Linh Dinh on Walt Whitman and photography

Linh Dinh on Walt Whitman and photography

September 16, 2009


In a little house pictures I keep, many pictures hanging suspended–It is not a fixed house,
It is round–it is but a few inches from one side of it to the other side,
But behold! it has room enough–in it, hundreds and thousands,–all the varieties;

In the passage above, from “Pictures,” written before Leaves of Grass, Whitman compares the mind to a gallery of photographs, and when his masterpiece came out, he explained in an unsigned review:

Its author is Walter Whitman, and the book is a reproduction of the author. His name is not on the frontispiece, but his portrait, half length, is. The contents of the book form a daguerreotype of his inner being, and the title page bears a representation of its physical tabernacle.

Emulating the camera, a brand new invention in 1855, Whitman tried to catalogue pretty much the entire earth, and like a photo, he projected himself across time zones and into the future. Like his contemporaries, Whitman could finally glimpse many distant lands, so he rattled off mountains and rivers of places he had never been. To him, the camera was a model of a democratic, insatiable and lusty eye, capable of capturing and immortalizing all:

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank….the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,

On and on it continues, everything neutrally stated, objective, a slide show without commentaries. Whitman was ahead of his time not because he saw himself as a bulky, studio bound daguerreotype, or a mere photographer, mind you, but because he became an aim and shoot that missed nothing as it roamed real or imagined sidewalks, or as it barreled over real or imagined cobblestones on a horsedrawn carriage.

A century and a half later, we are positively luxuriating in canned food and music, and, most of all, the photograph. I can’t take three steps without bumping into yet another effigy of my dear, dearest mother-in-law, can’t shift one brain cell without upsetting a babylon of glossy comeons, can’t wiggle a mouse without unleashing a torrent of pixelated genitalia.

Dominant societies disperse emissaries to convert, kill, loot or photograph, and a conquering army is always accompanied by embedded vultures. There’s no point in kicking down doors, ransacking homes, burning huts, tying up men, raping women, torturing and slaughtering if photos aren’t globally disseminated to be seared into our collective memory. Minus these trophies, there’s no victory. Even if it’s politically inexpedient to release the images now, it’s important that there’s a photographer in the vicinity, and it must be one of ours, of course, not a bystander or freelancer. These traitorous parasites ought to be arrested, if not shot.

Images of atrocities don’t stop wars any more than pornography deters rape. To the righteous, photos of an enemy being humiliated only confirm the justness of their cause and their own racial, national, class or gender superiority. Think lynching postcards. Think Abu Ghraib. We can do this because God, history and nature are on our side. — Linh Dinh

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