Monday, September 18, 2006

The power of photographs. Look at this:

It is one of fifteen photos from the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at the Brown University library. The portrait above is of one Monsieur Loria of the 24th Mounted Chasseur Regiment and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Monsieur Loria and all of the other individuals on the Brown page were veterans of Napoleon's armies. The pictures were taken sometime in the 1850s. Take a look, but try not to get lost imagining what those old soldiers had seen.

I'm obviously not breaking new ground here, but I am consistently surprised at the power of photographs, especially portraits, to bring to life figures of the past. It is such a pleasant surprise to find pictures like these--connections to the time just before photography became a reality; but also tantalizing reminders that if Napoleon or George Washington had lived just a bit longer, we might be able to see them a bit clearer.

Sometimes we are lucky. In his third person autobiography, Henry Adams tells a wonderful story about an incident involving his grandfather John Quincy Adams:

All the more singular it seemed afterwards to him that his first serious contact with the President should have been a struggle of will, in which the old man almost necessarily defeated the boy, but instead of leaving, as usual in such defeats, a lifelong sting, left rather an impression of as fair treatment as could be expected from a natural enemy. The boy met seldom with such restraint. He could not have been much more than six years old at the time,—seven at the utmost—and his mother had taken him to Quincy for a long stay with the President during the summer. What became of the rest of the family he quite forgot; but he distinctly remembered standing at the house door one summer-morning in a passionate outburst of rebellion against going to school. Naturally his mother was the immediate victim of his rage; that is what mothers are for, and boys also; but in this case the boy had his mother at unfair disadvantage, for she was a guest, and had no means of enforcing obedience. Henry showed a certain tactical ability by refusing to start, and he met all efforts at compulsion by successful, though too vehement protest. He was in fair way to win, and was holding his own, with sufficient energy, at the bottom of the long staircase which led up to the door of the President’s library, when the door opened, and the old man slowly came down. Putting on his hat, he took the boy’s hand without a word, and walked with him, paralysed by awe, up the road to the town. After the first moments of consternation at this interference in a domestic dispute, the boy reflected that an old gentleman close on eighty would never trouble himself to walk near a mile on a hot summer morning over a shadeless road to take a boy to school, and that it would be strange if a lad imbued with the passion of freedom could not find a corner to dodge around, somewhere before reaching the school-door. Then and always, the boy insisted that this reasoning justified his apparent submission; but the old man did not stop, and the boy saw all his strategical points turned, one after another, until he found himself seated inside the school, and obviously the centre of curious if not malevolent criticism. Not till then did the President release his hand and depart.

The point was that this act, contrary to the inalienable rights of boys, and nullifying the social compact, ought to have made him dislike his grandfather for life. He could not recall that it had this effect even for a moment. With a certain maturity of mind, the child must have recognised that the President, though a tool of tyranny, had done his disreputable work with a certain intelligence. He had shown no temper, no irritation, no personal feeling, and had made no display of force. Above all, he had held his tongue. During their long walk he had said nothing; he had uttered no syllable of revolting cant about the duty of obedience and the wickedness of resistance to law; he had shown no concern in the matter; hardly even a consciousness of the boy’s existence. Probably his mind at that moment was actually troubling itself little about his grandson’s iniquities, and much about the iniquities of President Polk, but the boy could scarcely at that age feel the whole satisfaction of thinking that President Polk was to be the vicarious victim of his own sins, and he gave his grandfather credit for intelligent silence. For this forbearance he felt instinctive respect. He admitted force as a form of right; he admitted even temper, under protest; but the seeds of a moral education would at that moment have fallen on the stoniest soil in Quincy, which is, as every one knows, the stoniest glacial and tidal drift known in any Puritan land.
Now take the time to look at this daguerreotype* of the aged John Quincy Adams (click on the picture for a closer view):

Look closely. Look at his eyes. That daguerreotype shows something that cannot be found on the written page alone. There, in the picture, is the John Quincy Adams who took his stubborn grandson by the hand and led him to school in silence. There, for all of his writing and all of his great works, is the son, the brother, the husband, the father, the grandfather. There is the man, not lost to history, but there for all to see.


Maybe we don't want to lost to history ourselves, even if that means within our own family history. And so in this digital age we take photographs by the thousands. We still sit for portraits to preserve something of ourselves. We take our children, always the children, to studios to capture who they were before they become who they will be.

My sons.

I look at these photos and wonder if someday, someone will gaze into them, looking for insight into the men they became. Do the eyes in these pictures reveal something I should know? Something about who they are?

I don't know, but I look forward to finding out. And I'll take plenty of pictures, too.


* This daguerreotype comes from the frontispiece of Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). This is the first time it has appeared online, to my knowledge.

Nagel writes of the picture: "This profile of John Quincy Adams, age 75, was made on March 8, 1843, in a Washington daguerreotype studio. Much intrigued by the new technique, he sat for three exposures (of which only this one is known to survive), and found it "incomprehensible" that each required only thirty seconds. Lost until recently, the daguerreotype appears here by courtesy of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, to which it was given by William Macbeth Gallery in New York City."

On March 8, 1843, Henry Adams had just turned five years old.

No comments: