Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
PhotographWhenever Ann Dexter thought about Antarctica, she saw a photograph. In the photograph five women were standing in front of a twin-engine aircraft. The wing of the aircraft cut into one side of the photograph like a knife. The women’s bodies were obscured by their waterproof over-trousers and oversized parkas with fur-lined hoods. One corner of the photograph was over-exposed, as if the camera had been struck by light. The rogue light had also struck the faces of the women, bleaching their expressions beneath the hoods with their haloes of reindeer fur. At the bottom of the picture a large white dog appeared to lean towards the camera.
Ann knew that the most important images were often incomplete: blurred by distance or impatience or, like this one, ruined by too strong a light. Or else they captured only the edge of something – vacant space or the disturbance of air left behind by a figure that had just vacated a room. Like memory, photography often captured the moment immediately preceding or following a crucial event.
Yet Ann was also familiar with the way that photographs, over time, tended to accumulate presence. As experience and even memory grew faint and unreliable, images – however incomplete or faulty – gained a sense of permanence. Accidental combinations of light and chemicals, they became the monuments along the path that led back into the past.
For Ann Dexter, that path led back to New York City in the first decade of the twentieth century. For it was there that a man with a passion for typewriters met a woman who loved speed.
Pearson Dexter fell in love with Diana van der Camp as she was driving down 5th Avenue in her 1905 Isotta-Fraschini sports car. Diana was wearing a travelling coat over her silk dress, driving goggles, and a Hermés scarf. Behind her, in the small, upholstered compartment known as the rumble seat, her two greyhounds sat upright on the upholstery, ears flattened by the wind. With their jewelled collars and long, aristocratic faces, they exuded the melancholy aura of dogs in Flemish masterpieces or medieval tapestries.
A year later when Pearson and Diana were married in Diana’s home state of Pennsylvania, the greyhounds walked at the rear of the procession wearing wreaths of white rosebuds that had been entwined with sprays of clematis and ivy. The wreaths had slipped sideways, giving them the air of drunken revelers: they caught their feet in the trailing greenery and seemed to beg with mournful eyes to be released.
In photographs Pearson Dexter was broad-shouldered and handsome, given to wearing leather coats, with a cigar clamped between his teeth. What the photographs failed to convey was his distinctive smell – a mixture of shaving soap, tobacco, and something else more indefinable – and the unexpected delicacy of his large hands as he lifted the cover from a typewriter to show his daughter the different parts of its internal mechanism: the delicate spines connecting key levers to type bars, which made her think of the antennae of a metal insect, and the escapement – a word that also describes the mechanism of a piano, a resemblance that delighted Pearson, who liked to declare that the typewriter was the piano of the modern age.
Pearson Dexter was so passionate about typewriters that he named one of his inventions after his wife. The Dexter ‘Diana’ was a cream-coloured portable with the keys picked out in a contrasting rich brown. It came in a white leather case that fastened with gold clasps, as impractical as the ostrich-hide upholstery with matching ivory buttons that Mrs Pearson Dexter ordered for her Isotta-Fraschini, and almost as alluring. The ‘Diana’ was lighter and more elegant than other portables and was rumoured, for these reasons, to be popular with women writers. (Gertrude Stein was said to have written The Making of Americans on a 'Diana', Djuna Barnes to have borrowed it to type the final draft of Nightwood.) Pearson Dexter presented his wife with the first ‘Diana’ to emerge from the production line. Its condition remained immaculate, for she seldom took it out of its case. When she wrote, which was infrequently – mainly invitations and thank you notes – she preferred to do so in longhand, using a fountain pen.
Diana van der Camp had been named for a mythical goddess of the hunt, and as she strode through the canyons of Manhattan with her greyhounds at her side, she might have been mistaken for a huntress. But the goddess she worshipped was velocity. Speed and excitement helped her to outrun the voices that pulsed in her own bloodline. For an abiding melancholy perched like a dark bird in the branches of her family tree, summoning her into the shadows where so many uncles and great-aunts before her had become lost. Perhaps she'd never have succumbed to its siren song if she'd been left, like the mythical virgin huntress, to pursue her solitary and luminous course.
For a while Diana Dexter outran the beguiling melody with fast cars and expensive yachts. It caught up with her on the day she crashed her beloved Isotta-Fraschini, emerging from the wreckage with a permanently damaged spine. Now the goddess of velocity was replaced by the morphine that she injected directly into her arms to beguile the dark voices, its arrival on a silver tray an event her children (for Ann had been joined by a son, Hubert) learned to recognise as the signal for her increasing periods of vacancy.
Where did Diana Dexter, née van der Camp, go on these occasions when she could no longer be described as present?
