I spent today combing through history – looking for images to share with my students. Tomorrow is the first day of a new class at JFK University. This image here is one of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris taken in 1838 by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, one of photography’s originators and the inventor of the daguerreotype.
I was first introduced to this photograph as a UNM graduate student in Eugenia Parry Janis’ photo history survey. Nia had a way of making photographs come to life with her enthusiasm and descriptive language. For this one, she described it as “a bug in amber,” because if you look closely you can see two lone figures in the lower left who remain visible on this busy, bustling city street. Everyone else has been erased by the extremely long exposure – they simply walked right out of the frame before the chemistry could record their presence. Except two. A shoe shiner and the man who stopped for his services and stood motionless long enough that we can still see him today.
In the past when looking at this image, I have imagined Daguerre’s excitement at having successfully created one of the first photographs of Paris. What a thrill that must have been. Then I would marvel at the way photography captures slices of time, and in the 19th Century those slices were thick – many minutes wide – whereas today they are paper thin instants. Then I would be left with an eerie sense that eventually we all walk out of the frame.
Today, I look at this photograph and read a new meaning into it. On that crowded boulevard, the men who ultimately made the largest imprint were the ones who stood still – not the many people rushing off to important business, or even pleasure strolling. I take heart in this because as an artist, I struggle so with the rushing of life. I relish the idea (whether it is true or not) that maybe the way to have the most lasting impact is not to produce more art, teach more classes, or do more of anything, but instead to stand still – becoming fully present and part of everything around me.