Silver Salt

Richard Frailing

                                       When I was 12, dad took me to the darkroom to help him
                                       develop film. He wanted to show me the enlarger, the
                                       dangerous developer liquid, and why red light won’t react
                                       with silver salt. I could bring my GI Joes. Actually, not GI
                                       Joes, a brand called The Ultimate Soldier, and I loved them
                                       because the magazines came out of their guns, but especially
                                       because you could see bullets on the tops of the magazines.
                                       We made silhouettes of the soldiers by laying them onto
                                       photo paper and shining direct light to capture their shadows,
                                       but I didn’t think it was as cool as he wanted me to. Then we
                                       developed a roll he botched by letting light get to part of it,
                                       just enough to cut swaths of white into the positive images—
                                       half our dog’s face an ethereal burst, her tongue fading into
                                       being at the bottom of the image and tail hovering above
                                       white void, penumbra of gray grass around the explosion.

                                                  | \ ~/ ~| |/

… That’s why, when you blow-out the ISO and overexpose
film, you introduce grain to the photo
, dad said between bites
of his meatball sub, dollop of marinara falling to wax paper.
I looked out the smeared window of the Subway to industrial
Richmond, where we’d gone to take senior photos and
explore VCU’s campus. Grain is good, he continued,
beautiful, even. It gives a photo warmth. Noise, on the other
hand, which is the digital equivalent of grain, isn’t desirable.
Take a look…
He wiped his hands and mouth on a napkin
and spun the camera around to show me its screen. I
overexposed this one
. He’d zoomed in on the gray and black
shirt I’d worn that day, the one that said WISH YOU/PINK
FLOYD/WERE HERE—song title split by the band name.
He was right, there was a metallic pixilation, something
grating and almost spectral, but hard to pick out without
knowing what to look for. Wish You… Pink Floyd… Were
I said in a low mumble. Huh? He said. Nothing

           Before the stroke flashed through his Alzheimer’s nerves,
           grandpa read my shirt like that, as it was written, over and
           over, bothered by the syntax in a way he couldn’t figure. Oh
           yeah, that shirt always confused him, didn’t it?,
said my dad,
           lifting the sub back to his mouth, but I was elsewhere,
           thinking about MRI photos I’d seen of a brain in different
           stages of Alzheimer’s. As the photos progressed, shadows in
           the brain’s ridges crept deeper its positive matter, with small
           pockets of void growing in the central regions. The beauty of
           silver salt
, he said after the long pause, is that each grain has
          an infinite gradient in its exposure
. He crumpled the wax
          paper. A digital camera, no matter how sophisticated or
          however many millions of pixels it can pack into an image,
          will always be limited in the gradience of its pixels.
          paused again, before a smile came over his face—his
          teacherly lightbulb “dinging”. So here's a way to think about
          it… Digital noise is a ghost, a gambling ghost, who rolls the
         dice when a pixel is between one value and another, and the
         machine “thinks” itself to one side or the other of a certain
         hue. When this happens, you get what’s called “aliasing”.
         Sometimes the computer chooses the wrong color or wrong
         shade. “The ghost in the machine”, I guess you could say.
         It’s the jaggedness of chance.

                                              |\|| ~ | \/ ~\|

                   Think back to trigonometry class, x and y axes and graph
                   paper, failed attempts to draw a smooth sine wave. This is
                   sacrament, the fluorescent lights, borrowed pencil and gum
                   under the desk, but mostly the asymmetrical wave with
                   debris of pink eraser—first communion. A little heavy-
                   handed, but if there were ever a religion made from physical
                   rules, its god would be the wave. And if there’s anything
                   close to a religion in modern physics, it would probably be
                   string theory—a framework that could theoretically solve its
                   central paradoxes. The string theorists envision a world
                   where the fabric of all matter and space itself is a symphony
                   or interwoven one-dimensional “strings”, the frequencies of
                   which distinguish the various natures of physical matter. It’s
                   as beautiful and mathematically sound as it is unverifiable.

                        The first thing to understand about waves is they don’t exist,
                        or at least, they are no thing, no they. A wave is simply the
                        pattern of movement real things take—the motion of energy
                        through a medium, like a plucked string. We say the string
                        is vibrating
, not the vibration is stringing, although the latter
                       might better describe the string theorists’ universe. But if the
                       particular characteristics (frequency, timbre, amplitude) of
                       waves are captured in a medium over time, the shadow gains
                       a body—grooves in a vinyl record or the arrangements of
                       magnetic particles “written” onto magnetic tape.

                       And the first thing to understand about digital and analog
                       technologies is that each makes a certain type of infinity
                       possible: in analog media, the infinite gradience of an analog
                       wave—a note’s “quality”; in digital computation, the
                       theoretically infinite “quantity” of information that can be
                       packed into a file.

                       If you were to cross-section a vinyl record and look at the
                       groove with a microscope, you’d see the recorded waveform
                       is pure, with a perfectly smooth gradient, and the only
                       limitations on the record’s fidelity are the physical
                       characteristics of vinyl itself. Yet these “limitations” are the
                       exact qualities that audiophiles desire: the inherent
                       “warmth” that vinyl imparts.

                                             |\|| ~ | \/ ~\|

                                    I considered myself a photographer briefly in college, went
                                    out early one black Friday to photograph all the shoppers
                                    outside stores before they opened. Facebook has these
                                    photos exactly as they were when I took them a decade ago,
                                    though I’d long forgotten about them. They are typical of a
                                    novice photographer, who attempts to make fresh
                                    compositions but lacks the skills to do so. There are a few
                                    good shots, but mostly they are too concerned with odd
                                    angles to pay any attention to the subject. That same
                                    November I went shooting with dad at a local park. He gave
                                    me a camera and looked at what I’d captured later that
                                    evening. These shots are a little better—aided by crisp
                                    November sun—but still obsessed with their own obscurity.
                                    There are multiple pictures of my dad taken through a tangle
                                    of limbs, focusing on the limbs rather than my dad.

