Once upon a time last Tuesday, I was in the Davenport College Gallery. I went to see the “19th-Century New Haven: Chapel Street’s Photo Row” exhibit, which is a collection of old photographs taken by members of the 30-plus studios that once lined that illustrious thoroughfare. These are the faces of New Haven in the 1870s, now relegated to a life on gallery walls.
Lisa Kereszi ART ’00, a lecturer at the School of Art and collector of these so-called “cabinet cards,” has the same passion for these mysterious images as Paula Dean does for butter. At a talk for the opening of the show, she explained the importance behind photographs in those days. Which is to say, in those days, there was no Facebook, and it took considerable effort to make them. In the 1870s, images were indulgent, and getting one’s picture taken was a ceremonious affair. Women held their fussy babies for portraits while draping themselves in black cloth to stay unseen; clients often wore wire headrests to help stay still during shoots. Even the deceased were brought in for photos so that at least one image of them would remain after they passed beyond the veil.
Almost all of the photographs are shots of someone’s face, tilted gently in one direction with a gaze directed slightly away from the camera. These people are too busy looking peacefully into their own past to bother with us, their sight devoted to a vanished world.
One girl caught my eye because she looked my age, despite her constricting dress and tight bun. Expertly styled curls covered her forehead. So much effort had been put into her appearance, because this photograph might have been one of only a few in her lifetime. Maybe she took it to send back home to California, in a letter that would travel for weeks by locomotive. There I was, looking at her now, in a time when, at any moment, I am seconds away from sending a snapshot of my life to anyone, anywhere.
We are so saturated with photographs these days; it’s hard to think of them as rarities or collectibles. Looking at this exhibit made me think about our generation’s wildly different relationship to the camera. Many pictures I see on Facebook are of my friends and me screwing up our faces and contorting our bodies. We’re desensitized to, even bored with, a stoic face. But would those individuals on the gallery wall act differently than us if they lived now? Parties at Gatsby’s house only seem more poetic than parties on Lynwood because they were documented by Fitzgerald’s prose instead of a roommate’s iPhone. The question is, then, where do we put forth our best image? Is that even necessary anymore, in a world where a picture is barely worth a moment’s pose, let alone a thousand words.
Kereszi showed an old newspaper ad that read: “Procrastination is the thief of time.” I procrastinated from my homework by going to this exhibit, but I probably would have been in my room looking at Facebook photos anyway. At least these pictures were well crafted. The exhibit is unassuming and simple in execution, but still worth a stop on the way to a Davenport dinner. And it inspired me to compose myself a bit more for the next picture I’m in, one of thousands that will be taken in my lifetime.