The Charisma Series is a four part installment of writings I prepared for a graduate class on the Charismatic Image. The term Charisma, as I understand it, as not exclusive to human beings (tied to leadership, politics, and celebrity—also very pertinent in today’s political and cultural climate) but to images as well. The assignments for the class require texts inspired or informed by images, of insight and criticism extracted from an image. Each assignment also has a theme. For this first installment, I wrote of Simultaneity and the Instant in relation to some photographs by a Filipino photographer named Teodulo Protomartir.
Protomartir of Lucban, Quezon, is cited as the Father of Philippine Photography. He was active around the 1930s until the early 1980s. He taught at the University of Santo Tomas in Espanya, Manila.
Wartime in a Warm Place
Simultaneity, Instant, and the Photographs of Teodulo Protomartir
The negatives were tucked in protective plastic albums, dim and grey with dust and mold. They languished souring, dreaming of places that no longer existed. One can say that these negatives are like the decades old comatose patients in the dim, grey rooms of lonely hospitals. The hours have crumpled, a somber passage from absence to presence tucked in places where the flesh sagged. At any moment, they could rise into the voluptuous afternoon light.
Of the places the negatives, to-be-realized images, dreamt of it can be said that the buildings were most stubborn. Especially the colonial ones and the Art Decos— they lingered in the streets and avenues of Manila, like uncles who wore pomade, tucked their shabby checkered shirts in their pleated slacks (ironed just the way their late wives had done and which their current girlfriends faithfully executed), and insisted that they could still come around (here, the girlfriend stops a giggle. One wonders what made them come—and stay). These men walked in the scent of their own regrets, and unmet dreams which they sought in every woman they dominated for a brief instant.
If a building reaches the limit of its own image, preserved in a photograph, it becomes garish, unrecognizable even. Touched up and re-painted boldly and badly in an attempt to appear new. Those who managed to keep their dignity, to keep faith to their preserved image, now look homeless or insane or both. Greasy, grimy, dressed for nowhere. Eyes most vivid like shattered windows shining in the neon and fluorescent. Sites of the most decadent consumptions and songs.
It was wartime in a warm place, with pockets of peace. In the floor above the antique shop in Kamuning, it is a quiet evening in 1885 and three girls, led by a fiery one named Pasyonarya, are conducting a May Day Eve ritual. They took turns holding a candle up in front of a mirror to determine their future husbands. (All of them will be wedded to Satan). On the ground floor, it is the year 2007 and a cinematographer, a man finds a box of decaying 35mm negatives.
The man looked up from the box. At the doorway was the store-owner. In the distant kitchen, her daughter cooked and listened to the radio. Late nineties indie wafted into the store. The vocalist’s mild case of alliteration resounded above the noise of boiling rice and the sharp fall of raw fish in hot oil. Under the eaves of the old house turned antique store, balete saplings that have made a home in the rotten wood shook in the wind. There was a sourness in the air, no doubt from the negatives, that seemed to pinch the moment to an intensity. They felt time bunching up and colliding. But they only perceived this as the sun shining brighter, as if a cloud had passed, and the clip-clop of hooves coming a little louder. In Pasyonarya’s May Day Eve ritual, this is the moment the truth of romance was revealed. The candle flame surges.
They spoke briefly. The store-owner mentioned that the negatives belonged to the Father of Philippine Photography. She mentioned a name that did not register with the man— he knew all the names in the industry, past and present. Perhaps, the future, too. (In the showbiz circuit, he was also known as some kind of seer that had launched countless careers.) He noticed a piece of torn paper inside the box. On it, written in pencil, were words that he could not make out. Like hieroglyphs. Or rather, the paper was speaking in tongues, having seen the light after sixty-two years in the fuzzy cardboard dark. He made a decision to purchase the negatives.
By the altar behind the till is an ancient photograph of the store-owner’s ancestor. A middle aged woman in sepia. In her eyes were a gleam that people misunderstood as trust. She hid her irony well behind a smile. “Laging nagmamahal, Syoni” (“Ever loving, Syoni”) was written at the bottom right of the photo. He took it as an auspicious sign and left the store with a spring in his step.
What few of the them he could salvage, he cleaned and scanned. The decaying negatives yielded images which portrayed the city at immediate decomposition. Photographs of the city hall, two churches: Santo Domingo and Lourdes. The piece of paper, once he had figured out what it was saying, contained technical notes and described the photographs as the “restoration of Manila”. A faint suggestion crept into his mind. The city, in these images are passing from immediate decomposition to recomposition. Into what? Into, perhaps, the city he knows. And what was that but another thing that constantly strived, beneath with unease, for an affirmed presence. These were places that no longer existed in essence, only in vestiges. Each moment seemed to show the city wrapped in golden hour. In every facade he recognized the city he knew at present, but in the images they bore other, some multiple, iterations. As if he were seeing who and what someone had been in all their former lives.
In 1946, a photographer, yet to be known and recognized, had gone out and took these pictures. No blood, no fire, only a drama carried out beyond the frame. The serene aftermath. The city’s death-mask in the form of photographs. He acknowledged all this and held it close to his heart. But he was a pragmatic man and also knew some money could be extracted from these aesthetic revelations. He reached for the telephone.
It is possible to escape the grasp of nostalgia when one considers the instant instead of the passage of time. To think that everything is both done and undone. That perhaps being can be taken to the utmost through presence. Which bears to ask, what does it mean to be present in an instant? Gaston Bachelard describes the instant as brimming with simultaneities. The three photographs by Teodulo Protomartir contain the sense of the instant by appearing as recognizable even though a majority of its features no longer exist. It is both is and is not. It can be said that in these photos, one is seeing Manila and yet not seeing it for what it was, is, and has been since. In this respect, considering presence through simultaneity is recognizing that presence also means an absence, the way it is often said that light and shadow operate together in order to create an image or scene. Presence as potent illusion.
We go back to where we began, with images resting in obscurity and which had once approached the edge of disappearance. That without an intervening hand, through happenstance, we wouldn’t even know existed. As if it matters that they had surfaced— how has this reality been possibly shaped by the small presence of these images?
Both images were taken in 1946.