For my sixtieth birthday my friend Lang Clay sent me a print of the portrait above which he took of me in my loft on 21st Street in New York City around 1973.
He took it with an 8 x 10 view camera, with existing light using a long exposure. He was trying to recapture the aura of 19th-Century photographic portraits, in which the subjects always look uncannily composed and serene, as if posing for the gaze of eternity. This was in large measure due to the long exposure times required back then — one has to compose oneself to stay still for such a length of time.
The print Lang sent me was enormous — roughly 18 x 23 inches. A print that size really reveals the astonishing amount of “information” contained in a properly exposed 8 x 10 negative, which produces an almost 3D effect. The presence of my long-vanished self is intense in the image, and thus doubly melancholy and spiritual — I seem to be looking into my future with perfect calm, as the subjects of 19th-Century photographic portraits look into our time, a time in which they no longer exist.
In the portrait, I too have entered history — my twenty-three year-old self seems as far off as the Battle Of Antietam, as indeed in some sense it is. And yet it only tells part of the truth, because I feel, and in some real ways am, younger now than I was when the portrait was taken. (Below, another image from the same session.)
Time has roughed me up, but it has also opened me up — and that’s another sort of mystery photographs can illuminate, as they age along with us through the years.
I keep thinking of what my current self could tell that young man in the pictures — don’t be so afraid, don’t be so closed off, don’t be so cynical . . . time is your best friend. But I know him — he wouldn’t have listened to a word of it.