latent images

I recently read this Paris Review article about a writer and artist I’d never heard of named Marion Milner. A reissue of her diary experiment, A Life of One’s Own, is coming out in a couple of weeks. I obviously need to get it:

[Milner] turns from following psychological guides to life to the more ambiguous lessons of art and literature (her diaries are full of literary quotation) and invents a practice of reading as a way of making something, not only learning something. Through this process, Milner becomes determined to collect a personal repertoire of images and texts—a repertoire opposed to conformity with what she calls the “mass-produced” desires and images of advertising, political propaganda, and Hollywood.

Way up my alley. I was inspired to consider the desires and images that might be in my personal repertoire right now. 

The first image that came to mind was unexpected, since I hadn’t thought about it in years: the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. 

I was nine in February 2003. The Columbia disaster lodged deeply in my mind. The details of the tragedy, the space shuttle program, and space in general became a fixation for months. I memorized all of the crew members’ names, what their jobs were, and where they were from. I checked out several books from my elementary school’s library about Challenger, about NASA, about comets. 

But after the facts and trivia faded, one thing remained: the image. The one on TV. Sparkling fragments, streaking in parallel white lines across the sky. Abstracted at such an immense distance, but you knew that it was not abstract at all. It wasn’t sparkles. It was metal, clothing, plastic, ceramic, glass. And there were people up there. 

I realized that the image of Columbia disintegrating, latent in my mind, is probably why I’m still moved by airplanes and vapor trails. Parallel white lines in the sky. The infinitesimal body of the vessel and the bodies of the people inside. So, so, far away. There is rarely a day that I don’t look at an airplane and wonder where it’s going. I think about how the passengers don’t know I can see them. I watch the vapor trail vanishing. 

And now, expanses of sky, clouds, planets, stars—all of these appear over and over in my work.


The images I thought about next aren’t as profound. Here are a few.




Hmm. A couple of these have emotional significance (Jim and Pam’s awkward moment; Nate burying Lisa on a purple evening). But others seem to serve no utility—intellectual or spiritual—besides a hit of nostalgia. I’m annoyed about it: what kind of repertoire is this? What could be in my mind if it wasn’t filled with fragments of Spongebob episodes and vague imprints of a Carmen San Diego computer game I got out of a cereal box? 

Can they be used for something? I see elements of these images in my doodling style. I always said that I first learned how to write non-Anglophilic dialogue by copying The Office. There’s certainly a distinction to be made between Six Feet Under and Pokemon Ruby. Maybe Professor Utonium was a model of a good man. I don’t know. 

I feel ambivalent about the influence of media-consumed-in-childhood on the minds of my cohort and myself. I think it’s probably normal to feel like the images I have available lack a certain depth. Our society lacks a certain depth, after all. Marion Milner is proof that this feeling isn’t new. In 1934, she felt compelled to curate her images, to combat the ones she hadn’t chosen. In 2024, that seems more necessary, and harder to do, than ever. 

Let’s end with some images that perhaps aren’t ingrained deeply, that I have collected more recently. These are images I want in my repertoire. Maybe they can be combined with latent images in interesting ways. I haven’t completely given up on the possibility that something new could appear. 



Tags: images, nostalgia, childhood media, art, curation, space

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