature, can affect society by presenting something we are afraid of, or by creating a calming space in which we find solace.
Either way, art, music, and literature are the catalysts that strip away fake and replace it with raw. Whether artist, writer, photographer, we tell the story of life boundlessly with no restrictions. We welcome consequences. We are renegades of the present. This is how I found myself in a museum instead of a library. I am surrounded by artifacts that tell of our history without words; silent pronouncements of truth. Quiet frames hang on quiet walls and tell stories of lovers, children, animals, trees. Loudly they spill their secrets, forever surrounded by a gold frame, in remembrance of a tender, experienced hand.
Last week I documented 13 old photographs: daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. I also stored 11 cameras dating from the Second World War to the 1960s. The photographs were produced in the 1800s; each “type” produced differently. Daguerreotypes (1840-1855) are extremely reflective photographs on polished silver. Ambrotypes (1855-1865) are not shiny like daguerreotypes, but matte, because the photograph emulsion is coated on glass with black paint that often cracks and darkens the picture.
Tintypes (1855-1900) are black painted tin- exposed. There is rarely any tarnish and it does not have a reflection. It doesn’t come in an ornate case like the other two because it is not fragile. So the type of picture that goes on these artifacts usually contains an unsmiling, somber subject who looks like she or he has no idea what is going on. Pulled from the farm, or the church, or the kitchen, the subjects exude nothing artificial about them. In fact, you feel as though you are standing there, facing them (which we very well could be). Their attitude (or lack of) in the photographs sent my mind reeling. It is so different from the way we take pictures today- with our poses and our scrunched faces and our obscene gestures.
The myth about the camera stealing the soul feels very real with these pictures. For some reason, our technology often fails to gather the real soul of a person, possibly because the entire experience of photography has changed into point and click. Easy to capture moments, but there is something distinctly un-timless about them. Perhaps this is why there are so many programs that offer ways to alter photographs in an effort to lend them some authenticity.
Now, each moment is real, but sometimes moments are so on-the-surface that we fail to appreciate the way of life- the harshness of it, the cold and the hot, the good and the bad. When people took photos in the 1800s, their faces show of struggle, of reserved resignation, sometimes exultation or humble adoration. But in each person’s face, there exists a question of the future. And this question creates a formidable distance between the person and the photographer.
Juxtaposed with the present, we pretend not to ask questions of the future because the answer is always the same- we don’t know. Why did we stop searching in an effort to look in control? It is not more becoming for a person to take a beautiful picture that has lost all sense of wonder. The people in these old photographs are asking questions of everything, even themselves.
Pioneers, renegades of the present, their souls are wondering, wandering, losing, and finding. They are not afraid to show vulnerability or strength. Their experiences are genuine because each moment has its own breath and the wildness of the photographs emulate the wildness of their world. In a world where we attempt to control the uncontrollable, a sense of magic has flown away.
To find it, we must live in and breathe every moment without contention for the past, anxiety for the future, or resistance of the present. We must accept the query. Just as these forever-young pioneers in their gold frames asked questions of the future without abandoning the present or escaping to the past. We could learn to do the same, and avoid the midlife crisis of waking up in chains. Visit the Boca Museum of Art (561) 392-2500
Unknown artist, Portrait of a Young Girl, ca. 1850, daguerrotype, 3 x 2 ½ inches. Permanent Collection 1991.128F. Museum Purchase
Unknown artist, Portrait of a Woman in a Bonnet, ca. 1850, ambrotype, 4 ¾ x 3 ¾ inches. Permanent Collection 1991.128T. Museum Purchase
Unknown artist, Two Children, ca. 1850, tintype, 3 x 2 ½ inches. Permanent Collection 1991.128. Museum Purchase