Looking Back

Luc Sante

September 1, 2014

We asked Luc Sante to tell us about a picture that meant something to him and why. Sante’s The Other Paris will be published next fall. He teaches at Bard.


This photograph — 8 x 10, gelatin silver, poorly washed — stands naked before us, bereft of almost everything that once tethered it to an event it was intended to record, albeit after the fact. It arrived, via eBay, from the effects of a police detective assigned to one of several possible precincts in Brooklyn in the 1930s. None of those facts is conveyed by the photo or its reverse; they derive from scattered clues in or on other photos in the lot, and from specks of information grudgingly supplied by the vendor.

It was taken in a bar, as you can tell from the foot rail, perhaps also from the mosaic tiles, and maybe also from the cuspidor, if anyone recognizes that antique object. The package to its left says “Philadelphia:” it contained Phillies cigars. The cellophane wrapper of one lies a foot or so to the right. There is also a dime. Outside the bar is a distinctive wrought-iron fence of a sort you can still find in the brownstone districts of the Borough of Churches. The angle of its shadow makes me think that the time is near sunset — or would that be sunrise? — and perhaps that the bar is three steps down from the sidewalk.

The picture’s reason for being is the pointer, looking like a collar stay, aimed at a white circle under the rail. But what is in that circle? Something small enough to resist magnification. A dot of blood? A hair? A trace of powder? We will never know, any more than we can know what happened there in that bar. The door has been locked and the key thrown away. But I can’t stop looking at it. The picture encloses a moment of time, a piece of truth, something so specific that it becomes an abstraction. It is a permanent mystery, and it won’t let go.