The photographs are separated by the turn
of the page, so that to look at one is to conceal
the other. In the first, reindeer scatter westward,
their antlers unblooming trees upon the cave’s wall,
their hooves roots snaking through barren rock,
seeking distant water. In the second, the scene is
repeated, but darkly, stripped of its colors as if a fire
has waned, as if the volume itself—the threadbare
encyclopedia of prehistoric art I’ve taken
from a library shelf—means to show me what
the artist must have seen, the figures so nimble
by firelight they might be fleeing some far-off
danger, so still in its absence they nearly vanish.
When Ralph Morse entered Lascaux, the first
photographer to do so, he slid into the caves
on a plank of wood cut to the purpose, placed
lengthwise over earth and rock and worn
to smoothness by the men whose exhalations
would begin an insuppressible ruin, covering
bison, bulls, horses with mold black as the shadows
striping the face of the Jet Age Man, the air force pilot
so famously captured by Morse when—that his helmet
might fit—his skull’s contours were mapped
with slatted beams of light. To see that picture
is to recognize an inevitable future, but what,
if we could give it to him, would the Lascaux artist
see there? Tribes from beyond his river, surely,
their faces caked in oils from the fat of cattle,
manganese oxide, soot black. Their spears sharpened.
So much of what we perceive is conjecture. In another
of Morse’s photographs, the rotting head of
a Japanese soldier on Guadalcanal, its mouth
open, distended, horrible, rests atop a crippled tank.
A flame held to it illuminates, but does not give life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.