? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 9

Text & Image

Pamela Petro



Marguerite had just gotten her hair cut. The hairdresser had done something with her bangs—tousled them with gel, I think.

            It was May, 1988: our lives knitted together only four months earlier. We were sitting in an Au Bon Pain café in Harvard Square and I liked her tousled bangs, so I took a picture.  She was staring at her tea and pastry, probably thinking about her haircut and her new striped jeans, which you can’t see in the frame. It was a glance inside a lull—maybe I’d just been looking out the window, or fiddling with my camera. We’d been talking about going to Wales for the summer and how hard it was for me to learn Welsh. Especially since I didn’t go to class very often.

            But the lens remembered the moment differently. It looked into the future, to 2013, and captured Marguerite mourning our youth. Or intuiting that I’d never really master Welsh, despite finally buckling down to it, no matter how hard I tried. Or that almost ten years after I snapped the shutter we’d adopt a puppy we’d love with our whole hearts, and watch grow and live and wag and die, over fifteen too-short years.


            I had no idea of all that came and went in Marguerite’s glance when I saw the prints a week later—back then you had to wait for processing, especially black and white—but I’d learn. And the photo would lodge in my memory, my personal Mona Lisa, until twenty-eight years later when I blew dust off the negative and took time swimming.

            Because these images hold more than Marguerite. You’re also seeing the Mill River as it runs through Haydenville, near Northampton, Massachusetts: its flow, its rocks, its reflections of a cloudy, late afternoon sky in July, 2006. Marguerite and her bangs—and that bead and seed necklace that either broke or was lost—are effectively fossilized here, printed directly onto a rock about the size of a coconut that I’d dug out of the river a few weeks earlier, and photographed under two feet or so of rushing water. We say time flows like a river. Not a day passes without someone saying that, somewhere. So on this day in July, in a pair of old Wellingtons I bought during that summer in Wales, I put a different, earlier day, spent at a café in Harvard Square, into the river and let time rush over it.

            As I set the rock back into the spot where I’d originally found it, part of my mind escaped and watched me from the bank. I looked ridiculous: what was that woman doing in the middle of the Mill River, staring at the bottom? Dark overtones of Ophelia and Virginia Woolf crept into the scene. But the part of my awareness that stayed with me, there in the river, raised goosebumps the size of anthills on my arms. Photo emulsion is delicate stuff. The emulsion I’d painted on the river rock wouldn’t last long. How many days would Marguerite have before the erosive, wet flow of time would erase her entirely? It was a disquieting thought.
I should say that the living, breathing, three-dimensional Marguerite was none too happy about this experiment. When I got home—I left her rock and a handful of others in the river—she was glad I hadn’t drowned but admitted to being
deeply creeped out by the whole idea.
            “You know I have a thing about drowning,” she reminded
            I did, but had forgotten in the onrush of the experiment. Maybe I should’ve chosen a different picture.


            I went back to the river the next day. I made myself wait until afternoon, but I was preoccupied throughout the morning, thinking about my rocks. As soon as I got there I pulled on my boots and waded in, water sloshing over the tops. Marguerite’s rock had shifted position but was otherwise unchanged. I took a photo—the first one pictured here—and later was amazed to see that a trick of the light, or of the river, made it seem as if her mouth was open and she was breathing underwater. I had the impression that she wouldn’t go without a fight. The just-passed-girl of 1988 would learn to breathe water before time could wash her away. Memory trumped erosion.

            By the following day, though, decay had crept in. I snapped the second photo in the sequence. The rock had righted itself on the riverbed but water was infiltrating the emulsion, and it was beginning to bubble up. I was glad Marguerite was at home with the dog and not here with me, seeing the first signs of her disintegration. By now time, water, and photographic science had conspired to make it appear she was crying. I was excited by the evolution, but a small part of me was beginning to understand how Dr. Frankenstein felt. Why had I ever gone down this road?

