Author: Laura Mullen

Laura Mullen is a Professor at Louisiana State University. She is the author of five books: three collections of poetry (The Surface, After I Was Dead, and Subject) and two hybrid texts, The Tales of Horror and Murmur (futurepoem 2007). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Letters and Commentary, Versal, Fairy Tale Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She also blogs at afteriwas dead.

Bride of the Photograph 1839-1930 & Bride of the Bayou & Bride of the Photograph 1940-1944

Bride of the Photograph 1839-1930

In sepia the pressure of holding still too long reveals itself in compressed lips and flat blank stares, body and cloth seem equally stiff and the subjects resemble the period furniture: glossy and intended to be fairly impervious to hard use. No one knows how to be recorded yet, no one knows how to act: for their transformation into image they are as earnest as painted supplicants at heaven’s gate. Perhaps that is the key: they pose as if to be painted, in the image of the images of people as represented on canvas. But the portraits of the whole party are taken from such a distance the banked, expressionless faces seem like specks in a sort of landscape: birds nesting on eroding cliffs, perhaps, as glimpsed from the deck of a ship. At first the clothes are simply clean or “nice”: there is no rule about apparel, and even by the end of this period the bride’s dress is not always white. Gradually profusions of flowers, slowly the emergence of the candid shots: the subjects at last turn away from the camera, more involved with the moment than the future (what future?), or just beginning to understand that they have been called upon to present themselves to an unknown audience who will see them not simply as loved ones or ancestors but as dramatic figures, more or less successful at representing the emotions understood to be appropriate. It takes almost a century for the lovers to look at each other, but in its first appearance the gesture seems cited, as if the echo of the photographer’s encouragement is just fading out. And then a flower girl, wearing feathered wings and leading a couple yoked by a wide pale satin ribbon, lifts a little bow and arrow and gives us a defiant, slightly exasperated look. A sense of theater has begun to seep into and dissolve this site: the subject will soon be art itself. Cupid’s charges, eyes lowered, heads bowed, seem like sleepwalkers led toward a precipice. Finally (after the invention of “moving pictures”) stiff smiles: the presentation of happiness; then the bride cheek to cheek—against the mirror—with herself, the medium reveling in self-consciousness. The bouquet flung from the departing ship, blossoms rocking in the wake (flowers at first almost indistinguishable from the foam), breaks up, sinks, becomes a story not about foam or flowers, but about the oil-slicked water lapping at the dock—evidence of our effort to remember: proof of everything we are going to forget.

Bride of the Bayou

She is drained—that’s her word. She takes care of other people’s needs all day long, never thinking of herself, but employing the various time saving devices developed to expand each task until it approaches the horizon of the impossible. An entire ecology damaged, possibly irreparable: where there were birds no bird, and so forth, the grim countdown of what should be visible. Sticky mud and silence, a tour boat tilted up against the bank below the reopened bar because there’s no longer a reason to teach anyone anything about this disappearing world. She seemed, once, so wild and tame, so exactly the right combination of unspoiled and viewable, adventurous and predictable. Now no one leans over a guardrail to watch the reflected sky ripple past, alert for the first glance of a lazing reptile in her shadowed shallows—all that water flowed away through the gates opened to make her (to development) accessible. Now anyone with money can find their own purpose for…if they want to: the space opened up by the erasure of wetlands and wildlife is designated useful. As if the zone of pity and contempt she soon comes to occupy (“Oh mother, really!!”) feeds those around her, who feel safely outside of that zone? For how long? But this can’t be a bride, surely! Weeds rise in the empty parking lot among “For Sale” signs. “Brides are the focus of such outpourings of love and joy,” one who should know remarks sourly, “but nobody cares for the newlywed.” First it’s the high cost of cleaning the dress and then the problem of finding offspring to admire and resurrect the age-stiffened silhouette. Use your imagination—recreate among dying trees stuck in cracked silt the shapes of dead and gone things: etch claws and fins and scales into earth, cut the sky into wings—agitate stillness. Fasten a slow unreadable gaze to a rough grayish green slick afloat in the murk. It seems the bride turns, almost at once, into the wistful, increasingly edgy, wife…on her way to becoming the more or less gently resentful mother, scrubbing down the toilet with a wad of filthy lace.

Bride of the Photograph 1940-1944

(Angle of Incidence)
Still in her costume but not fully in her role, as if backstage, apparently unaware she’s being snapped: bouquet in one hand and in the other a cigarette—for instance. Increasingly the bride, like the soldier, is reified by representations that seem to allow the mask to slip. Or she is part of the way in which the representations reify themselves. Suddenly the art is everywhere and nowhere, impossible to avoid and difficult to locate. As the photographer invades the formerly private spaces around the event there’s a growing pretence that he or she doesn’t exist. As if the images just presented themselves: leaping into the aperture to emerge in the developing fluid as if having practiced forever for this moment, having only waited to be asked.* The rarity is the forced and self-conscious joke: bride and groom biting into the same cookie (he shows his teeth in a grin, gazing at her across the sugared surface, she glances back to the camera, lips shut on the crisp edge of the sweet). The usual mode is the bride captured in the wild, as it were: pensive in the mirror below the rapt face of the maid who attaches her headdress… Where earlier pictures insisted first on seriousness and then a set happiness, now a spectrum of emotions is invoked. Lack of awareness of the camera, in this myth, means the bride’s more attuned to the complicated feelings attendant on her change of circumstance. In various settings and poses she plays them out: sweet melancholy of the farewell to girlhood, etc., the shock and awe when she sees herself in the dress, and so forth. It’s as if the candids make the bride real, or more so than the formal portraits, which were about as useful—as evidence—as the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries would be, to prove the existence of that beast. Here she is: one white-gloved hand clutching at her falling veil, her face completely obscured by the uniformed groom who bends her backward in what is always already a goodbye embrace. That cloudlike dress was contested territory: if silk for a formal wedding “raised the moral of the troops,” as the industry claimed, it was also needed to drop them (softly) behind enemy lines—each wedding gown was a potential parachute. So this slithery whisper as her undone dress slides to the floor conjures other night raids. So both the ‘chute and the dress are bundled up and (like both soldier and bride) disappear after use. Wadded back into the deployment bag, or stiff in its long box, cleaned and preserved in the “heirloom process.” Our daughter will wear it. Our son will wear it. Out.

*Is there a way to talk about photographs without slipping into that outdated poetry voice we were already tired of or rather tired with when it first appeared? The sound of fatigue was part of the seduction. We still use words like “gentle” and “infinitely,” we still go on and on about the light. We like to say “we,” we like to say, “the war,” as if there were just one, infinitely gentle in a burnished distance….