Platt by James Penha
All night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as 'twere a lost soul's cries,--
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing, where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped up and ran
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult the answering terror rung.
--William Dean Howells, "Avery"
Nothing else I could do. It’s my profession after all. Photographing Niagara Falls. Its
views. Its visitors. And selling the resulting daguerreotypes. Quite successfully. Because
I’m a damn good daguerreotypist. Ask anyone around here. And I’m on duty every day,
365 days a year. This day, July 16, 1853, I was waiting for tourists along the American
Channel rapids when I saw three men struggling to maneuver their row boat to shore.
They had been working on the big dredging scow anchored in the river. Their oars were
broken. Or lost. I turned my lens toward them just as the boat capsized and I saw two
bodies cartwheeling over the edge of the American Falls too fast for me to capture them
in my camera. There was no sign of the third man — turned out to be a local fellow
named Samuel Avery — until he leapt up like a fucking phoenix and sat astride a log
cantilevered in a rocky shoal in the middle of the river. The rapids were way too loud for
him to hear my hallo, so I waved at him with both arms, but he was likely too afraid to let
go of the log to answer. He was riding the river like a scared girl on a runaway stallion,
but luckily he kept still enough for me to create an historic photograph. Took an even
longer time till someone thought to hitch a lifeboat to the Bath Island Bridge and send the
boat down toward the man. Avery caught and climbed into the boat, but before I could refocus,
the rapids turned the lifeboat upside down, and Avery, thrown back into the river,
met his fate just as his friends had hours before. Nothing else I could do. I returned to my
hotel where I processed the plate and encased a dozen of the images for sale at my Point
View stand. They sold well. They still do.
A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors' Choice
Award. Penha edits TheNewVerseNews, an online journal of current-events poetry. @JamesPenha
"Getting around." Luminous-Lint. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
"Niagara River - Life & Death on the River: Accidents & Rescues." 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
"Platt D. Babbitt (Getty Museum)." The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Weld, Charles Richard. A Vacation Tour in the United States and Canada. London: Longman, Brown,
Green, and Longmans, 1855. Print.
3/28/2016 09:05:34 am
I've always wondered about the photographers' thinking when they're recording horrific events, accidents, etc. Why record instead of act--isn't this a moral question? The speaker is this piece obviously feels he needs some excuse--"Nothing else I could do." But doesn't hesitate to profit from the pain he has recorded. Certainly callous, at the very least! Very interesting!
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