                                        Like all memories, my memory of this time is liquid, images
                                        rise to the surface and submerge again. I remember my dad
                                        encouraging in his distinct way—I’m sorry to say it,
                                        Richard, but you have an eye
—cheekily acknowledging the
                                        artist’s burden. But he didn’t just praise; he called out my
                                        “breakthrough” compositions for what they were
                                        (pretentious), and instead complimented me on the shots I
                                        considered the dullest. I remember thinking that my dad—a
                                        professional photographer and art teacher for 30 years—was
                                        missing something. At 21, the one selfie of the bunch shows
                                        my facial structure as it is now, save for the sparse stubble
                                        and traces of acne. One of the good shots of dad—55 at the
                                        time—shows him leaning against the rail of a dock, looking
                                        out onto the water. He’s a little thinner, hat cocked forward,
                                        reposed in blue shadow—like a man in an Edward Hopper
                                        waiting alone at the bus stop. He was at an age when I knew
                                        I should accept every invitation he gave to kayak, take
                                        photos, or get a beer, but didn’t because of some latent
                                        embarrassment to show him affection. 

                                               |\|| ~ | \/ ~\|

                                    To say that a computer is digital is to say that it only
                                    “understands” data in manageable pieces (1s and 0s). When
                                    a wave is recorded digitally, it is chopped to “bits”, like
                                    snapshots. These snapshots are pieced back together by the
                                    ear, which, like the eye, can only perceive discontinuity of
                                    separate events below a certain threshold of frames or
                                    samples per second. The resulting wave, as recorded by the
                                    computer, is a stair-step series of points that air smooths out
                                    after it has interpreted the code.

                                          Language is no different: words cutting the round waves of
                                          thought into shards, then music again in the air, and finally
                                          hitting the listener as semantic bits to be rounded back into
                                          thought. But the new thought isn’t the thought of the
                                          speaker—aliasing occurs, noise—yet the thought is still
                                          living—incarnate in both. Even the speaker will hardly
                                          recognize their own voice upon hearing it later, or at least,
                                          will be embarrassed by their lack of eloquence and the
                                          statement’s fidelity to their own thought: Oh Jesus, is that
                                          what I said?
And furthermore, they have already changed
                                          their mind, the thought aged imperceptibly. 

                                          ~ /\|\|||\|\ — ~~~~ —/|\| /\\   \\ / ~  

   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 

                                          ~ /\|\|||\|\/— ~~~~ —/|\| /\\   \\ / ~   

                                    Hanging to the right of my desk and matted on a piece of
                                    styrofoam is an image of my grandfather shortly before his
                                    stroke. Dad’s photo, shot from above as grandpa napped in
                                    his recliner, is stark and painterly—its colors washed-out
                                    and its edges smeared. Even the print has a coarse look from
                                    the ridged paper it was printed on, typically used in
                                    watercolor, the rough paper is juxtaposed with pristine detail
                                    of my grandfather’s head, wisps of white hair in focus, while
                                    the surrounding world is a greyish blur. You can still make
                                    out his hands, folded at his chest as though in prayer—the
                                    way he always held them when sleeping in the recliner—but
                                    they too are blurred. Individual hairs stray out of the narrow
                                    focus into ether, and thin wisps of hair spread on bare scalp.
                                    It’s breathtaking—crystalline and icy. It’s also digital. This
                                    is readily apparent, not because of any noise in the image,
                                    but because of its hyper-realism.

                   Like music, there are analog purists in photography who
                   believe film produces the clearest image. It doesn’t. Like
                   vinyl records or tape, film photography is ultimately limited
                   by the physical characteristics of silver salt, as there are only
                   so many molecules that can fit onto a strip of film. On the
                   other hand, the number of pixels and file size of a digital
                   image is theoretically limitless.

       But this is all beside the point: people love records not
       because they sound exactly like real life, but because they
       sound “better” than real life, warmer; because the act of
       playing a record is physical; and because the very act of
       listening to a record shortens its lifespan—records age with
       us. This last point is what transfixes me—to the point that
       it’s the very sound of disintegration that I, and many others,
       find most beautiful. 

    But the devil’s advocate will point out that digital
    technology can replicate these imperfections so they too are
    indistinguishable from the imperfections of analog media.
    This poses the questions: is it the warm sound of the record
    I love, or the idea of warmth. The old record with its dusty
    grooves and warped dips in pitch, or the idea of age? The
    tangibility of the recorded meaning, or the idea of

I admit, it’s the idea… I grew up with mp3s. It’s the idea of
tangibility, the frailty of meaning that can be lost or skewed
if you stack it the wrong way or leave it in a hot car,
something true about it, something human—the word made

                            /\/\/\/\\|||~~~010010111010101100101~/|\||~ /

                                       Before I moved to Germany at 25, I had never lived outside my
                                       hometown. I skyped my parents nightly for months after
                                       arriving, and they’d always just tell me I was doing the right
                                       thing. At the end of the calls, during the goodbye, the screen
                                       would freeze my parents’ last expression, always something
                                       unflattering and comical, but I felt an unplaceable dread,
                                       some pang of my parents’ mortality—smirks smeared across
                                       the screen like a sand painting in a digital wind. I felt our
                                       frailty, our bonds electron-thin and triangulated somewhere
                                       from the vacuum of space. Maybe, these expressions exist in
                                       some server, but they are metallic, cold.