This photograph was taken when I was three or four years old, and its location is almost certainly a sheep station somewhere in the red dirt country beyond Broken Hill. What I love about this image is the lack of clutter. The last light of a cool afternoon spills in a wedge-shape across the boards of the verandah, where the child sits on what is probably a kerosene tin in the company of two well-worn rabbits. The wall behind is corrugated iron. The plain door, sinking into shadow, offers no clue to what lies beyond. My feeling is that the door opens into shearers’ quarters, for I was about this age when my father worked as a wool-classer, and my mother went along as cook during the shearing season.
Beyond the snapshot’s borders lies an austere landscape; it extends, unrelieved, to the horizon, and the shimmer of its mirages, its dust-coloured sheep and weathered folk are as familiar to the child as the rabbit she clasps in a casual yet protective embrace. Afloat in that panel of light, she is a fish in water, absorbing a world she will carry with her like a waking dream for the whole of her life.
It is not so much looking into this photograph that fascinates me as the suspicion that, if only I could find the right trigger, I could turn it inside out and see what the child sees. Because what she sees and knows is irrecoverable. I could, even now, travel north and find a far-flung station, and I could sit in late afternoon light on the verandah of its shearers’ quarters. But I would not see what the child in the photograph understands so well that she is already looking beyond it, looking inward, turning – even at this tender age – towards her incomprehensible future.
Attempts at recovering the past remind me of Henry James’s conviction that historical novels are doomed always to be flawed, because of the impossibility of returning to the innocence of the earlier time. This is the problem with studying old photographs of ourselves as children, although a residue of memory does bring to these images a faint, if untrustworthy, third dimension.
It is because of that residue that I see in this picture a child who has looked on, unflinching, while many a sheep’s throat was cut and the animal skinned and butchered. I see a child who has been driven great distances in the cabs of trucks loaded with bales of wool, and in the back seats of cars, with a pair of cloth rabbits for company. She is a child who knows nothing of mobile phones, who has not yet encountered a television set; she is barely familiar with electricity. A silent witness to adult conversations, she has never heard anyone discuss the novels of Henry James.
I sense her concentration as she squints towards the trajectory her life will follow, and I want to reach in and intervene, when years later, in a pub, a man comes up and says that the song she has just sung is in the wrong key for her, that he will transcribe it and make the band relearn it in the key to suit her voice. I want to reclaim the fragments of her face, her hands, her body, held in the silvered glass of various old mirrors, in various dusty rooms, and in the shining plate-glass windows of department stores, which, with her inner dream of dust and blood, will always lure her with their glitter.
In the attic of a house in Rye in East Sussex, on a street where Henry James once lived, a mirror beneath the window would briefly imprison the white jut of her hip, the toss of her hair. In other houses, polished surfaces would record her weeping because of this hurt and that hurt, they would reflect her as she crouched over sheets of watercolour paper holding a number 12 sable brush.
There were few cameras around in my very early years, so I am guessing that the photograph was taken with a Brownie, the simple, boxy contraption that was available to amateurs. Or it might have been one of those cameras that unfolded to reveal a pleated black leather bellows. The spool of film would have been loaded into one side and then stretched across the shutter to the take-up spool; the film, with its borders of sprocket-holes, would have been pressed onto the cogs of the winding mechanism, and then the back closed, and the perilous winding process begun. If the film sprang loose, the camera would have to be taken into a darkened room, opened and re-loaded.
The time between posing the child and processing the film was likely to have been months, or even years. What light years away this is from digital photography. Unlike the careful placing of the child in the last slab of sunlight, the nerve-wracking winding on until the frame number showed in the little window at the back of the camera, people photograph themselves now– grinning at their phones, one shoulder always tellingly displaced – and immediately post the results on social media. Never have so many images been captured, yet over time how many will be treasured? How many will even survive?
In 1908, the Austrian architectural critic Joseph Lux argued that when people photographed and documented their surroundings they were seeking stability amid the tides of the modern world. In the early days of photography there was a real sense of its magic. The ability to contain and preserve a moment, to fix it forever on a 2¼-inch square of paper, suggested that time itself – if not actually arrested – could somehow be cheated. In an era when great numbers of children did not survive infancy, the value of the photograph could not be over-estimated.
But like everything one has too much of, overabundance dilutes the thrill. Often now we seem to photograph places and events rather than experience them first-hand, and I am thinking of birthday parties where parents watch the blowing out of candles on their phones, or on camera screens, rather than face to face with their child. There is hardly a moment of the day when our desire to remember, to capture, to document, is not in play. We are as avid as ever to cheat time. But frantic though we may be to possess the moment, do we own it any more thoroughly than when we relied on memory, or on a diary entry, or even on a pencil sketch?
The English art critic, writer and social thinker, John Ruskin, believed that the ability to draw was as important as the ability to read or write. Most of all he was a passionate believer in the habit of noticing, of paying attention and observing detail. Heaven knows what Ruskin would make of our tsunami of digital images, in which there is less noticing, less meaningful engagement, less attention paid to detail. But perhaps Ruskin would balance what has been lost against the unquestionable gains, for many more children now survive to adulthood.
And perhaps nothing irreplaceable has been lost, for if it is true that everything we have ever done is caught and carried away by light, if our images fly like arrows across the universe towards distant galaxies, then the child in my photograph is sleeping, she is stroking the strings of a guitar, she is lighting a fire, and stirring food in a pot; she is bending to comfort a crying child, and she herself is crying as trees are decorated with angels and stars, as they are taken down and put up, as cakes are baked and candles are lit and blown out, over and over and over again.
And still she is ladling soup into a spongeware bowl, and picking quinces, and pouring hot plum jam into sterile jars. She is seeking solace in E.B. White’s essays, in one of which, “The Ring of Time”, a young, barefoot woman balances on the rump of a horse as it canters fifty times around a circus ring, while White looks on and ponders whether time itself has been bent by her circling, so that the rider, at the end of her circuit, is exactly the same age as at the start. The child in my photograph is collecting hardback copies of the novels of Henry James; she is scribbling in her notebooks with the hand that once held the cloth rabbit loosely, yet lovingly, against her heart.
Peering down the years as through a telescope, memory frays into fiction; I am closer now to seeing what the child sees, although still powerless to arrest or circle time, or to alter what will happen.