Children on their birthdays,
I have never smelled a dead person.
I have never closed the eyes of a loved one for the final time when they could no longer do so themselves.
However often I have encountered these experiences in literature or genre fiction or prose purporting itself
to be a record of fact, indeed however close I’ve been in unmediated life to that bridge we will all travel,
I’ve never had those sensations. Yet I’ve never doubted them, never (okay, a little) questioned that, in the
former instance, it is an odor so unmistakable as to be immediately identifiable, ineluctably “echt” (as they
say in German): authentic, redolent only of the fact of the matter at hand. It tells us where we are, where we
ourselves are going (and strive to avoid), much more reliably than sight or language.
There is, it seems, no comparable word in English (indeed there is no native phoneme with which to
produce this one); or is it perhaps just that I am too close to its conventions and that the German, reeking
as it does of centuries of philosophical investigation, seems closer to the truth of both mind and body
than we might otherwise be able to approach?
To the American ear innocent of German, “echt” has about it a certain guttural character, an onomatopoeic
retching rhyme that situates the “real” within the realm of somatic response, a suggestion that revulsion of
sorts is an inarguable fact in the way that matters merely of the mind--of aesthetics--can never be.
(And yet “sweet” is mentioned too, as in “sickly-sweet”.)
It is perhaps why the baroque grotesques of Arbus, including originally her curling prints, including her
suicide, were a revelatory foray in the direction of the “echt”, a stance to be imitated by an Avedon or a
Leibovitz that would, they hoped, banish their various insincerities the moment we gazed upon the bodies
of their dead loved ones and imagined we (or they) could smell them.
No more birthdays for them.
Subsequent plots to assert the “truth-i-ness” of serious imagery (a construct hit upon by comedic
purveyors of the “fake news”) have proliferated in numerous directions, attempting to borrow from demotic
genres sufficient whiff of: the snapshot, pornography, the industrial deadpan, science, whatever; managing
to end only with the tone of a guilty lover’s “trust me...,” (when some usually somatic betrayal is feared) to
which we can only reply: “I did until you said that.”
We can but feel, as Quentin Crisp asserted, that each subsequent excuse after the first (however true)
further undermines our belief rather than reinforces it. There is no ore to be mined there. Photography,
however cleverly applied, CANNOT tell us the truth. “Ugliness” is no more true than “beauty”.
“Smart” refers to one’s style rather than one’s perspicacity. “Truth” was a fragrance by Calvin Klein.
The blur, the red-eye, the off-kilter composition is no more “echt” than f64, the Octabank reflection or the
bilateral symmetry and frontality worthy of an imagined high-end passport office’s construction of identity.
My father (a teacher, a chemist, a devotee of taped lectures of Teller the nuclear scientist, an alcoholic,
dead) staged our holiday snaps with all the daylight-balanced lights and costume decisions of Hollywood
to successfully produce the impression of the quintessential “happy family”. We were decidedly not.
It is sometimes forgotten that millions upon billions of failed experiments provide us far more useful data
than any number of successful ones.
What happens when we see the sad, fragile balloon beneath the furniture in Andenaes’ picture?
How is this impression altered by one of a rifle calmly laid with its muzzle out of frame? Do we think Harold
Edgerton’s high-speed poetry revelatory precisely because we could never see such things with the naked
eye? “Seeing is believing” it is said. “Believing is seeing” certain criminal attorneys and neuroscientists
In a Borges story (that itself pretends to be journalism), a man wishing to impersonate another (dead one)
to his mother is coached on the verisimilitude of “no resemblance”. Only the attempt to resemble what she
has been led by lifelong familiarity to expect will give away their ruse: who but the real son would insist that
it is he not only in spite of but because his appearance is so altered?
Is the tactility of an open Braille book receding into the shadows enticing exactly because we understand
that it was initially intended for those who couldn’t see it? What path are we on? When we are told that the
aforementioned rifle gives birth to no projectiles do we miss the somehow satisfying (potential) smell of
cordite? Why is one sort of gun considered “real”? Do we wonder if an accelerated volume of air can still
satisfyingly rupture the happy-face complacency or lonely longueurs of a child’s birthday as surely as metal
speeding faster than sight or sound? We are wounded before we hear the report. We revel in the grammar
of the images rather than their noun-ness, their “echt-itude”; no longer do we ask of them: “Does this make
my ass look fat?” Do we think and feel best/most in the fraction of a second it takes the light to reveal the
blood, the air to reverberate its disruption?
“Not a just image, just an image,” Godard says.
“Prepare to say the word ‘cat’.”
Not mentally, physically. Hold your mouth and tongue, expel a burst of air. Such are the instructions to
produce the velar fricative at the center of “echt”.
Andenaes’ discarded tiger-skin is somehow poised at that center of “echt-itude”. There is the sense that
something has escaped, the camouflage once provided by those stripes--to a hunter crouched in a blind?
to the cat itself?--is no longer required.
“Where’s the beef (so to speak)?”
What was once a cloak of invisibility becomes the very liability that reveals one’s position when what were
once the given expectations are no longer, like wearing jungle camouflage in the desert; black in the
brightness of day. What remains, what predominates, is the sense that something precious (doubly
precious if we assume whomever owned it after the tiger valued it too) has been left behind as of value no
longer. The veil that hid us in the rushes has been abandoned so that we stride naked now; vulnerability,
mortality confronted for as long as we might last without our illusions.
