More than anything else so far devised by man, the photograph can give us a sense of life arrested, a moment rescued from the flux of time. Not mediated and presented as in painting, but a moment lived, the space of a breath. Even the humble snapshot can do this. We look at it, perhaps many years later. This was us, we stood there once. (We or others, perhaps strangers, it makes no difference, we are always strangers to ourselves in photographs.) Those dazzled smiles, that unchanging light. Things will not look quite like that ever again.
So much is common experience and there is mystery enough in it. But imagine coming upon a collection of ancient photographs and negatives, hundreds and hundreds of them, lying forgotten in a half-ruinous monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, unique memorial of a community of Russian monks who lived here once, a community long ago dispersed, with none of its members surviving. And then imagine discovering that these images have deteriorated terribly, that they are on the edge of extinction, literally composed of dust—a too-eager touch, even a breath, would scatter them forever. This is the experience that befell Xavier Zimbardo, and this book is the marvelous thing he made out of it.
The symbolism is immediate and dramatic. By Zimbardo’s dedicated work these records were saved from annihilation; and so, at the same time, were those dedicated lives. But there are patterns and parallels within this. These obscure monks, whose very names are now forgotten, were Orthodox Christians, deriving their faith from Byzantium, inheritors and transmitters of a thousand-year-old practice of prayer and meditation. Just as the artist has preserved for us, in these photographs, a time-hallowed way of life, so the monks themselves, in their own persons, were preservers and protectors of the past. It is ironical too that these men, who abjured the flesh and aspired only to spirit, who lived from day to day in the awareness of death, should be so rescued in their mortal likenesses, should have their physical being so strongly and hauntingly depicted.
But perhaps a greater paradox is that the deterioration of these images, the damage worked by time and chance, has led to an extraordinary richness and complexity of meaning. The subjects are caught at that poignant moment between what they have been and what they will be, one of the great themes of religious art through the centuries. If we concentrate our gaze on the surface texture, we see the immediate evidence of decay. The subject has passed already into the stage when flesh has lost form and consistency, is merging into the primordial matter whence it came. But it is enough to draw back a little, and we see once again the human features, the humanity, inveterate, invincible. So these faces, at once presaging the void and defying it, become representative of us all, caught on this “narrow isthmus of a middle state,” as the poet Alexander Pope has it, emblematic of our human condition here below, going far beyond the doctrines or dogmas of any particular faith.
Perhaps most wonderful of all, the erosion of time has not deadened or coarsened these faces. On the contrary, it has given them a unique intensity. They are imbued with the devotion that these men sought in their lives and must have sometimes fallen short of, since no one, whether in community or alone, can dwell continuously in the spirit without faltering. In the striking ardor of these eyes and brows, all faltering seems burned away.
This fire of time has worked other wonders. The gaps, the effacements, the lacunae of decay have given an extraordinary diversity of detail to these images, created worlds within worlds. Light strains through on to the surface in local bursts and effusions, fan shapes, comb shapes, petals and scallops, light that is itself like an assertion of spirit, as if it had forced through the membrane dividing the spiritual from the physical. Slide of unearthly light on roofs and domes, the pale, wraithlike radiance of robed figures on balconies, the light that strikes through the chinks of fingers. A monk walks in the Procession of the Holy Virgin on some long-ago Monday, seeming to bow his head against the storm of light that breaks through the trees beyond him, consuming the branches as it half-consumes his face. Two others, facing us, hold lighted candles as they keep the Vigil of Easter, waiting for midnight and the triumphant assertion that Christ has arisen. One candle flame has streamed into the firmament beyond, the other holds the beautiful bloom of its shape steady and inviolable. Beyond and above, in a sky that is no sky but the invisible congregation of their brothers, soft shapes of candle flames dilate and swell, as if that dark haze were liquid. Constantly in these pictures the eye is led away into a universe without edge or limit or scale, in which textures vary as do the configurations of light and form, sometimes pitted like stone to give an impression of granite endurance, sometimes like tapestry or mosaic, sometimes so far gone in disintegration that they seem assembled in patterns of webs. And always, to bring us back from these endlessly fascinating landscapes, there is the abiding reality of the human image, the calm hands that hold the rosary, the gaze of the eyes at once piercing and withdrawn.
This is a collection of photographs like no other. We can only be grateful to Xavier Zimbardo for the patience and vision and inspired talent that have combined to create it for us.