For her eleventh birthday Ann had been given a book containing descriptions of polar exploration. Her imagination had been fired by the story of the ill-fated Belgica, the first ship to winter in the Antarctic. It had become frozen into the Bellingshausen Sea, forced to drift with the pack ice while the crew went slowly mad from cold, darkness, and scurvy. Ann and Hubert followed up the story of the Belgica with an account of Sir John Franklin's expedition to the far north of Canada where, running out of pemmican, meals included a boiled boot, a leather map-case, and handfuls of the arctic lichen called tripe de roche.
No wonder that when Ann and her brother tried to picture their mother's journeys in the spacious corridors of dream and memory (where each door opened onto a different fantastic landscape and the wind shuffled them like patterns in a vast kaleidoscope) they imagined them taking place in alpine wastes, or crevasse-fissured landscapes, which they envisaged her traversing in goggles and crampons, with the help of an ice-pick.
In the beginning, Diana Dexter encouraged these fantasies by telling them stories about imaginary destinations. But as her absences grew more profound, so did her silences. Now, whether her travels took her to fog-bound ports or to snow-caves where she spent the entire day cocooned in dreamy light, watching the play of shadows on the walls of the cave, these expeditions were ones from which no dispatches were returned.
As the children grew older, Hubert developed a passion for poetry and flight. Influenced by reports of the war in Europe, where airplanes and Zeppelins announced a new and terrifying form of combat, he wavered between the ambitions of becoming a poet or a pilot. Pearson Dexter had inherited the family farm in upstate New York, and Hubert took over one of the barns during holidays where he spent the days painstakingly rebuilding an old Curtiss Jenny biplane. At mealtimes he chewed absentmindedly, his thoughts elsewhere. Ann never knew whether she’d find him with his nose buried in a book of engineering diagrams, or a volume of Dickinson or Lowell.
Like her brother, Ann also shared their father’s admiration for machines. Given the opportunity, she might have studied engineering and gone into the family business. But for all the care with which he'd introduced his daughter to the internal mechanisms of his beloved writing machines, Pearson Dexter was a traditionalist.
As a result, Ann drifted. After leaving school she did a little modeling for magazines. It made her interested in cameras, and introduced her to the men who operated them. Then she met Ariel Kolonz. He was a Hungarian Jew, and a wizard with a lens.
The Dexters had friends who owned a cabin at Thunder Creek Mountain, in New Hampshire, and in happier times they had regularly gone there to hike and ski. That autumn Ann took Ariel to New Hampshire with her. They each took cameras, and Ann transformed the bathroom into a darkroom.
It snowed early that year. While Ann taught Ari the rudiments of skiing, he instructed her in the poetry of light and shadow.
Ari was a visionary. He taught her that light was the essence of photography and everything else – lens, camera, chemicals – mere instruments. If light was the essence of photography, Ann thought, then snow was about as close as you could come to that essence. But you couldn’t just photograph snow. Light required shadow to give it definition, meaning. You could only glimpse the divine from a darkened room.
When she returned to New York, Ann had a satchel filled with snow, forest, clouds, and sky. Some of the pictures were hers, and some Ari’s. A friend who thought the photographs were good gave her the name of an editor who had worked for Condé Nast, and had a reputation for recognising new talent. He edited a magazine called American View.
With his powerful shoulders and the cigar clenched between his teeth, Nash reminded Ann of a coarser, louder version of her father.
‘I can’t use these without copy,’ Nash drawled. ‘Do you own a typewriter?’
‘Yes,’ Ann lied.
‘Bring me fifteen hundred words of copy – good copy – and I might be able to use some of these.’
Ann slid the photographs back into her satchel and left the building.
On the landing outside her mother’s room Ann knocked gently and, without waiting for an answer, pushed open the door. Her mother was in bed. The curtains were drawn, sealing the room in a sepulchral dimness.
The original greyhounds, Ben and Charlie, had been dead for over a decade. In their place was a small Italian greyhound called Trudie. Trudie sat up as Ann came in and watched her with nervous, attentive eyes.
‘What is it, Ann?’ Her mother’s voice came from the bed.
‘Just borrowing something, Ma,’ Ann replied. In the small office that led from her mother’s bedroom she found the ‘Diana’ in its pristine white case. Taking it back to her own room (neither Trudie nor her mother stirred) she unpacked it on the dressing table and fed a sheet of clean, white paper between the rollers.
She cleared her mind and tried to summon that place, vacant yet pregnant with thought, where the words lay silent and hidden, waiting to be summoned by the tapping of the typewriter keys, to rise up and form themselves into orderly ranks.
She typed a word, then another, until the rhythm took over and the sentences started to follow each other. November at Thunder Creek Mountain, she wrote, and the woods are wrapped in solitude, waiting for winter to bring them to life.
Always it would feel like this: as if photographs captured what was there, even if you couldn’t see it at the time, whereas words came from someplace else, a place that felt like memory.