A decent photo of Montauk Point

Over the summer break, I visited Montauk Point on the easternmost end of Long Island and I was intrigued by the information written on a tourist pamphlet that lighthouses were the very first public works project undertaken by the United States. The lighthouse along with the one at Camp Henry, as pointed out in “Conjuring the Fog”, was commissioned in 1792 (Hutchinson, 132). How charming, I thought, for something so iconically romantic to be first on the agenda of the Washington Administration, though it was certainly for a more practical purpose that the lighthouse was built. When construction on Montauk Point was authorized by the Second United States Congress, New York City was handling a third of the nation’s trade with other countries and the lighthouse had to be prioritized to guide ships bedeviled by prevailing winds in winter along the south side into New York harbour. Employing the concept of “distributed agency” from Bruno Latour with Robin Kelsey as an example, (126) Elizabeth Hutchinson dispelled the assumption that Edweard Muybridge’s photographs of Point Reyes were made for scientific data gathering much less an artistic project that mimicked Romantic portrait paintings ala Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (119-120). As it turns out, Muybridge neither stood alone above the fog nor gave the view much thought since he made them as part of bureaucratic requirements for proof of completion of government projects (128). And, not surprisingly, for the money that came with the commission. The “fog” which identified as either “atmospheric” or “photographic” became symbolic of the struggle that Muybridge and his generation of photographers had against variable natural elements in making pictures (140). This challenged the notion of magisterial gaze and “undermined the sense of the inevitability of American settler colonialism”(121). Hutchinson’s use of Heideggerian thing theory also resulted in an intriguing tour de force contextualization of the photo that mined the discussions of the environmental conditions of the Pacific coast, the history of coastal surveying, and the indigenous knowledge of the ocean by the Miwok, the displaced former inhabitants of the Point Reyes.  Robin Kelsey pushes us to work beyond writing about the image. In his study of Timothy O’ Sullivan’s photograph of a miner, Kelsey extracts the images’s “material dimensions out of modernist reflexivity” and recovers materiality to incite practical action beyond the “tautological” activity of writing about it (Notes from the Field: Materiality, 22-23). Heeding Kelsey’s challenge, I will likewise attempt to “enter into the materiality” of Muybridge’s photograph by recalling my own experience. Closed from public access due to restrictions during this pandemic, I could not get a decent souvenir photo of Montauk Point. To get closer, I went down the rocky beach and traversed the breakwater installed by the US Coastguard in 1961 to remedy the erosion of the bluff.  Dangerously close to the edge, I set-up the timer on a flimsy tripod which I feared would be swallowed by the waves. Looking at the photo now, I noticed how my China-made phone equipped with AI made my Filipino face ten times whiter (which I cannot undo) and the tiny lighthouse in the background seemed wrapped in a film of washi paper, perhaps not unlike the fog encountered by Muybridge at Point Reyes. If our sophisticated cameras couldn’t pictorially claim nature, I am convinced that Muybridge was less concerned about Dasein and manifest destiny than just getting the job done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.