            That’s a fair question. I’d written a book called The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story in 2005, whichused photographs to trace the 1920s love story of a pair ofarchaeologists, Lucy and Kingsley Porter, and my own loveof Romanesque sculpture. As I was writing I came to think ofstone carving as the art of standing still, and photography asthe art of motion. After the book was published I couldn’t letgo of the contrast. I kept wondering what would happen if youcould unite the two—juxtapose the “snapshot moment” withthe near-eternity of geological time. You’d get some prettycool metaphorical friction there: mortality thwacking againstalmost-immortality, casting human perception into deep-time perspective.

            So I started asking anyone who might know, “Can you print a photograph on a stone?” Very few people had any idea. It took me about a year to find the answer.

            It turns out you can, with a product called Liquid Light Tears may be shed, but you can do it. When natives of northeastern Siberia saw a view camera for the first time, they called it “a three-legged device that draws a man’s shadow to stone.” They said it was magic. I called it photography, but the thrill—and the result—was the same.

            Imagine the scene in the darkroom when I printed my first rock: the amber glow, the not-strictly-unpleasant, fresh-urine scent of stop bath, a drenched rock sitting in a tray of developing solution, its surface a mystery of grey shapes. And me, pleading with the gods of photography, pouring beakerfuls of developer over the rock again and again with a shaky hand. Nothing. More nothing. Then quickly, an image suspended between imagination and vision; is it there or isn’t it? My breath caught—it is! Unmistakably now, the miniature topography of a face begins to emerge, its features vivid ochre, fanned in brown shades that recede to deep black. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just watched a fossil float to the rock’s surface
from the ancient seas inside. I pour fix solution overtop and take it outside into the daylight. My heart sinks. The portrait that had been so sharp in the darkroom—I’d even been able to pick out strands of hair, like fine rake-marks, against the dark mass of the head—sinks back into the rock’s grains and crevices in daylight. I can still see the face, but it’s more of a hybrid now: animate and opposite, human and rock.

            While I liked that balance between a chunk of planet and the slight stain of humanity on top of it, I later decided to coat the river rocks with white primer before I printed Marguerite’s image on them. I wanted her to be fully present, the way she blazed Mona Lisa-like in my memory, before she weathered into absence, before she became rock, like the ammonite fossil here on my desk.


finalThe next time I went back to the river Marguerite’s rock had shifted again, and there was much more wear. Her eye had ripped away and there were small tears everywhere in the emulsion. I felt as if I were witnessing a future I shouldn’t be privy to. My goosebumps came rushing back in a big way.

            On my final visit to the river, on the fourth day, Marguerite’s rock was gone. All but a few of the printed rocks had disappeared. This was a form of weathering I hadn’t counted on—pilfering.

            I’d been robbed of the end of Marguerite’s story, and stood with the river rushing over my Wellies (which felt quite nice, actually, like being stroked), looking angrily for someone to blame. As if on cue a woman approached—walking serenely along in the middle of the river, wearing a bathing suit—asking if I were the one who’d put the faces on the rocks. I told her I was. “Did you take them?” I hoped I didn’t sound sharp, but I probably did.

            “Oh, no,” she said. “But we found some. My daughter wants to have a word with you.”
She led me to the bank where a little girl in a two-piece bathing suit was launching a flotilla of leaves. She must’ve been about four or five—no more. I thought she was going to ask a question, but instead she made a statement.
            “Today the rocks have faces.”
            “I know,” I said.
            “I always thought the river was a magic place. Now I know it is.”
            That did the trick. I wasn’t upset about the rocks anymore—or the petrographs, as I call them. My name is Pamela Petro, and “petro” means rock in Greek. My dad, who gave me the name, was a mineralogist. And my brother’s name is Craig Petro, which means Rock Rock. There’s got to be some magic in that, too.
When I got my pictures back two days later—even though I was still using film, developing times had improved—I was mesmerized by the last photograph I’d taken on the third day.
            The rock had shifted horizontally once again, just before I’d released the shutter at the end of dusk. Fading reflections of the cloud-streaked sky seemed to have been poured over
Marguerite’s rock, which in turn, in its horizontal position and with an opportune, circular tear, looked as if it had turned into a fish, fins and all.

            So there was an end to the story after all: Marguerite’s petrograph became a fish and swam away. Why not? We’ll all be transformed into something else some day. And that’s magic, too.