Rindal’s strategy seems to be to try and show us the search itself rather than what we are searching for.
“Beef” in contemporary slang refers not to the meat itself over which one might have competed but
rather to the argument, the search for what differs. Strangely, the resolution of the beef is not what is
Andenaes’ curving road could almost occur in either photographer’s current oeuvre. The orienting
vanishing point is absent (with Rindal usually an effect of light fading or being reflected or dispersed),
the road twisting almost immediately out of frame, the curve of that parenthesis standing only for itself.
Many traces of Rindal’s gazes look into the light (as those hovering between life and death are sometimes
exhorted) or glance off, partially frustrated by glass intervening or reference the latter substance without
even showing it by multiplying panes through which nothing at all is visible, reinforcing what we know and
fear: without our perception there is nothing “out there”.
Cradled between these parentheses it’s hard not to think of the tiger itself “burning bright”, shed of its
skin so the fur won’t retard its passage into ephemerality and ashes; our own pelts rapidly left behind to
facilitate escape from what trap?
Kind. Kind. Kind.
Noun. Adjective. Old English. German.
On birthdays there is the ritual blowing out of candles in order to, what? barter for another year in
which the light does not disperse us or our surroundings? Observant Jewish women light the candles yet
cover their faces.
In German, Kind denotes a child.
In English, “kind” denotes either a tendency toward tenderness or a “type”, a category. Nor is that
coincidence or sophistry: etymology leads directly from one to the other: “kin” is whom we have--at least
from a Darwinian perspective--a vested interest in being kind toward (“one of our own kind, stick to your
own kind”), simultaneously somehow altruistic and self-interested. To be Kind-like to a shattering degree?
Does that imply cruelty or gentle exploration? The toys are often broken, sometimes cherished into
adulthood. Which is better?
To photograph someone dear, is it harder or easier than subjecting a stranger to such scrutiny and
imagination? Does “kind-ness” preclude or at least render less likely “kindness”? Can we imagine another
way of thinking, a different practice?
We could mean: a tenderness so overwhelming as to be devastating (more confounding to receive than the
more prepared-for assaults of attempted dominance); or conversely: an honesty so ruthless that it will have
no truck with gentle mollification and reassurance: “On toward the potentially devastating TRUTH of the
matter, damn the consequences...”
Perhaps the task of “maturity” is: to resist similarity, resemblance, generalization; the constant striving to fit
things into “a kind” so that they can be mathematized, probability-distributed, focus-grouped,
As entities even still womb-bound, as newly-embodied consciousnesses it is essential that we ruthlessly
struggle to DEFINE, to “en-kind” things, the categories of good/bad/poison being essential to our
continuing to function on this plane. Is it because we see the necessity of keeping them protected and
alive long enough to make the transition away from that position why we are biologically predisposed to
be “kind” to those more resembling children; to move toward a desire not to “eat things with a face”, not to
make of them “beef” in either sense? That an excess of kindness (positively or negatively valued) is
perceived when it is applied to those “not one of us”?
I once had a friend at whose house we would gather for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
After consuming many of the ritual foodstuffs we would retire to lounging on the floor perusing stacks of
Gourmet magazine (from which we never cooked) and take turns reading aloud delectable-seeming
concoctions. The conversation once drifted into an interminable disagreement concerning the belief
(or lack thereof) that a certain photograph of Gertrude Stein could or did have more of “her” in it.
Gertrude Stein, whose arguably second-most famous assertion is that “there is no there there.”
Without the “story”, what are we looking at? When we strive to “de-story” pictures what do we destroy?
Should we? Can we?
Gertrude tried it with language. But she became famous for lectures, for writing the “autobiography” of her
lover (herself known for a “cookbook”), for collecting paintings that tried to dispense with verisimilitude of
any kind, standing only for themselves. The verisimilitude of non-resemblance?
Upon leaving the Gourmet-ridden floor we came out into the night and the season’s first snow; falling it
dispersed the light, fallen it reversed the values and obscured the expected outlines....
Is the girl behind glass photographed with kind-ness? A specimen of what? Why is the underlit woman
somehow more palpable or at least tactile? Does she inspire in us a greater tenderness? Is the woman
in the snow-white shirt nearer or further if we don’t know who she is? If we infer that the photographer is
prostrate before her?
Anyone “on the beach” puts me in mind of the film of the same name, a chronicle of those awaiting the
imminent end in nuclear dispersal. Somewhere, there are shadows burned into the concrete.
Somewhere, Tibetan monks pulverize the bones of the dead to make them transportable by the
carrion-birds who will ferry them to their “sky-burial”. Somewhere, Tibetan monks destroy their elaborate
mandala once they are finished and pour the grains of colored sand back into the sea.
I shared certain moments with a loved one languishing on the verge of death, moments we were
ill-equipped to define. She asked, “What happened? What was that?”
And all I could reply, referencing spiritual insights we both were aware of intellectually but had not
“You know how they say: before en-lightenment there is the mountain, the sky, the chair;
and after en-lightenment there is the same mountain, the same sky, the same chair--but everything
is completely different?’