Maybe it’s because they touched it. Maybe it’s because a hand had been there, a hundred hands, a thousand. Absent the soul there is the hand. The marks of the hand. The places where the hands connect, a nexus between the inanimate and the living, the junction points of souls, where fingers held, where fingers clutched.
The fingers. The most intimate parts of us. The most loving, the most eadly. The fingers, that have been everywhere, all over us, in every part of us we can reach, in every part of the world we dare to go, the action organ of the brain, the brain’s slave and vital partner, the extension of the mind, the person, the thoughts, the makers of the patterns of life. Hands, the visible hearts of people. Where they’ve been, where they’re going, the evidence that they were here, the invisible millions who came before me. I am drawn to points of touch and proof of life.
Rubbing, scratching, wearing down metal and wood. The patinizing oils, the grime-bearing sweat – the water of their deepest selves, the water, strained and filtered through their flesh, the water rising from their bodies, the mist and essence of their living, their salts and oils, passing through their pores, buffing, shining, smoothing, over time, the objects that they touch. Hands, bearing all manner of things. Hands absently pushing, thoughtlessly pulling, turning, grasping, causing, acting, working the clever objects of the hands of others. It is the hand that masters the earth. The builder-hand. The wielder-hand. The prying, wedging, gripping power of fingers and thumbs. Why am I drawn to the evidence of touch?
Where hands have been. Strangers all. Invisible lives, the ghosts of unseen others, leaving their marks, and polish, in their light and fleeting friction, on every door, on every window, the handles handled, the nicks and scratches, of nails, the remnants of claws. See the marks of hands and witness the passings of persons, proof, these smudges and scuffs, of others, reminders, of others. The Holden Caulfield moments of despair. I am not alone. This place is not precious, to them, not sacred. Their desecrating hands have befouled it. Have beautified it. Made it better. Made it worse.
Photography is touch. The photograph is a lingering caress. The camera is a finger, a cupped palm, a glove. We capture what we wish to hold, fondling the world at a safe and sterile distance. Yet it is not, as some believe, distancing. If anything, photography enhances intimacy, the stop-bath and the fixer between the beholder and the beholden. Photographs are vivid fossils placing objects in orbit with each other. The seer is, for a moment, revolving around the subject. But when the seer is also the photographer, it is the subject that revolves. Photography is most powerful, most effective and most meaningful as a personal medium of discovery and reflection. The private photograph, in which the image is remembered as a floating point in the true life of the photographer, is memoir.
We see. A million images pass before our eyes. Some of them we remember. Some of them we choose to keep. Others choose us. What is photography? Why is there even a word for what we do innately? Photography is editing and augmenting memory via a mechanical aid. It is the selection of a small fraction of what we see with the intent to see it again; unaltered, or enhanced, but to see it again because there is something in the image before us that piques an interest, that stirs curiosity, that is worthy of further examination and contemplation. At its best, it is the subconscious telling the conscious, ‘Look, here is something you need to pay attention to.” As a means of self-exploration, as opposed to self-expression, the photograph is unmatched. The camera is an extension of the mind, reaching out to touch the world and hold it fast and show us what is true.
Did the mind invent the camera in order to improve upon itself? Is the camera, the photograph, the recorded image, an evolutionary extension of the brain? An inevitability? We’ve created external means of self-verification before. Lascaux. The camera is a cave wall. Light is the ochre, the carbon, the spit. Niépce and Daguerre were merely embellishing an ancient process already begun, with hands. We think in pictures. What is the most common image found on the walls of caves? Hands. The negative images of splayed fingers and palms created by blowing pigment across the back of the hand.
The known world is marked by hands, the evidence of hands, everywhere and inescapable. Wherever there is a straight line or a right angle, there was a hand. Digging, carving, hammering, stabbing, petting, holding – there are a thousand different ways to touch. Every brick, every cobblestone, every wheel and every fleck of peeling paint was put there by hands. Soft and vulnerable, strong and enduring. Look at the hands of a man who works with his hands and I’ll show you a story written in swollen bone and cuts. Look at the hands of a woman, a woman who uses her hands to grab and to hold and you will see the rugged tools of a frail and savage soul.
I see hands. In everything, in every place. A forest of fingers. A million deadly thumbs. Terrifying and beautiful. Those calloused, scratching digits. Those knobby, bony knuckles. What they can do. Whose hand was here? Whose hand was there? I see them, lingering, on the backs of chairs, on soda cans and paper cups. On all the flattened cigarettes. They accumulate on door handles and hang like leaves from subway straps. I see hands on walls and lamp posts, like bees see the hidden guidance patterns on flower petals.
Without knowing it I have been drawn to photograph the places where hands have been. All this time I thought it was the object, a weathering, a patina. I thought I loved the things when it was the people whose love I was seeking, the people whose touch made the thing. If I touch it and it’s real I know I am not dreaming. I know I’m real. All of this, all of art is an affirmation of living. Every day I write. Am I living? Every day I take a photograph. Am I living? Every day I need to be reminded because both the concept of life and life as it’s happening is staggering. It’s staggering. It’s almost too much too handle. It is too much to handle. Try and contemplate the stars.
Who were they? The nameless, faceless thousands whose hands were there before mine. But they are my people. I am one of them. If we touch each other’s hands how can we not love one another? How can we hate? The gentle touch of the photograph, light as light, it is a kiss, it is creation, fingertip to fingertip, as on the ceiling of the chapel of the Popes.
This piece first published in Stone Voice magazine as “Evidence of Touch”, Fall 2013. (www.stonevoices.co/)