The Camera Wins by Being Honest




Image via X-Tra

Richard Sharpe Shaver is best remembered as a controversial sci-fi writer—in the late 1940s, his pieces in Amazing Stories made outlandishly specific claims about evil ancient civilizations, and it became progressively clearer that Shaver didn’t regard these stories as fiction. Toward the end of his life, Shaver spent his time elaborating an arcane theory about “rock books”; in certain stones, he avowed, one could find intricate pictographic texts inscribed by the hyperadvanced races of millennia past. As the art quarterly X-Tra has it, Shaver believed he’d begun to decode the texts of “a whole prehistoric Atlantean library”:

Shaver accessed the rock books by cutting through stone with a saw to reveal a world of imagery within the fissures. “Humans figures [sic] are distorted by saw-cut as well as by wrong lenses—but recognizable. The enigma of man’s past does not need to be an enigma.” This statement, handwritten in blue ball-point pen on thin typewriter bond, floats to the right of an oculus cut into the paper, which reveals beneath a photograph of what appears to be a random black and white pattern. In fact, Shaver believed the pattern was a holographic picture created thousands of years ago by an advanced ancient technology.

It can feel voyeuristic to dwell on the remnants of lunacy—like gaping at the crazies on the subway—but Shaver’s devotion and imagination provoke a strange empathy. As Brian Tucker writes in an excellent summary for Cabinet, “Despite poverty and virtually unremitting scorn, Shaver continued this work until his death in November 1975.” A few years ago, Tucker curated an exhibit including some of Shaver’s papers and theories:

The pictorial content that Shaver identified in these rocks is dense and complex. Different images reveal themselves at every angle of view and every level of magnification; pictures mingle with ancient graphic symbols and typography in what he called “the most fascinating exhibition of virtuosity in art existent on earth” … Discouraged by critics who charged that the figures pictured in his paintings were mere fabrications from his own imagination, he eventually abandoned painting in favor of the relative objectivity of photographic documentation. In an unpublished manuscript, Shaver writes, “If I hadn’t been an artist most of my life, I would have realized that people will believe photos, and won’t believe drawings or paintings … The camera wins, by being honest … which doesn’t say much for artists’ honesty, I guess. We try … but people think we lie.”

Earlier this year, the Morgan Library included some of Shaver’s photos in its exhibition “A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play”; a write-up at Hyperallergic has a number of examples. Shaver’s descriptions of his pictures are bewilderingly opaque, with lots of cultural references and an occasional erotic undercurrent. “Once you get accustomed to high-contrast rock-photo prints,” he writes below one photo, “they have the same charm as a Beardsley black and white drawing, the same erotic fascination … ” He compares another to the Lone Ranger’s mask, and notes, “The mask is speaking to a larger female with very large breasts.” The back of another photo says simply, “Mer feet.” (“We think of mermaids as a mad sort of myth, but in fact they were our direct ancestors.”)

“It only seems confusing,” Shaver tries to explain of the texts. “The confusion is because it is four way and has to be separated into one way.” But this you could write off as garden-variety insanity: the frustrated condescension, the seeming obviousness of it all. For me, Shaver is most affecting when he seems too daunted by his discovery to begin to know how to comprehend it: “What to do about universal ignorance of man’s beginnings is too much problem [sic] for me. I can’t even sell a rock book.”

If you want to steep yourself in Shaver lore, check out Shavertron, an online magazine that bills itself “Your Only Source of Post-Deluge Shaverania.”