A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Sleeping Beauty & Rebecca Snubs Spirits
Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"On the count of 10 this man will die."

A man falls in the water, he struggles as Max Von Sydow calmy counts down, 10, 9, 8... Europa a 1991 film directed by Lars Von Tier.

Last Saturday Rebecca asked me from the living room, "Papi, what's a posthumous portrait?"

It had all begun when she had told me that she really did not believe in my idea that if we returned to a place where one of our loved ones (or even unknowns) had walked by we would in some way walk through their presence in some form of ghostly spirit. I had told her about Homero Aridjis who wrote:

Invisible ancestors
walk with us
through the back streets
the stares of children
young girls's bodies
cross through them
Weightless and vague
we travel through them
at doorways that no longer are
on bridges that are empty
with the sun on our faces
we too
move toward transparency
. Homero Aridjis - Letter From Mexico

I have taken Rebecca to the old CP train station at the foot of Seymour Street. We sat down once, on one of the benches and I recounted how my grandmother had told me when I was 8 or 9 in Buenos Aires that she had left Manila in 1920, a penniless widow, with her three children, to live in the Bronx. She told me they had disembarked from a Japanese ship in a magical place that had enormous conifers and snow capped mountains, that was called Vancouver. She told me they had walked into a cavernous train station (the CP Station) to take a train to Montreal and from there to New York City. We looked up to the high celings and I explained that we did not need much of an imagination to see the four of them walking with their bags to the train platform. If we got up we could even, perhaps walk right through them as Aridjis wrote in his poem. If one could still hear the sound of the Big Bang, I explained it was no less likely that the presence of a human being would have been diluted to nothing.

Obviously Rebecca had been giving much thought to the idea of spirits. She thinks that one of her friends from school, who lives across the street from the cemetery on 41st and Fraser, is a tad too religious. She has told me this and I have recommended that she show tolerance.

On Saturdays, Rebecca likes to go through my many photography and picture books. Her favourite is George Hurrell's very big book, Hollywood. But this time I placed on her lap Sleeping Beauty - Memorial Photography in America by Stanley B. Burns, M.D. (Twelvetrees Press, 1990). It didn't take long before she asked me about the pictures. "They are mostly portraits of dead children," I answered and then explained that because of a high mortality rate in children in the 19th century it was fashionable to have portraits taken of one's dead children. In some cases these portraits were the only tangible token or proof of their short existence. Rebecca looked at the book over and over. I mentiones that as soon as photography was invented and lenses and photographic emulsions became fast enough to record fleeting moments, photographers tried to capture the transition from life into death but that nobody had ever succeeded. Whatever it was that made eyes look alive, or dead in the portraits, had something to do with the existence of some invisible but somehow palpable spirit. She protested, "These pictures don't look real." "They were originally b+w photographs or silvery Daguerreotypes that were then coloured by hand," I explained, "That's why they look unreal. Colour photography had yet to be invented." This made Rebecca silent and when her mother Hilary arrived for supper in the evening she immediately sat down with her and showed her the book. I wonder which book will be on her lap next Saturday?

The colour photograph of Rebecca here I took in 2004. She is posing with the English Rose, R. 'William Shakespeare'. When I look at it I can see (in spite of the fact that it is in colour) something of the very much alive Alice Liddell that the Reverend Dogson captured in the 19th century. Is there something of that Rebecca of 2004 still in her now? Do spirits thin out?


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