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Looking Back

September 2, 2010

Earlier this summer I found out about the photographs of Sergei Gorskii, a chemist and a pioneer in the art of color photography.  The bulk of his work are photos of trips around Russia from before World War I.  You can see some of them at The Library of Congress Gorskii collection and other places around the web.  The most shocking thing about them is the quality – these photos look like high definition shots snapped during a summer trip just a couple months ago, but they’re over a hundred years old.  There’s nothing in the quality that makes them feel dated.  Black and white photographs and older color photographs don’t replicate the way we see the world now.  The strangest thing is, it’s so easy to forget that the way we see the world now was exactly the way that the people in the black and white or older color photographs saw the world too.  The sameness of the world is so strikingly apparent in Gorskii’s photos.  It’s eerie that they’re actually a hundred years old.  Keep telling yourself that when you look at them, or you’ll forget.

For a while, I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to describe that eeriness.  It hit me today when I saw a very old Kodak motion color film, which you can see at the Kodak Youtube collection.  Again, the images are good quality, which I think is essential to the effect, but this video focuses on people instead of people and places.  The women in this film are no different from women today, you could imagine seeing the same face on any woman on the street, yet they’re wearing strange clothing and have strange manners.  But it’s not just the strangeness of the clothing.  You can see that they don’t feel the strangeness the way you, the viewer in the current era, feel it.  The clothes aren’t costumes to them like they would be to us, the clothes are natural to them.  Just like the Gorskii photographs, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in this video at the time it was made, but to us it is extremely out of the ordinary.  It’s as though the current viewer wants to tell the people in the film, or the places in Gorskii’s pictures, that those were all good jokes but they can take off their masks now, even though we know that they can’t take off any mask because they’re not wearing a mask.  And to contend that they are wearing masks is to assert that the current viewer is wearing a mask too, which the women in the video or the people in Gorskii’s photos would not hesitate to assert.  The people aren’t so different from us that we think we couldn’t converse with them, have the same kinds of experiences as them, but there’s a huge divide between us and them.

It’s a weird feeling to become aware both that things change drastically and that things don’t change much at all, all from viewing the same thing.  You feel the scope of time, both how significant and how insignificant a hundred years is.  You also lose some of the sense of importance of the current era, which I think is good but still odd.  There’s nothing necessary or good about the way things are now as compared to the way things were or the way things will be.  Things are just different, like the masks, clothing, and exterior are all different.  The interior, even with all the different things that they knew and we know, seems the same.

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